Andy Sturdevant is taking a little time off, but have no fear: He has once again left The Stroll in very capable hands. This week your guide is urbanist and streets.mn contributor Alex Bauman. Andy will be back Jan. 30. Happy strolling!
The public image of urban renewal is usually tied to its most famous failures: endless rows of ugly, decrepit, dangerous towers in places like Chicago’s Taylor Homes and St Louis’ Pruitt-Igoe. But what if I told you there was a better example, one in which government partnered with private developers to create an attractive, safe, mixed-income community? Minneapolis offers one such example in the Loring Greenway, the centerpiece of a 1970s-era, 10-block renewal project originally called the Loring Park Development District.
Minneapolis is known as a cycling city, but in fact the Census Bureau consistently finds that more commuters here are walking than bicycling. Many of them commute to the downtown core from the dense inner neighborhoods on multilane speedway street-drawbridges over the freeway-moat. The appeal of a walk unmarred by cars constantly roaring around them and aiming at them around corners has led the Loring Greenway to be a favored pedestrian gateway to downtown, ranking among the most heavily walked corridors in the city’s annual pedestrian counts.
An inbound commuter seeking the Loring Greenway would do well to scan the Loring Park skyline for the Salvation Army’s Booth Manor, a 21-story monument to space-age efficiency in housing. It replaced the Evangeline Residence, an eight-story apartment hotel that planners had hoped to incorporate into the Greenway project in an effort to include neighborhood context, a lesson learned from earlier renewal efforts that cleared everything, only to end up sterile and bland. When the Salvation Army didn’t play along, the planners got an early taste of the drawbacks of relying more heavily than in the past on private developers to realize their vision of renewal, though it should be noted that older residential structures such as the Maryland and the Wellington Apartments made it into the project.
Once the commuter has traversed a course toward Booth Manor, the next landmark is the Berger fountain, that Googie wonder that was begrudgingly accepted by the Park Board as a gift from local businessman Ben Berger (his other gift to the city, the Minneapolis Lakers, is slightly better known). It was erected in 1975 and boasted about in official promotional materials for the Loring Greenway project, though it was nearly abandoned a few years ago.
Just past the Berger fountain is the entrance to the Greenway, but first the commuter must cross Willow Place, legally a crosswalk but running afoul of the city’s practice of refusing to ask motorists to respect the law where pedestrians are concerned. I suppose it’s too much to provide that global standard of signification that pedestrians should be yielded to, the zebra crossing (you may know it from the cover of Abbey Road), but the compromise posted here (likely by the Park Board, actually) is just confusing. Yellow signs indicate to motorists that here be pedestrians, but do not indicate what to do with them. So motorists do what any red-blooded American would do: They ignore the pedestrians.
But let’s posit that our hypothetical commuter somehow survives this crossing — good news! He or she is now on the Loring Greenway and ready to continue the journey to a desk job in some skyscraper.
The first segment of the path establishes a pattern by curlicuing around a small, pleasant, mostly-unused plaza. On the left, moderately ugly townhomes from the 1970s; on the right, moderately ugly townhomes from the ’80s. As these dates indicate, the area that would become the Loring Greenway was relatively late to be targeted by planners, a tardiness ascribed in Steve Trimble’s 1990 history of the neighborhood, In the Shadow of the City, to the fact that it was a solidly middle-class area until an infusion of displaced former residents of the notorious Gateway urban renewal project (today still a blandscape of parking lots somewhat centered on Washington Ave between Hennepin and 3rd Ave S.).
A tight timeline was conceived for the project, from guidance and early planning around 1970, City Council adoption of the plan in 1972, and issuance of bonds, land acquisition, and initial demolition all commencing in 1974. However, turbulent economic times meant that despite the interest of developers, they had difficulty obtaining the financing they needed, and the last buildings weren’t completed until 1985.
Back in 2013, the commuter threads his or her way up the Greenway through a series of spaces, each of them as empty as the first, including a deserted playground and a group of empty pavilions, until finally reaching a space that sees use. About midway through the Greenway is a series of lawns that aren’t really enclosed by the spindly honeylocusts that may have been placed there for that purpose, and which appear to be perfectly designed for evacuating the bowels of the local canine population. The whole thing is tied together with a slightly kitschy but handsome brick pyramid theme, and punctuated by some charmingly dated light poles.
Though an attractive space, it’s clear that the main function of the Loring Greenway is pedestrian transportation. To that end, it also contains two tendrils connecting it southward to Spruce Place and northward to 13th St. The latter connection was originally planned to contain vertical circulation as a component of a People Mover station; as time passed and awareness dawned that the people mover idea was better left in the ’70s, it was changed to a simple stairway connection and built along with the dull but dignified Loring Green towers.
One of the innovations of the Loring Park Development District was its reliance on private developers to flesh out the space by providing these connections and, according to the Loring Park Development Urban Design Plan prepared for the city in 1973 by M. Paul Friedberg & Associates and Barton, Aschman & Associates, “semi-private open space … focusing on public infrastructure and open space.” Forty years later, the semi seems to have been dropped on the fenced-in gardens and tennis courts surrounding the Loring Green t0wers and even the walkway through the Greenway Gables townhomes, which dispels any notion of accessibility with an official yellow No Trespassing sign.
The eastern end of the Greenway funnels into a relatively narrow channel and dumps the commuter out onto Nicollet Mall, the blocks of which south of 12th Street were also completed as part of the Loring Park Development Project. These spaces, today the Hyatt and the back wall of a courtyard for the 1200 on the Mall condos, were originally planned to contain retail and cafés fronting on the Greenway. If that had actually happened, it’s unlikely that the strongest charge against the Greenway — general boringness — would have held up so well. But the Hyatt and especially 1200 on the Mall ended up being built in a way that obscured the Greenway and its amenities more than highlighted them, so the large pyramid-fountain jutting into the Mall is the only thing alerting passersby to the existence of this subtle thoroughfare.
And maybe that’s how it should be, since the Greenway functions well as a neighborhood perk rather than a city park. Most don’t want the Taj Mahal in their backyard, and so this pleasant but uncompelling space serves its neighbors best as a bit boring but exceedingly functional.
There are other problems with the Greenway — a glaring hole in its usefulness as transportation is the failure to connect to LaSalle, and while it probably has a better mix of incomes than the average renewal project, it’s likely that it eliminated a couple hundred sorely needed affordable housing units. But it certainly filled in faster than the still-gaptoothed Gateway, and after the initial TIF investment was paid off in the ’90s, it no doubt has generated a significantly higher amount of property taxes than the low-rent structures it cleared, not to mention around a thousand more housing units and at least as many more residents.
Though the initial investment would frighten city leaders of today, Mayor R.T. Rybak appeals for fiscal stimulus and brags about Minneapolis’ debt capacity. As the city prepares to blow a couple hundred mil on a centerpiece stadium and scatter crumbs that may pay for a plaza or two to park food trucks on, wouldn’t it make sense to look instead at the Loring Greenway as a model?
Alex Bauman spends a lot of time thinking about cities, history, culture, the environment, and other fun stuff, and occasionally collects his thoughts into something with a degree of coherency and posts them at streets.mn or gettingaroundmpls.wordpress.com. He also works in IT for the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority.