Greening Downtown Minneapolis, the public-private conservancy launched last week by the city’s business leaders, intends to clear up some of the confusion over what’s now called the Commons, the two-block park conceived as a kind of front yard for the new Vikings stadium and a central gathering place in downtown’s rapidly-developing east end. But, as its name suggests, the conservancy’s eventual aim is larger: to become a major force in the long-overdue greening of downtown.
First, let’s review the tangled Commons project, formerly known as “The Yard.” Because the city’s charter appears to grant exclusive powers to the Park and Recreation Board, it was once assumed that the Park Board would own the 4.2-acre property and perhaps manage it. Instead, the board chose in August to withdraw from the project, citing budgetary concerns. Two other factors were also paramount: The board felt snubbed after being excluded from negotiations on the project, and it felt that the Vikings and the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority were given sweetheart deals allowing them to dominate programming in the park, so much so that the Commons wouldn’t qualify as a public park in the usual sense. The board was right about that, and its retreat from the project was a reasonable decision.
City Hall seemed poised to pick up the pieces until a major air-rights project fell through. The city had expected to draw as much as $5.2 million from a hotel built on top of a parking deck adjacent to the stadium, a deal that would have paid half the cost of developing the park. Now there’s a hole in that budget, not to mention uncertainty over who will pay for park maintenance. Building the park is expected to cost between $6.3 million and $10.5 million; operating and maintaining it is expected to run between $500,000 and $1 million annually. And it’s not yet clear who will own the property — or who, under the charter, can own the property other than the Park Board.
The conservancy solves none of those problems directly, but it does bring the downtown business community into the mix. Seeded by $50,000 from Wells Fargo and headed by Accenture managing director David Wilson, the conservancy is starting small with an eye toward devising a business model aimed at managing the Commons and raising funds for it.
But the conservancy’s broader mission is just as vital. As Downtown Council President Steve Cramer points out, lack of quality green space remains one of downtown’s most glaring weaknesses. Indeed, a greener downtown is a major goal of the council’s Downtown 2025 Plan. If the plan’s primary goal — doubling the downtown residential population to 70,000 over the next decade — is to be accomplished, then it’s essential that substantial green space is added, both in new parks and smaller pocket parks, as well as in expanding the tree canopy along sidewalks.
It’s too much to expect the Park Board to deliver all of that without damaging its traditional mission. When Minneapolis’ stellar park system was developed starting in the 1880s, downtown was somehow left out. Through the years, the board’s budget and mentality has been geared toward the neighborhoods.
The transformation of downtown into a walkable place — with leafy sidewalks, a new Nicollet Mall and several high-profile plazas — doesn’t fit neatly into anything the Park Board has ever done. Proper downtown greening requires a level of design, service and attention that are beyond the board’s budget or current expertise. Chicago’s Magnificent Mile and Millennium Park, for example, and New York’s Bryant Park have raised expectations considerably for what competitive downtowns must now provide.
As in those and other downtowns, the task of green conversion falls largely to public-private conservancies designed specifically to fund, manage and maintain high-intensity green spaces that require constant attention. That’s the model that the city must pursue in its downtown core, starting with the Commons.