When Bloomington officials talk about redevelopment in the South Loop at the city’s eastern edge, they usually emphasize walkability, proximity to the airport and light rail, and a mix of housing and offices that they think will make the area a destination.
But in recent days, discussion about the South Loop centered on something else: art.
For a week, Bloomington has been holding a charrette — an inclusive, collaborative meeting and brainstorming session — on “creative placemaking” in the South Loop, which sits between the Mall of America and the airport. The events and activities are intended to draw the larger community into a discussion of how to use art to emphasize what’s distinctive about the South Loop.
The city won a $100,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant for the work, with the city matching that amount.
The charrette, which runs through Friday, “is a collective exploration of the past and present of the South Loop,” said Andrea Specht, executive director of the Bloomington Theatre and Art Center.
“We need to understand what happened in the past, and we’re designing a future that is respectful of that and draws on it,” she said. “The idea is that distinctive places have a sense of roots.
“It’s important to think creatively of what the future could be like, and ask, ‘what is it that ties this to the past?’”
Once farm fields, the South Loop’s history includes old Metropolitan Stadium, the airport and the burial mounds of the area’s first residents, the American Indian.
The South Loop is bordered by Interstate 494 on the north, Hwy. 77 on the west and the Minnesota River. HealthPartners’ corporate offices and the headquarters of the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge are there, and the South Loop has three light-rail stops, including Bloomington Central Station.
A few years ago, the blue glass Reflections condominiums added a classy residential flavor to the area, and a hotel and apartments are planned nearby.
But historically, the area has been dominated by parking lots and nondescript offices.
Over the next 40 years, city officials expect most of the redevelopment in Bloomington to focus on the South Loop.
“It’s been a crossroads for many people,” Specht said. Yet it doesn’t have a neighborhood feel, and many people who live or work in the area don’t know each other.
That’s why the city reached out to all kinds of people, including business owners and residents, to involve them in the charrette.
“There’s a lot of community building that needs to be done,” Specht said.
Art is an obvious way to do that, she said.
“I can think of few things that are as good at making places feel special as art and artists,” she said. “If the city’s goal is not only to have a place that is walkable and dense but distinctive, that is where art and artists come into play.”
Most activities have been based at Bloomington Central Station, 8101 31st Av. S. Events run through Friday.
They’ve included walkabouts where groups of people explored sites for public art; a guided hike at the refuge, which will be connected to the South Loop by a trail; and mock city-development review sessions to test how the city might deal with proposals for public art.
“We have a lot of learning to do as an organization about the barriers to doing this kind of work, where do we have to get smarter, do we have to simplify things,” Specht said. “We aren’t going to end up with sculptures on every corner, but we will have guidelines.”
Artist Ta-coumba Aiken worked on a mural about the South Loop most of the week, and Specht said she hopes it will be displayed in the area before probably going back to the Theatre and Art Center.
The goal of the charrette is not art for art’s sake, but “art for the sake of creating a more hospitable, welcoming, enjoyable place where people want to spend time,” she said. “And a humane, pleasant place where people feel connected to one another.”