Think of downtown Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota campus area as two ends of a dumbbell that needs a stronger handle, a panel of five outside land planners said Friday.

The Urban Land Institute brought the five to town to give the city a fresh look at the area near the south end of the Interstate 35W bridge-in-progress. The real estate-oriented nonprofit group has conducted several similar forays into cities recovering from disasters.

Their overall pitch is that stronger links are needed to connect downtown and the Cedar-Riverside-university area. They said new connections can spring from such developments as a new bridge and light-rail transit line, the uncertain future of the Metrodome, plans to dress up Washington Avenue as a boulevard, development of the Mill District, and the possible rerouting of S. 3rd and 4th Street freeway connections.

"It really is about Washington Avenue," said Barry Elbasani, a Berkeley, Calif., architect.

The Metrodome is a crucial area that didn't succeed the first time around in reviving the surrounding area because of its design and surrounding parking lots, said Merilee Utter, a Denver specialist in public-private development work. If the area is let go, it will become blighted, she said, but mid-rise buildings with parking that's ramped or underground can help make the area a new destination.

The group also focused on the Seven Corners area as a link that should be strengthened. One way is to extend the Washington boulevard concept. Another is to bridge portions of the nearby freeway trench, defraying part of the cost with development rights.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438