The arrival of light rail to the University of Minnesota has conjured dreams of remaking a forgotten industrial area into a self-sustaining neighborhood, one that planners say would be unlike any other in the country.
A coalition of neighbors, development professionals and property owners is meeting regularly to outline a vision for “Prospect North.” The site is now a potholed section of SE. 4th Street, where auto shops operate in the shadow of the grain silos famously tagged with “United Crushers” graffiti. Many see it as the ideal location for a one-of-a-kind urban experiment.
The district would take shape around a green boulevard dominated by pedestrians and bicyclists, embedded with water pipes that melt snow and landscaped to absorb water runoff from nearby properties.
Buildings with apartments, offices and shops would rise along the boulevard, connected by a shared heating and cooling system. The new neighborhood would be bookended by TCF Bank Stadium and Surly Brewery’s future craft beer mecca, now under construction.
Trash would travel from buildings through pneumatic tubes to be converted into energy by an anaerobic digester. The district could also feature on-site water purification and hydroponic and aquaponic gardens for growing food. Abandoned grain elevators could be used as water towers and the grounds around them converted to parkland.
A nearby “innovation park” would allow university scientists to work side by side with research-intensive private companies to help commercialize academic research, akin to the University Research Park at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Tom Fisher, dean of the University of Minnesota’s College of Design, envisions Prospect North becoming home to the “new economy,” a place where thoughtful design encourages collaboration.
“The 21st-century model [of development] is one in which people will be increasingly living, working and making things, often in the same area,” Fisher said.
For all the grand vision, the project faces many obstacles.
Some property owners are eager to build now and skeptical about connecting new buildings into a symbiotic grid that hasn’t been clearly defined. The cost of these new, complicated systems — and just who would bear it — remains unclear. Many governments would have to waive regulations.
“The kind of infrastructure they’re proposing, I’ve never seen it done,” said Jeff Barnhart, whose family is one of the largest land holders in the proposed district. “So having us be the guinea pigs is scary. We don’t want to get into some uncharted waters here.”
Others see those “uncharted waters” as the appeal. “All of this stuff is proven technology,” said Colleen Carey of the Cornerstone Group, which owns a key parcel at the center of the proposed district. “But if you said, ‘Well, where should we go to see all of this in one place?’ — it hasn’t been done yet.”
The public-private partnership sketching the district grew out of an effort by the Prospect Park East River Road Neighborhood Association to shape development around the neighborhood’s new light rail station.
Dick Gilyard, a neighborhood leader, said they were seeking a higher-quality alternative to the student housing that has swamped other neighborhoods around the university. Instead, they want to see housing and commercial centers geared to an adult population, coupled with the science park and a new arts complex born out of the existing Textile Center.
“You get the arts, the sciences, the living, all together in … what we think could be an enormously catalytic creative environment,” Gilyard said.
The idea for an “innovation park” dates back a decade, but property owner John Wall has had trouble wooing tenants. Wall said people he speaks with around the country are surprised that a major research university such as the U does not have a place where academics and industry converge. “The science park is sort of the meeting place, or the center of the bridge between the two,” Wall said.
The spine of Prospect North will be a “Green Fourth Street,” which runs from the Stadium Village light rail station through the Prospect Park station.
The Met Council approved a $1 million grant largely for the stormwater component of 4th Street, but extra features will require additional funding. The city’s transit-oriented development director, David Frank, told the Prospect North group that the grant must be spent by 2016, meaning plans and funding must be finalized in the next six months.
Other property owners are moving forward with development, adding to the urgency to further develop the vision for the district. Barnhart said his firm has a purchase agreement with Illinois-based Harlem Irving for one of their parcels at the core of the proposed district. The proposal features a 30,000-square-foot grocery store, 350 apartments and ground-floor retail.
Frank said the Prospect North project is unusual because in other planned districts — such as tracts in the suburbs — a single developer would control the land.
“What we’re trying to do here is bring off doing a master development-type project without having anybody who owns all the property,” Frank said.