Of all the big changes expected in Downtown East over the next three years, the most significant might be the Yard, the giant green lawn that Minneapolis hopes to plant on the blocks stretching west from the new Vikings stadium.
Teeming with tailgaters and railgaters on game days, the Yard would offer a gathering spot for neighbors during the rest of the year and bring a rare touch of beauty to a district known mostly for aging parking lots. (Some of those lots are owned by the Star Tribune and would be sold and redeveloped.)
But its highest purpose would be to draw more residents and workers to an eerily empty area of the city. It’s no secret that Minnesotans crave green. We flock religiously to the garden stores in May to satisfy an inner need for the green that our climate denies us most of the year. In real-estate terms, nature’s green is an elixir that pays off in big ways. Wherever the public invests in trees and grass, private investment follows.
More than most cities, Minneapolis should understand the synergy. Its miles of public lakeshore and parkway have attracted valuable real estate for more than a century. It’s ironic that downtown was mostly left out of the picture; it has almost no tree-lined streets, no inviting link between the core and the riverfront, and no signature park. (Gold Medal Park near the Guthrie Theater is a beautiful city asset, but with a small footprint and limited uses.)
But, while the Yard represents a positive turn and a chance for downtown to enlarge its green footprint, it also poses a dilemma: Who will pay to maintain and enhance this new public space?
The city intends to buy the land and plant grass but says it can’t afford to make it an actual park with trees and activities. The Park and Recreation Board can’t do it because it already has more land than it can reasonably maintain. A private conservancy (common in many major downtowns) could do it, but city unions and neighborhood activists oppose the idea.
The issue involves not just the Yard, but also a growing lineup of green aspirations (Gateway Park, Water Works Park, the Interchange, a North Loop park, Peavey Plaza, a new Nicollet Mall, etc.) as well as the entire process of finally greening downtown’s streets. In a sense, Minneapolis must now find a creative way to pay for a century of neglect. Failing to respond would diminish downtown’s chances of drawing the residential, business and commercial growth that its 2025 plan anticipates — growth that the whole city badly needs in order to compete and prosper.
A report finished last year by the Trust for Public Land steered city leaders toward a sensible solution: a collaborative effort to plan, program and maintain green spaces as well as to raise and pool funds from various public, private and foundation sources. Rather than launch a new nonprofit to coordinate the effort, the Downtown Improvement District (DID) would widen its role.
A management turnover at DID and its parent organization, the Downtown Council, has put the initiative on hold — temporarily, we hope. “We’re not going to drop the ball,” said David Wilson, managing director of Accenture and the business community’s key advocate on greening. Indeed, the stakes are high; Minneapolis can’t afford to miss the current upturn in the real-estate market.
The pending rebuild of Washington Avenue from Hennepin to the West Bank offers a case in point. No longer an industrial area, the district needs a street that reflects its growing residential character. That means slower traffic, fewer lanes, bicycle access, pedestrian-scale lighting and attractive sidewalks with overhanging trees and lush plantings.
Hennepin County will need multiple partners (and not just traffic engineers) to produce such a street. Indeed, a collaborative effort among the city, the county, the Park Board, Metro Transit, the business community, private donors, nonprofits and foundations is the best way forward for all greening projects in downtown Minneapolis. Starting now.