A new vision for downtown Minneapolis

  • Article by: STEVE BERG
  • Updated: December 14, 2011 - 12:42 AM

The Downtown Council's 2025 plan promotes the potential of a city with extraordinary 'bones.'


Photo: Illustration by Bruce Bjerva., Star Tribune

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For decades, suburbs have captured growing shares of the job and retail markets. But the next successful economy, when it finally arrives, may turn the tables by placing higher value on the efficiency and proximity that traditional big-city downtowns can offer.

Downtowns come with ready-made templates for compact living, working and shopping -- all without the need for long, costly car trips. And they provide the critical mass to generate the human interaction and creativity considered essential for a recovering economy.

Cities that recast their downtowns as attractive, compelling places will have the best chance to catch the next wave of prosperity.

That's the aim of the Downtown 2025 Plan, launched today by the Minneapolis Downtown Council, a business group that includes the city's largest corporations.

The plan drew ideas from a wide spectrum of downtown interests, including residents, elected officials, students, makers of social policy, religious leaders and arts promoters. Among its major initiatives:

To double the downtown residential population to 70,000. Adding residents is the generator that will drive most of the other goals. Having more people living downtown would produce a livelier street life and a revived retail scene, for example.

With more than 100 potential building sites (most of them surface parking lots), there's plenty of room for housing growth, especially in Downtown East and the North Loop. The aim is to enhance downtown's appeal to families, students and senior citizens, as well as to young professionals.

To reenergize Nicollet Mall. Transforming Nicollet into one of the nation's signature urban attractions is another ambitious goal.

The reconfigured and fully greened Nicollet corridor would stretch from the riverfront to the Walker Art Center, offering beauty, vitality, public art, revived shopping and programmed events in all seasons.

A key component would be Gateway Park, a new green space connecting the downtown core to the riverfront and offering adjacent development opportunities.

To establish a sports district in downtown's west end that includes a new Vikings stadium and a regional transit hub. The themed district, including Target Field, Target Center, the Warehouse District entertainment scene and a new central transit station, would strengthen the Twin Cities as a competitor for national sporting events.

To increase transit frequencies in central Minneapolis to the point that people living and working near downtown would seldom need a car. As part of the plan, Nicollet and other downtown streets would be served every few minutes by a circulator, employing either streetcars or zero-emission buses.

To establish a tree canopy throughout downtown while bringing the arts to sidewalks and storefronts. Making downtown as green as the rest of the city would deliver enormous aesthetic, economic and environmental value.

Making the arts more visible and accessible would raise the city's cultural profile. A new summertime festival of ideas is part of the plan.

To forge deeper connections to the University of Minnesota. A more active synergy between the state's leading economic generator and its largest employment center would benefit both neighbors.

Among the proposals: a university-themed neighborhood to replace the Metrodome and its surroundings.

To end homelessness and provide meaningful daytime activity for the 300 to 500 people who sleep outdoors or have inadequate shelter. Making an already safe downtown look and feel safe is vital to downtown's future.

The plan, while celebrating downtown's potential, also points out its flaws, including failure to provide a consistent outdoor walking experience. Minneapolis has impressive architecture and strong cultural destinations.

But it lacks the fabric to tie these assets together at street level. Greener, more active sidewalks, nicer storefronts and an infilling of surface parking lots with new residential and mixed-use buildings would go a long way toward fixing the problem.

The plan's goals are ambitious. Doubling the residential population will depend on the housing market returning in full force.

Ending homelessness is another huge challenge, especially in a troubled economy and in a city that insists on concentrating its most disadvantaged population downtown.

The plan offers no overall cost estimates for those and other initiatives. They are intended as broad visions to help guide public/private policy in the decades ahead.

Unlike previous plans offered by the business community, the 2025 version did not seek official City Hall participation. Still, Mayor R.T. Rybak and top city and county officials were consulted throughout the planning process that began in 2010.

In another departure, the plan sought advice from neighborhood groups in recognition that downtown is no longer a tight core of office towers and retail shops but "a broader ecology in which all activities intermingle and depend on one another."

Indeed, the plan redefines downtown as everything within boundaries that run roughly from St. Anthony/Main to Seven Corners, from Elliot Park to the Walker Art Center, and from the Farmers Market to Boom Island.

The plan represents a kind of generational turn at the Downtown Council. New business leaders see the plan as an ongoing project that they, working with public and private partners, intend to implement over the next decade and a half.

More than 80 members worked on the plan, guiding it through more than 100 information-gathering sessions. John Griffith, vice president for property development at Target Corp., led the effort.

"I travel the country and the world on behalf of Target, and I've seen every significant city in the U.S. and Canada multiple times," he said. "Minneapolis has extraordinary 'bones,' great people and a thriving community on a variety of measures. I'm convinced that our best days are ahead."

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Steve Berg writes and consults on urban design issues. He wrote the Downtown 2025 plan based on research conducted by the Downtown Council.

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