A critical time for 'The Yard': Can we render this into reality?

  • Article by: R.T. RYBAK
  • Updated: May 30, 2014 - 6:22 PM

A crucial piece of the Downtown East redevelopment is stuck. Here’s what we need to do to jar it loose.

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An architect's rendering of "The Yard" in downtown Minneapolis.

Almost every day we see compelling images of the new Downtown East: Wells Fargo’s office towers, the Vikings’ stadium, the historic Armory converted into an event space, a landmark hotel-office tower across the street from the light-rail stop.

At the center of it all is “The Yard,” a new urban park that will be common ground for an exciting new part of Minneapolis that, until now, has been dominated by parking lots. The scale and quality of the transformation that’s coming makes Downtown East a project whose success is important to every Minnesotan. Just last week the New York Times marveled at its ambition and saluted it as our “blueprint for a bustling downtown.”

One problem: While everything around it is moving ahead quickly, the Yard is stalled. If something doesn’t change soon, the park won’t be open when the stadium is ready and it will not be the vibrant people-place everyone expected when all this investment was being planned. We can’t have a goose laying a golden egg if we don’t feed the goose.

The good news is that it should not be hard to get this grand vision moving. All the elements of greatness are in place. It will, however, require immediate action, coordination, and many players giving a little ground for the common good.

• Design: It’s hard to figure out how to pay for and manage a space if you don’t know what it looks like or what’s in it. Step one is to hire designers and give them the direction to create a place that is flexible on Vikings game days but hosts the active uses envisioned from the start: youth soccer and lacrosse, outdoor concerts and movies, and winter uses like ice skating.

This cannot be done well with two traditional city blocks separated by the two traditional avenues of Park and Portland. Both the county and the city public works departments say they need to move traffic through this area, but each should be open to ideas that dramatically scale down these streets, or have just one crossing, possibly even having traffic cross only during rush hour.

• Operations: An unintended consequence of a failed lawsuit to stop the stadium is that there have been five months of uncertainty about whether the city or Park Board is running the park. This needs to be resolved immediately. It makes sense for the Park Board to own it but not operate it. Programming downtown parks, like the new Nicollet Mall and Gateway Park, can’t rob resources and focus from neighborhood parks.

That’s why the best option seems to be a joint management group with dedicated funding, like the Downtown Parks Conservancy concept that grew out of the Downtown 2020 plan. Yard management could coordinate with similar efforts on Nicollet, Gateway and Peavey Plaza to create an economy of scale and a coordinated program for downtown open space.

• Funding: The development plan for the Wells Fargo project allocated enough money to buy the land for the Yard and convert it into a lawn. To upgrade to the great people-place we envision, it has been estimated we will need about $10 million more. The Vikings contributed the first $1 million. When negotiating the deal, we always envisioned that air rights revenue from over the adjacent parking ramp could be put into the Yard, and the good news is that this netted $6 million. Yard promoters, including me, need to step up and help raise the rest of the capital budget.

The remaining costs will be ongoing maintenance and programming, expected to be higher than those of a traditional park if we want active uses most days. There may be some revenue from rentals and a park restaurant, but that will probably not be enough.

One way to close that gap is to generate “park dedication fees” off new housing in the area. Another is for the city, Park Board and county to share part of the property tax windfall they are getting off development in the area. (One estimate had Hennepin County getting $1 million the first year, and growing, off the Wells Fargo land alone.)

A hybrid option could be to encourage the county to sell prime underused property occupied partly by the medical examiner’s office across 5th Street south of the light-rail stop. If this is sold for anywhere near the $6 million generated by the air rights a mere block away, the county could have enough left after relocating the medical examiner to make a significant contribution to Yard operations. New housing could generate park dedication fees. With the land back on the tax rolls, the city and county could have a new property tax windfall that could be put, at least in part, back into operating the Yard.

• Access: The Yard is a public space that cannot be privatized. But the Vikings and the stadium authority have some rights because the development uses one of the blocks that would have been a stadium plaza before this plan emerged.

In the original agreement, the Vikings were given use of the Yard for all 10 home games, and the stadium operators got 10 additional days. That’s a lot. Then, in February, they negotiated another agreement that shocked me and should deeply concern the public. The Vikings and the stadium operators more than doubled the time they control the Yard. That essentially gives them the right to privatize the space for much of each autumn.

The city needs to play hardball to renegotiate back to the original agreement, and it has a tool: Anticipating public access debates around the stadium, we negotiated a clause two years ago that gives the city veto power over all land-use decisions. Land decisions need four votes on the five-member authority, so the city’s two members can block this overreach that could would mean years of debate about whether the public or stadium operators own what is supposed to be a public park.

Certainly big events like the Super Bowl and Final Four should use the space — and there will be plenty of dates for other events, too. But stadium operators need to be reminded that event-related activities can be programmed on the significant open land next to the stadium itself, including a full-half block plaza where the Vikings/Twins ticket office used to be.

Some pressure can also be taken off the Yard by smart planning on a new opportunity on the other side of the stadium: Minneapolis won a state grant to redo the Interstate 94 entrance to downtown, which means the current exit ramp from the east will be turned over to the city for public use. Last year we put money into the city budget to convert the current freeway ramp into what we called “Samatar Crossing,” a pedestrian link from the West Bank into downtown that would also house a major skate park. If this is connected to the Yard via bike and walking trails around the stadium, these two great spaces — the Yard and the Crossing — can be part of a grander recreation and activities district that also links Elliot Park, Gold Medal Park and the riverfront recreation trails.

• Big, bold, fast: None of this will be easy, and all of it will require some significant partnership, but that should not stop us or give us an excuse to dumb down this vision.

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