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The sprawling parking lots and hodgepodge of buildings surrounding the Metrodome have become a crucial expanse in a downtown with little room left to expand.
City leaders and developers say plans to build a new Minnesota Vikings stadium at the Dome site could be the spark needed to transform downtown Minneapolis' east end into a vibrant urban neighborhood.
"With or without a stadium, we want this to be a collection of neighborhoods that come together," Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said. "But our ability to pull that off is dramatically accelerated and just made a whole lot easier if the stadium is the catalyst."
Others are not so optimistic, saying too much stock is put in sports arenas as a development stimulus and that the asphalt district surrounding the 30-year-old Dome is a cautionary tale for planning a livable community in the shadow of a large stadium.
Hennepin County Board Chairman Mike Opat, who spearheaded the building of Target Field, has remained on the sidelines during the Vikings stadium drive. Building a new stadium on the Dome site would "just be replacing an island with an island," he said.
The Dome vicinity includes about 50 square blocks bounded by the Mill District and the Mississippi River to the north, Interstate 35W to the east, Hennepin County Medical Center on the south and City Hall to the west. Five nearby blocks are owned by the Star Tribune, containing its headquarters and parking lots.
The possibility of a $975 million fixed-roof stadium has leaders talking about development prospects for downtown's east end more than at any time since the Dome opened in 1982.
Back then, hopes ran high for new interest in an area formerly consigned to railroad tracks and squat industrial buildings. That didn't happen. But Rybak said the site today is "dramatically different."
"There was no light rail, the riverfront wasn't developing at all, and the city had a strategy to zone this area to prevent much development because they wanted it all focused over in the core downtown," he said. Now a light-rail line (and soon another) stops outside the Dome, thousands of condos and apartments are in the Mill District, and the area -- formerly zoned industrial -- was rezoned last year for "downtown community."
"It's a pretty dynamic area without a stadium. It's much more dynamic with a stadium," Rybak said.
John Cowles Jr., whose family owned and published the Minneapolis Star and Tribune until 1998, said city and business leaders did not want to dilute the city's core amenities by developing the Dome area. "That was what was planned, and that's what happened. Anyone who claims it was a failure is just nuts," he said.
Will a Winter Garden bloom?
After several years without a sizable boost in downtown residents, its population has risen since 2000.
In 2010, downtown had 29,725 residents, a 10-year increase of 23 percent. The Downtown Council estimated that in 2011, 36,100 people lived downtown, including the area across the Mississippi and in Stevens Square south of Interstate 94.
As of last fall, 11 downtown residential projects and two mixed-use projects were underway or in the works.
Most of those are small parcels being redeveloped. City Planner Beth Elliot said that the Dome area, on the other hand, is the last large tract of underdeveloped land left downtown. Other downtown areas considered stadium-worthy -- the Farmers Market and Linden Avenue sites -- contain thriving industrial businesses and public facilities.
"There's no demolition required for Downtown East," Elliot said. "It's just sitting there and waiting for development."
The Downtown Council's ambitious 2025 Plan supports a Vikings stadium near Target Field, not in the Dome area. It talks about converting the post-Dome area into "a University-branded district" with a small lake, homes and green space linking the U's West Bank campus to downtown.
Others believe there can be a livable community with a stadium in the middle of it, as long as the neighborhood offers human-scale amenities such as green space.
Adding to the hopes for the area's rebirth is the fact that the stadium would be built by Vikings owners Zygi and Mark Wilf, whose family has made millions developing real estate.
The Wilfs declined to comment on what could be in store. But they've had plenty of ideas before.
When they turned to the Metrodome as a possible stadium site in 2007, the Wilfs talked about a $1 billion plan for a "Winter Garden" with light-rail transit station, city park and plaza, shops, hotels and a Vikings Hall of Fame.
They've also had big plans for suburban stadiums. In 2006, they proposed "The Northern Lights at Blaine," a $1 billion "entertainment destination" adjacent to a Vikings stadium with shops and entertainment, a business-class hotel, sports medicine facility, housing and corporate offices.
In the recent Arden Hills proposal, the Wilfs were expected to develop 120 acres surrounding the stadium for hotels, housing and shopping.
The Wilfs already own land near site
Three key parcels near the Dome on S. 3rd St. and 9th Av. S. already are owned by the Wilfs and are assessed at about $2 million, according to Hennepin County records. According to the stadium agreement, they would be used for a mixed-use 650-space parking ramp connected to the new stadium by a skyway.
The commercial real estate market remains challenged, with no discernible end in sight. Landlords near the Dome may resist selling their plots and high-return parking lots at today's depressed prices, making land acquisition for new development too expensive to work.
Minneapolis City Council Member Lisa Goodman, who represents downtown, doubts that a new stadium would spin off much residential development. "Most people don't want to live in close proximity to a large building like that and the kind of issues that come as a result," she said.
Nathaniel Hood, a St. Louis Park transportation planner who blogs for the Streets.MN and Strong Towns websites, said: "There is a slight chance that a stadium could bring development, but history has really shown us otherwise. It's 30 years, and the area is still devoid of development."
The Star Tribune's five blocks span roughly 25 acres, with an assessed value of about $21 million. One block is designated on the stadium site plan as green space for tailgating and game-day events.
City Development Director Chuck Lutz said that for years the Star Tribune would not sell any of its blocks. In 2007, the company entertained an offer from the Vikings to sell four of its five blocks for $45 million. The Wilfs backed out as credit markets roiled.
The newspaper has editorialized in favor of the Dome site, and Publisher Michael Klingensmith said the company remains open to offers for its land. But he said the company no longer needs additional revenue to survive now that its business has stabilized post-bankruptcy. Proceeds from a land sale would help pay down debt of $85 million, he said.
"The land is not something we're going to part with easily. We're going to want good value," he said. The Vikings, he added, recently requested a meeting.
Without a new stadium at the Dome site, Klingensmith said, he doesn't know what might happen to downtown's east end. "There's an opportunity with this location to build on the development along the river and fill in this part of town," he said.
Rybak said stadium development could help the nearby Elliot Park neighborhood thrive, and could finally link downtown and the University of Minnesota.
"The West Bank is really just one catalyst away from being the great bridge between downtown and the university," Rybak said.
Dan Collison, pastor of First Covenant Church, also hopes that a new stadium would generate residential growth.
"While I'd be grateful in my heart and soul for a new stadium, I think our community wants more," he said. "As someone who lives and works downtown, we want schools, grocery stores -- we want a 21st-century urban neighborhood."