Above: Conceptual renderings of how Portland Avenue may intersect the Downtown East Commons, looking east. The trees and park land are not intended to reflect the actual design of the park (Stantec).

A crowded public meeting Tuesday night imagining the future of the Downtown East "Commons" frequently returned to a topic that has little to do with parks: Roads.

Specifically, Park and Portland avenues. Those three-lane, one-way roads now cut through the two blocks slated for the Commons, which will become downtown Minneapolis’ showcase outdoor attraction. It’s expected that the roads will remain open after the park is constructed, though likely narrowed by one lane in the case of Portland.

Eight of 12 presentations made by tables of residents following brainstorming sessions included concerns about how the roads would divide the park and impact the otherwise the tranquil space. The crowd was also full of other ideas for the Commons, from a sit-down restaurant a la New York City's Tavern on the Green to rock climbing walls and bird-friendly structures.

“We would like some kind of connection over those roads that are in between [the two blocks]," said one group representative, addressing the room. "Whatever could be done so it makes that connect better. Whether it’s a tunnel under or it’s a bridge over.”

The bridge option, raised by three groups, is likely impossible given the project's $15 million budget. Others suggested somehow slowing the traffic and making the roads blend into the park.

The county has opposed closing the two arteries, noting that they serve the nearby hospital, medical examiner's office, juvenile detention center and fire station. City staff is also recommending leaving them open because of commuter gridlock that would result on nearby streets, said Jon Wertjes, the city's director of traffic and parking services.

But Council Member Jacob Frey, who represents the area, said he would like see Portland Avenue closed.

"We’re investing all this money into this beautiful green space," Frey said. "We’ve got the primo architecture and design firm. It makes sense to have one connected green space.”

The city's public works department hired a consultant, Stantec, to develop concepts on how to redesign the streets around the park assuming they remain open. The concept for Portland Avenue, still subject to approvals, would eliminate a drive lane and two lanes of parking, while incorporating some sort of bikeway. The Park Avenue concepts leave all three drive lanes, but eliminate a lane of parking.

Above: A proposed concept for how Portland Avenue may divide through the commons, as seen from above (Stantec).

As for the stadium, Wertjes said that studies have concluded that pre-game closures are viable, but post-game closures are not. “The postgame was difficult because of the exiting all at once of the customer base for the stadium event," Wertjes said.

Mary Margaret Jones, the president of Hargreaves Associates, which is designing the park, told the audience Tuesday night that the streets will be an integral part of the design.

“Sometimes the Commons will be perceived to include the streets. Sometimes maybe even actively including the streets -- where the streets might be closed for special events,” Jones said. “Certainly we want to think about the streets as a part of this public realm.”

She pointed to a project they have completed at the Shaw Center for the Arts at Louisiana State University, which incorporates a road into a plaza. She also cited CityGarden in St. Louis, a similarly sized sculpture garden that features a road through two blocks (below).

Above: CityGarden in St. Louis (from Flickr user clio1789)

The park is now anticipated to cost $15 million to build, most if not all of which is expected to be covered through private fundraising. A conservancy formed by the Downtown Council, Greening Downtown Minneapolis, recently hired New Partners to lead that fundraising.

The primary fundraising won't likely begin until detailed concepts are released on April 8, said Downtown Council President Steve Cramer. The total fundraising goal is $20 million, which includes some reserve funds to cover some operating costs.

Frey said he expects the park will cost about $800,000 to $1 million a year to operate and maintain. Concessions will help cover that, Frey said, "but do we have enough of the prime days to generate adequate funds from those concessions? The answer is probably no."

The city is still wrestling with where the rest would come from, though assessments on property owners are one option. "I don’t anticipate a public [property tax] component going for operations and maintenance," Frey said. "I may be wrong when we run the numbers.”