If Alejandra Pelinka is the artist, then Bloomington’s South Loop is the canvas.

For years, Pelinka has used art to help develop a community’s identity. She did so as executive director of the Northeast Minneapolis Arts Association and as art gallery director for Burnsville’s Ames Center before that.

Now, as the city of Bloomington’s first director of creative placemaking, Pelinka and the city are facing a daunting task: finding the soul of a district that has grappled with that challenge for years.

“I love being surprised and excited when I walk through a space,” Pelinka said recently on a windy afternoon in the South Loop. Art “adds something to your commute, to your day, to the way you see your community.”

Bloomington recently made big strides in creative placemaking — a strategy that brings together local government, artists and other partners to shape the identity of an area. The city hired Pelinka four months ago and expects to have an advisory commission ready by mid-November.

“If you’re not authentic to your community … it’s not going to have its own character,” Pelinka said. “We want to honor that this place has a history here already.”

It’s a history that is difficult to see. The South Loop, on the east tip of Bloomington between Hwy. 77 and the Minnesota River, is mainly distinct for its indistinct appearance.

Sleek glass buildings are peppered across the landscape. Major hotels split up lodging for visitors landing at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, just north of the district. And then there is the Mall of America, a massive commercial center packed with hundreds of national brands.

The result: South Loop is a place where thousands go daily to work, shop and sleep, but few actually stay. That’s what Bloomington wants to change.

In 2012, the city adopted a plan for the long-term future of the South Loop, with a goal of transforming it into a walkable and transit-oriented community. If the plan is successful, city developers project an additional 28,000 jobs and 4,700 residents by 2050.

Art in public places

Creative placemaking became a specific goal for the city. Finding an identity, according to the plan, would partly depend on providing public spaces and amenities that would make the area more lively and attractive.

The city won a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 2014 and has held public art demonstrations since with help from Artistry, a Bloomington nonprofit arts organization. Art projects are funded with liquor and lodging taxes.

The complexity of the South Loop can be unearthed by digging into several layers.

One of them is geography. The area’s eastern boundary is the center of the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, a wetland that includes Long Meadow Lake and the Minnesota River. It’s a spot for birders and nature enthusiasts, close to where American Indian burial mounds once were excavated.

Another layer grew from its years as a major sports hub. Both the Twins and Vikings played at Metropolitan Stadium through the 1960s and ’70s. The site of the stadium’s home plate is marked by a plaque inside the Mall of America, near a SpongeBob SquarePants amusement ride. The Minnesota North Stars also called the South Loop home, playing next door in the Met Center before relocating to Dallas in the 1990s.

The opening of the Mall of America, the growth of the airport and the construction of the light-rail Blue Line made the area a major commercial and hospitality hub. But it also diminished its local appeal.

“If you go back long enough there have been features that really have made it unique,” said Andrea Specht, executive director of Artistry. “All of that said, in recent times I think there has been pretty widespread agreement … [that] there is not anything about the district that is particularly distinctive or unusual.”

About five years ago Specht heard Larry Lee, Bloomington’s community development director, give a presentation on the future face of the South Loop. This was before the district plan was adopted, when city developers imagined people working and living in a place surrounded by art.

“I found it to be pretty inspiring that the city saw there was so much development potential,” Specht said.

Opportunity and challenge

In late October, Pelinka, Specht, Lee and other city employees walked through a stretch of the South Loop with drawings of how the district could look in the next five or 10 years. Pelinka and Specht used the opportunity to see where future art projects might go.

Installing public art typically is a formal process strung out by proposals, contracts and city plans. The commission’s goal is to keep fostering the work of artists in the area, Pelinka said.

“I would love to see artist-led community engagement,” she said. “I think artists have a unique way of looking at the world and solving problems.”

Artists already are using their creativity to transform the district’s mundane features. Erik Sletten was contracted by the city to transform large utility boxes near Bloomington Central Station into colorful miniature buildings, complete with 3-D windows and other features.

“What they were asking of me to do was really something I’ve wanted to do for 25 years,” Sletten said. “It’s going to give [people] an opportunity ... to use their imagination for a moment.”

Next year, a chain gate in the parking lot at TownePlace Suites, a hotel across from the Mall of America, will be the site of an art project by St. Paul-based artist Alexander Tylevich.

“I hope people walking around outside the hotel will be pleased eventually,” Tylevich said of the project, which would be his first in Bloomington. “Every time they will see something different.”

And perhaps in the future, the city could go beyond commissioning art and encourage artists to actually work and live in the South Loop, Specht said.

“The best way to utilize creative place-making … is to get artists and other creative professionals involved, because it’s their community,” she said.