Rolled out like a welcome mat before the Vikings’ new stadium, the three-block “Commons” is the most important open space project in downtown Minneapolis in generations.
Reaching from 5th Avenue S. to the stadium’s front door, the Commons is envisioned by the oversight committee as a hybrid of public land ownership and private administration, a “premier destination that draws users from around the world” and a park that “serves as a retreat for the community” — all to be privately reserved for the Vikings and the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority (MSFA) up to 100 days a year. Few parks can be all these things.
Expected to be announced in January is a design team chosen from an international field of talented competitors. In the media and through public meetings, it’s a good time to discuss the future of Downtown East.
These five points about the Commons’ design and management should be addressed to ensure that this development fulfills its potential for the entire metro and not just as a semiprivate events space:
1. The Commons is not just another park: It’s an outdoor room for the city.
The Commons is the largest open space built in downtown Minneapolis since Loring Park in the late 19th century. Unlike Loring, the Commons is not a pastoral greensward but a great urban outdoor room. We have nothing like this in Minneapolis: a gathering space big enough for huge events where the surrounding walls of architecture set the backdrop. When first conceived, this project was called “The Yard” — and that was a good name. Historically, the word “yard” implied a safe enclosure within a city or village such as a courtyard or a churchyard — and not some big piece of open green space. This is a city square and not a work of environmental art.
2. Avoid designer clutter.
Some worry that the Commons runs the danger of just being a big, barren space. I fear just the opposite may happen, once the stadium and the even taller pair of Wells Fargo towers are completed to the east. The stadium will dominate this space and visually foreshorten its three-block length. This big city room can get small really fast. Let’s not clutter it up with clever stuff that some designers love to add — such as custom bollards and lights, winter ice fountains that eventually break, flowing earthworks evoking the drumlins of Minnesota prairies, and permanent walls and fences — no matter how artistic they seem.
Let’s preserve key vistas from within the Commons to the civic art that we already have. These landmarks include the art deco Strutwear building, the Grain Exchange and the Amory — one of the finest New Deal buildings in the country and a promised, though as yet undefined, part of this project. Let’s call for well-scaled spaces, long-lived trees, and easy-to-maintain materials for long-term durability and ease of repair. The design needs to include a 50-year management plan that addresses turf maintenance, tree care and eventual replacement, paving and irrigation. Such plans did not exist for the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden and Peavey Plaza — both of which have become overgrown and visibly rundown. Think of the Commons as civic space that will become historic — a smaller version of the Mall in Washington, D.C., where a broad lawn down the center doubles as the nation’s living room for inaugurations, rock concerts, protests and casual soccer games. The Mall works so well because its design is so basic.
3. Fight for public control of public space.
Last year, this project’s promoters rebranded it as “The Commons.” Let’s hold them to it. In Boston and elsewhere, the historic Commons originally was shared space for grazing and other public needs. A local lord (like the Vikings and the MSFA) did not control its uses for 80 to 100 days a year as is currently on the table. When the Yard/Commons first was proposed, restricted days for stadium-related events hovered around 40. Over the last year, they grew. Former mayor R.T. Rybak questioned this increase and suggested that we renegotiate. We should. Given that there are 10 home Vikings games a year, why such a high figure? Even if a new soccer franchise eventually plays here, why does the MSFA need to close off almost three city blocks so often?
4. Program and zone the perimeter for public uses.
The perimeter of the Commons should be zoned for public uses even when there is a big sports-related event happening in its core. Wider sidewalks along 5th Street and 5th Avenue can accommodate food trucks and farmers markets for everyone — on workdays and on game days. These plaza/sidewalks could connect to the soon-to-be-renovated Nicollet Mall. Similarly, Portland Avenue, directly linking to the riverfront and the new Waterworks Park, can offer more space for pedestrians and bikes. As in Bryant Park in New York, lightweight fabric structures can be set up around the Commons and parts of Portland for pop-up galleries and events year-round. Like Bryant Park and other successful public spaces, year-round event programming is essential. There also needs to be a long-term plan for security. One of the best strategies for safety is to plan events that bring more people and “eyes to the street” to the Commons, especially at night.
5. Celebrate transportation and movement.
Over the last year, Ryan Companies has illustrated the Commons as a sweeping open space that assumes the closure of Park and Portland Avenues. Bad for many reasons (it would hamper emergency vehicle access to HCMC), street closure was quickly nixed. Rather than trying to keep the city out, the Commons should bring the city in. It should highlight urban movement and transportation — the flow of the blue-and-yellow light-rail trains, bikes and cars. It should express the democratic ideals of public access, social equity and lasting public investments. If anything, these enduring values — and not high-fashion statements — are what make Minnesota “world-class” on the larger stage.
Frank Edgerton Martin, is a landscape historian and planner based in Minneapolis.