Not so many months ago, the concept of a park in the Downtown East district of Minneapolis was a muddled mess. Two city blocks next to the new Vikings stadium had been set aside for green space, but quarrels erupted on nearly every front.
Could the city own and operate the park, or did the Park Board have exclusive rights? Could the park be a true public space if the football team dominated its use for much of the year? Was this really going to be a park, after all, or something closer to a plaza? Confusion reigned even on what to call it. (The “Yard” was discarded in favor of the “Commons.”)
By contrast, the current scene is almost serene, thanks to a creative governance agreement and an impressive public design process led by city officials and architects from Hargreaves Associates, the acclaimed international landscape firm.
Nearly 500 people attended two public meetings in February and April aimed at gathering ideas, and another 2,500 comments were taken online. On May 27, after weighing public preferences, Hargreaves will show detailed drawings of how the new park would look and work. So far, renderings have been intentionally functional, focusing on how best to organize a complex set of demands.
Three types of users are anticipated: workers seeking respite from the daily grind; nearby residents looking for recreation, and visitors attending Vikings games, festivals or other special events. It’s important, then, for the park to be a place that’s both active and passive, as well as one that’s green, inclusive, iconic, adaptable to all seasons and a catalyst for additional development. Those are big ambitions for a 4.2-acre plot and good reason for designers to push a spillover of park functions into nearby parking lots and plazas for gameday events, giving the Commons a better chance to breathe as a public green space.
It’s intended, after all, not simply as a destination but as a connector to the Mississippi River and to other green spaces downtown, including the new Waterworks and Gateway projects. Its development will be broken into two phases, with the complete park emerging in time for the 2018 Super Bowl. Three of the four preliminary designs show a west-of-Portland-Avenue segment that’s more public and an eastern segment that’s more suited to stadium events. Portland (blocked off during big events) would be narrowed and absorbed into the park design. Also likely to be included: a pavilion, a cafe, an interactive water feature, public art, game courts, a large grassy lawn, raised seating terraces and, we hope, lots of trees.
Lack of funding has always been the Commons’ biggest challenge, and that hasn’t changed. Raising $22 million for development from private sources is the goal. Operating costs won’t be known until the final design is set, probably by this summer. Because intensive use is anticipated, maintenance costs may exceed those of other parks.
It’s expected that a nonprofit conservancy will operate the Commons. The land itself, now privately held, will be owned eventually by the Park Board and leased back to the city, a complex arrangement made necessary by the city’s convoluted charter. But the most important consideration is not political control but the caliber of design.
Expectations are high, and they should be. The Commons offers a rare opportunity to design, from scratch, an image that will be broadcast to millions around the world every time the Vikings play football — an image that, for better or worse, will define Minnesota.
For more information on the Commons, and to view the presentation from recent public meetings, go to http://www.downtowneastcommonsmpls.com.