A Minneapolis developer’s desire to permanently close two busy streets for a downtown green space has been smacked down by Hennepin County’s top engineer.

In a four-page memo to County Board members, Jim Grube delivered an unflattering analysis of the effects the proposed closings would have. “The potential one-block closures of Park Avenue and Portland Avenue in downtown Minneapolis will reduce network capacity, break roadway connectivity, shift transit routes, sever the bike network and reduce access and mobility for emergency vehicles and Hennepin County services,” he said.

Ryan Cos. has proposed a $400 million mixed-use development just west of the new Minnesota Vikings stadium. Its renderings show a 9-acre park uninterrupted by roadways.

Hennepin County Board Chairman Mike Opat called it a “long shot” that the board would accede to Ryan’s desire to close Park and Portland Avenues for a block between 4th and 5th Streets. Park flows north and Portland south, forming paired roads through downtown. “Talk of permanent closures … is going to be real tough for us,” Opat said.

Ryan introduced the plan to public fanfare last month, even though a Ryan executive had attended a County Board briefing in February where both Opat and Commissioner Peter McLaughlin called the closings a “non-starter.”

The company “proposed the closure of Park and Portland Avenues in order to create what we believe will be a world-class urban park experience,” Rick Collins, Ryan’s vice president of development, said this week.

The park, promoted by Mayor R.T. Rybak, would be part of a development that also includes two 20-story office towers for up to 6,000 workers. The city could be expected to borrow $65 million to build a parking facility and the park along the light-rail line that flows to the new Vikings stadium. The proposal also includes housing, retail and parking on five blocks now owned by the Star Tribune, including its headquarters at 425 Portland Av. S.

Collins said Ryan is planning a traffic study and, “we do realize there are multiple interests that must be considered.”

Much still to be settled

The future of the roadways is just one of many issues related to the project that are unsettled, even though Ryan has talked about completing parts of the project, along with the new stadium, for the 2016 football season. The earliest test of the project’s viability is whether Ryan wins a contract in coming weeks from the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority to build parking near the stadium. Ryan doesn’t have a tenant signed for the office space, but has said Wells Fargo & Co. may be interested.
Various aspects of the project also would need City Council approval, including some financing. Key council members are wary of tax breaks for the project. But Rybak wants green space and Minneapolis also wants to develop a lethargic part of downtown.

City development director Chuck Lutz has worked exclusively with Ryan and on the stadium for the past year. “It will be a big catalyst for the development of Downtown East, which is obviously something that hasn’t happened,” he said.

He said an option beyond road closings would be to upgrade the design and landscaping on Park and Portland where they bisect the park and reduce or shut down traffic for Vikings games. “On nongame days, they’d function as they do now,” Lutz said, citing the Lake Nokomis area as parkland traversed by a major roadway, Cedar Avenue S.

Traffic on Park and Portland

By the county’s analysis, Park and Portland are “minor” arteries. Park Avenue carries 6,500 vehicles a day and 200 bicycles. Portland carries 5,200 vehicles and 490 bikes. The analysis noted that Park and Portland between 4th and 5th Streets are served by numerous Metro Transit bus lines, including the 94 express to St. Paul, the 144 to the University of Minnesota, the 355 express to Woodbury, the 3 through the Como area to St. Paul’s Maryland Avenue and the 16 down University Avenue.

Grube’s memo said key county facilities rely on Park and Portland, including Hennepin County Medical Center, the medical examiner’s office, the Hennepin County Juvenile Detention Center and the Minneapolis Fire Station at 3rd Street and Portland.

Complicating any closing is the county designation of the roadway, which brings an estimated $207,000 to Hennepin County annually. Also, roads receive county designation through a complex study and formula based on traffic levels. Opat and Grube noted that the county cannot simply close a ligament of the system, because county roads are required to end at major junctures.

Grube’s memo said the removal of the county designation for the two roads probably would have to stretch from E. Franklin Avenue on the south and Washington Avenue on the north. Someone other than the county would then have to handle maintenance.

The county, which continues to help pay for Target Field, hasn’t participated in the Vikings project. Opat said he doesn’t want to appear obstructionist. “We will cooperate with people to make the best stadium possible, but we’re not paying for it,” he said.

The developer isn’t shrinking from the vision of a welcoming urban green space. “We believe that that experience is lessened with streets remaining in place and open,” Collins said.