The Mill City Quarter housing development will have the first woonerf in Minneapolis, a Dutch-inspired space that welcomes people on foot and bike and low-speed motorists. It will offer a new link to the downtown riverfront where trains once connected to points upriver.
But the Mill City housing development that breaks ground later this year also represents a first test of a new Minneapolis park dedication ordinance — instead of requiring developers to donate land or money, park officials would get an easement allowing the public to use this private property to get to the river.
That's a concept that even some park commissioners who voted for the ordinance seemed troubled by when the easement agreement barely won approval at the Park Board last week. The easement and accompanying public access may still be refined further. And there is another curious ingredient: The agreement comes courtesy of developer Steve Minn, a former City Council member who fought the new park law at the State Capitol.
Mill City Quarter is notable because it adds $73.8 million in housing aimed at several groups not typically targeted by developers downtown.
The 150 units, developed by Minn and partner John Wall across S. 2nd Street from the onetime Milwaukee Road train shed, will be marketed to older residents making less than 60 percent of area median income. The 150 units being developed by nonprofit Ecumen on the next block will have 45 units for those with memory problems and 105 for assisted and independent living.
The woonerf will bisect the two buildings, leading toward the Park Board-owned riverfront and trails, and a riverfront visitor center that's been proposed for just downstream of the 3rd Avenue Bridge.
"The key thing for us is having that passageway available so people can get to the riverfront," Park Board President Liz Wielinski said.
As proposed by Minn and Wall, the woonerf will have 80 parking spaces, with colored pavement helping to mark pedestrian, landscaping and other zones. The zone to which the public has access rights will be flanked by added pedestrian walkways and plazas, lit by suspended lights and may display artifacts of the area's rail history.
But creating the woonerf involved complex negotiations. That's because neither Minn nor Wall owns the former rail corridor on which it lies.
Craig Kupritz, who owns and managed three historic buildings adjoining the woonerf, said the diagonal linear property has been in his family for decades. Tenants of his buildings now park in the large surface parking lot across which the woonerf will run, along with city development employees.
Kupritz said he proposed a trail along the rail line as far back as 1999.
Now he's agreed to an easement involving the city, Park Board, Minn and Wall, and Ecumen. His tenants will park in the woonerf during business hours, but it would be open to public paid parking evenings and weekends.
"I can't say I'm expecting a whole lot of revenue," Kupritz said in a recent interview. "Hopefully, it will be enough to cover expenses."
The Park Board approval on a 6-1 vote last week is conditioned on firming some terms of the agreement; the measure required six votes to pass. Those include clarifying pedestrian, bike and public parking access, and making sure the woonerf's features live up to the ideal of an "amenity-rich plaza street." The City Council votes on it next month.
Commissioner Brad Bourn, who cast the lone vote against the easement agreement, raised numerous issues about how public the space will be compared to conventional parkland, including right to public protests.
Other commissioners disputed Minn's plans to install a gate at the park end of the woonerf.
He said he wants to close the gate after 10 p.m. until 6 a.m., typical park hours, but said he'd be open to a test in the future to see if leaving the gates open creates problems.
Minn, who declined to comment on the project, is still free to move ahead with his woonerf without involving the Park Board in the easement.
But the city still has some leverage.
By approving a land sale to the developers that exempts them from having to donate land or money to meet the park dedication law, they'd need to grant public access to their land. Otherwise, the developers would need to pay a $61,400 fee.