Greenbacks or Green Space?

Brookfield's Block E plan is headed for the dumpster, but a new movement is afoot to turn downtown's saddest parking lot into a park

On an e-mail discussion forum not long ago, an angry message-writer proposed that a certain Minneapolis politician be flogged in the town square. Another Internet pundit quickly fired back. "Minneapolis," he quipped, "doesn't HAVE a town square."

Too true -- but one may have been christened by the estimated 100,000 members of the Smashing Pumpkins Nation who imbibed the recent Aquatennial freebie on Block E. The crowd spontaneously created what a decade's worth of city-approved developers haven't: a thrilling entertainment mecca.

On more typical afternoons, more than a few office-tower drones on their lunch hour have gazed down and mentally transformed the massive bald spot between Target Center and City Center into a grassy picnic area. "It's so ironic -- Minneapolis's park system is renowned, but we don't have a downtown park," observes Don Johnson, an associate with Uptown's Town Planning Collaborative, a local urban design firm.

Town Planning's design calls for transforming two-thirds of Block E into a grass commons densely bordered by trees
Town Planning's design calls for transforming two-thirds of Block E into a grass commons densely bordered by trees

Hoping to turn public imagination into a political reality, Town Planning and Minneapolis City Council member Lisa McDonald have paired to put forth a new vision of a Block E park. Town Planning president Rich McLaughlin says his group is not looking for a fat developer's fee, but merely trying to "introduce good urban design into the discussion." For her part McDonald, whose 10th Ward includes much of the Uptown area, says, "One thing the city does well is green space, but we never seem to do it for folks downtown."

According to Town Planning's straightforward design, two-thirds of Block E would become a grass commons densely bordered by trees. This green field would be divided by paths into six squares, each with removable benches that could be taken out for Pumpkins II or left in for day-in, day-out lunching. The remaining third of Block E would continue to house the Shubert Theater, and possibly the entrance to an underground parking ramp.

McDonald admits her plan can't go forward at all until October 1--the expiration date of the exclusive Block E rights the council granted Brookfield Management Services back in 1996. But many at City Hall have been preparing for Brookfield's exit since earlier this summer, when the developer lost a key financial backer for its $101-million movie-restaurant-hotel scheme. "We started thinking of a park after that happened," says McLaughlin, adding, "There just hasn't been a lot of discussion of how to use this as public space."

While politicians have long salivated at Block E's property-tax-producing potential, McDonald believes a park will be lucrative as well as pleasant. "It's like the Convention Center," she argues. "A loss leader in itself, but it will pay off indirectly. Property values on surrounding blocks will go up because people want to be near an amenity. And it wouldn't be dead space. It seems like we have a fest down here every weekend, so this would help draw people downtown."

How much will it cost? McDonald doesn't know yet, but St. Paul city architect Don Ganje says Mears Park in downtown St. Paul cost $1.35 million to reconstruct in 1992. Mears had been overdeveloped with multiple brick levels that needed to be demolished, which appears similar to the asphalt removal and leveling Block E needs. Meager inflation may have raised costs, but the Block E park isn't as big as Mears, so it's reasonable to guess that the final construction costs would be comparable. Even if you double the estimate, that's less than 50 percent of what the council recently approved merely to pry the ostensibly peripatetic Shubert from its foundation, haul it a block and a half, and plop it down.

An urban park might drag down values if it were allowed to decay, but McLaughlin says he has designed for safety, and to discourage activities such as open-air drug dealing. He points out that the uncluttered design reduces "definite traps where people can hide," and says the trees will be non-evergreen and large enough to afford passers-by a clear view between the trunks. McDonald adds that the police department's beefed-up downtown beat patrol can easily keep the peace the retail core has experienced in recent years.

A park plan was floated in 1995 by urban designers Chuck Leer and Garth Rockcastle. At that time, the City Council directed its development agency to further hone their concept of creating what Leer describes as an "urban sculpture garden, with lots of programmed activities." The duo's design also incorporated the Shubert, using its looming wall for an outdoor amphitheater (a concept McDonald says would still work) but retained some of Block E's existing parking. "The idea was less about a pastoral green space and more about active urban space," Leer says. "Whatever the park looks like, there has to be a lot of programming there."

The Minneapolis Community Development Agency (MCDA) and numerous other city agencies worked with Leer and Rockcastle for six months, Leer says, but then "Brookfield showed up."

Having watched his vision for a Block E park snuffed out, Leer says he's all in favor of a new plan. A seemingly less likely ally is Minneapolis finance officer John Moir, City Hall's longtime Prince of the Green Eyeshade. It was Moir who sternly termed the $26-million plan to move and renovate the Shubert "wildly optimistic." His verdict on a possible Block E park: "It's within the bounds of reason."

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