Political Theater

The Guthrie's search for new digs casts the company in a Minneapolis development drama

"The neighbors say that is not the place to build a five-story parking solution," Hawkanson says.

If the Guthrie bolts from the Vineland Place complex, Dowling says, "the Park Board site and downtown are the only serious options that we have." The site most often mentioned for a new Guthrie complex is an overflow parking lot that sits between the Sculpture Garden and Parade Stadium, land owned by the Minneapolis Park Board. But the Park Board has a strict policy against giving up parkland to anyone. The fact that the Parks Commissioners also seem to have expansionist visions of late, though, gives indications that an interesting deal might be struck.

This year, for the first time in its history, the Park Board has sold bonds--that is, borrowed money, backed by revenues from golf course surcharges, sailboat rentals, and even popcorn and ice cream sold at lakeside concession stands. Laugh if you will, but Parks Superintendent David Fisher says the bonds will raise $18 million, and the current plan is to use the money to build suburban-equivalent sports complexes for city kids at Fort Snelling, Northeast Minneapolis, and in the Bryn Mawr Park just north of I-394 east.

What does this all have to do with the Guthrie? When theater leaders paid a courtesy call on the board recently, gruff parks commissioner Walt Dziedzic cut to the chase. "I told them go back, go to your corporations, foundations, and tell them the kids of Minneapolis need some help. They need to get on a level playing field with kids of the elite. They want our land, they've got to do something for the kids."

Dziedzic, a former minor-league catcher and cop, represented Northeast Minneapolis on the City Council for decades, until this January. Past Park Board deals with cultural pooh-bahs still stick in his populist craw. "The park board spends over $300,000 a year taking care of a Sculpture Garden for the 'Golden West,'" Dziedzic says of the Walker's sculpture park, the surrounding neighborhood, and the wealthy suburbs beyond. "Fisher said it's maybe not that much, but I say bullshit!"

Fisher, meanwhile, says the board has not formally "heard, or even considered" any land-for-cash deal. But he acknowledges there is "a lot of opportunity" for an even bigger deal that would dramatically re-connect North Minneapolis with a chunk of the "Golden West."

If this plan comes to pass, the view from the Walker's front steps could look like this: Moving north toward the Spoonbridge, the new Guthrie complex would be off to your left, where the overflow lot now stands. A new parking ramp would be built somewhere between the expanded theater and Dunwoody Institute, the vocational school that sits across Dunwoody Boulevard from the Sculpture Garden.

Behind Dunwoody, where railroad tracks, I-394 landfill, and the Minneapolis impound lot now squat, would be green space--the extension of the Bryn Mawr fields that the Park Board desires. A new parkway road would snake north from Dunwoody Boulevard, adjacent to the expanded park, over Bassett's Creek (which will soon return to the surface after being buried in a tunnel since the 1920s) all the way to Highway 55, where the Sumner-Field public housing projects once stood. On either side of 55, three new lakes--yes, lakes--are being excavated, and around them will sit 450 units of market rate, low-income, and public housing, constructed as part of a federal settlement to de-concentrate poverty in North Minneapolis. A community center might be built in the parkland in the Sumner-Field space.

Tom Streitz of Minneapolis Legal Aid describes the grand plan as "a chance to penetrate a long-held barrier between black and white residents, poor and rich, north and south." Streitz represents the public housing residents who successfully sued the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority (MPHA) for having concentrated poverty in the area. And although a lawyer for the poor might seem an odd player in the development game, as part of the victory, residents won a place at the table to help guide what would be built on their former homes--a plan that now may stretch all the way from their former housing to the Walker's white walls. Currently, representatives from the Park Board, the Guthrie, the Walker, Legal Aid, Minneapolis NAACP, MPHA, and the City Council are all working on a task force to formulate this vision.

"The Guthrie is not the engine of this plan," Streitz emphasizes. "They are more like the caboose."

To be sure, much of what is being planned--the lakes, the housing, perhaps the parkway--will likely be built whether the Guthrie jumps in or not. Chuck Lutz, MPHA director of special projects, has identified $54 million already for the project from tax-increment financing, MPHA funds, Hennepin County, the Minneapolis Community Development Agency, and even the Metropolitan Airports Commission (which may pay because the north-side lakes could fulfill obligations to replace wetlands lost to airport expansion). But even if this all comes to pass, Lutz adds, the plan is still $7 million short and doesn't include financing needed to move the impound lot.

"They would be hitching their wagons to our star, and from my perspective, they can only add value," notes Streitz. "They would bring in a different set of foundations that would be philanthropically interested in the bigger project."

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