Prospect Park steps into the future with DIY urbanism

How the visionaries of southeast Minneapolis plan to transform the way we live in the 21st century

Prospect Park steps into the future with DIY urbanism
Sarah Albinson

The Union Depot in St. Paul hums with visitors on an otherwise bleak Saturday in June. They ready themselves with umbrellas and rain jackets as the skies threaten to pour. And in the dry comfort of the hall, the region's dignitaries line up at the podium for roundabout congratulations.

The opening of the Metro Green Line has finally arrived.

"It's a rare opportunity that we get to stand at a moment that defines the future," says St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, drawing big analogies to the Transcontinental Railroad and Erie Canal. "Today we step into that same time frame, that same moment in history, where what happened before today is going to be very different than what happens from today on."

Project leaders Dick Gilyard, Ray Harris, Brian Goldberg, Dick Poppele, and John DeWitt
Tony Nelson
Project leaders Dick Gilyard, Ray Harris, Brian Goldberg, Dick Poppele, and John DeWitt
The heart of Prospect North, a proposed innovation district on 100 acres of old industrial land
University of Minnesota — Metropolitan Design Center
The heart of Prospect North, a proposed innovation district on 100 acres of old industrial land

It took $957 million and the support of every layer of government, but the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul now have a commuter train between them. The plans, which were hatched 30 years ago, survived two lawsuits and enormous pressure from the shops and residents who feared their neighborhoods would be torn apart. Through it all, supporters held fast to the promise that the light rail would revitalize University Avenue.

Though delayed by speeches, the first train out of St. Paul crossed the city limit without problem, retracing the steps of the old street cars that went extinct 60 years ago. In Minneapolis, it rolled right through the heart of another major initiative, yet unseen, but no less fantastic in the amount of muscle it will require. For more than five years, the residents of Prospect Park, in southeast Minneapolis, have been advancing the most ambitious redevelopment project you've never heard of. They saw the Green Line coming long ago and fixed their gaze on about 100 acres of old industrial property north of University, between Highway 280 and the TCF Bank Stadium.

On the table now are plans for a new city within a city — a transformation of the way we live and work in the 21st century. Prospect North, as the project has been christened, would bring high-density housing, snowless streets, and urban farming to the neighborhood's northern edge. It would offer an entirely new model of energy, one that's powered primarily by garbage in a zero-waste, zero-carbon, self-sustaining system unplugged from the traditional utility grid.

The barriers are massive. Countless regulations stand in the way, not to mention a price tag of upward of a billion dollars of private capital. There's no master planner, no single guiding developer. Rather, dozens of public and private entities, all of whom have a stake in the properties, are forging ahead with one common conviction: They believe it can work.

Far away from Union Depot, Dick Gilyard, a resident of Prospect Park, mans a booth outside the Stadium Village stop, where bad weather has stalled a concert. Per usual, he's dressed head to toe in black, with thin-framed glasses. His eyes search for someone, anyone, who will listen to the big idea he and his neighbors have been feverishly dreaming up.

The rain sends riders ducking for cover. The wind hurls garbage cans to the ground. And just a few feet away, a giant Gopher balloon deflates. But Gilyard remains defiant.

With both hands, the 74-year-old architect holds down a pile of designs, including one for Surly's new brewery. It's only 11 a.m. and Gilyard has this tiny spot of asphalt reserved for another five hours. No one, however, stops to listen.

This is madness, an observer tells him, motioning toward the dark sky. How long are you planning to stay here?

"As long as it takes," Gilyard responds. "I just want one person to say, 'If you build this, I'd like to live here.'"

THE VIEW FROM THE GREEN LINE platform in Prospect Park, about three miles from downtown Minneapolis, reveals a neighborhood in flux. A new coffee house sits near a dilapidated office building. Though the millers are long gone, the towering grain elevators to the north remain, shouting in thick white letters, "UNITED CRUSHERS."

Today these concrete behemoths belong to John Wall, a real estate developer who owns several large properties in the area. He could make a killing by flipping this land for major corporations.

Instead, for more than a decade, Wall has been amassing these old industrial sites with the hope of converting them into a one-million-square-foot science park. He plans to build labs and offices where innovators of all stripes could collaborate on projects like 3D printing and green technology.

Wall's science park predates the larger plans for Prospect North but feeds right into the overall concept. It's also not the first of its kind.

The South Boston Waterfront, a stretch of former shipping yards spanning 1,000 acres, has been cleaned up and replaced with labs, restaurants, hotels, and a museum. On Manhattan's lower west end, developers have $20 billion plans for a new business and residential enclave in the form of three skyscrapers that are suspended above a rail depot. San Francisco is looking intently at sustainability and has gone so far as to write these types of "innovation districts" into its public policy, making them quicker and easier to replicate.

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