Greenbacks or Green Space?

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

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.

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."

In recent years Moir has warned that because an early-'90s refinancing has the city's debt payments scheduled to rise dramatically in 2001, council members should avoid new spending. But he believes that "there's some logic" to McDonald's argument that a park will pay by increasing nearby property values. "The argument that the city doesn't have any real park space downtown is a legitimate argument," he says, sounding like a man who's looking for a nice spot to sit down and eat lunch.

Past critics who have looked to portray a park as too expensive have asked how the city would pay off the $8 million balance on a federal Community Development Block Grant that funded Block E's purchase and clearing in the late 1980s. The grant repayments have been made from parking fees on the block, but Moir says lost revenue would add up to "not a huge amount--maybe $250,000 a year. It's not a material issue," he adds. "It would certainly be an amenity that would not cost a lot of dollars vis-à-vis a downtown retail store [the recently approved Target], or moving the Shubert. A park is an interesting concept, but what this all depends on is whether this is a council priority or not."

Can McDonald build a majority of seven votes for the park? Her frequent ally on the council, 13th Ward Independent Steve Minn, is cautiously pessimistic. "A park-concept option has some limited interest," says Minn, who favors an outdoor amphitheater and new Minneapolis library on Block E should Brookfield fail. "I doubt she has seven votes to put a simple park on that site for anything other than an interim use."

McDonald does have a few powerful allies, including Jim Niland, chair of one of the council's two key committees, Community Development. But although Niland says he supports the park concept, Jackie Cherryhomes, the council president, doesn't. While she acknowledges that she's frustrated by the repeated failures, she believes Block E's highest value would be as an "entertainment location." Says Cherryhomes: "If what we have been planning there doesn't work, we do have to take a step back and rethink what we're doing. I really need to see how to pay for it, how it will all work, and no one has shown me that yet."

As for addressing the absence of park space downtown, Cherryhomes says she's all in favor--just so long as it's not in the city's retail core. To that end, she says, she and the MCDA have been searching for a more suitable site. They haven't found anything so far, but Cherryhomes remains hopeful: "We have some pretty creepy stuff elsewhere that could be cleared."

Downtown lunchers are still waiting.

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