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Prospect Park steps into the future with DIY urbanism

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."

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.

 

While most innovation districts focus on clustering smart workers and housing together, no two projects are the same. Innovation means different things to different cities, as each city has its own unique problems.

According to Bruce Katz, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, because of dwindling resources at state and federal levels of government, the task of rebuilding cities and economies has fallen increasingly on local institutions and even neighborhoods.

"There is no government program you can apply to," says Katz, who champions the districts as a disruptive model of governance. "It's DIY urbanism."

This idea is not new to the North Star State. For almost a decade, the University of Minnesota has been wading through the nitty gritty of converting 5,000 acres of farmland in Dakota County, some 25 miles from downtown Minneapolis, into a sustainable, walkable hub. In 30 years' time, the university hopes to have built UMore Park, where researchers can live and work side by side.

But unlike UMore Park, which relies on the premise that new construction will continue to spread away from metros and into cornfields, Prospect North is banking on urban density. The evidence bears this out: Minneapolis and St. Paul grew by nearly 14,000 people between 2010 and 2012, according to the Metropolitan Council.

Prospect Park is between two downtowns and two university campuses, with commercial railroad to the north and major highway connections all around. Although their plan been overshadowed by more mainstream projects, such as the old Ford plant in St. Paul, UMore, and the Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant, the visionaries of Prospect North aren't fazed.

"This site has more economic development potential than the other three sites combined," Wall says of his property, "because it's centrally located in the core of the two biggest cities in the region. This is ground zero."

Wall might be on board for Prospect North, but that doesn't mean every other property owner in the area is. If the stalwarts of this new innovation district hope to succeed, they'll need to convince some skeptical people — and quick.

DICK GILYARD DIGS through large piles of designs and maps, pausing occasionally to run thin fingers through his wiry white hair, which bursts from his head. This cluttered office at the corner of University and Arthur Avenues is the cradle of Prospect North, as much an archive as a pulpit for the new apostles of urban living.

Finally, he finds the one he's looking for: a long piece of paper, with colored-pencil drawings and a dozen Post-it notes — the project's founding document.

In 2009, with the Green Line construction on the horizon, Gilyard sat down with his good friends — including John DeWitt, the founder of a transit advocacy group, and Dick Poppele, professor emeritus of neuroscience at the U of M — as well as his co-conspirators who sit on the association governing Prospect Park. Together they fleshed out a vision for the northern half of their neighborhood: dense, mixed-income housing, plenty of green space, and locally owned businesses. Since then, this piece of paper has been revised, tested, and fought for without end.

Gilyard hoists it high, points to it as proof, and says, "We're not going to let developers shove us around."

Such conviction is impressive, especially considering that Gilyard and the gang don't own any of the land they're talking about transforming — a fact that does not always sit well with those who do.

As a key property owner next to the neighborhood's light rail station, David Barnhart speaks cautiously when he says he's not opposed to Prospect North — he would rather work with the neighborhood than against it. But it's also clear that he and his partners, including his son, Jeff, are feeling the pressure.

"I got irritated because they kept drawing pictures on my land without asking me what I wanted to do," David says. "Even on the property that we own, we feel we have a very minor contribution to the design. The answer is always, well, the neighborhood won't agree to it."

At least this much the residents of Prospect Park can stomach: The Barnharts have come back with their own development plans for a 30,000-square-foot grocery store, a mid-rise luxury apartment building, and a hotel, all squeezed together on about a block and a half currently occupied by autobody shops.

"We've heard loud and clear," Jeff says, "that the people want density."

They also want housing that attracts professionals at the U, not undergrads. Gilyard's fear is that students would attract more of the flavorless strip-mall type development down the road — a Burger King rather than, say, a Butcher & the Boar.

 

So when word got around that an old sheet metal site along Southeast Fourth Street was about to go to a student-housing developer, the neighborhood attacked. It put up such a stink — Gilyard remembers saying, "It'll be a long, bloody fight" — that the property owners let it fall into bankruptcy rather than push back.

Next the neighborhood sent a letter to the bankruptcy trustee, asking instead that the land go to the Cornerstone Group, an affordable-housing developer based in Bloomington and early believer in Prospect North. The court gave in.

But there was little time to rejoice. Hardly had the dust settled from the last fight before another key piece of property went into the hands of another student-housing developer.

The troops mobilized, but this time it was too little, too late. The developer's architects tweaked the plans, but otherwise stuck to their guns, leaving Gilyard reeling in agony.

"They don't really care what happens here 10 years from now," he says, "and that's the problem."

THE DAY IS STILL YOUNG by the time Josh Foss and Björgvin Saevarsson seize the floor of a large conference room on the campus of the U. Both men, founders of the Ecala Group and globe-trotting consultants, are here to address a question that's beyond the expertise of anyone in Prospect Park: How do we power our new city?

They've been invited by Gilyard and his comrades, to prove to property owners and public officials that Prospect North is more than a pipe dream.

Foss wets his lips as he explains the structure of a closed-loop energy system that forgoes the traditional utility grid in favor of fuel cells, solar panels, and wind turbines — all emissions-free. But it's bigger than that: An industrial food production facility could grow four million heads of lettuce and a million pounds of seafood each year. Wastewater would be cleaned without chemicals.

But Foss beams brightest when talking about a series of pneumatic tubes that would suck garbage right out of cans. It would fly below ground to an anaerobic digestor, which uses bacteria to convert waste into biogas, create nutrient-rich fertilizers, and pipe carbon to a greenhouse.

Sandy-haired Saevarsson smiles, trying to contain his own enthusiasm for a system intended to power thousands of homes with less than 1 percent of the region's trash.

"Where's the limit?" he says. "We really don't see it because this is all powered by garbage — and we certainly have a surplus of that."

While Ecala's proposal for Prospect North may sound like the loftiest part of the project yet, it's all based on technology that's been tested overseas and in other parts of the U.S. (Below-ground garbage tubes have been in place on New York's Roosevelt Island since the 1970s.) The initial numbers they've gathered from distributors show that their system would cost $137 million upfront but pay for itself by the 11th year.

If it does get built, Ecala is hoping it becomes a replicable model — one that's exported across the globe and could foster a radical shift in culture. Their system, as proposed, would not only grow food and clean water naturally, but generate a surplus amount of energy that other neighborhoods or households could buy, thereby reducing carbon emissions elsewhere in the city.

"It's not enough to be sustainable," Foss says. "Less bad is not good."

But even the best of intentions are subject to the laws of commerce. Ecala still has its work cut out for it if it's going to show everyone that its numbers are legit. That also requires each of the property owners to throw a little more of their own skin into the game.

No sooner has the duo finished their presentation before the first signals of skepticism are fired into the atmosphere by the property owners. Gina Ciganik, the VP of housing development at Aeon, points to a building she tried to outfit in south Minneapolis with similar technology.

It was great in theory, but too pricey and burdensome in practice, she says, and that may even be the same case in a neighborhood where the cost is widely distributed.

"As much as I want to go, 'Yeah, I love this! Finally!'" Ciganik says, "I caution us to be real about it."

Representatives from the city are in a tough position themselves. They're working simultaneously on renovating a two-block stretch of Fourth Street with more public green space while listening in on the larger conversation at Prospect North meetings. They've offered very few opinions because there's little to critique right now except abstract principles.

 

To put those principles into practice, Gilyard and the gang passed the torch last year to a public-private partnership — overseen by the Urban Land Institute Minnesota — that exists to clarify funding and regulatory challenges for property owners.

At the same time, the neighborhood asked each entity to sign a declaration of allegiance to the original vision, knowing full well that the whole thing could still fall apart. The whole of Prospect North could take years to be completed, possibly decades — which is time many of the stakeholders don't have.

Surly, which recently purchased land along Malcolm Avenue, has already broken ground, and others intend to start soon. The momentum creates a sense of urgency to nail down something concrete, particularly with respect to energy supply, so that property owners don't waste money on heating and cooling systems that would need to be completely replaced in only a few years.

And to make sure taxpayers don't foot the bill, as much money as possible will need to come from the private sphere. For this task, the partnership has tapped former state Rep. Jeremy Kalin, who runs Eutectics Consulting, a clean-energy financing firm. But scraping together hundreds of millions from investors is especially difficult when the partnership has yet to even settle on its boundaries and specific technology.

"We're asking them to invest in something and they don't even know what it is yet," Kalin says. "It's time to get moving."

OMAR ANSARI SQUINTS into the wind. It's a cold morning, and the boots of Surly's founder and president are caked with mud as he tours the construction site. Men in hardhats lay pipe for what will become a $30 million craft brewery — the only visual representation yet of Prospect North, slated to open well before the rest, in early 2015.

Ansari chose a seemingly unusual site for expansion — one that's surrounded by abandoned grain silos and railroad tracks. These eight acres once belonged to a potato processing plant, and to bring them up to par, he accepted money from regional governments. Officials wanted Surly so badly that they shelled out about $2 million to help engineers remove the flammable chemicals related to petroleum storage and linseed oil production from the ground.

Before saying yes, Ansari looked at 80 potential spots in more than 30 cities across the metro.

"If we had built in the suburbs," he says, "we'd probably be brewing by now."

But he saw the potential in Prospect Park, in a way that the industry of old saw it: as a gateway between Minneapolis and St. Paul. Gilyard and his neighbors were thrilled to have him, and immediately set about touting the brewery as a social anchor that would entice outsiders, particularly Millenials, to come live nearby.

Everyone got lucky. Ansari was unaware of Prospect North until after he purchased the property, but says he bought right into it. When built, Surly's 350-person beer hall, restaurant, event center, and two-acre garden will cater to the future eggheads who work at Wall's science park next door. What's more, the excess hops from his brewery could be used as a key feed stock in Ecala's energy system.

It's lofty, yes, but the whole thing reminds Ansari of other ambitious projects he's seen while traveling. He knows of the near impossible task facing Prospect North believers.

"It gets built with great vision," Ansari says. "All those pieces don't work by themselves."

Project leaders Dick Gilyard, Ray Harris, Brian Goldberg, Dick Poppele, and John DeWitt
Tony Nelson

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