Downtown East Still Needs Some Work—More People Would Help

Downtown East Still Needs Some Work—More People Would Help

It's hard to believe that like ten years ago, the east side of downtown Minneapolis looked something like this:

 Image from, and this is true, Bing Maps

Image from, and this is true, Bing Maps

What a hellscape!

Now it looks something like this:

 Image from snazzy City of Minneapolis press release linked below

Image from snazzy City of Minneapolis press release linked below

Or at least it did a few months ago; the parking lot in this photo at Washington and Chicago has since bitten the dust. There have been some news articles and press releases lately about this transformation, so people have been talking about it more. I figure many will get distracted debating the merits of the public investment in the stadium and the still somewhat murky status of the park, and that's fair, but it's clearly an improvement over the seas of surface parking.

Though that is a pretty low bar. Have you walked around Downtown East lately? It does feel kind of off, in a way, if you mosey around the streets for 20 minutes in the middle of the day. I worry that we maybe haven't built things out a high enough density for it to feel like a real place. Here are some photos from the other day...

Low-ish density 3rd Street buildings

So we've got two new buildings on 3rd Street: a Radisson Red hotel and an office building. They're both pretty short, an entire block long, and have...one door, each, onto 3rd Street. To be fair to the hotel, there is unleased retail space, so there will probably eventually be another door or two, but also it could definitely sit empty for ten years. And speaking of the hotel, there's this:

That's a pretty big gap, filled with surface parking and basically just an alley? It's good that the hotel pickup/drop off is in back, but I wonder if this space could have been used better. It's almost as wide as the building itself. Could that have been more hotel rooms or something else?

Parking garage

All the parking that was removed for the buildings and the new park was replaced (and then some) with this large parking ramp:

 Nice nature art (?) on the sides I guess

Nice nature art (?) on the sides I guess

The Mills Fleet Farm Parking Garage (lol) takes up just about an entire city block and does not have any active uses on any side. This one wasn't really the City's fault, there was some business with the stadium legislation that required the ramp. There is a plan to build an office building on the other side of the ramp facing the plaza, which, sorry to say, is also kind of a mess?

Plaza: what's going on here?

The block in front of the stadium is not great. Lots of dead area and concrete, and just all around not a great use of space. The huge skyway looks silly. There's a parking ramp under the plaza, and in theory that was supposed to support some kind of building on top of it, but now that the (stupid) pedestrian bridge has eaten up a lot of the space, it's a little less attractive of a parcel. Plus the stadium does look kind of cool, and I suppose the stadium authority might want to preserve views of it from the park and the rest of downtown.

But this whole deal is a jumble and bad/confusing to walk around in:

You've got a wiiiide, one-way street in 4th Street, the trains zipping through pretty regularly, weird bridges and skyways, the train station, a busy bus stop, and then the barren plaza itself.

A lot of people have pointed out that, for $1.1 billion USD, it would have been nice to be more thoughtful with the front of the stadium. The doors and the glass looks cool and all, but we could have incorporated a lot of gameday crowd control into the plaza(s). Putting up tons of cyclone fencing and temporary tents all over the place, as was done for each home game last year, looked pretty bad.

Wells Fargo towers

The Wells Fargo office buildings look...fine. Maybe a little bit 80s (or something?) but not everything can be a star. One bone I'd pick with them is that while they aren't even all that big, they sure do feel enormous from the street:

Check out those little people on the sidewalk! For buildings that aren't that tall, they don't do a great job interacting with the humans in the area. There's one (1) retail space in each on the ground floor facing the park. There is currently a restaurant in one, and there's another restaurant slated for the other. There are also a few townhomes in each. In theory, it's hard to make commercial space work in 2017, and developers will tell you that when we complain about the lack of street level activity, but also, there are several things on the interior of the building, along the skyway:

It would be nice if these spaces (and there is still some unleased space) were on the street level instead of the townhomes, to be honest. We're starting to see a lot of these first floor townhomes around the city in lots of projects. It's not bad necessarily—it's better than windows into a parking garage, but at the same time it feels weird to have townhome units on busy downtown streets when what might be nice is a drycleaner or something.

Density downtown

Which, I think, brings us back to the original concern: are we putting enough people downtown? A good way to support a drycleaner is to have a lot of people living nearby. Big office buildings help too, but by themselves they're not really a 24 hour draw, and, given how and where our big companies are located and how they're doing, I don't get the feeling there is going to be another big office building built in Minneapolis for a while. So for now we need to build more housing.

People are important. We should do what we can to make the streetscapes nice, but there are bad streetscapes all over the world, even in cool trendy big cities, but you don't always notice it because there are a lot of people walking around and on balconies and sitting outside having a cup of coffee on the sidewalk. I'm not sure that we've got this going on in Downtown East yet, or most of the rest of downtown for that matter. The North Loop is starting to get there. A lot of the Mill District was built out at a somewhat low density, and now there's not really much land left other than the 1980s light industrial over near I-35W.

It sounds crazy to say, but we're kind of getting to the point (and 2012 Nick would have been annoyed as hell by this) where we are running out of surface parking lots downtown! Which is awesome! But we also probably want to be a bit pickier with what's getting built. Lenders are clearly confident in our market; there are a bunch of towers in the pipeline. The legislature also just changed some laws related to condominium construction so I'm thinking we'll probably start to see some more of that type of project.

We've got some remaining parcels left, especially along Hennepin Avenue and in Elliot Park. It's important to make sure these properties get the highest use possible, in particular in Elliot Park where HCMC's dismal street presence has mucked things up so badly.

One thing we could do to make sure we get worthwhile projects in these locations is raise the minimum floor area ratio (FAR), which is basically a fancy way to measure density. Right now our zoning code says the minimum FAR for most of the remaining parking lots downtown is...2. Which means you can build three or four story buildings on these lots. I don't think that's a good way to grow the area into a healthy, urban neighborhood.

It's hard to say exactly what the right amount of people on a block is, but my sense is that it's probably something like 600 units at a minimum downtown? That can look like a lot of different things and doesn't necessarily have to be a skyscraper. The below two buildings both take up a little less than half a city block, but Nic on 5th is twice as tall as Latitude 45, even though the latter has way more housing units.

 Latitude 45 (left) has 319 units, Nic on 5th has 253

Latitude 45 (left) has 319 units, Nic on 5th has 253

There's feedback loop with this kind of stuff. The more people live in an area, the more services and amenities and shops and transit it can support, and the more of those things it has makes it an even better place to live, leading more people to want to live there, and so on. I'm on record as thinking the upcoming Mill District Trader Joe's will completely revolutionize the snack game downtown. What other cool stuff could we get downtown with more people living there?

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