Last month the state’s top-paid CEO made a splash with his offer to build a $5 million park on what’s being called the last undeveloped land along the city’s central riverfront. William McGuire’s park proposal achieved a near total eclipse of two rival plans for the same site that include buildings and less open space. All three were responses to a request: What should the city do with the property it owns along the downtown riverfront between 10th and 11th avenues?
The “Riverfront East Parcel” is 5.6 acres of level land atop the river bluff where until recent years a stately procession of grain elevators marched. Reuse of the silos was judged impractical, so the city razed them, and for a time the vacant site joined a vast sea of surface parking to create a windswept concrete prairie on downtown’s fringe. But the city is reclaiming the area, bit by bit, and the parcel is now bounded by a parkway, an office building, the new Guthrie Theater, and Second Street S., which runs just one block north of Washington Avenue, a street Mayor R.T. Rybak has vowed to remake as a “grand promenade.”
The park plan appears to be a no-brainer choice for the panel evaluating the proposals, since it would provide downtown with needed open space at no public cost—beyond the loss of tax revenue over the 10 years McGuire proposes his foundation would lease the land and maintain the park.
But is a privately controlled park the best use of the public’s land? McGuire diplomatically states that the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board has enough other things to worry about, but whatever his opinion of them, it remains the park board’s job to run parks in the city. Yet McGuire’s acres would join a growing list of privately operated parks and park facilities: Plans are in the works for facilities to be built by third parties on public parkland at East River Flats, Nicollet Island and Lake Calhoun; and Xcel Energy just received federal approval for a summer-only park next to St. Anthony Falls at the north tip of Hennepin Island, in which the park board has no role.
And as good as a big park sounds, it would close off yet another stretch of riverbank from the city’s street grid. The Minneapolis Plan says the city grid should meet the river, and that policy was supposed to guide prospective developers of this site. But only one of the proposals addresses the city’s astonishing failure to join its street system to the Mississippi—and it’s not McGuire’s proposal. Whenever the chance for reuniting its streets with its river has arisen in recent years, it’s as if years of separation have made Minneapolis unsure how to greet the body of water that gave it birth.
Along much of the riverfront, railroad tracks or heavy industry have long stood between the city and the Mississippi. Then, as the city reclaims those stretches of riverbank, it finds a way to replace the barriers, like a dutiful track-and-field official righting a fallen hurdle. The main post office, St. Anthony Main, the Riverwest highrise, the Federal Reserve Bank, the North Loop’s townhouses and condos, the Stone Arch Apartments, even the Guthrie—all block the city’s street grid from reaching the river. And the city streets are how the city’s people get places. Along two miles of riverbank on the downtown side, only five streets out of a possible 24 meet the river at W. River Parkway. Seward and Cooper neighborhood streets meet the river much more frequently and elegantly.
At his inaugural last January, the mayor vowed to “restore that basic urban fabric and vitality that differentiates a great city from just a collection of housing developments and office parks and shopping centers.” Yet reweavers of urban fabric should beware of billionaires from Western suburbs who claim that what ails the old Gateway District—that prairie of surface lots that replaced the city’s original downtown— is “too many buildings, too many buildings.” As it spreads out before an office building so suburban it required special city council action, McGuire’s park approximates nothing so much as a scenic side yard in a Minnetonka corporate campus.
It was a mistake to let new neighborhoods be built downtown without clean connections to the existing street grid and without pocket parks for generations of residents to come. But a privately designed and built park at a city-owned site at the edge of downtown that once again cuts off the city streets from the river is not a solution.