Uptown: Version 2.0?

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“One of the most desirable ways to avoid sprawl, while still growing as a region, is to direct new growth as much as possible into already developed areas—Uptown fits this bill. However, this often leads to conflicts in neighborhoods with local economies that are already relatively robust like Uptown as some current residents may resist the implied higher densities,” said Tom Luce. Research Director at the Institute on Race and Poverty, University of Minnesota Luce is co-author of a recent book called “Region, Planning the Future of the Twin Cities.” Luce and his co-author Myron Orfield recently spoke at a community panel discussion at a Magers and Quinn Booksellers in March.

Luce’s words have been at the heart of some of the Uptown development controversies such as pressures to build more densely in the core while maintaining sensitivity to the environment and old neighborhood flavor. This and many other issues may surface if the Uptown community gets a chance to consider a bold proposal to leverage the Walker Library reconstruction plan with an alternative idea to completely remake a block of Hennepin Avenue as seen above.

Currently the county is nearing its community input process to plan a new Walker Library with a plan that has been about engaging the community to plan what they want in a new library. Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman talks about the Community Advisory Committee (CAC) process to create a vision to drive the design. “We use this process not just because it is beneficial to the community but because it works.” She explains how the process prevents fewer surprises because citizens are empowered from the beginning.

Emerging alongside this time line has been a proposal by the nonprofit Uptown Community Partners, LLC (UCP) called Greenway Center (GC). UCP has watched the county process but is interested in taking advantage of a rare opportunity to leverage land and funds to improve the entire block for community services, aesthetics and local economic benefit.

The UCP plan sells the current library land, then develops a hotel, underground parking and retail. Money from the sale would help build a new library over the Greenway with Allina health service space. All three would then share a heightened YWCA parking garage topped by a running track. Finally, retail would front the YWCA and its garage. Complete information,  photos, and maps are available at www.greenwaycentermpls.com. This plan is in the concept stage and is not yet designed. The CAC will be at the “Request For Proposal” process in late spring when all developers will have a chance to submit proposals.

Consequently the YWCA, Allina Medical Clinic, Hennepin County or the Midtown Greenway Coalition have not approved any of this plan or made any official comments.

The UCP is hoping to convince the Hennepin County Library Board that their GC plan would not only meet but exceed the current CAC’s vision goals.

Hurdles

Budget: Pay for a Greenway library with enough money left over from the sale of the library land for YWCA upgrades. According to UCP, that sale would net $2 to $2.5 million for the County, but this number is an estimate. Dorfman said that the site was assessed before the downturn in the economy and the number then “was more like one million.”

Density: Does the plan strike a balance with regional pressure for density and community pressure for aesthetics? Amanda Arnold, City Planner, has not examined the plan formally but while briefly previewing the plan has said “nothing in it really sticks out as contrary to the Uptown Small Area Plan.”

Big Test: How can the GC final design organically adapt existing space to be greater than the sum of its parts? B. Aaron Parker is an architect, a Director of Urban Design at Parker Design International and an ECCO resident. Although he has his reservations, he believes the idea has potential. “What’s new is a developer willing to invest in a complex public/private project.” He believes the idea has “merit” but has concerns about how the plan will meet its vision successfully. “As always, the devil will be found in the details.”

GC Advantages

Jobs: Thatcher Imboden, president of the Uptown Association and former CARAG resident has talked about the need for additional daytime population in Uptown. “A more vibrant, self-supporting Uptown requires additional daytime population, specifically an increased business and employment base.” It is modest but this plan estimates it will add 85 employees.

Parking: Everyone can agree that parking in Uptown is tight but some would say we need to add more parking to ease congestion for the community and provide room for growth. Yet sustainability advocates like Anders Imboden, ECCO resident and a graduate student in Urban and Regional Planning had this to say: “There’s a lot of parking (in the GC plan), which will just encourage people to drive in a time where traffic congestion and auto-dependency is really hurting our quality of life as a nation and as a community.” This plan may strike that balance. Although the plan boasts 350 more spaces it doesn’t add any more surface level parking so it adds parking density without adding one of those side effects of parking, rainwater runoff.

Revenue: UCP information states that their plan will generate $600,000 in additional tax revenues.

Service Interruptions: There would be no YWCA or library service interruptions during construction. UCP states that there will be staff layoffs and the library will be closed if the library needs to closed for one to two years while it’s rebuilt on its current site. Yet Dorfman has said that the “county will look into setting up a temporary library” but if that happens the funding would have to come from the $12 million library budget or taken from another source.

Gary Thaden, past eight year board member, current 29 year resident of the Wedge neighborhood and CAC member was “intrigued” by the idea “because the land swap idea provides a different way of getting the library built” but the biggest unknown to the GC plan is whether the county will see enough community support to consider it and, if so, can they get all of the players to agree on one vision to sign on to?   

Bruce Cochran is Art Director in charge of production for the Uptown Neighborhood News and lives in CARAG.