Making Open Space a Reality in Central Cities
Mears Park, Gold Medal Park and Landmark Plaza
Urban commentator William Whyte famously said, “It is difficult to design a space that will not attract people. What is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished.” Of course, this rings true. For every Bryant Park in Manhattan flourishing with activity, there is an empty and uninviting plaza similar to Boston’s City Hall Plaza.
So how do the urban open spaces in downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul stack up? Beginning in the 1970s, the zoning ordinance in Minneapolis was amended to allow greater floor to area ratio (a height bonus, in effect) if the site included an open space plaza. What resulted was barren hardscapes, devoid of greenery and people. The plazas, they found, did not bring life to the street. Instead, surface parking lots grew more expansive as older buildings unconnected to the skyway system fell.
Now, decades later, a new generation of downtown open spaces have been designed to be used and enjoyed. Mears Park and Landmark Plaza in St. Paul and Gold Medal Park in Minneapolis are good examples. More importantly, regulations are now in place in Minneapolis that limit the creation and expansion of surface parking in the urban core.
- To shift away from a suburban office park atmosphere.
- To protect historic buildings from demolition.
- To bring people down from the skyways to the street level to create a walkable, mixed use, 24-hour downtown.
- To provide green space for social gathering.
Located in downtown St. Paul’s Lowertown District, Mears Parks has been conserved as open space since the district was first platted in 1849. Having undergone several transformations in the years since, in the early 1990s Mears Park was found to be a desolate pile of brick. In 1992 the park was recreated, according to a report presented by Project for Public Spaces, into a lively venue designed for entertainment and interaction. Tucked into the neighborhood of historic warehouses restored as condos, it features a covered band shell with a beautiful stream running diagonally through. Flower beds maintained by the volunteer group, Friends of Mears Park, flank the stream’s edge while a variety of native trees provide a sense of enclosure and respite from the sun. Benches and flat rocks are scattered throughout for informal seating, but the open space in front of the band shell can be programmed for more formal events. Mears Park is home to and a featured location for popular music festivals such as the Twin Cities Jazz Fest, Concrete and Grass Music Festival and the Music in Mears Series.
Mears Park was designated one of the best urban parks in America built in the last 100 years by the American Society of Landscape Architects in 2000. The park’s redesign continues to have a significant role in the revival of the surrounding neighborhood. River Park Lofts, Great Northern Lofts and On the Park are just a few examples of the condo/apartment projects that have emerged nearby. The park has also spawned other creative endeavors, such as Eureka Recycling efforts to make recycling bins into public art.
In 2004, the Saint Paul Riverfront Corporation (SPRC) envisioned that the surface parking lot adjacent to the Landmark Center and Rice Park in downtown Saint Paul could be more. Along with several private donors, SPRC hired SRF Consulting Group to design a plaza that would create a unique open space, allow for flexible programming, and complement the nearby architecture. The plaza delivers. While the iconic statues of Charlie Brown and Snoopy draw the most attention, the plaza also includes:
- A “convertible street” that can host daily traffic or be used as a table leaf, expanding the plaza surface for concerts and festivals.
- A storm water system featuring a “treatment train” where rain gardens cleanse urban runoff prior to discharge in the Mississippi River.
- Tilted lawn planes that exaggerate green space and provide tranquil seating opportunities while defining pedestrian circulation.
- An ephemeral stream bed which provides storm water infiltration, while also serves as the plaza spine and as a metaphor of the Mississippi River.
- In the winter months, the plaza transforms into an ice skating rink, drawing thousands of people to downtown St. Paul.
In 2006, a nearly eight-acre public park along the Mississippi Riverfront in Minneapolis was created through a unique public-private partnership involving the City, Park Development Foundation (McGuire Family Foundation) and the Guthrie Theater. Designed by Tom Oslund of Oslund and Associates, the park provides much-needed expansive green space in the historic Mill District neighborhood and creates vital connections to the Mississippi River over what used to be mainly parking lot.
Highlights of Gold Medal Park include:
- A landscaped 32-foot high observation mound, with a spiral walkway leading to the top, provides panoramic views of the Mississippi River and architectural and cultural landmarks in the area, including the Stone Arch Bridge, Gold Medal Flour sign and the Guthrie Theater.
- More than 300 mature trees planted.
- Paths undulate through the park, mimicking the flow of the river and leading park-goers to and from the riverfront.
- A natural boundary is created for the park with a stretch of linden trees along 2nd Street boulevard. This creates a pleasant walkway to the Guthrie.
- Custom-built benches are lit in the evening from within by blue LED lights, which tie into the look of the Guthrie.
Gold Medal Park has helped leverage and support nearby residential developments and is a key attraction in the burgeoning Mill District neighborhood, which includes the Guthrie Theater, Mill City Museum, Mill City Farmers Market, MacPhail Center for Music and the Chicago Avenue Mall. The park received a 2007 Design Merit Award by the Minnesota Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects.
In the early 2000s, the Minneapolis City Council approved the Downtown Parking Overlay District, a step toward preventing downtown from becoming a sea of surface parking lots. The overlay district, part of the City’s zoning code, did two things: 1) restricted the creation and expansion of surface parking lots, and 2) established a limit for the number of off-street parking spots could be provided. The new regulations were an attempt to remove the financial incentives of tearing down buildings and replacing them with parking lots. Unfortunately, not long after the overlay district became part of the zoning code, City Council approved a large parking lot to accompany the Riverwest Condominiums, a large residential development close to the Mississippi River. Still, the new overlay district provides a basis to encourage transit use and to improve street life.