The bird’s eye view of downtown Minneapolis is fairly shocking, mostly because it gives a real sense of just how much of it is dedicated to surface parking (by some estimates, parking accounts for one-third of its surface area). What you see in the photo above (which spans from about 3rd Ave N to 10th Ave S) is a small and fairly dense city center surrounded by vast swaths of parking lots. This is particularly clear in the space between the Metrodome (ahem, sorry…Mall of America Field) and the city center. Huge stretches of this part of what should be the busiest and densest part of our city are basically paved deserts. No one lives there; no one works there. And from an urban design standpoint, the message is clear: They’re not supposed to.
The problem with this kind of model is that it turns downtown Minneapolis into a destination—a place that people travel to for a short time from whatever corner of the Twin Cities they call home in order to work or shop or see a concert—rather than a place anyone would actually want to live. Now, being a destination in itself isn’t the problem here—the businesses downtown no doubt depend on the large influx of people who work and eat and shop for their sex toys downtown but live elsewhere. The problem is that downtown is merely a destination, rather than a thriving and bustling urban center where people can live and work and play all in the same densely built space.
Now, clearly, all of these parking lots are there for a reason. Lots of people work downtown, and these parking lots are getting plenty of use thanks to those people (though they are completely deserted on nights and weekends, save the 8 days a year that the Vikings play football games there). And since parking is basically the least productive/valuable way of using land in an urban center, we can also assume that there are some barriers to more productive/valuable uses of these spaces. Businesses and retailers are clearly hesitant to open their doors in the parts of downtown that are not Nicollet, Hennepin, or Washington Avenues. And it’s clear why this is the case: no one lives there, and the space is clearly not designed to support people who might want to live there.
Generally, living in an urban downtown is going to be slightly more expensive than living just outside of it. Ideally, though, the advantages of living in such a space (reduced need for a vehicle, easy access to amenities like grocery stores, shopping, restaurants, gyms, etc within walking distance of your door, proximity to your place of work) make up for the slightly higher price tags. But here we’ve created a downtown in which it is more expensive to live and yet that offers very few of the advantages we normally associate with downtown living. Most people still have to drive across the river to get to a grocery store (unless they shop at Target); they still have to walk/bike/drive long distances past barren and unsightly parking lots to get where they need to go. And there aren’t a lot of businesses geared toward people who might actually live there—corner stores, grocery stores, pet stores, hardware, and so on. There’s nine-to-five business, and then there’s nightlife/entertainment.
The message: this is a destination, not a place to live.
Part of what we’ll be looking at over the course of this project are ways in which these barriers to development/inhabitance might be overcome. Though these lots might not be technically empty, they are almost certainly being underutilized. And what’s more, they create an atmosphere which shuts people out, either physically (by surrounding the central business districts with parking lots, we also make it more difficult/less desirable for people to walk from the surrounding areas into downtown) or through urban design that sends a clear message to visitors: Enjoy it while you’re here, but when you’re done, please, drive safely back to your homes.