Year in review

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December 20, 2010
By: Gregory J. Scott
Gregory J. Scott

 

1. Baseball goes outdoors

To heap more praise on Target Field at this point almost feels like overkill, like adding further noise to the crescendo of applause that has yet to die down for this stadium.

But it’s worth taking a look back to last March, a month before opening day, to remember just how uncertain its affects would be on Downtown. Big questions loomed: Would public transit be able to accommodate the crush of fans flooding onto its trains and buses? Would North Loop residents resent the commotion of baseball fans in their backyard? Would suburbanites give Downtown a second chance only to be turned off by lack of parking, confusing streets and crime?  Would the Twins even be any good?

The immediate worries were soon assuaged. Metro Transit gracefully handled the surge in ridership resulting from the stadium’s record setting attendance (more than 3 million over the course of the season, a franchise record). Business surrounding the stadium boomed, with hotel occupancy rates climbing out of the doldrums and sales spiking at area restaurants and bars. And the Twins stormed through the American League Central, taking first place in their division.

But the bigger question, the one about whether a stadium could actually spur a sustained new wave of urban vitality, is also starting to get a positive answer, and not just from local observers. In its winter 2010 issue, “Next American City” called Target Field “perhaps the first example of a publicly funded stadium done right.”

In addition to citing the stadium’s status as LEED-certified (only the second major league park with such a designation) and its transit-friendly location at the center of a new transportation hub, the article emphasizes Target Field’s role in ushering in a new city-friendly mentality.

“Minneapolis seems to be embracing its inner urbanist and baseball fan at the same time,” writer Brendand Patrick Hughes observed. In other words, Target Field is encouraging common big city behavior: using public transportation, mingling in the surrounding neighborhood after a game and generally contributing to a street vibrancy that doesn’t end after everyone has taken their seats for the opening pitch.

Whereas most new, publicly funded stadiums struggle to deliver on their infrastructure promises, Minneapolis seems to be winning out thus far.  If Downtown appears totally different in 10 years, folks will look to 2010 as the beginning.



2. Nice Ride brings bike-sharing Downtown

It could go down in history as “Summer of the Green Bikes.”

The neon two-wheelers first appeared in July. There were 700 of them, lined up at sidewalk kiosks scattered around town as if gathered in military formation and preparing for a strike. By September, the fleet had swelled to 1,000, and they were suddenly everywhere, transporting suited businessmen, tourists and first-time cyclists through the grid of Downtown streets. What had begun as a novelty quickly became a fixture in the urban landscape.

The bikes, of course, belonged to Nice Ride Minnesota, a nonprofit established to bring a European model of public bike sharing to Minneapolis. When the program launched in July, it was the largest in the nation, cementing our status as the best cycling city in the country and placing Minneapolis among world-class cities like Barcelona and Paris, places that spearheaded the public bike-sharing model. And though its inaugural season lasted only about five months — the bikes came off the streets for the winter in November — the project was largely a success, netting enough public support and sponsorship to keep it in the black. According to executive Director Bill Dossett, 2010 witnessed almost 100,000 Nice Ride trips, with 1,250 annual subscriptions sold and over 20,000 24-hour subscriptions sold.

The bikes will be back in April, with six new kiosks in North Minneapolis.



3. Currie Avenue Partnership unites business, faith and government to house homeless

Like 300 other communities around the country, Hennepin County has an official 10-year plan to end homelessness. But unlike those other places, our plan involves the faith community.

During the final week of 2009, an interfaith coalition of 13 Downtown congregations — the Downtown Congregations to End Homelessness (DCEH), comprised of Lutherans, Unitarians, Jews, Catholics, Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Muslims — banded together in a flash-fundraiser, collecting more than  $70,000 in a period of about three weeks. The effort was needed to trigger a similar donation from the business community. If the churches could pull together $70,000, the Downtown business community would chip in $250,000.

The $350,000 total provided a shot in the arm for Heading Home Hennepin, Minneapolis’ 10-year plan to end homelessness.  The fundraiser was the birth of the Currie Avenue Partnership, an unprecedented, three-way collaboration between religious, business and government groups. By November 2010, it had gotten 150 formerly homeless people out of two shelters on Currie Avenue and into permanent housing.

Almost one year later, the novel partnership, both public and private, religious and secular, has become a model for homeless efforts in cities around the nation.



4. Kieran’s moves to Block E

Although there were many business moths that flocked to the glow of Target Field this past spring, none was more enthusiastically welcomed than Kieran’s Irish Pub, which in March took over a huge, 10,000-square-foot space in Block E, just a few blocks from the stadium.

Not only was it a major commitment to an entertainment complex reeling from vacancy — owner Kieran Folliard signed a 10-year lease, with two, five-year extension options — but it was a commitment made by a guy warmly respected by the community. Folliard, who opened Kieran’s in 1994 and now operates three other Irish pubs in the area, including the Local on Nicollet Mall, is like a patron saint for locally owned business.

The move also cleared Bellanote’s ghost from the Downtown landscape, symbolically putting an end to the era of Downtown dance clubs and opening the door for a next phase. In other words, it wasn’t just a new space for an old bar. It was an outward sign of big changes. One month later, a local developer pledged to resurrect the beleaguered Block E, and the Twins kicked off a season that would alter life Downtown for decades to come.

Whatever evolutions Downtown undergoes in the new Target Field era, Kieran’s will most likely stand as an early settler.



5. Street food arrives

Nothing like street food to make a city feel like a city.

In places like Portland, Milwaukee and Austin, Texas, mid-sized cities have managed to replicate a big metropolis feel by allowing mobile food vendors to drop anchor in their downtown districts and sell exotic items like Thai chicken and Korean sliders. The trucks bring curious smells and teeming activity to the sidewalks, contributing a sensory hustle and bustle key to a city’s vitality.

And now we’ve got our own food trucks Downtown.

This summer saw the city’s first wave of gourmet trucks. And while the influx was slow — by August only seven of the expected 14 vendors had made it through the bureaucratic process and actually out onto the streets — the offerings were wonderfully eclectic. You could get turkey legs and Ethiopian food, mini donuts and lobster rolls, pork tacos and curry.

At least one street vendor was so successful, its owners decided to keep it going throughout winter — indoors, of course. In November, Turkey to Go announced plans to move a truck into the food court on the first floor of the Northstar Building at 7th and Marquette.

Look for the turkey guys — and hopefully a fresh cohort of new food vendors — to be back outside next spring.



6. Lux buys Block E

It’s been called a black eye. It’s been called a mistake. But Block E, the long beleaguered Hennepin Avenue entertainment complex, finally got some love from Downtown last spring, when developer Bob Lux took it under his wing. In April, Lux signed a purchase agreement for a good portion of the enclosed Downtown mall, triggering daydreams of a brighter future for a property plagued for years by high visibility vacancies.

“With the opening of Target Field, there is significant excitement on Hennepin Avenue, and Block E is at the center of it. We intend to significantly invest in Block E to attract tenants that complement the neighborhood’s new energy,” he boldly declared.

With both a successful track record — his victories include the fully occupied Carlyle, a luxury condo tower at 100 3rd Ave. S., and the Grant Park condo tower, at 500 E. Grant St., which many consider a kick-start to the condo boom in the early 2000s — and a local sensibility — his group Alatus LLC is headquartered on Nicollet Mall — Lux makes a nice knight in shining armor. And initial conversations with Alatus spokespeople indicate the group is keen to gather community input on Block E’s future.



7. DID ambassadors boost friendliness, safety


OK, technically, the Downtown Improvement District (DID) launched its ambassador program in the summer of 2009, dispatching 60 or so neon-shirted concierges onto the city streets. With duties ranging from the custodial (pressure-washing sidewalks, cleaning graffiti) to the chivalrous (providing umbrella escorts during rain storms, offering directions, keeping an eye out for crime), the DID crew collectively embodied the city’s friendly embrace to visitors.

But it wasn’t until the program’s one-year anniversary, in July 2010, that Downtowners fully marveled at the ambassadors’ accomplishments. They had removed more than 600,000 pounds of trash from city streets. They had cleaned up 5,500 graffiti tags, pressure-washed 1,000 city blocks and provided 60,000 pedestrian assists.

And perhaps most impressively, they saved 17 lives, including providing emergency assistance to a choking infant and responding to a man who suffered a heart attack on Nicollet Mall.

This winter, you may have noticed the winter greening sprucing up planters along Hennepin Avenue and Nicollet Mall, or Downtown’s cleared and de-iced walkways. Or the holiday decorations: 300 illuminated snowflakes, 1,300 feet of garland and 23 miles of twinkle lighting.

We’ve got the DID ambassadors to thank for that — and for a whole lot more.



8. The pedicab business flourishes

2010 was also the year of the pedicab, those three-wheeled pedal taxis that you noticed buzzing around Target Field this past summer. The business of transporting passengers in oversized trikes — long since a staple of life in cities like New York, San Diego and Portland — finally got off the ground in Minneapolis this year, due to two distinct factors.

One was some shrewd legislative maneuvering by City Council Member Gary Schiff (9th Ward). In 2008, after receiving complaints from a constituent trying to start up a pedicab business, Schiff labored to knock out the archaic government restrictions on the industry.

The other factor was the Twins. Thanks to a new stadium and a strong season, the team consistently drew more than 40,000 fans Downtown for each game.

As a result, by May 2010, Downtown had 19 pedicabs operating, representing four different companies. The kingpin of the scene was 18-year-old Colin McCarty, the high school senior behind Twin Town Pedicabs, the yellow-and-black rigs that were ubiquitous this summer. McCarty’s drivers were known to average $200 to $300 per night.  

Keep an eye out for the cabs as soon as the weather turns.



9. Peavey Plaza gets in line for a makeover

This year ended with drama and excitement for the south end of Nicollet Mall: Orchestra Hall announced plans for a $46 million renovation, the former Church of Scientology space got snapped up by Target, and United Properties expressed interest in the long empty site of the stalled Nicollet development.

But the change that will have the biggest impact on the average Downtowner is what’s happening with Peavey Plaza. The iconic, modernist courtyard is getting a much-needed makeover. And the city has selected one of the finest local landscape architecture firms to do it: Oslund and Associates, the team that brought us Target Plaza, Gold Medal Park and the upcoming I-35W Remembrance Garden.

Since its creation in 1975, Peavey has been a hugely popular outdoor lunch destination for the Downtown office crowd. But it’s showing some wear and tear, and many consider its neglect palpable. A $6 million dollar budget — and an Oslund team that includes designers from across the country, including original Peavey creator M. Paul Friedberg — will soon turn that around.

Initial design concepts will be complete by June 2011, with construction beginning in spring 2012.



10. North Loop kids finally get a playground

It took two years, but the kids of the North Loop neighborhood finally have their own place to play.

Slides, rope-climbs and faux, hollowed-out logs have already been installed at 4th Avenue North and West River Parkway, site of the first-ever Downtown playground on the west side of the Mississippi River. The playground — boasting a progressive “nature-play” theme aimed at educating kids on the sawmilling history of the neighborhood — is a victory for North Loop parents, symbolic of their efforts to recast a city neighborhood in a new, family friendly light.

Arguably the most dynamic of the Downtown neighborhoods, the North Loop has surged in the last couple years as young families have settled into the district’s condos. It’s estimated that more than 100 kids live in the neighborhood. But with no designated playground, they’ve had to settle for play dates in condo community rooms and field trips to play sites across the river.

But that all changed in October, when the park took center stage at this year’s National Recreation and Parks Association congress, held in Minneapolis. Hailed as a nationwide model for progressive parks projects, congress attendees volunteered to help install its equipment as part of the organization’s annual “Leave it Better” campaign.

The playground is scheduled to open officially in the spring.


Your 2 cents

Aside from the Metrodome’s recent troubles, we thought 2010 was a pretty great year for Downtown. We like to accentuate the positive here at the Journal. Share your thoughts on our picks or suggest your own at Facebook.com/DTJournal.