When is a free park not a free park?
The saga of Minneapolis’s Downtown East Commons, an ambitious planned park in a part of the city lacking in green space, is enough to make one’s head spin.
Next to a planned football stadium that will replace Minneapolis’s aging Metrodome, the Downtown East Commons is envisioned as a two-block, 4.2-acre “front yard” for the new stadium and a planned mixed-use complex all built by developer Ryan Companies.
Initially the space was proposed as a smaller plaza, a staging area for game-day events. The city asked the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority to turn the plaza into a park that the MSFA and the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings could use on game days.
Then things went south.
As Arlene Fried, a founder of watchdog group Minneapolis Park Watch put it, “they were going to give us a public park paid for by private funds, but now it’s a private park paid for by public funds.”
As the city, the Vikings and the MSFA negotiated about who would own, maintain, pay for and have access to the park, it seemed that the sports facility needed more exclusive access to the park than originally stated. The Vikings planned to set up tents and other event equipment there on game days; then, because the city wouldn’t allow overnight setup due to noise concerns, the team requested the day before and after each game. Ultimately, the Vikings and the MSFA would have exclusive access to the park for a large number of days per year — from 80 or so to 118. With Minnesota winters ruling out many events in the off-season (Nov. 1 through March 31), the Minneapolis Park Board estimated that out of the prime season, only 82 of the 214 days — and only four weekends — would not be taken up by the Vikings, a potential soccer franchise or the stadium authority.
In August, the Park Board, an independently elected organization that oversees Minneapolis’s parks system that says it had not been consulted on the Downtown East project, voted 6-2 to take no responsibility for the new park, citing concerns about the costs of building and maintaining it.
The park is expected to cost between $6 million and $20 million to build and $500,000 to $3 million to operate each year, about $4 million of which has already been committed. But the operations budget, parks officials say, isn’t there.
“If we were to try and schedule events” like marathons, concerts or other money-generating programming, says Liz Wielinski, president of the Park Board, “we have to make sure it’s not on [the Vikings’] calendar first. The Vikings don’t set their schedule until April, and it can change depending on how their season goes. That really makes it a challenge if you’re trying to schedule [events] a year in advance, if you don’t know any dates.” Worse, she says, under the terms of the agreement, the MSFA would be able to undercut the Park Board’s rental prices.
The Park Board is already facing a million-dollar budget shortfall for next year. “If you took the amount of money needed to run [Downtown East] from our parks, you might as well close them all down,” she notes.
And yet nobody’s saying that Minneapolis’s downtown doesn’t need a park.
“It probably is nice that they’re going to add some green space now into the core of downtown,” Wielinski says. “Prior to that they had Peavey Plaza and Nicollet Mall, one of which was a street and the other was pretty much all cement with fountains. There really wasn’t any green.” And the park won’t be closed to the public when the sports teams are using it — think tailgating and the like — it’s just that it’ll be difficult for the city to generate revenue on days that the park is reserved for Vikings use.
Last month, Minneapolis business leaders formed a non-profit that will likely oversee the park, which is now, for legal reasons, being called the Downtown East Commons. Developer Ryan Companies has donated $200,000 to hire a professional fundraiser to come up with several million dollars for the park, and the city’s request for proposals for landscape architects to design the park just closed. So it looks like Minneapolis is getting its park whether the Park Board wants it or not.
“I wish we’d been brought in earlier in the negotiations,” Wielinski says. “I think we could have gotten a better agreement written. … I think that eventually the citizens of Minneapolis are probably going to end up paying for this regardless.”
Steve Cramer, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council, which launched the non-profit that will likely manage the park, is a bit more optimistic. He says his group has hired a consultant that arrives next week to work out a plan for funding the park. “Certainly we’d expect the public owner of the park … to be part of the ongoing operating funding stream. I think you would expect to see some activation that would generate some earned income” as well, he says. Also, because the Minneapolis Downtown Council also runs the Downtown Improvement District, there’s the possibility of raising funds through the DID’s taxing authority.
“That’s basically just raising somebody’s taxes,” Wielinski says.
Cramer also doubts the Park Board’s projections of how difficult it will be to schedule revenue-generating events to pay for the park’s maintenance. “The use agreement between all the parties reserves a certain number of days for the stadium authority and a certain number of days for the Vikings, and we’ll just have to work with that and hopefully coordinate efforts.
“I think it’s going to be a tremendous amenity for all the city and all of downtown,” he adds. “It’s a very exciting and very catalytic idea.”
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Rachel Kaufman is a journalist covering transportation, sustainability, science and tech. Her writing has appeared in Inc., National Geographic News, Scientific American and more.