Before It’s Too Late

Originally published in The Star Tribune.

Tomorrow, a court-appointed mediator will try to bridge the differences between Hennepin County and the owners of the land for the new ballpark, which is now under construction, scheduled for completion in 2010. The mediation may be the last chance to get the project back on track with massive transit improvements already underway. Resolving the dispute without litigation is in everybody’s interest. The longer this dispute lasts, the more the public stands to lose.

More than a ballpark
Ten years in the making, this $500 million ballpark project was conceived and launched as smart city building. The goal was to create a unique urban place the equal of anything in this country, with a ballpark linked to a year-round transportation hub providing a platform for future development.

Recognizing the importance of getting it right, the County a year ago created a Design Advisory Group (DAG360) to recommend design guidelines. The guidelines urge integrated urban design, environmentally-responsible architecture and vital civic connections, making getting to the game as exciting as the game itself, with a mix of grand public spaces and lively sidewalks and streets.

This spring the developer of the land stretching north from the ballpark to Washington Avenue brought in its own master planner to offer fresh, provocative ideas for building a neighborhood next to the ballpark. The ballpark and transit would be built first, yet much more would follow. The excitement was palpable.

Losing opportunities to plan and build it right
Today, that rush of excitement seems long ago. The promise of building something great has faded over the summer as wrangling over the land continues. Planning has been reduced to a worst-case scenario.

The 5th St. Bridge appears to be the first casualty. The existing bridge needs to be rebuilt to accommodate the extension of light rail. A “split” bridge design, with rail separated from cars and pedestrians by an 8-ft. retaining wall, makes it impossible to cross from the ballpark to the other side. A superior “flat” bridge, safer and friendlier, could be built, with funding sources identified. But the split bridge, despite obvious flaws, is now under construction because no one will tackle the issue. Time may run out to change the original design and we may be stuck with the split bridge.

Infrastructure really matters
Infrastructure is the foundation for successful development and should be viewed as a priority and cultural amenity. A safe, pedestrian friendly environment should be planned and design utilized as a unifying force at the inception of a project. Infrastructure is not the frosting; it’s the cake. Moreover, in an uncertain real estate market, infrastructure becomes more important than ever.

More resources needed
It’s been clear for some time that the infrastructure budget wasn’t enough to cover what was needed to make this a great place. The legislative cap on the County’s expenditures was a political compromise. New public and private sources of funding need to be identified.

To facilitate this effort, a new public/private partnership – 2010 Partners – is being formed. The partnership’s first task is to bring everybody to the table to set urban design priorities and address funding shortfalls. It’s time to reach out. The County should not have to go it alone. The State and City will be deriving new tax revenues, some of which ought to be used to finance the public realm, and the private sector can do more. None of this can happen without stakeholder cooperation and the land issue behind us.

We’re all on the same side
Communities rarely have such grand opportunities to enhance their quality of life and we’re fortunate the County has had the political courage to persevere. Our model should be the success of the world-class Nicollet Mall, rather than the shortcomings of the Metrodome, City Center or Block E. The goal is to successfully tie new transit and the ballpark into a revitalized Target Center, North Loop and Heritage Park.

Our economic competition is Denver and Atlanta and Amsterdam, not across the river or even across the negotiating table. We urge the County and the landowners to take a deep breath, remember we’re all on the same side and, unless the outcome is a win-win, the entire community will lose.

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