The Yard Part 5 – Unanswered Questions Loom

The following article, which raises some relevant questions about the The Yard by blogger and Minneapolis resident Sam Newberg, was posted on the blog Streets.MN on January 15, 2014:

The Yard Part 5 – Unanswered Questions Loom

Some huge questions about The Yard remain unanswered (the latest stadium legal challenge: notwithstanding). The Park Committee: met on January 9 to begin fleshing out a vision for The Yard. The committee has made a good start by identifying prioritization of year-round activities (note, activities year round is different than year-round activities – a skating rink, for example is seasonal), the idea that active uses attract passive, and balancing daily uses with major events. This is all well and good, but I can’t help but think that now more than ever is the time to engage more professional assistance in thinking about this vision – I’m looking at you, PPS! (Actually, I’m looking at you, Park Committee, to commit some funds to pay for this.) Project for Public Spaces (PPS) has done this numerous times across the country. They could be of tremendous assistance.

Here are a few of the major unanswered questions:

First, do we need a playing field? Mayor Rybak (still recovering from his heart attack – thinking of you, R.T.!) sent his regrets but also a note indicating his emphatic support for a playing field.  Rybak noted that he has a potential donor, but hinted these dollars are contingent on having a playing field. Past posts about The Yard: have indicated we should rethink a playing field, as they are restrictive, inflexible, inactive when not programmed, require maintenance and don’t bring in a lot of potential revenue per square foot, not to mention most leagues require more than one field. Then again, when you include the 2.7 acre plaza at the new Vikings stadium, the light rail block and the 3.4-acre “The Yard,” there is room for a field, even if it isn’t the highest and best use. Let’s not allow the first potential donor to dictate design before the vision for The Yard is fleshed out.

Second, it is quite likely that Oslund & Associates: will design The Yard. The firm designed Gold Medal Park, of which I’m not a fan, but also Target Plaza, which I quite like. They also provided the landscape design for the new Vikings stadium and have been engaged by the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority (MSFA): to begin planning the block on which the Downtown East light rail station is located. While it makes sense for continuity’s sake that they design The Yard (the next two blocks to the west), perhaps a little more variety in landscape design providers is in order.

Third, speaking of continuity, Hennepin County has not provided a clear idea as to how Park and especially Portland Avenue will look and function. A representative from Hennepin County has not been present to the past two Park Committee meetings (Peter McLaughlin is listed as a member), yet they own the two roads that pass through the park and some renderings still show Park and Portland being closed. There have been numerous references to Park and Portland being ”narrowed.” Is this even true? Moreover, can they be rebuilt to be more seamless and less of a barrier, using similar paving as The Yard and perhaps curbless edges? Can they be two-way? We need to know what the options are so we can plan appropriately – this decision will make or break a number of options for The Yard, and will determine whether The Yard is one, two, or even three “yards.”

Fourth, the Vikings and the MSFA have been pretty quiet so far about how they envision The Yard being used on game days and how that translates to design (The Vikings’ Lester Bagley and Michele Kelm-Helgen of the MSFA are Park Committee members). In many ways, tailgating/railgating and other events on game day are exactly the kind of programming needed for The Yard – they bring in visitors from all over the metro, the state, and beyond (the latter arriving from the airport via light rail – how convenient!). Yes, daily and weekly events like yoga classes and farmers market, for example, are equally important to fill in gaps between larger events, but if we design basic elements of The Yard with the flexibility to accommodate game day activities, that flexibility of design ought to translate to other events.

Fourth (Part B), the flip side of this point is the Vikings and MFSA have rights to as many as 58 days of use per year of The Yard (again, even the Park Committee isn’t completely clear on how many days and how much space). How this is handled is very important, as discussed in Part 3 of this series: If The Yard is entirely open to the public during these events and most people are wearing purple, that is one thing, but if all or a major chunk of The Yard is closed to everyone but ticketholders, this is another matter entirely.

Fifth, regarding the overall vision for The Yard, Councilmember Jacob Frey (on the Park Committee) indicated his dislike of parks that have an X-shape and a fountain in the middle. I questioned him afterwards, and his larger point was that The Yard not be too generic. I understand that impulse, but in many ways I think we need to keep it simple. For so many reasons, flexibility being a primary one, a fairly simple park makes the most sense. If The Yard were simply designed with wide, tree-lined walkways in an X-shape that met in the middle at a fountain, that would be a big win, as long as those walkways could accommodate food trucks, tailgating, art fairs, and farmers markets. Today’s landscape architects are sometimes allowed to over-design spaces, which can make them inflexible. So with regard to Oslund, or whomever designs this, designers are only as good as their clients. All the more reason to flesh out a strong vision to guide the talented designers who will work on this. If The Yard wins a landscape design award, this does not guarantee a successful park. Isn’t it more important that “meet me at the fountain in The Yard” becomes a common text message among friends and coworkers, rather than some esoteric award for landscape designers? Awards are great, but let’s keep our eye on the ball.

As you can see, there are lots of unanswered questions that need addressing before a real vision for The Yard can be agreed upon. The Park Committee meets again on January 30 at 4PM in Minneapolis City Hall Room 333.