A Questionable Collaboration

The following editorial by the Editorial Board was published in the June 1. 2014 edition of the StarTribune.  Park Watch is posting it with this Parkwatch note pointing out that the “remarkable collaboration” referred to in the editorial is actually a questionable collaboration.  In reviewing the agreements relating to “The Yard,” Park Watch observed that the only parties involved in negotiating and signing the agreements were the Vikings, the Sports authority, the Ryan Companies and the City of Minneapolis.  Isn’t it misleading to characterize “The Yard” as a “remarkable collaboration” when the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board was omitted from all of the agreements?

With Super Bowl set, time to tackle ‘The Yard’

Teamwork needed to make the most of downtown Minneapolis park.

“Collaboration across sectors” is one of those insipid phrases that turns up in almost every major undertaking nowadays. That’s because it’s nearly impossible to accomplish anything big — say, a Vikings stadium in downtown Minneapolis or an adjacent park — without the financial contributions and willing cooperation of various governments, private companies and nonprofit groups, all with competing interests. The result is often a compromise that doesn’t measure up to every expectation. 

Such might be the case with “The Yard”: http://www.startribune.com/newsgraphics/207414721.html , the two-block-long park that will link the new stadium to the downtown core. Considering the intense competing interests of all the main players — the city, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, Hennepin County, the neighbors, the team, the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority (MSFA), the developer (Ryan Cos.) and a major corporate partner (Wells Fargo) — the Yard may emerge as a more flexible space than originally imagined, both in design and governance.

The public first glimpsed the Yard as depicted in Ryan’s initial renderings: a lush public expanse of grass and trees framing the city skyline. Even in winter, with snow on the evergreens and skaters on a pond, the Yard was to be the “money shot” that defined our city and state to viewers worldwide, as well as a bustling activity zone for fans on game days and for neighbors and downtown workers on the other 355 days of the year.

But a newer image: http://www.startribune.com/local/minneapolis/260197721.html adds tents of various sizes and exclusive activities for Vikings ticket holders for at least 10 days a year, plus events sponsored by the MSFA on part of the park for as many as 40 additional days. During rare mega-events like the Super Bowl or the Final Four, garish tents could cover nearly the entire park space, largely to accommodate national security requirements.

The upshot is that, yes, the Yard still aims to be both active and attractive, but unfortunately with fewer trees and fewer permanent amenities (public art, fountains, cafes, etc.) than originally imagined, and with more open space for flexible programming, most of it public but some private.

While that doesn’t rule out public skating in winter or soccer and outdoor movies in summer, all of the setting-up and tearing-down of tents and platforms will damage grass and other natural features and, more than that, will consume beauty and time that the public had expected to get. The Vikings, aside from their 10 gameday events, will be allowed 20 additional days for raising and striking tents, meaning that the team will control the park for at least 30 days during the football season.

As for the Yard’s governance, the battle between City Hall and the Park Board appears headed toward compromise: http://www.startribune.com/local/minneapolis/259884231.html The board may be willing to own the park as long as it doesn’t have to pay the cost of operating and maintaining it, which would subtract from its neighborhood mission. As with heavily used downtown parks in other cities, operations and programming may fall to a conservancy made up of public and private partners.

That’s a reasonable model to pursue. Former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak makes the point elsewhere in these pages that the same conservancy might also govern a newly remodeled Nicollet Mall, Peavey Plaza and the Gateway park envisioned just north of the downtown library. The Downtown Improvement District, already in place, seems a likely candidate for maintaining all of those spaces.

While, as Rybak suggests, the MSFA might be wise to consider further limits on the Vikings use of the park, the wider point was made years ago by the Rolling Stones: You can’t always get what you want.

The Yard — and the entire Downtown East project — is the product of a remarkable collaboration among public and private partners with sharply competing interests. The city is getting, essentially, a free park open to the public for nearly 300 days a year and paid for by Wells Fargo and stadium parking revenues.

The team and the bank are expected to contribute to the park’s estimated $10 million in development costs, although the bulk will come from the city’s $5.4 million profit on the sale of air rights over a parking deck. Finding the $300,000 or so needed every year to operate and maintain the park is a stickier problem.

“This was a very tough negotiation,” said Michele Kelm-Helgen, chair of the MSFA. “Everyone gave up something to gain something for the greater good. I think it will be seen as one of the must successful public-private collaborations anywhere, and could be a model for future developments.”

The main task now is to make up for time lost to a frivolous lawsuit by finally launching a detailed design process. Four points on the park’s design: Thick layers of trees should surround the perimeter; Portland Avenue should be rerouted; land closer to the stadium should be set aside for additional recreational activities, as Rybak suggests, and public safety should be a top priority.

Construction should start next summer if the park is to be finished by the stadium’s 2016 opening. Until then, the hard work of “collaboration across sectors” should continue.