King of the Urbanists Steve Berg has written the Mother of Downtown Plans, which was released last week to much copying of press release in the local media. In this plan Berg has given us the answer to why his summer break from MinnPost turned into a forever break – the plan is an intimidating 111 pages that comprise a whopping 329 MB pdf! Most of the pages are a disjointed but pleasant collection of HD images, so the plan ends up being a pretty quick read. David Levinson has snarky comments on all 10 initiatives recommended in the plan, but I’m going to hold it to four.
Double Downtown’s Residential Population
Sounds impressive, but Downtown is already on the way to doubling its population. By my count, Downtown added around 5,000 units in the last decade – the DTC says 15,000 units will need to be constructed in the next 15 years to achieve a doubling of population, which would require doubling the rate of construction. That doubling seems to be in the works, though, since around 2,000 units have been proposed or are currently under construction Downtown.
The 15,000 units needed to double Downtown’s population are “the equivalent of three large residential towers each year”, according to the plan. But it could also take the form of low-rise buildings like the 6-story stick-built ones currently proposed in several places Downtown. At the average unit density of recent low-rise proposals (120 units/acre), 15,000 units could fit on only 125 acres. My long-languishing Potential Population Project found 150 acres with a high potential for development in just half of Downtown, which was as far as I got before I flaked out on the project. So it seems likely that most developers will opt for the cheaper type of development, which is fine as long as they don’t skimp on soundproofing.
The ambitious part of this initiative is to achieve an occupancy per unit of 2.33 persons (a 35,000 person increase in population from adding 15,000 units). That’s a lot higher than the current average household size Downtown and would require a lot more 3 bedroom units than Downtown currently has. The plan calls for a school to be built to attract families, which seems logical, but I’m not sure developers will follow the cue. My guess is that for larger bedroom sizes to be built, there has to be a policy incentive or direct subsidies – not surprising that the plan didn’t call for those.
Curbless Mall and Gateway Park Expansions
The issue of Downtown park development is near and dear to my heart – the Nicollet Hotel Block in particular has been a favorite of mine for years – but it’s a bit too big for this post so I’m gonna hold off for now. I’ll only address the park expansion part of the Plan as it relates to the concept proposed for Nicollet Mall.
Their concept kicks off with a map showing how the Mall will annex territory north and south, becoming the imperial capital of colonies stretching from the Sculpture Garden to the Mississippi. There’s nothing particularly controversial about that – that was basically the idea behind the Loring Greenway – but the Plan doesn’t specify how it will leap the hurdles that prevented a Greater Mall in the past. The first and foremost hurdle is the nightmare that is the Bottleneck – it’s tough to create a unified pedestrian corridor with a giant concrete trench running through it (a similar but lower hurdle is on the north end at Washington Ave).
But on another level, maybe a bigger problem with the concept is the scale – their proposed corridor is almost 2 miles. Considering the differing environments of the various segments of their proposed corridors (I can think of three environments for four segments – 1. Sculpture Garden and Loring Park are Parkland 2. Loring Greenway is Residential Pedestrian Mall 3. Nicollet Mall is Commercial Transit Mall 4. Gateway Park Expansion is Parkland) it makes more sense to think of Nicollet Mall as a centerpiece of a branded pedestrian network. Think of it as a network of Street-level Skyways, or Groundways. The advantage to this strategy is that if anyone ever wants to improve the pedestrian realm of a block that’s not on the Downtown Council’s corridor, there will be policy support for it.
Whatever form it takes, I really like the idea of a curbless mall. Nicollet is really more of a transit or taxi mall as it stands, with prime real estate effectively off-limits to pedestrians due to the curb barrier. As sidewalk cafes get wider and wider, pedestrian space is shrinking, for example at Zelo, where there’s maybe 5 feet between the tables and the light poles. You can imagine how that can get uncomfortable when there’s a convention of biker twins in town. It would be nice to just look back to see if a bus is coming and step over if there isn’t. Alternately, all the buses could play obnoxious chirpy music constantly.
Frequent and Free Downtown Circulator
Maybe I’m misunderstanding the plan, but it seems to me that the Downtown Circulator is the one purely terrible idea here. So you want a vibrant street scene and robust transit options, but you want to provide a vehicle that is faster and easier than walking and sucks funding away from regular transit routes? I guess it makes sense if the circulator goes to more outlying destinations, but even in those cases it seems to be duplicating service. I’m not sure that fares are high enough that they are a deterrent for tourists considering transit.
The Free Ride buses seem like a reasonable compromise. It costs nothing to run them, for one thing, since they’re a part of regular routes. They look like regular buses, so they’re confusing enough that they’re less competitive with the simple act of walking. The plan calls for features on the Downtown Circulator – “wide doors, roll-on features and zero emissions” – that should be extended to all local buses anyway. Adding Free Ride segments on Hennepin (using the 6?) and on 7th & 8th (using the 5?) would a accomplish everything that a Circulator would, without the drain on transit funds.