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An Urbanist's Dream: New MSP Innovation District Would Create National Standard for City Building

Imagine life science and IT startup clusters connected by woonerf-like streets to vastly expanded University of Minnesota lab facilities; dense, live-work-play developments that spur further transit investments and draw ambitious people from across MSP and beyond; shared energy allocation, water management and parking facilities for thousands of residents and workers; bustling breweries, inspiring pocket parks, and vastly improved pedestrian and bike connections throughout.
Sound like an urbanist’s idle daydream? Perhaps. But the Prospect North Partnership is serious about implementing this vision in the densely populated, already busy Green Line corridor between the U of M and Highway 280. The partnership’s target area, dubbed (for the moment) “University Avenue Innovation District,” covers parts of Prospect Park in Minneapolis and St. Anthony Park in St. Paul.
“With the opening of the Green Line and continued growth at the U, the University Avenue Innovation District (UAID) area is going to develop and fill in one way or another,” says Prospect Park 2020 principal and local architect Dick Gilyard, an early UAID booster who remains central to the planning and implementation processes. “Local stakeholders are asking, ‘Is development going to happen to us, or are we going to shape what’s planned and built?’”
Prospect North’s growing membership — nearly 20 distinct entities in all — includes the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul; the Minneapolis Public Housing Agency; XCel Energy; Mississippi Watershed Management Organization; Greater MSP; Prospect Park 2020; and various U of M entities, among others. All share an ambitious, innovative vision for development and urban problem solving that, done right, could set a national standard for 21st-century city building.
Sharing resources in a dynamic “city within a city”
The University Avenue Innovation District builds off of the City of Minneapolis’s Stadium Village Station Area Plan. But the UAID is the most cohesive, comprehensive and outside-the-box neighborhood development vision to be attempted anywhere in MSP in a generation.
Built around existing neighborhood anchors, such as the U’s life sciences laboratories, Surly Brewing Company, and the renowned Textile Center, UAID will be a mixed-use, resource-efficient urban village that draws talented workers and ambitious entrepreneurs, many of whom (it is hoped) will choose to live within walking or biking distance of their offices. Over time, the vibrant culture of innovation will attract business incubators, existing employers and deep-pocketed startup investors, creating the sort of virtuous cycle that’s currently on display in the North Loop and parts of Northeast Minneapolis.
“We’re creating a living laboratory for urban development,” says Gilyard. “[UAID is] a catalytic city within a city where people want to live, work and just be all the time.”
Fully realized, UAID could support anywhere from 5,000 to 7,000 jobs, and grow the local tax base from $2 or $3 million to $25 million annually — a huge boon for local governments.
To achieve these lofty targets and create a functional and appealing enclave, UAID local stakeholders and decision-makers are fundamentally rethinking urban infrastructure management, resource allocation and problem solving. The district’s success hinges on effectively sharing systems and resources on a scale never before seen in MSP.
“We’re implementing systems and tackling challenges on a district-wide basis, rather than a piecemeal, project-by-project basis,” explains Gilyard. He identifies five broad engineering systems to be addressed at the district level: stormwater management, hot and cold water delivery, parking, public realms and energy.
Most systems apply existing solutions or technologies on a larger scale. “None of this requires technologies or processes that haven’t been tried before,” says Gilyard.
For instance, the hot and cold water system would simply produce and store potable water at one or more shared hubs within the district, then distribute it to a housing unit or office after a toilet flush or tap turn. District energy would be handled in similar fashion, with the area’s energy supply distributed as needed through a communal, highly efficient, inter-building system connected to the national grid and possibly augmented by sustainable local generation.
Meanwhile, the district parking system would resemble the U’s existing parking model, which finds students, faculty and staff using university-owned parking garages based on where they work or take classes. In the UAID, local residents, workers and visitors would likely share space in parking facilities owned by Prospect North Partnership, Minneapolis and/or St. Paul, or another entity.
The shared stormwater plan is particularly innovative and eco-friendly. Mississippi Watershed Management Organization is spearheading the construction of aboveground and/or underground reservoirs to store stormwater runoff from private properties. Stored water could be recycled and reused for landscape irrigation, sanitation systems, and even (after thorough purification) drinking and bathing water.
UAID’s public realms could turn out to be the most ambitious of the five envisioned systems. According to Gilyard, Prospect North Partnership’s long-term goal involves connecting the neighborhood to Minneapolis’ Grand Rounds park system, which runs along the nearby Mississippi riverfront.
As part of the planned Grand Rounds integration, the Trust For Public Land is spearheading the creation of a wedge-shaped “signature green space,” he says, that would begin at the Prospect Park Green Line station and extend north, encompassing the Kemp’s creamery overflow site and possibly incorporating the “United Crushers” mill into a destination park. The space would likely be owned by the Minneapolis Park Board or by a private landowner that agrees to allow public use. And any onsite water features could tie into Mississippi Watershed Management Organization’s stormwater storage system.
Nearby, five blocks of 4th Street SE — currently an ordinary side street flanked by apartment and office buildings — are slated for a total revamp. Dubbed “Green Fourth,” the re-imagined 4th Street will be a woonerf-like “demonstration project designed for people, not cars,” says Gilyard. Ample seating, lighting, mini-plazas and parklets will dot the span, inviting street-level engagement and spurring imaginative new land uses.
“The goal is to create a ‘green spine’ for [UAID] that ties future real estate developments and green spaces together, enhancing the end-user’s experience,” says Sarah Harris, managing director at University of Minnesota Foundation Real Estate Advisors, a Prospect North Partnership member. Two blocks of Green Fourth should be fully constructed by the end of 2017, with the rest to follow on a yet-to-be-determined timeline.
“We’re using infrastructure as an organizing principle for the entire district, as well as a spur for private development, without ever losing sight of how the built environment affects patterns of activity,” Harris explains.
Lessons learned, challenges to come
The innovation district concept isn’t unique to MSP. The Brookings Institution highlights numerous examples in various stages of planning and execution. According to Harris, the Prospect North Partnership looked closely at the Kendall Square district in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where MIT and local partners built a vibrant residential research-and-startup district out of an ordinary urban neighborhood.
Kendall Square exemplifies a long-term trend: “the rise of innovation districts as R&D moves away from siloed [university] campuses and into amenitized urban districts, the continuing evolution of public-private partnership as a strategy for delivering enhanced urban places,” and the decisive embrace of sustainable development in the planning community, says Haila Maze, a long range planner with Minneapolis’ Community Planning and Economic Development department.
But there’s no true case study for district-wide system integration on this scale, notes Harris. “We’re really taking a step beyond previous innovation district models here,” she says, “and building a replicable ‘city of the future’ model that demonstrates how urban development should occur locally and nationally.”
So far, UAID’s public-private model has proven effective at inducing compromise-oriented, workable solutions to thorny issues. For instance, says Gilyard, the Textile Center was instrumental in building support for a district parking scheme.
The partnership had initially envisioned a piecemeal parking approach that emphasized site-specific parking. As the area’s density increased, the Textile Center fretted that there wouldn’t be enough excess parking capacity on local streets and adjacent parcels to support its occasional users, many of whom drive into MSP from rural and suburban areas with sewing machines, fabric rolls and other bulky equipment. The district parking model guarantees the Textile Center enough parking on busy days without affecting density or shortchanging other land uses.
By the same token, businesses moving into the UAID appear willing to compromise on issues that don’t align with the district’s vision. When Surly Brewing Company was scouting sites for its new destination brewery, it initially deemed Prospect Park’s available parcels too small to work with. “They wanted something on the order of 20 acres,” says Gilyard, “which wasn’t going to happen here.”
The Prospect North Partnership prevailed on Surly’s owners to reconsider, pointing to the district’s transit amenities and future potential. They succeeded, of course, and the brewery’s gleaming seven-acre site is now one of the neighborhood’s hottest properties.
New stakeholders are buying in, too. Awakened by a hot regional property market and intoxicated by the innovation district’s potential, developers can’t wait to break ground until UAID’s shared systems are in place. But they’re still heeding UAID’s vision. According to Harris, five in-progress residential developments have “flexible infrastructure components” that can be integrated with shared energy and water systems, and the partnership has prevailed on at least three residential developments to include a wider range of housing types — affordable, market-rate, public and ownership-oriented— than initially planned.
The biggest remaining challenge is simply arriving at an enforceable framework for the district’s shared systems: who’s responsible for their construction and initial costs, ongoing operation and funding. Though initial approval of shared systems’ construction will go through the normal city council processes, Gilyard says that agreements governing ongoing funding and maintenance need to be legally sound and permanently attached to UAID properties themselves, not individual property owners. Otherwise, landlords who arrive after the shared systems are finalized and implemented might choose to opt out, threatening the whole arrangement’s stability.
Prospect North Partnership’s members have all agreed on these issues in principle, but creating enforceable agreements for unknown future stakeholders is easier said than done. “It’s easy to agree on these things in principle,” notes Gilyard. “Problems tend to come when you’re working out the details.”
The shared systems issue presents real, though manageable, risks for UAID’s founding organizations. For instance, Mississippi Watershed Management Organization agreed to cover the initial cost of the shared stormwater system, and then charge back those costs to eventual system users over a multi-year period. The long repayment period could affect MWMO’s financial position and raises the specter of an outright loss.
But even before the shared systems’ logistical and financial headaches are worked out, Gilyard, Harris and city staff are optimistic that UAID’s physical development — complete with “plug-ins” for eventual shared systems — will continue to accelerate. The area could well be one of the first fully built-out Green Line neighborhoods.
“We would like to see build out of this area within a 10 year period,” says Maze. “With several development projects in the pipeline already, this is highly achievable.”
A blueprint for future innovation hubs
Gilyard, Harris and others involved in University Avenue Innovation District’s planning say it’s too early to tell how UAID’s development will shape other areas of MSP that could benefit from similarly ambitious visions. Gilyard is quick to point out that UAID’s name isn’t even set in stone yet.
“‘University Avenue Innovation District’ is a working title,” he says, noting that, “University Avenue extends from Fridley to the East Side of St. Paul...so we’re mulling names that better capture the district’s essence.”
But government decision-makers in both Minneapolis and St. Paul are buying into the innovation district concept. Led by Councilmember Cam Gordon in Minneapolis (Ward 2) and Councilmember Russ Stark (Ward 4) in St. Paul, both city councils are finalizing work on parallel innovation district frameworks to facilitate planning and build out for future live-work-play innovation hubs across MSP.
The frameworks broadly outline the characteristics necessary for innovation district designation, such as minimum land area, association with nearby institutions, likelihood of securing state and federal grant monies for development, expected population growth and expected economic benefit. The frameworks also govern city support activities, such as planning assistance, basic infrastructure improvement, funding for new housing and commercial space, and city-level policy changes necessary to facilitate development.
The innovation district frameworks could set expectations and reduce perceived risk for entrepreneurs, utilities, developers and local employers involved in any future innovation districts, says Harris. Plus, with UAID as a thriving example of the model’s possibilities, interested parties would face a shorter learning curve — and thus be more likely to participate. Though no specific plans exist, Harris points to the Upper Harbor Terminal site along the North Minneapolis riverfront and the city-owned, Kmart-anchored shopping center at Lake and Nicollet as potential focal points for future innovation districts.
Then again, hard-to-control economic and logistical factors can stymie large-scale redevelopment plans, particularly those reliant on substantial private investment. Previous plans for parts of UAID have soured in the past, says Kjersti Monson, CPED’s long range planning director. “The innovation district location was the site of past city planning for bioscience business development,” she notes, “but due to the recession and other factors related to infrastructure planning, those early ideas didn’t move forward.”
For now, Minneapolis, St. Paul and other Prospect North Partnership members are focused on getting UAID (or whatever its permanent name may be) right. University Avenue Innovation District “is MSP’s greatest single laboratory for new ideas,” says Gilyard. “We can’t afford to waste it on ordinary development” or compromise its expansive vision. Other innovation districts can wait.
“If we can create a district where brilliant, ambitious people desperately want to be, we’ll have succeeded,” he adds. MSP — and perhaps cities around the country and world — can build from there.
Brian Martucci is The Line’s Innovation and Jobs News Editor.
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