The largest open space in downtown Minneapolis shows that an urban park can be more than trees and grass.
The new, much-debated Downtown East Commons park opened to little fanfare. But the people’s park is turning out to be much better than early opponents expected.
Downtown East Commons, which opened last week, is a new kind of public space for Minneapolis. While our older parks such as Loring and Elliot are designed to be calming escapes from city life, the Commons celebrates the city itself.
Covering two blocks and 4.2 acres, the Commons is a large outdoor room framed by buildings. From the park, you can’t miss the massive, prow-like U.S. Bank Stadium, looming to the east. Looking toward downtown, the city’s skyline sets the backdrop for the park’s west block.
More difficult to see are the Commons’ subtle design strategies — the quiet harmony of scale, plantings and materials that add up to a great work of urban landscape architecture.
Despite a whirlwind of controversy — including how many days the Vikings could claim the park and whether to close off Portland Avenue — the Commons has turned out remarkably well.
Here are some reasons why:
1. It was designed to reveal the space.
The process of designing the park included several public workshops early last year, which generated a long wish list of features, ranging from climbing walls and skating rinks to playgrounds, winter ice fountains and public art.
If the designers had fit even half of the items on the list into the site, the Commons might have ended up resembling a county fair. Sure, there might be attractions for everyone — but they would distract from the unique appeal of the space itself.
Instead, the design team, led by Mary Margaret Jones of San Francisco-based Hargreaves Associates, forged a consensus with compromise and restraint. Going back to Frederick Law Olmsted’s vision for Central Park, landscape architecture is a three-dimensional approach that shapes space, channels many kinds of circulation and affords a variety of uses. The Commons is a brilliant 21st-century expression of this populist ideal.
2. It encompasses two distinct parts.
Early on, the Hargreaves team knew that the Commons needed to accommodate thousands of game-day fans and also be a park where neighborhood children could play and downtown workers could enjoy lunch. Their design solution begins with two distinct blocks: one more wooded and human in scale, the other more open to the sky.
At the stadium’s doorstep, the east block fills this public role, focusing on the immense Great Lawn planted on the site of the former Star Tribune building. Berms arc around this subtly sloped lawn, framing and sheltering the open space. Those berms also serve as seating for large events.
In contrast, the west block is more intimate, with areas for play, as well as a future cafe and fountains. People can bring their lunch, and children will be able to run through jets of water. By locating the new Edition apartments inside the western edge of the Commons space, planners created a human scale. Lined with balconies and home to a future parkside coffee shop, the Edition brings people to the Commons throughout the day and evening.
3. It has topographic character.
Hargreaves is well-known for using topography — whether in the form of dramatic flowing berms or subtle grade shifts — to create character and establish a sense of enclosure.
Along 4th Street, there’s a long black granite retaining wall. “One of the details I love is that its wooden seats are on a constant elevation,” said Jones. Even though the site slopes 4 feet from west to east, the seating wall appears as a level horizontal band, slicing into the changing grade with a long, smooth cap. Such topographic tricks can be found throughout the park.
4. Its design is restrained and timeless.
Hargreaves also is known for the simplicity and clarity of its urban projects. At the Commons, there are no fancy paving patterns or ornamental lightposts and benches. Stair rails, posts, furniture and ground lighting are all made from light metals with smooth, sleek surfaces. Sourced in Babbitt, Minn., the Mesabi granite in the retaining wall and fountain areas expresses the geology of the Iron Range. This restraint in paving and materials makes the variety and texture of the trees and surrounding architecture all the more apparent.
5. Its plantings are plentiful and varied.
Thanks to priorities set by the city, the design team was able to plant almost 200 trees, many of them mature. The Commons contains oaks, maples, birch, ironwood and several types of conifers.
6. It connects to the past.
Even though it’s very new, the Commons tells stories of the city’s past through native plantings, which set the foreground for historic buildings like the Armory. At 5th Street and Portland Avenue S., you’ll find two distinctive trees — a massive ginkgo and a red maple. For decades, they shaded a small green space across the street from the Star Tribune building. Now they shade what’s called the Good Lawn, a serene and quiet vale secluded by a curving hedge and berms.
Much of the west block recalls the character of Minnesota’s prairies and woodlands. There are drifts of shade plants along 5th Street and a sense of immersion as you walk among prairie grasses and flowers. You’d never know that the Vikings stadium is just a block away. And where else in downtown Minneapolis will you find a glade of maidenhair ferns?
Frank Edgerton Martin is a landscape historian and Minneapolis-based design writer.