Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Nicollet Again & Still; A Word with Council Member Lilligren

Last Friday I had the pleasure and opportunity to interview Robert Lilligren, Minneapolis Ward 6 Council Member who presides over the blight known as the "Sea of Parking" and it's associated K-Mart at the intersection of Nicollet Avenue and Lake Street.

As you walk into Council Member Lilligren's office, one of the first things you'll notice is the list of priorities on his wall.  Scribbled in red on the whiteboard is a large #1, followed by, " Reopen Nicollet".  That note is years old, but today momentum is building and it seems this aspiration may very well come to fruition within the foreseeable future.

Similar to CM Lilligren, this issue has been on my mind quite a bit recently, and I'm here in his office to interview him on where this project sites now, and what we can expect in the near future.

Below is an image from the City of Minneapolis Planning Department outlining the proposed project site (delineated in red).  You'll notice that the proposed bounds of the project site extend well beyond the large contested parcel in the middle (parcels delineated in white), but that's largely because it is always easier to start big and edit down than vice versa.

In the interest of time, the interview was kept short, but with a foundational understanding of the site, I got right to the brass tacks.

You can hear the full edited version of the interview as a Podcast on later this week (provided by Mr. Bill Lindeke).

Fir now, those basic points are these: why is this important, what's the big issue, what are the associated issues, and what are the next steps?

The big pitch is that currently K-MArt is a disconnected vacuum in three otherwise thriving corridors.  The most obvious is Nicollet Ave. Ask any conscious citizen of Minneapolis whether they'd like to see this site re-vamped and I will throw my laptop off teh Washington Ave Bridge if they don't say "yes" in one form or another.  Suffice to say that this is a popular subject.

For historical context, Nicollet used to be known as Minneapolis' Main Street, stretching from the river all the way past Minnehaha Parkway.  Now, thanks to poor TIF and site management, we have a huge plug in that system.

The second obvious gap this creates is the string of commercial nodes along Lake Street.  We have some great places there: Hennepin-Lake, Lyn-Lake, the Midtown Exchange, etcetera.  Thanks to the parking and lack of street amenities, the K-Mart site is a huge comparative let-down.

Finally, last but not the least by far, is The Midtown Greenway.  In what other world do you find $10k carbon road machines mixed with all manner of commuters, just feet from both a vibrant restaurant corridor (Eat Street), and a disused ocean of parking, all at the same spot.  It's amazing if you thing about the real proximity; grade-separation at it's worst.

The big, looming issue is site control.  Currently, the K-Mart site is owned by a land trust based in NYC, who has probably never gotten to know the site and who are, as a result, only financially invested in the site.  That is, there is clearly no sense of community stewardship happening here.  According to Mr. Lilligren, discussions are moving forward with the family who constitute the board of trustees to move possession into the hands of a developer who can do better, or into some kind of public-private partnership (warning: TIF may be involved).  One important point that CM Lilligren wanted to stress is that the only workable solution that would manifest would be one with a strong public engagement process.

One of the associated issues, as always, is parking.  Why so much parking?  Why so many minimally required stalls?  In one of my previous posts I noted that this site is a gap in the Pedestrian Overlay District that should extend and intersect Lake and Nicollet, which would lower the parking requirements.  Even with these token deductions though, could we do more?  Mr. Lilligren mentioned briefly that the city planners could someday look to a time when we have (gasp) no minimum parking requirements.  What!?  Yep.  Not a typo.  Think about one of our most vibrant urban places, Dinkytown.  No minimum parking requirements for new developments.  A keen eye will notice that this does not manifest as a total lack of parking, but the amount is relatively small when compared to what is required in other other places around Minneapolis.  This is because the parking is determined by market demand, not by city mandate, and from where I sit it seems to work very well and efficiently.

Finally, where is all this going?  It seems that momentum is building and that there is widespread public support.  Along with the project site bounds, CM Lilligren showed me a schedule that involves a preliminary stakeholder engagement process on August 15th.  Keep your eyes peeled for that.  The schedule also notes City of Minneapolis appropriation of resources for the project on Dec. 1, and hopefully full site control by Jan 1, 2013.  It seems that some good discussions are happening at the city, but talk is cheap.  However, I do feel confident in stating that within my lifetime this may well happen, and if the right people and the community are on-board, it will be an awesome and welcome change.