CEZ Xchange: planning for people and places

What attracts makers and entrepreneurs to the Creative Enterprise Zone? It’s relatively affordable, both for living and work space. It’s centrally located on public transit. It offers proximity to other imaginative thinkers and doers, and those synergies are enhanced by both the CEZ and the Towerside Innovation District. The whole Midway area is booming economically, attracting interest from grantmakers and city leaders. And it’s a neighborhood with a public conscience: a growing interest in green living and in honoring its multiple cultures and layered history.

Looking ahead, how can the CEZ build on those plusses and perhaps avoid the minuses that can come with fast growth? Who can we partner with to enhance our public realm as well as our entrepreneurial spirit? 

To brainstorm on those questions, a crowd of 80 gathered last month for a CEZ Xchange session at Can Can Wonderland on March 27, 2018. As board chair Catherine Reid Day pointed out in her opening remarks, “If you plan for cars and traffic, you get cars and traffic. If you plan for people and places, you get people and places.” Next up were three experts, all with deep roots here, applying that idea to our public realm, our parkland, and our shared infrastructure. Urban designer Tim Griffin of the Minnesota Design Center was our emcee: Tim is a leader in planning the MSP Innovation District, the city-line-straddling region to include both the CEZ and Towerside. Stay tuned for more news on that as it unfolds. 

Does the CEZ have a shortage of public space? In a way, yes. As an industrial area, it wasn’t designed with parks, squares, and other gathering places in mind. But, said Jack Becker of Forecast Public Art, public space can be claimed. It can encompass sidewalks, parking lots, pocket parks, transit stations, fences… many of the city features that lie on a spectrum between public and private. Can we find ways to define more public space, using art as a tool to create a meaningful sense of place? Jack reminded us that public art, too, can take many forms: not only the sculpture and commemorative markers that might first come to mind. Think of installations for storefronts or rooftops, streetside displays and performances, murals and outdoor projections, wayfinding features, festivals and staged events, even actions like occupying a public parking spot for a creative purpose… the list goes on. With an almost audible whir, the creative minds in the room started imagining the possibilities. Photo: Jack Becker and Tim Griffin.

Green space: We could use more of that, too, and Jenna Fletcher of the Trust for Public Land is our ally in the “greening of the Green Line.” While public parkland makes up 15 percent of the metro area—a high number, as cities go—that number drops to 5 percent along the light rail corridor. (Still, almost everywhere in the Twin Cities, residents are within a ten-minute walk of a park.) In addition to creating even more city parks— such as the new one by the affordable housing planned for Emerald Avenue— Jenna and her colleagues are working with property owners to create similarly welcoming areas known as POPS: privately owned public spaces. Some local examples, al on privately owned land: the Aldi mini-park on University west of Lexington in St. Paul, the MoZaic building and Ice House Plaza in Uptown, and Cancer Survivors Park in downtown Minneapolis. More parks, POPS, and other common spaces along the Green Line, said Jenna, could turn the light rail into a “charm bracelet” from its riders’ point of view.

Mark Doneux of the Capitol Region Watershed District gave us another angle on our light rail system. It’s not only green (since public transit cuts carbon emissions) but “blue”—it helps manage stormwater. Six miles of the Green Line, including the stretch through the CEZ, were planted with trees when the tracks went in. Trees sequester carbon, and their roots help retain rain and snow runoff, making our water table more resilient. As such, that “tree trench” with its permeable pavers was a stormwater management budget item. But trees create more value beyond the environmental: they increase property values and attract people, serving social and placemaking functions too. Multiple “stacked” benefits like these, said Mark, make the whole system an SSGI asset: “shared, stacked-function, green infrastructure.” Mark and colleagues are also working on green and blue functions for St. Paul’s new soccer stadium, with underground tanks to hold rainwater for later use to irrigate landscaping. Minnesota is rare in that its watershed districts are a unit of government, which allows for close cooperation at the city, county, and state levels. The CRWD itself will soon have new offices near the CEZ at Aldine and Thomas with a cistern and a pocket park with public art.  Photo: Mark Doneux (left) talks with participants. 

Throughout the evening, participants offered more ideas for layering public art, parks, and infrastructure, all food for thought:

  • catalog the vacant lots and blank walls in the CEZ for possible public art
  • improve connectivity for bike paths
  • rethink the northeast corner of University and Raymond
  • improve access to Montgomery Street (just east of Vandalia)
  • narrow University Avenue and add a water feature along its length
  • use more solar and wind energy
  • plan for children’s gathering areas for both summer and winter
  • link the areas east and west of 280 with a land bridge over the highway (an idea that’s on MnDOT’s radar)

It all adds up to creating places that serve human needs on many levels—not just our transportation needs. In terms of urban design, said Catherine, “the 20th century was about getting around. The 21st century is about staying in a place worth staying in.”

Photo: Jenna Fletcher of the Trust for Public Land speaks about parks and POPS.

Photo: Jenna Fletcher of the Trust for Public Land speaks about parks and POPS.

Julie James