The new light rail line connecting Minneapolis and Saint Paul would be a powerful economic driver, but officials were determined to learn from past mistakes and ensure that the line itself would reflect and bring together the community. We retrace how creative placemaking played a role.
A huge civic celebration accompanied the opening of the Green Line, a new light rail link between Minneapolis and Saint Paul, on June 14, 2014.
Rain could not stop tens of thousands of people from coming out to the ribbon cutting and the celebrations held at each neighborhood stop along the line, in a buzzing, multiethnic celebration with food vendors, community groups and arts performances. People literally danced in the streets celebrating the new transit link. (see video below.)
There was a lot to celebrate: not only the new rail connection and the development it would bring, but also the perseverance of local businesses during construction and hard-won benefits for communities along the route. There was also a sense that even before it opened, this line connecting Minneapolis and Saint Paul had connected people across the Twin Cities.
History: Addressing a legacy of neighborhood impacts
The story of what the Green Line project got right begins with what previous projects got wrong. The last time a major transportation project was built to connect Minneapolis and Saint Paul, it destroyed a vibrant and diverse African-American neighborhood. In 1956, the construction of I-94 cut a gash through Saint Paul’s Rondo neighborhood, displacing about 650 families and splitting the neighborhood in half. The new freeway wiped out locally owned businesses along with many homes, and with them the equity that longtime residents had hoped to pass on to their children. 1
Celebrating the places along the way
In the era between the highway construction boom and the region’s first light rail line that opened in the 2000’s (the Blue Line), cities slowly began to pay more attention to aesthetics, good urban design and investing in neighborhoods as destinations in their own right rather than just places to pass through on the way somewhere else.
Accompanying this shift to designing places for people, temporary events, activities, and installations became more prominent ways to enliven communities. Mark VanderSchaaf, Director of Regional Planning at the Metropolitan Council (and author of this website’s foreword) sparked a ten-year collaboration with more than 50 communities along 400 miles of the Mississippi River for Grand Excursion 2004.2 Commemorating an 1854 Mississippi River voyage that brought more than 1,200 dignitaries from Chicago to St. Paul via train and steamship, a series of events, festivals and parades showcasing river redevelopment projects in communities along the route boosted tourism in Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota.3 In Saint Paul, bands played, cannons roared and an estimated 150,000 people convened on the riverfront to welcome a flotilla of paddle wheelers and steam boats.
The decade of planning, imaginative thinking and establishing new and diverse partnerships that went into Grand Excursion 2004 “really began a shift in the collective mindset for how we think about transportation,” says VanderSchaaf. ”Instead of endpoints, we were thinking more about celebrating what’s in the places along the way.”
As a testament to that shift, transit officials planning the Blue Line — the first light rail line — conceived of a plan to give each station a custom design to evoke aspects of the region’s history. Artists collaborated with architects to envision the Blue Line like a charm bracelet, with the train line as the bracelet connecting a series of unique “charms.” 4
- Place-based events and activities drawing on regional history are a growing economic development strategy.
- Building customized station areas was a precursor to later creative placemaking efforts in the region.
Shifting towards transit-oriented development & community benefits
The Blue Line, the region’s first light rail line, connecting the Mall of America, airport, and downtown Minneapolis, opened in 2004, fifty years after the last regular-service streetcars ran in the city. The line was a success in getting people from point A to point B, but since then, additional momentum had built for new development around transit. The real estate market was heating up and showing a preference for more walkable, urban development in locations with access to transit, while leaders grew more familiar with, and accepting of, transit-oriented development and channeling growth around stations. They put additional measures in place to stimulate TOD after the fact of the line opening, but were determined to be more proactive the next time around.
On the community side, neighborhoods along the Blue Line formed a coalition to ensure the new line would provide benefits for the community. However, “many felt it was a lost opportunity to work collaboratively to ensure greater benefits for all communities, and see themselves as part of a greater whole on the transit corridor,” says Carol Swenson, Executive Director of the District Council Collaborative of Saint Paul and Minneapolis (DCC). 5
Not another Rondo
The construction of I-94 had impacted all neighborhoods along the proposed Green Line alignment, and the new project threatened to reopen old wounds in those communities. This shared experience was one motivator behind the establishment of DCC. “Organizations forming the DCC were aware of this history and felt strongly that they should be working together in a formal structure to have greater political clout and more resources to advance their positions”. says Swenson.
“The mantra “Not another Rondo” resonated with everyone across race, income, and class.” It also spurred widespread support for a grassroots coalition to ensure the community would not get left behind.
- For more on the history of Rondo and its connection to the Central Corridor planning process, read this Minnesota Public Radio story from 2010: http://www.mprnews.org/story/2010/04/20/centcorridor3-rondo
- Covered in detail in this 2004 MPR piece: http://news.minnesota.publicradio.org/features/2004/07/04_bensonl_excursion/?refid=0
- Chicago Tribune in 2004: “the highlight will be the Grand Excursion Flotilla, which during 11 glorious days (June 25-July 5) will return the Mississippi to the days when paddlewheel riverboats ruled the river.” http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2004-05-16/travel/0405160527_1_delta-queen-mississippi-queen-mississippi-river
- Bizjournal: Janis LaDouceur, principal at Barbour/LaDouceur Architects, Minneapolis, likens the approach to the various charms on a charm bracelet. “They’re all the same size and made from the same material, but they’re as different as a Swiss chalet and Mickey Mouse,” she said. “And then the bracelet is the thing that unites them.” http://www.bizjournals.com/twincities/stories/2002/02/25/focus1.html?page=all
- The DCC works with cities, counties, and the Metropolitan Council to find shared solutions and ensure transparency and accountability in projects planned along the Green Line.