Imagining a reinvigorated Stevens Square-Loring Heights

Stevens Square-Loring Heights is the densest neighborhood in the city of Minneapolis, and with its central park, historic buildings and proximity to Downtown, it has the potential to be one of the most successful.

In my own corner of the neighborhood, new residential development and the Boiler Room Café have increased safety and activity on the streets, but progress has been slower across the park.

Since the introduction of Interstate 94 severed the connection to Downtown, Nicollet Avenue has struggled to be commercially viable.

The Stevens Square Community Organization has made rejuvenating the urban fabric along our stretch of Nicollet a top priority for more than a decade. Multiple development plans over the years have sought to catapult the avenue into commercial success. But opposing interests of property owners, aging and unsuitable building stock, and earlier auto-oriented development have continued to plague long-term solvency.

In the winter of 2005, a group of volunteers interested in design and the commercial viability of the neighborhood met regularly over the course of a few months to create development objectives for Nicollet Avenue within the Stevens Square-Loring Heights neighborhood. The purpose of the objectives was to present residents’ needs and concerns carefully balanced with those of a potential developer, in an effort to make the carrot more palatable than the stick. (The Nicollet Avenue Development Objectives can be viewed at www.sscoweb.org)

Imagine our excitement when the mayor’s office announced in late 2006 the mayor’s “Great City Design Teams,” a volunteer collective of architects, landscape architects, engineers, and planners organized to help neighborhood groups realize a design vision for blighted or problematic areas of their neighborhoods. With recently completed design objectives in hand, Stevens Square Community Organization applied for and received one of five Design Teams.

The design charrette, lead by volunteers Destin Nygard and Jeremiah Sagel was held in May at the Van Dusen Center’s carriage house, 1900 LaSalle Ave.

Neighborhood residents — mostly unfamiliar with the term “charrette” — found themselves participating in the intensive design process by verbalizing their wants and fears, touring the sites, and contributing to a flurry of note taking and sketching for more than nine hours.

A few weeks ago at our SSCO annual meeting, members of the Design Team took center stage to present their proposals. With only two presentation boards, including a site plan and schematic sketches superimposed onto actual photographs, the group promptly reenergized our collective hope.

On the largest parcel, at the northeast corner of the site plan, was a large mixed-use “footprint” incorporating retail, office space, and housing with green space, courtyard, and orientation suited to prized Downtown sight lines and ample sunlight. Across Nicollet was a large retail space suitable to a grocery store — yes, a grocery — with a green roof and shared parking behind a row of smaller retailers. It is a dream for sure, but so must have been the Cobalt/Lunds venture for residents of Northeast.

Other suggestions were more immediately financially feasible, such as a weekly farmers’ market in the southeast corner of the Plymouth Congregational Church parking lot, across from Acadia and Starbucks, and modest cosmetic changes to existing buildings.

The Design Team’s thoughtful and inspired proposals, and the neighborhood organization’s strategic development objectives build on recent development at Franklin and Nicollet, an increase in owner-occupied housing units, renewed dialogue among property owners, and a feasibility study for mass transit. All of which suggest a sea change for this long-overlooked section of Minneapolis’ original main street and a stronger Stevens Square-Loring Heights.

Bryan Anderson is co-chair of the Stevens Square Community Organization’s Housing and Development Committee.