Meet the Towerside Innovation District

21st Century Barn Raising Case Study №2

Minnesota’s Neighborhood That Makes No Small Plans

The Central Corridor of the Twin Cities is an 11-mile light rail line running between ten diverse neighborhoods, and connecting the central business districts of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, and the University of Minnesota. After decades of planning, it opened in 2014 and has been celebrated as a model for transit that isn’t just about trains, but how infrastructure can connect people to places and the opportunities they offer.

As it was being planned residents were weary the project would repeat the incredibly damaging effects of other large-scale infrastructure projects on underserved and minority communities, like the interstate highways in the 1960s. Directly in the middle of the corridor on the border of the two cities are two of these neighborhoods; Prospect Park in Minneapolis, and Saint Anthony Park in Saint Paul.

Community leaders realized the $957M Green Line LRT project was going to bring change to their neighborhoods no matter what. They were inspired by and joined a collaborative of philanthropic funders who saw the LRT as a challenge and an opportunity to encourage transit-oriented places with a mix of important ingredients and smart investment that would foster a corridor of opportunity. They wanted to create a diverse, bustling, colorful consortium of new housing, environmentally friendly transportation, and small and large businesses.

The Green Line LRT at the Raymond Avenue station in St. Paul (credit: Bill Klotz, Finance & Commerce)
Ten neighborhoods and twelve higher ed institutions along the Central Corridor between downtown Minneapolis and Downtown Saint Paul

Creating this suite of opportunities as a comprehensive effort was beyond the scope and resources of any single sector. The cities and the Metropolitan Council, the regions planning body and transit authority, put a significant amount of resources in the LRT to spur investment and redevelopment. But the neighborhoods wanted to step it up. They wanted something great, not just because destination amenities and community assets would be nice, but because they were critical to filling the gaps of standard development, and avoiding the mistakes made in the first half of the 20th Century urban planning. With the local and regional government’s “eggs in one basket”, and both state and federal resources drying out, new and dynamic players needed to come to the table. This is where the idea of Towerside took root.

Towerside is the bigger tent needed for filling those gaps and approaching this good to great vision differently in the Prospect Park and Saint Anthony Park neighborhoods. Towerside was established as a partnership to foster that vision: one that goes beyond the bricks and mortar of physical infrastructure. It was designed to facilitate real estate with benefits beyond the development bottom line. It has accomplished this by supporting integrated district systems where streets, public spaces, stormwater, energy, parking, and others are coordinated and built together while simultaneously delivering community-outcomes. Towerside is the bridge that has been able to fill the gaps between those systems, and approach this challenge in a unique and innovative way.

Towerside uses a systems, or district-thinking, approach to development: where all influencing factors are considered in the conception and execution of an idea. A 370 acre area between the two neighborhoods and adjacent to the University of Minnesota was identified as the test-bed for these ideas, and and Innovation District was created.

As a non-profit facilitator, Towerside acts like a quasi master developer with control over the district’s development, but it owns no land and has a tiny fraction of the capital out of the billions going into development projects along the corridor. Even with these limitations its vision has brought over 35 multi-sector organizations, as well as their resources and varied perspectives, to the table as a public-private partnership. The collaborative structure has carried much more weight in achieving the big picture than if each group were investing independently.

Towerside the MSP Innovation District is 370 acres of land located directly in the center of the metropolitan region and along the borders of both Minneapolis and Saint Paul

How to Go Beyond the Property Line

Bring Partners Together to Build Complete Streets

Prospect Park saw the enormous potential for transit-oriented development in the low-density industrial swath of their neighborhood. The Green Line was going to attract developers, but if they built typical projects there was no real street network to connect them. One of the first Innovation District projects grew out of a neighborhood vision to change this. They wanted to demonstrate a new kind of street: a richly planted, pedestrian-oriented, car-tolerated green front yard for the nearly 2,000 new units of housing expected to arrive on the half mile long stretch of 4th Street SE between Malcolm Ave SE and 25th Ave SE.

Fourth Street SE and the Prospect Park LRT station in 2015

It was not an easy sell. First, the Green Line’s Prospect Park station intersected 4th street — but the roadway was run down and there was no sidewalk, curb, or gutter. This was a barrier to typical developers bringing projects to the area because they saw the right-of-way needs as a burden to their project. But the community proactively sought-out the right developer for the project. The Cornerstone Group, a mission driven development team, ultimately purchased a key site on 4th Street. With a focus on creating and cultivating thriving places that contribute to the well-being of people and our planet, Cornerstone understood the big vision and laid groundwork to begin implementing Green 4th Street, and a mixed-income apartment project

The next challenge was the scope of the project. The dense plantings, distinctive lighting, stormwater management, and pedestrian amenities the neighborhood desired are not on the standard menu of what a city provides when they build roadways. This is where the big tent of partners came into play. With three dozen organizations asking how they could all work together to get this done, the City of Minneapolis couldn’t say no. But to build any of these enhancements the developers and neighborhood would have to design, fund, own, and maintain every element, and coordinate each of those steps with the city.

The Cornerstone Group worked with the city to add 4th Street’s reconstruction to the list of near-term capital projects in conjunction with a $1M grant proposal they were awarded by the Metropolitan Council. Although the grant program is typically for public improvements in transit-oriented development projects, Cornerstone used that and the neighborhood vision to think beyond the property line of their site and invest in the right-of-way as a public amenity for the whole district.

Rendering of Green 4th Street as a human-centered, cars tolerated streetscape (image: Snow Kreilich Architects)

The grant gave Green 4th Street’s vision life, and it enabled Towerside to commission Snow Kreilich Architects, an award-winning firm, to design the enhanced streetscape project that would layer on top of the city standard roadway. With design underway and a path towards implementation outlined, more property owners and developers were drawn to the project’s potential and came under the big tent.

With this momentum the City needed to continue working outside the box to fulfill the Metropolitan Council grant and multi-stakeholder project vision. Street design and construction is not the bread and butter of developers or neighborhood organizations. Towerside’s role was to facilitate the process by providing a project management team to fill the gaps between standard practice and the enhancements, and to help raise the additional capital needed to build it all. This had a snowball effect, and attracted more unlikely partners to the table.

Not only did developers contribute funding to the design costs but the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization (MWMO) and the Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) Center for Prevention became critical champions.

What do a water ecology and a health insurance company have in common with each other and a streetscape? A lot. The MWMO saw an opportunity to integrate their interest in a district scale stormwater capture system, and contributed nearly $500K to support the design, construction, and initial maintenance of a habitat rich landscape corridor in Green 4th’s right-of-way.

BCBS and the Center for Prevention are charged with allocating tobacco settlement dollars to improve the health of all Minnesotans by tackling the leading root causes of preventable death and disease: tobacco use, lack of physical activity, and unhealthy eating. While 90% of individual health happens outside the doctor’s office, 96% of healthcare spending is in the clinical environment. BCBS is reversing this by funding organizations to make communities more walkable and bikeable. They saw how a destination street that was inviting to pedestrians, green, and supported social interaction as well as transit ridership wasn’t just an infrastructure project, it was a public health initiative. They brought $160,000 to the table for the design to ensure it would exceed city standards in creating walkable and social public space.

Green 4th Street plan (images: Snow Kreilich Architects)
Green 4th Street plan and renderings of the active social spaces of the streetscape (images: Snow Kreilich Architects)

Once complete, Green 4th Street will be the new main street for Towerside’s dense, walkable, mixed-use, and transit-oriented district, serving as the front yard for thousands of new residents. It has become a beta test of the Innovation District’s big picture district-thinking approach, and a representation of the development expectations being set for this area. The Green 4th Street project has also developed a set of design standards to be used as the street grid is expanded throughout the undeveloped land of Towerside.

Towerside hopes this district-thinking approach, and all its benefits, will resonate throughout the district. 4th Street will be rebuilt, and will deliver best practices of urban design and complete street amenities. It reduced the pressure on Cornerstone and other developers to provide green space within their developments, making room for more units and development potential. Most noticeably, it will transform a roadway into a linear green space for people.

Chip in for Green Space Instead of Stormwater Fees

As the Prospect Park neighborhood was conducting their extended neighborhood planning work for the Green Line LRT, the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization took notice of their district approach to development. The MWMO protects and improves water quality, habitat, and natural resources in eight municipalities that drain directly into the Mississippi.

In an urban environment like Minneapolis, hard surfaces like parking lots, sidewalks, rooftops, and other hard impermeable surfaces, prohibit water from absorbing into the ground. Stormwater enters the City storm sewer system before discharging directly into lakes, creeks, and rivers. As stormwater runoff travels over ground, it collects pollutants, waste, and other debris. This is a problem all over the country, but in Minnesota, where water makes up nearly 25% of the state, stormwater management isn’t a luxury, it’s essential.

Water budget for a portion of Towerside (image: MWMO)

Developers and landowners who use effective stormwater management practices on their properties can apply to the City receive reductions in their stormwater utility fee. As The Cornerstone Group and other developers were in the early stages of their work the MWMO proposed the idea that everyone should address their obligation to stormwater management together, and that the MWMO would help them do it. Instead of individual raingardens or filtration systems on each property, Towerside’s big tent and multiple partners made a district-scale solution possible.

Like Green 4th Street, the district stormwater system was a big deviation from the typical development process in an attempt to create something completely different. To make this possible the MWMO took the lead with four developers, pooling the funding they would have invested in individual systems. The MWMO supplemented the developer’s $750K with $1.3M of their own funding to engineer, design, and construct a more cost-effective and higher performing stormwater system. The result has benefits for the whole community. The green space has been an asset to the nearby community gardens, and has set a precedent for new and improved green spaces nearby and throughout the district.

The largest biofiltration basin of the District Stormwater system doubling as a public space with the Towerside community gardens and the United Crushers elevators in the background (image: MWMO)
The stormwater system not only performs an environmental function, but it puts the watershed and Minnesota’s ecosystem on display for the entire community to explore and interact with (image: MWMO)

For the developers, this process saved time by taking the design and construction of stormwater management solutions off of their plate while increasing the stormwater credit they can receive from the City. Without land on each site taken up for raingardens there was again more development potential. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. $1.6M of shared pipes and storage tanks had to be owned and managed by someone. Working through these legal issues was part of the design process and it solidified the collaborative culture these four developers were building within the Innovation District. To help ensure functionality, and to not overwhelm developers, the MWMO offered to own and operate the system for the first 5 years until a new district entity could be created to continue the ongoing O&M.

This initial District Stormwater System is the first district system completed in 2016. The project is a stormwater capture, filtration, and reuse system to manage a 5M gallon annual water budget over the 8 acres of developer land. Each parcel works together like a Rube Goldberg machine for water flow. The MWMO worked with each individual design team to grade each site and funnel all the treated and untreated rain and snowmelt from these properties into two biofiltration basins. Instead of going into the storm sewer system, the runoff in the these basins is treated with engineered soils and native plants that clean the dirty runoff by removing pollutants. The two-biofiltration basins drain into a 206,575-gallon underground storage tank for future re-use. The tank sits below the largest filtration area which doubles as a privately owned green space that puts the watershed and ecosystem on display.

Each developer now has access to this water resource with direct re-use supply lines integrated their property for irrigation, flushing toilets, or even to sell off for future industrial uses.

An expanded District Stormwater System is currently in development by the MWMO and additional landowners. It would connect to the first phase and manage an estimated 47 million gallons of stormwater runoff from an additional 21 acres of private land in the Malcolm Yards development. At this scale, the stormwater system could manage a 100 year storm event while simultaneously expanding habitat benefits, reducing heat island effect, and creating even more enticing public space.

Don’t Stop at Water, Interconnect as Many Systems as Possible

Green Networks

This is just the beginning. Green 4th Street and District Stormwater are beta tests in refining Towerside’s district-thinking approach to development. Water doesn’t pay attention to property lines and a street doesn’t just move cars. Each of these projects demonstrate how visioning and holistic thinking generate different physical project ideas, and as a result a very different process for achieving their interconnected benefits. Towerside’s next step is scaling this up.

Because the whole area was looked at together, the development opportunities were coordinated and considered in response to one another. Not only will 4th Street have a mix of housing options, but the neighborhood also wanted a key parcel between the Prospect Park station platform and the iconic 122’ tall United Crushers grain elevators. Where 4th Street’s public right-of-way intersects the private district stormwater system, and the Green Line station, there is a plot of nearly 3 acres that has been identified by the community and landowners as the site for a signature green space. Here, water management practices and public space strategies from health and wellness to landscape will work together in an even more integral way. Just as the stormwater infrastructure puts the watershed’s ecology on display, the green space is envisioned as a site for urban agriculture, native plants, habitat landscaping, and public art experiences.

The Prospect Park Green Line station in the heart of Towerside (image: Flickr: Bolobilly)
John Kari from Prospect Park 2020 leads a tour in Prospect Park for members and supporters of the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative on June 17, 2016 (image: Kelsey Christensen, MN Daily)

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, a quasi-independent agency like the MWMO, saw the community’s interest as an opportunity to experiment with a new type of park that would fit between the small neighborhood green spaces and large-scale regional systems they’re more accustomed to owning and operating. But they couldn’t do it alone. The neighborhood needed to play an active role, with developers, landowners, and interest groups like the MWMO and the Trust for Public Land creatively and collaboratively leveraging their resources.

The initial success of the first stormwater project has already lead the Watershed and more landowners to begin the feasibility and concept design of an expanded system with a central water feature in this United Crushers site. A new Park Dedication Fee for all new developments of multi-family housing built in the city has brought an ongoing revenue stream for enhancing the city’s park system. As a result, funds were available from the nearly 2,000 units planned and underway nearby. With no sizable park in a ten-minute walk of Green 4th Street’s projects, the key site identified, and some resources available, the need for a green space project became clear.

The Trust for Public Land incorporated an initial feasibility study for the United Crushers site as part of its Greening the Green Line initiative to integrate new parks and green space into the communities along the entire Central Corridor. This continued the snowball effect each of these projects has created — expanding their reach beyond any one project. Towerside began to consider all the District’s existing and proposed green spaces so they could be planned and connect together as a single coordinated public realm network.

This group of partners is considering multiple strategies to move the project forward including a privately owned public space model in order to combine the available public and private funds for acquisition, design, construction, and ongoing programming at the United Crushers site. A local reporter illustrated one possible future; “Imagine projectors that paint it with light and color, a huge shimmering screen visible for miles. Movies in the summer, with your smartphone as a speaker. Sunrise hues in the morning, sunset reds at dusk.”

An aerial looking south towards Prospect Park and the Mississippi River from Summer 2017 showing current development adjacent to the Prospect Park LRT station, Green 4th Street, district stormwater system, and the Towerside community gardens in the United Crushers green space.

Upcycle Waste

While considering how residents and community members will experience the district through green space and landscape, Towerside’s vision is also about making sure the buildings they live and work in are sustainable and energy efficient.

One strategy is a district energy system that connects multiple users and spaces together across property lines, allowing them to benefit from shared efficiencies and technologies not easily available to individual buildings. Towerside’s first phase of district energy is a sewer heat recovery technology. Similar to a geothermal loop but almost half the cost, it uses the thermal energy that comes from showers, washers, cooking and more.

This system would cost less than the least expensive individual energy solution that could be built by each developer alone. Not only that, this approach would produce at least 19% less greenhouse gas emissions than traditional, stand-alone systems. Utility bills will be lower for property owners and for residents, which is particularly important in the many affordable housing communities. The engineering and design is underway right now for some of the known development projects. Once the system is in place, it can expand as more developments are built, and it can even grow to add more alternative energy sources. This is another shared infrastructure that is only possible at the district scale with multiple collaborating parties.

This system creates a cost-effective approach that will lower the District’s carbon footprint and increase the economic and climate resilience of the neighborhood. And the whole system won’t just be pipes underground, invisible to the public. Instead, this project is being designed to show off its utility in the United Crushers site as an educational installation, or even a public art project using steam and light.

While these projects are on a more realistic timeline for implementation, there are even more cutting edge and ambitious ideas being pushed forward by Towerside’s big tent of partners.

One of these is an Integrated Utility Hub. It is a single system where multiple services are managed together: water supply, wastewater, stormwater, and electric power. As a restorative, or net-positive system, the Utility Hub puts more back into the community, the environment, and the economy than it takes out — all while upcycling what was otherwise waste into real resources.

Championed by The Ecala Group, the Integrated Utility Hub is on the forefront of smart city design. As all of these services come together they work off of one another to take their waste inputs to make productive outputs. Wastewater is treated without chemicals to drinking water standards while also producing seafood, lettuce, and herbs. Municipal solid waste is processed into biogas, electricity, and hydrogen energy sources that can be redistributed back into the grid. Towerside has been identified as an ideal site for a pilot project demonstration of this technology, and early capital is being sourced to begin the design.

These kind of synergies don’t curate themselves. Each project and community initiative is important because they build up incremental wins that fuel a snowball effect showing how much is possible when we work together. It is this kind of collaborative work that can build the neighborhoods we want to live in, the neighborhoods that are resilient, productive, healthy, and safe, even in the context of a shifting landscape of public support for these measures.

Having a vision for something that’s bigger than you can do on your own means you need to work across disciplinary silos and property lines. The first step is making an invitation to a partner. Towerside did this by tracing the domino effect between its vision and potential projects to what each one will achieve, and how that’s valuable to the work and missions of our more than 35 partners. Fitting every partner’s unique perspective together makes a mosaic of each project so that it delivers meaningful outcomes back to everyone involved. Articulating intersectionalities on Green 4th Street is what brought a health insurance company to the design of streetscape infrastructure, and private real estate developers to build public spaces.

Developing these relationships and shared understandings early enough in the process was important. This made sure that the individual developers understood their new expectations for working in this area, and what they would receive in return. In most cases this has meant meeting a higher standard of design, engineering, and program inside their projects and that they would need to respond to and connect with the integrated infrastructure systems. A lot of this process lies in the power of persuasion, and a steadfast connection between the work and the vision.

Today Towerside is coming into its own. There is no other place in the country with the assets and untapped potential of the Innovation District, and there are too many social, economic and environmental challenges facing us all to not rethink and retool the way we shape our world. Towerside’s public-private partnership has become an accelerator for the advancement of sustainable infrastructure, comprehensive planning, creative companies, thousands of diverse housing options, and the holistic design of places and spaces. Together, these are all shaping the future of the Twin Cities economy and community.

Towerside partners working through a creative process to imagine what various demographic groups would like to see in a diverse district community, what overlapping interests exist among these groups, and where different programmatic elements might be located.
Visual notes from a community workshop focused on embedding a lens of equity, diversity, and opportunity into every part of the Towerside vision and work plan (image: Amy Sparks)

The district concept grew out of a strategic alignment of community vision, and government, private, civic, and nonprofit sector capacity and resources, but it wasn’t a passive process. It took a lot of gumption from early partners to take the risks involved in trying something new. And it took countless volunteer hours, never-ending meetings, and hard conversations to lay out a framework for accomplishing what no one organization could pull off alone.

It hasn’t been easy, and at several points it almost shut-down altogether. So far the power of partnership and the strength of their vision have won out. In November, the new Board of Directors incorporated Towerside, which was started in 2013, as a formal organization. The growing momentum and demand of these projects and others have made a clear need for full-time staff to join in 2018.

But infrastructure systems, new technologies, and ecological landscapes are only exciting for those of us who work on these sort of things each day. Every one of these projects and ideas needs to connect to real people and impact their lives in a positive way. The Board of Directors is expanding its community engagement efforts, and doubling-down on addressing diversity and equity in every project to make sure it becomes a place made for and by people of all backgrounds and perspectives.

On October 7th Towerside hosted its third annual Harvest Festival on the site of the future United Crushers Park. Kids had their faces painted while neighbors made pizza with the community garden’s fresh produce, and got to know one another around the bonfire. Somali singing and Azteca dancers filled the air with an infectious energy as over 350 people walked from the neighborhood or took the Green Line train to stream across the still-under-construction 4th Street. Many of them were experiencing the site and their community in an entirely new way. A ‘pop-up park’ trailer brought colorful tables and games for families while artists interviewed visitors about what they might like to see in its future as a park. Towerside unveiled a large-scale model of the park project to answer questions and engage residents in imagining what it could and should become. These are the kind of on-the-ground connections that transform a space into a place that has heart and meaning.

Scenes from the 2017 Harvest Festival in the Towerside community garden and United Crushers green space. Residents of all backgrounds came out to enjoy music and dances, eat pizza made from the garden’s harvest, and engage in visioning for the permanent park project. (images: Thaiphy-Quang)

Towerside is likely the greatest community and economic development growth opportunity Minneapolis and Saint Paul will have for generations. The more direct benefits Towerside’s work can have for real people today, and the more agency they have in the process, the more positive impact it will have 100 years from today. When a community understands itself and rallies for a common purpose, great outcomes are always possible.

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