At our recent RiverMatters conference, we invited panelists James Vos and Peter Hendee Brown to discuss the Upper Harbor Terminal project and riverfront redevelopment in general. Vos, who has worked in commercial real estate for 30 years, is a principal with CRESA Minneapolis, while Brown is an architect, planner, and development consultant focusing on public-private development projects.
We also took questions from our guests. Here are some of the things the audience wanted to know, and our panelists’ take:
Q: We talked a lot about what the Upper Harbor Terminal development could be, but we could be talking about any piece of land – mixed-use, keep industrial, etc. What are the natural advantages of the river for this project, utilizing the river, other than it’s something nice visually?
JV: Let me put this side by side with another large industrial parcel that everyone thought would get built 10 years ago, where Ryan’s development rights recently expired: the Bryn Mawr area. You’ve got a large industrial area, right along 394, with a lot of the same attributes: slightly contaminated, appropriately industrial zone plan, isolated from some other things but no river. We haven’t been able to force industrial to end up in Bryn Mawr either, but long range we think that’s still really good. I think what the riverfront allows in this region is a chance to do better live/work/play because we can put a bike trail there. It’s actually an exciting amenity. We have a kayak trail. You can ‘nice ride’ bikes and you can ‘nice ride’ kayaks. We should amplify that because no other area has that. We don’t have places that let us both do some of those things along with taking advantage of industries that can use the freeway. I do think there’s a way to honor the advantage the river gives us that is different than Bryn Mawr.
PHB: I think the natural advantages are views, recreation/parkland and bike and pedestrian connections along the river’s edge all the way back and forth, extending as far north as possible. You can make that happen in a really nice way, then some people will start going in that way. This is the 21st century, we’re going to have light rail, we’re going to have more and more people going in on bikes. I don’t think it’s all going to happen right away, but certain types of folks will be happy to get there if they can get there on a bike trail or by walking. That, to me, is the amenity, the connection. Get connected to downtown along the river’s edge for people who want to do that and make it a park and amenity while you’re doing it.
Q: We’ve talked about the desirability of having people being able to live/work/play in the same area. At the same time, those functions create tensions. So what’s the process, who has responsibility for resolving those tensions?
JV: Part of it is market demand, and market demand keeps shifting. If you look at it right now, everyone presumes that millennials want to live downtown. The Land Institute released its study last year and for millennials, 38 percent imagined living downtown five years from now and 28 percent imagined living in the suburbs. That’s a decline for millennials. More millennials expect to move from downtown to the suburbs. The shift is not what everyone would expect.
They still want live/work/play, but it isn’t all downtown. Millennials who have put off getting married and having kids imagine one day living in the suburbs, and in part because there’s green space for their kids to run and play. Minneapolis is not Manhattan, and that vertical density doesn’t play as well here. It’s exciting, and I think we’re doing a good job. When you look at everything that’s happening in East Town, or everything that’s happening between here and the river, we’ve got good housing, we’re getting better access to jobs. Washington Square as an office building filled up in a heartbeat once they put in new technology, better lighting and upgraded the systems in the building. It’s a great tech place to work and you can walk there from a bunch of places, including the river. There’s only so many places you can have that. But trying to force that everywhere doesn’t make sense. You have to let the user, that employer or employee, be your guide, not just use zoning to determine use.
PHB: I think that we have to trust our creative real estate development community and the demand of the marketplace to figure out what the right uses are and go there, as opposed to saying, ‘It should be this,’ or, ‘It should be that.’ We should have an idea – there should be an idea that the city wants this, but if you don’t have a user, you don’t have a project. That’s the most important thing.