Wrestling the public realm is not easy exercise. Just ask Morgan Luzier.
A busy entrepreneur, running a fitness studio and keeping her clients healthy and on the move, Morgan had a thousand reasons NOT to get involved in the fate of a parking lot at the LynLake intersection. “Think of everything you could spend your time on – feeding the hungry, wage equality, police relations. Why this?”
Her questions mount. Her hands swirl, her curly hair bounces, and her ideas spool out of her with the energy of coiled springs. “Urban planning is divisive,” she avows. “Every morning I feel like saying, ‘I don’t care. I’m going to focus on my business. That’s it.’ But something always calls me back. You are sort of called to something as much as you choose it. I was called to this.”
This is the potential re-development of a city owned surface parking lot on Garfield Avenue between Lake Street and the Midtown Greenway. It’s a huuuuuge surface lot, and the only large open parcel in the heart of the LynLake neighborhood of Minneapolis. Morgan’s business, Balance Fitness, sits on a site next to the 120-spot lot. She knows eventually her property could be part of a larger re-design.
Parking and car culture is what Minneapolis has done best since the 1950’s when the streetcars went away and urban planning favored the automobile over the humble human. LynLake merchants have benefited from having low cost parking available to their customers, and have been vocal that parking needs to be part of any plan. Trends indicate, however, that residents increasingly value density, green space, transit, and a design and funding shift toward walkability, health and enhancing the “vibe” of urban living.
Recent research demonstrates that a lively street culture makes for livelier economic activity as well. Surface parking lots generate income for the property owner, but people spend money in a commercial district, not cars. It is becoming clear that for bricks-and-mortar retail establishments to survive in the Internet age, a node needs to bring people in with interesting features and give them reason to stay and spend money.
No plan is currently on the table for re-development of the LynLake surface lot, but locals want to be ready when, not if, a developer comes calling.
To that end, Morgan has spent nearly 5 years investigating what is possible for the parcel and learning how the city development process works. She scheduled meetings with city planners to develop relationships and accumulate information. She reached out to neighborhood groups. She poured over small area plans and pedestrian overlay maps. “This needs to be a holistic development,” she decided early on, “I can’t develop this on my own. Is there a master plan? What can guide me here?”
Timing is good. The City of Minneapolis is drafting a 2040 Comprehensive Plan, and a small area master plan currently exists for the Lyn-Lake node. Neighbors and business owners seek influence over what kind of development happens. Placemakers see opportunities to provide amenities beyond parking – public space for programming events, more street level retail, a stronger connection to the Midtown Greenway’s walking and biking trails. Morgan continues: “What does the community want? What do we need? How do we alleviate the disconnect between the City and our neighborhoods?”
She is optimistic. “I feel like we can leverage private ideas and money and benefit public spaces,” she says. “We have an opportunity to re-frame and gather anew.”
Morgan organized a 3-hour visioning session with stakeholders in April 2018, the first of three she is planning. She wanted as many stakeholders in the room as possible. That task was daunting. “How do I this?” she wondered. “I asked others and we agreed that we needed to invite widely. We brainstormed about primary stakeholders, and others beyond those who have been on this journey with me.”
She reached out to as many “brilliant minds” as she could think of. She invited the surrounding neighbors, of course. She sought elected officials from the City, Hennepin County, the Watershed District, the Minneapolis Park Board and Met Council. She invited architects, urban planners, developers, and members “from every citizen commission I could think of on aging, walking, the arts.”
“What if people don’t come?” she worried. She consoled herself that those really interested in the future of Lyn-Lake would come, and she twisted arms as best she could. If folks were on the fence about attending she says, “We offered a super-targeted ask: ‘Do Morgan a favor and come.’”
Morgan, who is white, reached out to East African and Hispanic communities, those groups to whom she didn’t have direct connections. “I was told to show up [at their businesses] in person, build trust, invite them personally, no emails.”
About 60 people showed up at the first meeting, which was held in the basement of a neighborhood church. Morgan wrangled facilitators who are professional planners to help with graphics and meeting flow, and to host the various discussion stations and capture notes. She brought in bagels, and coffee to keep people caffeinated.
Attendees actively milled about, standing in small groups considering various aspects of placemaking: housing options, business and service provider mix, local atmosphere, transit, public safety, green space and light, architectural elements, and pedestrian access. There were large picture boards, charts, sticky notes, pens, and colored dots for personalized “dot-mocracy” voting.
The crowd seemed energized: the drawings and architectural renderings of “what could be” thrilled some and stimulated animated conversations; others, the skeptics, wondered if this was more “pie in the sky” than purposeful intervention.
There were calls for more maker spaces, for evening programming, for creating a place where neighborhood elders could interact with young children during the workday. Maybe the parking could be accommodated underground? Maybe more transit would help? How could the area retain the local charm and grit of a busy intersection while improving pedestrian safety and drawing new retailers to the mix? What about a co-working, co-opearative space? Could artists afford to work and live here? Would a tall building on the site accommodate a larger employer and still host other businesses? What about job creation? A bookstore? Mobile seating? A place for public art?
Morgan admits that her LynLake “Vision Keeper” idea does not have regulatory power, nor were the ultimate decision makers – the City Council – in the room during the first community conversation in April. The athletic trainer in her, however, is resolute and fulsomely offers encouragement to others who would have a larger voice in planning and an early place at the table: “I want a developer’s first stop to be here,” she asserts, “with those who are crafting and keeping a vision for the neighborhood. Someone has to be the ‘keeper’ of the flame, why not us?”
Morgan continues to meet with neighbors and business owners and thought leaders to gather ideas and momentum and to re-frame as she goes. She is working on catching the eye of the City Council to embrace her model of stakeholder engagement and direction setting as the Minneapolis 2040 Plan moves forward. Morgan plans a second community gathering for LynLake in 2019.
It’s a marathon after all, not a sprint.
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