Del Hampton - Towerside Innovation District

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Del Hampton has a wish for University Avenue:  “I want it to be welcoming for people to come outside, to walk along, to be.   With places to sit, art to look at, sounds to listen to:  people talking, birds, children playing.  And the smells – trees, flowers, food – that will invite us to get out of our buildings, to go outside and be with other people.”

An avid traveler, Del has a favorite street outside of the Twin Cities:  the Grand Boulevard of Budapest.  “There is a grandeur there, but not a haughtiness,” Del recounts, “It doesn’t have the pretentiousness of [the Champs-Elysees] in Paris.  There are more ‘real’ people there and a division of wealth.”  Del is drawn to the purpose and everyday use of the Grand Boulevard, and sees it as a model for what University Avenue could be: “You see common people enjoying.  You feel liveliness, energy, life on the street.”  He continues:  “There is history there, old architecture.  And yet, [on the Grand Boulevard] I didn’t feel like I had to live up to something, I felt comfortable, I felt like I could interact, that I could engage.”

Grand Boulevard, Budapest

Grand Boulevard, Budapest

The diversity, activity and engagement that Del enjoys in Budapest are the driving forces behind the Towerside Innovation District.  “Towerside” is a 370-acre parcel of land that straddles University Avenue from the University of Minnesota campus in Minneapolis into the St. Anthony Park neighborhood on St. Paul’s western edge.  The first designated “Innovation District” in Minnesota, Towerside self-describes as an “asset-rich district at the heart of the Twin Cities,” where innovation – across business, environmental sustainability, and human endeavor - is the name of the game.   “This is legacy work,” Del asserts.  The vision (according to Towerside’s website) is to “significantly influence our social well-being, economic prosperity, connectedness, and sense of community.  Getting this right is one of the greatest challenges of our time.”

Towerside Innovation District, looking downtown Minneapolis

Towerside Innovation District, looking downtown Minneapolis

Del oversees direction setting and “getting it right” as Towerside’s Interim Executive Director.  Both the area, and the 501 c 3 non-profit that Del directs, share the name “Towerside Innovation District.”  Towerside, then, represents both a physical place and a process that leverages people, partnerships, and technology to drive a new kind of development.  “I’m hopelessly optimistic,” says Del about this urban experiment in placemaking.  “We have a compelling value proposition here.  My job is moving people to understand that, ‘Hey, this has potential!’  I want people to consider, ‘this might be worth investing in.  Let’s get on board!’”

Towerside is rich in abundance already, and Del’s team, Towerside’s partners, and Towerside’s Board of Directors are looking to attract new development and new ideas to make the area even richer.  Towerside includes 2 residential neighborhoods (Prospect Park and St. Anthony Park), university research labs, the Green Line light rail, the iconic “Witch’s Hat” water tower and park, Surly Brewing, Hubbard Broadcasting, parking facilities, an east-west bus-bike transit way, The Textile Center, a robust community garden, restaurants like Hong Kong Noodle, and cranes towering over emerging high-density housing.  The area also includes empty lots, decommissioned grain silos, an underground creek, a handful of abandoned buildings, a lot of hard surfaces and disturbed “natural” areas. 

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Del recognizes that to innovate inclusively, Towerside has to build from an existing foundation while seeking new partners and new modes of operation.  “This is too big for one organization to solve,” he says.  He draws inspiration from his early experience in Towerside organizing the community garden before joining Towerside’s Board.  “We had a landowner with a vision that included food justice and community.  She provided the opportunity [the land], and wanted us to build the garden incrementally, to become a signature green space.  Over 5 years, we constructed raised beds, we hosted a harvest festival, invited neighbors to grow their own food, to touch the earth.  We added a mural on the tool shed that the kids created.  We added storm water collection.”  And now?  “A whole neighborhood is growing up around it.”

Towerside Community Garden Harvest Festival

Towerside Community Garden Harvest Festival

That garden, in fact, is slated to become the newest public park in the repertoire of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB), paid for by collected Park Dedication Fees (itself an innovative way to pay for public parks).  Tentatively called “Towerside Park” (the naming is yet to be determined by a public process in the community), the park sits at the confluence of transit, housing, and a unique viewshed of the United Crusher grain silos and open space.  Partners involved in the park’s design include the MPRB, the City of Minneapolis, the Towerside Board, the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization, the City of St. Paul, private developers, hydrologists, engineers, gardeners and neighbors.  The new park space will include a shade structure, an open lawn for picnics and play, mobile seating, a plaza adjacent to the light rail, and garden space open to the community.   The primary “Innovation” feature in the park will be part of the District Stormwater System (one basin is now in place adjacent to the park) that is designed to: 

Capture and clean polluted stormwater that drains from a two-block area near the Prospect Park light rail station. Runoff from 8 acres of private land will be captured and treated in two biofiltration basins and stored in an underground tank for future re-use. Access to a re-use supply line and stormwater treatment has been made available at each parcel. The larger basin also serves as a unique public green space.

On the business front, Towerside is looking to attract entrepreneurs, manufacturers, makers, designers, and artists – those who are building new products and leveraging technology to reach new markets.  The website calls out “Biotech” and “Brewing” as two industries already present, and expanding, in the District. “The work is forward thinking,” Del offers, “technology-driven, hyper-caffeinated, 24-7.  We want Towerside to be an incubator, an accelerator for new business concepts.  It’s not just about what can we do today, but thinking about what we need to do for tomorrow.  And I say it’s not ‘What can we do,’ it’s more, ‘What can we do together?’”

One of Del’s great allies is Stephen Klimek, Towerside’s project manager.  Trained as an architect, Stephen lives and breathes the elements that animate a city, that get citizens engaged in the process and energized by what community offers.  “I want the sizzle of New York City here in Towerside, with a scale and flavor that is all Twin Cities,” he says.  His face lights up as he describes flourishing eateries, historic building rehabilitation, programmed public spaces, green walkways, mobile seating, housing that caters to the “fancy schmancy” as well as market-rate and low-income renters, and a community that contains elders, “littles,” Millennials, and business owners who interact and know each other.   “Density helps make that happen,” he says, “but we need committed and inspired placemakers who tell the story and make it so.” 

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Del lights up as he describes the 4 elements that will set Towerside apart from other neighborhoods in the Twin Cities.  “We are focused on 4 sectors,” he explains.  “Economic development, energy efficiency, living, and play.”  He sees growth happening at Towerside in life sciences, materials fabrication, LEED certified building, application of solar energy and shade trees, and he seeks a community that is “integrated, multi-cultural and multi-generational” and abounding in arts, culture, health, and entertainment.

That’s a long wish list.  Del shrugs.  Then the travelling optimist smiles: “It can be done.  I’ve seen it in Budapest and in New York and New Orleans.  They have it, so can we:  Lots of people in the street, moving, engaging, enjoying life.  All day long.  From coffee in the morning to a beer at night.” 


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Photo credits:  Towerside Innovation District


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