The Art of Placemaking
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The Art of Placemaking

Despite its status as a major, historic thoroughfare in Minneapolis–or maybe because of it–Hennepin Avenue has for decades been regarded as a problematic, contested public space. Plan-It Hennepin, a yearlong initiative currently underway, seeks to put the avenue on a new track as a lively, compelling cultural corridor. In getting there, it’s also working through a new kind of planning process led by the Walker Art Center, Hennepin Theatre Trust, and Artspace. The Walker is invested in a fresh vision for Hennepin, both as one of more than 50 arts, culture, and education organizations on the avenue’s two-mile downtown segment, and as a longstanding voice in planning and design issues in the Twin Cities. But beyond that experience, the art center brings something else to the table: “Along with our partners in Plan-It Hennepin, we thought that the Walker could help lead a different conversation in terms of creativity and envisioning possibilities, by bringing artists’ voices into the process,” says Walker executive director Olga Viso.

Artists are also astute when it comes to bringing pointed, insightful questions to a complicated planning process, one that is deliberately gathering a diverse array of voices from the wider community and from young people, in particular.

Wing Young Huie, an artist known for his documentary photo projects in and around the Twin Cities, is part of Plan-It Hennepin’s 12-member steering committee, and through his experiences, he brings an ample dose of realism. “My frame of reference for Hennepin is my projects,” he says—mainly, his major photography series along University Avenue in St. Paul and Lake Street in Minneapolis. He points to similarities between those streets and Hennepin as major thoroughfares that also could be considered cultural corridors. “As much time as I’ve spent on University, I also barely scratched the surface in understanding all the cultural and business aspects and so many other disparate realities. It’s a microcosm of who we are, so trying to wrap your arms around it. It’s vast.”

To put it in Huie’s terms, the Plan-It Hennepin project aims to “wrap its arms” around an equally complex and vast set of realities along Hennepin. In doing so, it’s departing from traditional planning processes in a number of ways, one of which is putting a focus on—and building connections among—that array of 50-plus cultural organizations.

Forging a new kind of urban planning

“I’m not the future of Hennepin,” says Tom Hoch, president and CEO of Hennepin Theatre Trust, who also mentions that he’s “been around long enough to see every iteration of plans on Hennepin going back 25 years.” Those efforts, he says, were “basically the product of older white men and a few women sitting around a table to decide what’s going to happen, a group of people who by and large aren’t the consumers of Hennepin Avenue. Emphasizing the views of young people and artists is one way we’re making room for more people to have a voice in what this street looks like.”

Artists’ involvement in Plan-It Hennepin has been integral from the start, rather than an “add-on” gesture shoehorned into an existing process, says project manager Tom Borrup—which makes it different from his usual planning work as the principal of Creative Community Builders, a consulting organization. “Artists are in the mix to help us stay creative and find ways for the creative process and urban planning and design process to complement and also work parallel to one another,” he says. “But maybe even more important is that they remind us of the human functions that streets serve as public space, and the cultural mix that takes place there—which on Hennepin is a huge factor.”

Besides recruiting artists for the steering committee, Borrup organized a series of public workshops led by a team that includes an urban designer, a landscape architect, and a quartet of artists: vocalist/composer/producer Mankwe Ndosi, dancer/choreographer Leah Nelson, visual artist Ta-Coumba Aiken, and theater artist Harry Waters Jr. That makeup changes everything, he says: “Where urban planners and designers are trained to look at physical elements like street widths, building heights, and other infrastructure, artists home in on other dimensions of public spaces. Often this involves the people—the nature of their interactions, their assumptions about using and moving through a place—or even the sounds and stories of places. Our challenge is to address both of these, putting the artists’ analyses first so the planners start from a different set of assumptions. It’s been fascinating to facilitate and observe the dialogue among the artists and the planners and designers—the way they riff off each other is just amazing!”

The focus on people and culture in planning is a distinct departure from previous improvement efforts on Hennepin that were based around real estate development, Block E being the most recent prominent example. At the same time, that arts focus can spark aspirations for large-scale public art projects along the lines of Cloud Gate, aka “The Bean”—the mammoth mirrored sculpture by Anish Kapoor in downtown Chicago’s Millennium Park—which has come up in Plan-It Hennepin discussions. “Huge artworks are alluring, especially to business-minded people,” says Viso. “But we’ve been really encouraged by young people saying that we already have amazing assets; we don’t need to build something new.”

Plan-It Hennepin’s main challenge is to connect those existing cultural and artistic assets in order to capitalize on them. Hoch notes the current lack of visibility among the avenue’s smaller arts organizations and the gaps, physical and figurative, among its major destinations: the Minneapolis Central Library, the Cowles Center, the venues in the Theatre District, and the Walker Art Center and Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. “Right now, there’s no synergy and we’re all out doing battle individually, so why not find a way to join forces?” He adds, “Looking at the economy today, the era of the big project that’s going to save all of us is over. It probably was never the right way to think of it.”

That’s not to say that Plan-It Hennepin won’t include some physical changes to the street, such as the series of public gathering sites, now in a preliminary design phase; but even those spaces are being considered as a way to promote and gather ongoing public input about Hennepin, beyond the workshop series. Still, the plan’s main focus lies in networks and communications—that is, forging partnerships among a disparate group of organizations; developing branding and identity to promote them; and building frameworks for events and other programming. Viso says one of the project’s biggest successes so far was organizing a meeting among all 57 cultural organizations, an event that, it is hoped, will occur regularly.

Plan-It Hennepin’s ties to larger initiatives, both in downtown Minneapolis and nationally, also distinguish it from previous improvement efforts for the avenue and traditional planning, in general. It is partially funded through the National Endowment for the Arts “Our Town” program, which provides grants for “creative placemaking” projects that bring together “partners from public, private, nonprofit, and community sectors [to] strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood … around arts and cultural activities.” NEA chairman Rocco Landesman “is clear about wanting to utilize the arts not just because that’s a good thing in and of itself, but also to expand and promote local economies,” says Hoch. The NEA grant was fortuitously timed with the development of the Downtown 2025 plan unveiled last December, which establishes a Hennepin Avenue cultural corridor, together with Nicollet and First Avenues, as the crucial “triple spine” of downtown: streets where attention will be focused on creating “a seamless connection of visual, physical and social experiences.” Those ties may add to the complexity of Plan-It Hennepin, but they also give it far more weight than any isolated, development-based endeavor would have.

On the upswing

Too often, community planning efforts devolve into perennial complaints about traffic, parking, homelessness, or crime and safety (or, more accurately, perceptions about crime and safety). Plan-It Hennepin aimed to sidestep that dynamic from the start: instead of looking at what’s lacking along the street, or what could be added to it, it aims to leverage what currently exists. “As part of an assets-based process, we wanted to shift the conversation to focus on what’s already great about this place—what’s already working,” says Viso.

Those elements are on the upswing, according to Ben Shardlow, a project manager and community developer who is also on the Plan-It Hennepin steering committee. “I consider the good things on Hennepin as those you find nowhere else: the big cultural attractions, and some of the more commercial restaurants now getting a foothold after so many of them failing. Then there’s MCTC [Minneapolis Community and Technical College], which is doing interesting urban design work to connect its campus to the city. There are fewer vacant storefronts; the old Shinder’s location is becoming an architecture office; Lunds is opening—Hennepin is finally becoming a place with fewer dead spots. Those are the most visible signs that it’s a healthy downtown neighborhood.”

Focusing on the positive is one thing; it’s a whole other type of effort to manage such a large and wide-ranging array of stakeholders. “It can be kind of chaotic with so many voices involved,” Viso notes, while Shardlow wonders what kind of vision will emerge from them. “We don’t want Hennepin to be a place that could be anywhere, something that pleases everybody and therefore is not interesting,” he says. “So for me, one challenge of Plan-It Hennepin is getting people involved and contributing, but still recognizing that Hennepin has major buildings and major productions—and that’s a good thing. It’s where high-quality things happen, and it works because it’s a different environment, a different atmosphere.”

Huie echoes Shardlow’s concern: “Our ideas about Minneapolis are pretty diverse. You could ask 20 people and each would have a different take on it, based on their own realities. All of the perceptions of a place like Hennepin are a whole separate issue. For me, it’s interesting because at the core of what I do as an artist is to look at that gap between the perceptions and realities of who we are.” Where he believes there’s unanimity is in a desire for a “third place” that serves a role for community life outside work and home, such as the gallery space of the same name the artist recently opened in South Minneapolis. “Everyone wants the town square,” Huie says, “but we live in a culture where they’re very hard to find.”

From Hoch’s point of view, it’s important to keep an eye on translating diverse visions and an unconventional process into an action plan. “This is a planning effort for the city, but it’s not being led by the city—which is very different. But our goal is ultimately to have a plan adopted by the city to guide activities and future development on Hennepin. That can take some real work, creating a plan that is adoptable and can fit the paradigm of the public sector.”

Such challenges are to be expected in turning away from a big-money, development-focused vision where decisions are made by a few players, toward a more inclusive, long-term process. “On so many levels, society and culture are moving beyond situations where any single authority, no matter how innovative, can hold sway,” says Viso. “Instead, the focus is shifting toward collaboration, networks, and partnerships. In this city, in particular, there’s been an important shift in philosophy. Looking back on a long period of growth and expansion, a fragmented experience was created downtown, where each player fights for its own space, its own influence, its own people. But downtown Minneapolis wasn’t focused on pedestrians or on visitors. So now we’re seeing the power of the consortium in making change.”

For Borrup, coming from the perspective of a project manager, the ongoing health of that consortium is key: “What will sustain Hennepin is the fabric we can weave from relationships among arts, culture, and educational organizations and also businesses, property owners, and other parties. So a lot of the planning work is just that: weaving those relationships. It’s not just putting together focus groups and then ‘thank you very much, goodbye, now we’ll figure out the plan.’ We want these groups to have a purpose that continues on.”

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