Downtown’s Transit Stations: from wastelands to place-lands (Downtown and Southwest Journals of Minneapolis)
The warm weather has accelerated our annual rediscovery of the outdoors in downtown and the glory of patios, food trucks, and sunshine. That is unless you were a member of the 40% of downtown workers that walk, bike, or ride transit to work throughout the winter – in which case you’ve been spending time outside all year. Despite making up almost half of downtown’s daytime population, the daily arrival and departure points for these tens of thousands of people are remarkably unwelcoming.
It’s not that all of these transit stops are ugly, dirty or barren – though many are – it’s that so many of them just don’t provide much value to users or surrounding properties. In Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language (a step by step guide to city-building and placemaking for laymen and professionals alike) he notes that bus stops are an essential part of a city’s fabric, but are often dreary when they are modular units, placed without thought to how they interact with their surroundings and the experience of those waiting there.
This certainly rings true for most of our bus stops in the Downtown core. The worst being those facilities along 7th Street that serve the buses carrying passengers to North Minneapolis and Philips/Powderhorn neighborhoods. Here, the stops with some of the highest ridership offer (essentially) no seating, protection from the sun/wind/cold, maps, or adjacent shops to purchase news, snacks, etc. It’s no wonder that there are so many reports of negative behavior at these stops; the experience is so bad it drives away everyone except for those that have to be there for the buses.
But the poor experiences at bus stops extend to the spiffy and newly installed stations, like along 2nd Avenue, as well. Sure they offer real time arrival information and new, semi-heated, glass enclosed shelters – but they certainly aren’t interesting places to be. The shelters are small, the shade features often misplaced, and they are boring. Waiting for something, whether for an appointment, food, the bus, or otherwise, is one of the most stressful experiences of our day. Studies have shown that humans perceive time to move 2-10x slower than reality when waiting for something to occur.
Certainly a clean facility that protects riders from the elements, with useful and timely information should be the bare minimum for any transit facility. But great cities turn their transit stops into great places, full of life, broad usefulness, and joy.
Turning Transit Stops into Places Where People Want to Be
What can be done to transform our bus and light rail stops into places where people want to be, brining joy and value to riders, visitors, businesses, and property owners alike?
While Metro Transit should be lauded for their recent commitment to expand the number of shelters throughout the system, this wont fix the fundamental problem that almost all of the facilities are ill-adapted to their surroundings and provide no other forms of utility for non-transit riders.
We shouldn’t expect the folks at Metro Transit to know and understand the idiosyncratic needs of every microenvironment around each transit stop. Nor would it be simple for them to apply a uniform maintenance procedure to facilities that were adapted uniquely to each intersection. These factors point to an ultimate solution that re-thinks the way we design, fund, and maintain our public realm: putting the design and care of small transit facilities in the hands of the communities and riders themselves.
An ideal set up could have Metro Transit establish a handful of pilot project sites chosen based on the ability of capacities of local groups that came forward. For each site, Metro Transit would ensure quality control over the process: that riders, businesses and property owners drive the process, that each station meets minimum requirements (shelter, seating, structural integrity, etc.), and that there is an accredited entity with proper insurance and capacity (non-profit, adjacent small business, etc.) that commits to build and maintain the station up to an agreed upon standard.
Metro Transit could in-turn use whatever funds they otherwise would have spent on a standard off-the-shelf shelter and its annual maintenance cost and transfer those funds to the local group that has been pre-approved by the agency.
This process would unlock a tremendous amount of creative energy throughout our downtown, city, and region. Eventually, every corner with a bus stop would have its own “branded” station, perfectly attuned to local custom, utility, and whimsy.
Applied more broadly, this sort of place-based approach would make our downtown and city more vibrant, safe, and attractive. Empowering countless smaller actors to make an infinite number of small positive changes is a far more effective, affordable, and humane approach than embarking on a bland and expensive mega-project.
This article was originally published in the Downtown and Southwest Journals of Minneapolis.
To read the full article, go here.
Max Musicant, who founded The Musicant Group in 2012, describes himself as a “placemaker.” He learned the craft while working for Greater Jamaica Development Corp., a nonprofit in Queens, N.Y. After moving to Minnesota, he started a company that did the same thing: He transforms small parks into playful spaces.
At 333 South Seventh, where the Business Journal has its office, he worked with property manager CBRE Group Inc. to create activities on the lawn that lure employees out of the building during the work week. They can relax on lawn chairs, play bocce ball or toss a frisbee. Musicant launched similar projects at other office buildings and is branching out into the suburbs. He’s also on a team competing to develop a large residential tower and hotel on the city-owned Nicollet Hotel Block in downtown Minneapolis.
I sat down with Musicant recently at Capella Tower, where his company is doing some space programming, to talk about his business. The interview was edited for length and clarity.
You said your work in 2012 at Marquette Plaza and Cancer Survivor’s Park helped the landlord improve use of the lawn as an amenity for tenants. What did you learn that first year that influenced what you did in subsequent projects? The biggest thing we learned was how much pleasure and value tenants got just from being around the activities and people in the space — regardless of whether they were able to participate. For some tenants they were not able to use any of the new amenities, but expressed huge amounts of joy and satisfaction by being able to see it happening out of their window.
Besides office buildings, where else are you working? We do a lot of work with shopping centers and retail districts. We’ve done work in urban retailing areas like Southwest Minneapolis, downtown Robbinsdale and suburban strip centers. We also have worked with churches, nonprofits and government agencies.
What is the most expensive part of a placemaking plan? The amount of time one has to invest upfront in engaging the user base through in-person meetings, surveys, focus groups and observation. If you spend a lot of time getting to know a space and its users, you’re going to have a really good sense of what’s going to work, and both owners and users will be onboard to quickly execute thereafter.
What’s some low-hanging fruit you suggest for clients with open public space? There are a few easy things that work to improve almost any space. But if you only do one thing for a space, put in movable chairs and tables. They allow for flexibility, accommodating parties from one to 100. They facilitate conversation. They allow for people to sit, look, and be where they want, when they want. Also, contrary to what many think, there is very little theft. We’ve installed movable furniture at five outdoor sites and have had almost no theft over three years.
Tell me about the Capella Tower program you’re launching this month. There is no outdoor park, so what can you do? The new Capella Tower community manager is going to be the mini-mayor of the redesigned space. The person will be there to ensure the space is working for tenant meetings and events, and also will pro-actively create connections and experiences that wouldn’t happen on their own. I think of it as engineering serendipity.
Max Musicant: Principal, placemaker, The Musicant Group
Family: Lives in the Whittier neighborhood of Minneapolis with his girlfriend
Education: Bachelors of Arts in political science and urban planning, University of Wisconsin; MBA, Yale University
Hobbies: Soccer, cooking, exploring new and old cities on foot and bike
Article and interview by Sam Black
To read full article, go here.
“A building owner can spend millions on redesigning its open spaces with swanky furniture, light features and high-tech amenities, but that doesn’t mean members of the public or tenants will actually sit down for a cup of coffee. That’s why building owner ASB Capital Management and manager Ryan Companies sought help to bring life to Capella Tower’s common spaces after a $10 million renovation of the first floor and skyway level. Enter Max Musicant.”
To read the full article, go here.