Design Ingenuity: Vikings’ new MetroDome

maxresdefault1When stuff turns 50 years old, a switch is flipped. Nobody wants that junk anymore. And if it wasn’t junk, it is now. This happened in the 70s-80s with Art Deco mid-rise buildings in Oklahoma. Once the grandiose old urban core became 50 years old, it was time to bring in I.M. Pei and tear down 2,000 great old buildings. But this post isn’t about OKC and its troubles and rubbles. This is about what’s rising out of the rubble of the MetroDome in Minneapolis. (Or maybe not rubble as much as tattered pieces of inflatable roof.) It’s about an NFL stadium, which is an odd thing to celebrate in a new feature I’d like to call Design Ingenuity. I’ll do these posts for anything I see that really inspires me as an urban designer. Just perusing through Minneapolis projects, an all-around inspirational city honestly, I was really blown away by the new US Bank Stadium.

Important Note: This inspiration is also in part underscored by the fact that NFL stadiums are among the worst thing our society is building right now. It’s a beacon of corporate excess and waste, public finance and corporate welfare, and all of these evils. Yes, I get it – we have people starving, even a small proportion living in poverty in Minneapolis I’m sure, and yet the Twin Cities are subsidizing a $1 billion stadium. IT is what it is. For some perspective however, they’re getting a lot more for it. “JerryWorld” AKA AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX was $1.3 billion in 2009, $1.45 billion in 2016 dollars. They got nothing. A super huge dysfunctional venue that can only host sporting events, surrounded by not a sea but an ocean of parking, across the street from a Wal-mart and an interstate freeway. North Texas for ya.

By comparison, the Vikings stadium is $1.06 billion which is a lot, but nearly 50% less, for a more impressive football stadium. Beyond that, they got the Vikings organization to financially contribute significantly. $551 million from the Vikings, $348 million from the state, and just $150 million from the city. Also compare to Cleveland, where the Browns organization LEFT TOWN in order to force Clevelanders to pony up most of $300 million for their new stadium, and just last year broke the bank again for $120 million in renovations, with $30 million coming from the City of Cleveland just to pay for a new scoreboard. Since $30 million is nothing, most of it actually comes from Cuyahoga County’s sin tax. Ugh. Did I mention that Minneapolis is getting a true architectural gem and a real catalyst for economic and community development? It isn’t a difficult argument to make that neither Arlington nor Cleveland will see similar outcomes from their stadium boondoggles.

I saw this stadium (nearly complete even) when I was in town. You ride right past it on the Hiawatha Line LRT, and switch over to the Green Line LRT at the transit mall right in front of it. Still yet, I didn’t realize how cool it was. My impression from seeing it still under construction was that it was cool, but not necessarily inspirational. Actually, when I came around the bend approaching it, I didn’t realize it was an NFL stadium. It doesn’t look like a stadium. It looks like.. I don’t know, you tell me:

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US Bank Stadium construction aerial from mgoblog.com

From the other side and inside:

It’s a Viking ship!… “setting sail toward downtown Mpls.” How cool is that? The entire stadium’s design has been inspired by a Viking ship, and not just its exterior. The internal structural supports, holding the roof up, are designed to look like sails. Outside, on a corner where you can see the tapered “ship-shape” angles of the stadium, is a public art statue called the “Legacy Ship,” where local die-hards can buy “legacy bricks,” which they will do because you can coherently envision a great legacy coming from this design. My family are primarily Vikings fans, especially my aunt and uncle who have season tickets in Minneapolis, and even though I never got into it I am thrilled that they can be a part of something that is very cool.

But it gets better. The stadium is located right downtown, on the site of the old MetroDome, and totally surrounded by rapid redevelopment. Minneapolis is booming. They have 40,000 downtown residents and are trending toward 75,000 by 2025, which they will probably reach. Minneapolis, indeed, is booming. One of the main reasons for this would be the extent to which they invested in transit, and this project is no different. While most of the $1 billion is for a football stadium, just as the public art was not cheap either, they have also integrated a not-cheap light rail transit mall into the project. Local Tea Party folks are balking at the “ballooning expense” of the $8.7 million pedestrian bridge that carries fans over the tracks and onto the platform, where a train takes people to and from the game. Right now you can just walk on top of the tracks because they aren’t grade separated. There are numerous at-grade crossings that work just fine. So why the bridge?

The explanation lies in this Finance & Commerce article. Once the still-incomplete Twin Cities light rail network is complete, at least as envisioned up to this point, this stretch of tracks will serve as the central hub and transfer point for the entire system. Trains will come through on average every 2 minutes. Let me say that again: Every two minutes, a light rail train rolls through this transit mall. Since trains take a minute (especially at an important transfer point with other LRT lines) to allow for on- and off-boarding, there won’t be many opportunities to cross these tracks on foot. Especially when 65,000 fans get out of a game, along with countless thousands more that fill downtown bars and restaurants during game days. So in this instance, the light rail bridge is a core piece of this stadium project, which has led the city and Vikings organization (which contractually captured ad revenues from the station to pay off its roughly $2 million contribution) partnering on this.

So there you have it. Rather than just building a stadium, Minneapolis is building a legacy. Not just a Legacy Ship, but a project that has been inspired by this legacy in every way, including when it comes to structural supports, the roof of the stadium, its shape, it’s orientation on the site, and so on. Most importantly, they are building a legacy of equitable access not just to and from games, but the surrounding area as well. They didn’t just think of transit, too; they made the light rail access point a core piece of this project, recognizing that by doing so they can legitimately expect Vikings fans to take the train to the game.

Go Vikings. – Sincerely, city planners.

Mixing Architecture

While my design soft spot has always and will always be architectural contrast, my professional work has led me to realize there is a strong consensus against that in most cases. To make matters worse (or better), anytime you can simplify design through a public process (where design literacy may vary), the better the outcome.

German Village, Columbus, Ohio

Looking straight north up 3rd Street in Columbus, where the German Village’s iconic slate roofs and brick cottages comprise the theme listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The listing notes three styles: Queen Anne, Italianate, and Gothic Revival (Photo credit: German Village Society)

Historic districts promote uniformity, whether we admit this or not (through the theme of contributing properties, which may be one style or several that go together). Urban design guidelines and design districts do this as well through strict standards. That said, we also must admit uniform standards do work wonders toward preserving the quality of a district.

Design is subjective, and design standards and historic districts have been proven successful in objectively raising the bar toward an enactable minimum with which we can all accept. Toward that end, this post is not meant to be an attack on standards, but rather merely pointing out what lies outside the box.

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Outdated aerial (just showing the older Georgian section) of the Chesapeake Energy HQ Campus in OKC (Photo credit: The Lost Ogle)

Most esteemed university campuses with which I am familiar also have a distinct style, often part of their brand. Oklahoma State University is Georgian. So Georgian that the Chesapeake Energy campus in OKC, with its older core of OK State knock-off buildings, is often called OSU-style and not Georgian. #SoGeorgian. University of Oklahoma is prairie gothic, which I always found to be weird. University of Texas is mission-style. University of Kansas is romanesque. KU really is stunning, as a non-Jayhawk.

The aforementioned examples revolve around classical styles, which are most commonly found in authentic samples. Developing anew in a historic motif, like Chesapeake, is rare and should be discouraged as far as architectural authenticity is concerned. That said, the future will not have homogenous 21st Century districts simply because we are almost always working with a pre-developed context. 100 years from now, the 21st Century styles that we will be preserving will be more mixed amongst older styles, so far as urban context is concerned. If we don’t reconcile our perspectives toward mixing architecture, we risk the chance of enacting the wrong standards and following the wrong approach altogether. Preservation must eventually become more sophisticated, just as development has.

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Corner of NE 2nd and Walnut in OKC’s Deep Deuce area, with the new Aloft Hotel, LEVEL apartments, replete w/ Native Roots grocery store and a bikeshare station in front (Photo self-attributed, taken in 2013)

Modern design districts come in two forms. On one hand you have something like Deep Deuce in OKC, which is almost entirely new infill, developed over parking lots for which OKC’s historic black main street was demolished in the 50s and 60s. With very few original pieces still extant, those have been mostly restored, and some of the infill features nods to the red brick warehouses that once were. However, most of the infill, for lack of an authentic surrounding context, has been pretty outrageous – with free reign for architects to create a 21st Century neighborhood. Steve Lackmeyer, downtown beat writer for The Daily Oklahoman, wrote about Deep Deuce as the “complete” mixed-use neighborhood other cities dream about.

Cleveland Botanical Garden and CWRU

Mixed design built within landmark historic district in Cleveland’s University Circle. Modern landmarks such as Frank Gehry’s Weatherhood School and Uptown CLE wedged between CWRU’s historic quads and Little Italy. (Photo credit: Bill Cobb)

The last and most common case is where modern design truly coexists in a mixed environment, which usually includes a more nondescript historic building stock (else the modern would be toned down). In the case of University Circle in Cleveland, perhaps Ohio’s most magnificent square mile, few neighborhoods have so masterfully blended old and new, landmarks alike. That said, sometimes the new does endanger the old. CWRU has famously targeted entire historic districts for demolition, such as Hessler Street – giving rise to the famous Hessler Street Fair where the historic street stands tall against outside threats. Little Italy, (the smattering of cottages between the tracks and Murray Hill in the above photo), is better-protected – but its corners have been reinforced with high-end modern condos.

That mixed context, in my opinion, is the most impressive. I hate seeing historic landmarks in University Circle threatened, but as long as the neighborhood can evolve and retain ALL of them – University Circle remains the unquestioned most spectacular square mile of Ohio. It’s a rich and varied architectural cultural that befits Ohio’s cultural district. It’s as simple as that. Tearing down a building is not unlike the Cleveland Museum of Art moving out the Monet to make room for the Chihuly (which they would never do!), however refusing to make room for the Rothko also diminishes the overall value and authenticity.

That said, you don’t put the Rothko, Chihuly, and Monet in the same frame, let alone gallery. In Columbus, a locally-significant developer Jerry Solove (his family name is on the new OSU Medical Center), has proposed to demolish one of Old North Columbus’ most historic High Street blocks. While within two blocks there exists entire blocks of strip malls that could easily be demo’d for their concept, they of course must demolish the best block to make way for 11 stories of modern student housing. Worse yet, the entire project is designed to cleverly slip through zoning and design review in a city with shockingly weak development controls. The only two homes whose zoning would need to change have been swallowed into the development as a façadism nightmare. The setbacks going up every two floors also circumvent the height limits inherent within the zoning classification. With the city zoning administrator’s signature in hand already, the development could practically begin tomorrow and irrevocably demolish what little historic integrity remains on High Street, north of the OSU campus.

Just because there isn’t much integrity left doesn’t make that low-hanging fruit for redevelopment. Sophisticated cities, which Columbus just isn’t quite yet, find ways to retain the good and focus redevelopment opportunities where those opportunities actually exist. The flip side is the argument that “this argument is irrelevant because said development has this site, not that site.” That is the developer’s problem, not the city’s, or community’s. Otherwise there is natural development pressure to keep building up on the good sites, continuing to ignore the bad sites. What gives in the end? When that happens, you get the below nightmare (which really should also render the empty block of strip mall parking two blocks away).

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Google Earth Aerial of Old North Columbus, with the Pavey block outlined in red on the right, and a strip mall screaming for redevelopment outlined in red on the left

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Pavey Square at High and Northwood in Old North Columbus, notice the two otherwise beautiful Second Empire homes swallowed up (Photo from Columbus Underground)