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Adding Character to a Suburb

By Sean Stowell, LASN regional editor

Art has been tastefully integrated into the community green design along with plantings that include Japanese tree lilac, red twigged dogwood shrubs to the left, and little leaf linden on the right.

Often a suburb just outside of a major city has little character. Bland tract homes and strip malls dot the landscape making for an all too unappealing area with little growth in the retail and commercial sectors.

The city of St. Louis Park, Minn., through a community wide visioning process created a plan for redeveloping an eight square block area into a vibrant space for living, shopping and working. Told Development was selected by the city to make the vision a reality and subsequently hired Damon Farber Associates to develop a comprehensive site plan that would reflect the upscale nature of the development and the vision of the community.

A concept drawing of the Veterans' Memorial Amphitheater shows the handicapped accessible pathways and ADA seating at every level of the facility.

The focal point of the development is a two block long community green. A 500-person Veterans' Memorial Amphitheater provides a space for community events and also provides ADA access to the park. The partnership between private development and public open space resulted in an area that reflects the vision of the community.

A Look at St. Louis Park

St. Louis Park is an established community of 10.8 square miles located southwest of Minneapolis. According to city data, in a little more than 115 years, it has grown from a village of 45 families to a community of 44,126 residents. In August 1886, 31 people signed a petition asking county commissioners to incorporate the village of St. Louis Park. The petition was officially registered on November 19, 1886. By incorporating, these citizens hoped to turn this small community into a boomtown.

Explosive growth came after World War II. In 1940, 7,737 people lived in St. Louis Park. By 1955, more than 30,000 residents had joined them.

A rendering of the Community Green shows traffic calming devices such as brick paving and bollards. Plantings include honeycust trees and spirea.

Sixty percent of St. Louis Park's homes were built in a single burst of construction from the late 1940s to the early 1950s.

Today, most of St. Louis Park is developed, and much of the focus has shifted from building infrastructure to improving it, and part of that improvement is seen in the community green and the amphitheater.

Community Green

"The community green is really a link between the amphitheater and Wolfe Park to the main street in the city," said Damon Farber, president of Damon Farber associates. "This is a public space on which a mixed use development fronts it. This is very urban in character."

Elements such as decorative street lighting, banners, seasonal planters, public art, comfortable benches, arbors, fountains and decorative pavers reinforce the pedestrian atmosphere and promote the image of a vital community destination.

The fountain drowns out traffiic noise near the Community Green that links the Veterans' Memorial Amphitheater and adjacent Wolfe Park.

Granite bollards mark the edges of the crosswalks.

Known as Excelsior and Grand, the project is a mixed-use redevelopment project designed to create a new downtown for this first-ring Minneapolis suburb. The multi-phased project will eventually create a focal point and city center of eight to 10 buildings, including apartments, offices, retail shops and restaurants. The focal point of the development is a two block long Community Green. Elements such as decorative street lighting, banners, seasonal planters, public art, comfortable benches, arbors, fountains and decorative pavers reinforce the pedestrian atmosphere and promote the image of a vital community destination.

Signage enhances the opposite side of the memorial wall leading into the Amphitheater.

Borson Construction company completed phase one, which includes four separate multi-housing/retail mix buildings with 342 units of rental housing and 65,000 square feet of retail space, as well two parking ramps that accommodate 852 vehicles.

"This project has really given this place some character," Farber said. "This was a strip mall suburb and the town green gives everybody a physical focus within the community. It feels like a downtown which they never had in this city and it really enhances the sense of place."

The major challenge for this portion of the project was the intermingling of pedestrian and automobile traffic. He said the design used a variety of paving materials as a traffic-calming device.

The entry of the Amphitheater features flags representing POW/MIAs, the state of Minnesota and the United States. Two plaques between the flags honor the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion. Next to that are five plaques for the branches of the Armed Forces.

The central staircase of the Amphitheater aligns the stage with the gateway monument on the upper plaza.

"We used speed bumps at pedestrian crossings and introduced interlocking concrete pavers into the roadway system where we wanted traffic to slow and where we wanted to accent pedestrian movement."

One of the keys to success for this project, according to Farber, was the community involvement.

While he admits this isn't always the case, Farber said the community of St. Louis Park really feels a sense of ownership when it comes to their town and that came across in design meetings. This project was 15 years in the making when the city came to the citizens and proposed pulling the downtown area into one large useable space.

While Damon Farber Associates was not involved in those early meetings, they later sat in on many community meetings, looking at various design schemes and visual images of the proposed designs.

The 10-foot tall cast-in-place concrete wall provides a backdrop for the modular block seating and spiral shaped ADA accessible pathway of the Amphitheater.

Wide terraces provide ample room for user flexibility and for the passage of wheelchairs. Existing cottonwoods create a border along the side of the Amphitheater.

"There were a number of meetings and the character of the green is a result of those meetings," Farber said. "It was a very inclusive and very positive process."

Other elements within the area of the Community Green is a brick paved star pattern in one of the turnabouts, and historic themed lighting that marries the historic character of the area with a more contemporary feel. Also there is a Haddonstone produced fountain and an arbor designed by Damon Farber Associates to complement it.

Veterans' Memorial Amphitheater

This 500 person Amphitheater provides a unique public open space for community events and allows handicap access from adjacent Wolfe Park to the new retail and housing development. Within this amphitheater is a memorial wall dedicated to the citizens of St. Louis Park who have served in the United States in times of war.

Little leaf linden provides summer shade and an elegant backdrop to the Amphitheater. Massings of juniper are planted along with the linden behind the stage area.

According to Damon Farber Associates vice president Tom Whitlock, a 10 foot tall cast in place concrete wall features three wall-mounted flagpoles representing POW/MIAs, the state of Minnesota and the United States. Two plaques between the flags represent the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars. Also on the wall are bronze medallions for each of the five branches of the armed forces and a silhouette of the Iwo Jima Memorial.

The most unique aspects of this amphitheater is the ADA accessibility of the facility.

"We have a serpentine path that winds through the amphitheater," Whitlock said. "There is ADA seating at every level. It turned out to be a simple, graceful solution to what could have been a really tough problem."

The grand opening of the Veterans' Memorial Amphitheater. This facility has become a community gathering spot for summer concerts and winter ice sculpture contests.

The master plan shows the two-block long town green and Veterans' Memorial Amphitheater that helped give the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park more character to what was a bland downtown area.

Accessible concrete paver pathways wind through the theater giving visitors access to the grassy terrace. The lowest terrace allows wheelchair users to occupy cut out areas so that their companions may sit side-by-side.

"The challenge was to get from top to bottom without it looking like a handicap ramp," Farber said. "The path spirals like a nautilus shell."

The seating is all modular block according to Whitlock, along with the steps. A new gateway piece has been added to the top of the amphitheater along with an information kiosk, bike racks and a seating wall.

The city has programmed this area well with concerts virtually every night in the summer and ice sculptures in the winter along with other community related activities and events. The amphitheater holds large Memorial Day activities as well.

Concrete paver walks throughout the facility provide viewing at all areas, and unobstructed access to all parts of the Amphitheater.

This was the first concert held at the Amphitheater. Little leaf lindens and massings of junipers and stella do oros provide the backdrop for the stage. The Amphitheater is a highly programmed area where professionals and community groups perform almost nightly during the summer months.

The amphitheater is enhanced with a variety of plantings. The backdrop to the amphitheater has a row of little leaf lindens in a half arc behind the stage. The top of the amphitheater has a row of white ash that has distinctive purple foliage in the fall. A hedge of aster sits on the back edge of the amphitheater while hydrangeas slope to the front row of the amphitheater. The upper plaza features serpentine rows maple and juniper that form the area around the gateway, creating a buffer between the upper plaza and the bike path. Along with the linden behind the stage are massings of junipers and stella de oro.

For a suburban area that lacked much character beyond a strip mall, St. Louis Park residents have taken pride in their city, making it an attractive place to live, shop, work and play.

"This is really a lesson in how to make a high quality design with a limited budget," Farber said. "We did that by using materials in different ways. The people in St. Louis Park have really felt a sense of ownership in their city and they have risen to the occasion."

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December 6, 2019, 1:33 pm PDT

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