This is an opinion piece by Alex Schieferdecker, a Minneapolis-based transportation planner.
Any day now – if it hasn’t started happening in back rooms already – the soon-to-be majority owners of the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Minnesota Lynx, businessman Marc Lore and former professional baseball star Alex Rodriguez, will officially start agitating for a new basketball stadium in Minneapolis.
You don’t have to be an insider to see this coming. Target Center, home of the Wolves and Lynx, used to be one of the worst venues in the NBA. Several years ago, it underwent an extensive renovation, which improved the experience for everyone and extended the building’s life. But at 32 years old, it’s the second-oldest arena in the league behind only Madison Square Garden. In this time, Target Center has played host to very few superlative memories; the Wolves have been the NBA’s worst team since their inception. The Lynx have been far (far, far) more successful, but few people would think of the place as a shrine.
When ambitious rich people buy a professional sports organization that plays in a venue that’s over 30 years old, the writing is on the wall. The interesting debate isn’t whether they will try and replace it; but rather when they do, what should the City of Minneapolis do about it?
ONE BIG STONE
The big hullabaloo when any sports team tries to build a new venue centers around the extent of public involvement. It has become commonplace for sports franchises – leveraging their broad voter-age fanbases, strong corporate connections, and ability to confer a “Major League City” cachet upon their hometown – to seek some kind of public subsidy.
Recently in the United States, public subsidies for new sports facilities have soared into the stratosphere. In Minneapolis, almost $900 million dollars from state and local sources were used to construct the Twins’ Target Field and the Vikings’ U.S. Bank Stadium, and even more will be spent in the future on their upkeep. Astonishingly, that figure is starting to look like a bargain, compared to what other cities and states are spending on arenas for their professional sports teams. New York recently committed $850 million in state and local funds to build a single new stadium for the Buffalo Bills. Worst of all (so far), state and local lawmakers in Tennessee have committed over $1.25 billion in public money to construct a new home for the Tennessee Titans.
The stadium subsidy racket persists despite withering attacks from economists, who have convincingly demonstrated that local revenues generated from stadium activities virtually never add up to equal the cost of the public subsidy, let alone the opportunity cost of that subsidy. For these reasons alone, it would make sense for elected officials to tell Lore and Rodriguez to go jump in a lake.
Yet – and I see that arched eyebrow! – the City and state ought to sit down with them anyway.
Target Center is owned directly by the City of Minneapolis, meaning any replacement venue would have a direct impact upon a city-owned asset. The Wolves and Lynx have a lease at the Target Center through the 2034-2035 season, with a $50 million opt-out clause. The City has leverage to do something else besides simply running out the arena lease and seeing what happens next.
Why care about this leverage? Well, a new stadium campaign represents one of those rare moments in a city's life in which massive amounts of private capital becomes available in one place. Leveraged with enough political capital, this combination of forces can be used to make significant physical changes in the landscape of a city. When the stars align, significant areas of a city can be transformed in a single stroke.
The construction of Target Field, for example, helped transform the northwestern fringe of downtown. The replacement of the Metrodome with U.S. Bank Stadium was paired with a dramatic redevelopment of Downtown East that remade what had been a massive dead zone.
It may be hard to claim that either stadium was “worth it” when their costs are measured against their benefits. But the problem with these projects was their public subsidy, not the concept of a stadium-led regeneration itself. The future construction of a new basketball arena could offer similar benefits, given enough ambition and advance planning.
This is not the same as saying that Minneapolis should spend scarce public funds to subsidize an arena that will primarily serve to raise the net worth of team ownership. The first offer from the City should be nothing. But it should at least sit at the table to make that offer, and it should be sufficiently arena-curious to imagine how the confluence of economic and political capital could be combined not just to build an arena, but also – given the right circumstances – to do something else.
TWO STUBBORN BIRDS
I have an idea about what that something else could be.
Consider a new basketball area in Minneapolis at the current site of the I-94 Fourth Street viaduct, the I-394 terminus, and Ramp C. This is one of the only locations downtown with a large-enough gap in the urban grid to fit a new arena. It’s also an unloved location, overwhelmed by two clunking pieces of highway infrastructure, that could only be completely remade with an intervention of this heft.
This location is perfect for a new arena:
- As noted above, a basketball arena requires more space than a standard downtown Minneapolis city block. The footprint of Target Center forces Seventh Street to bend around it. A similar grid-warping accommodation (or a road closure) might be required if a new arena were built elsewhere in downtown. But the I-394 trench has enough width and length to accommodate a new arena of similar size without warping an existing city street.
- A basketball arena typically locates the court and lower bowl below grade, along with an extensive back-of-house space. The I-394 trench is already dug out, and like nearby Target Field, it would be easy to repurpose some of the existing highway infrastructure to provide direct loading access to lower levels.
- This proposed arena location would be close enough to the existing Target Center to still be able to take advantage of all of its supporting amenities, including the Wolves and Lynx practice facilities at Mayo Clinic Square, the downtown light rail spine, and the ecosystem of bars in the Warehouse District.
This location would make much better use of downtown land:
- The valuable and well-connected site of the existing Target Center, the filled-in terminus of I-394, and the land currently occupied by Ramp C on the other side of Third Avenue could all be sold for high-density redevelopment that meets public goals, like affordable housing. All of this land would return to property tax rolls. Seventh Street could be straightened.
- This proposed arena location would be built on land that is currently not taxed, representing no loss to the City’s tax base.
This location would remove two major divides in the city fabric, providing enormous ancillary benefits to the entire North Loop area in the longterm, at the cost of infrastructure that is underused or redundant:
- The I-94 viaducts and I-394 are the legacy of a time during which the post-industrial North Loop was so irrelevant to downtown Minneapolis that highway planners decided to bypass it and divide it to allow commuters easier access to the central business district. Today, neither the viaduct nor the trench make as much sense from a transportation or land-use perspective because the area that they bypass and divide has become a major hub for housing, jobs, and entertainment.
This proposed arena location would require demolishing the southern span of the North Loop viaducts. The increasingly-valuable land underneath could then be freed for redevelopment. Without its partner, the orphan northern span could be transformed into a linear park. This would create a far more comfortable pedestrian connection between Downtown West and the North Loop, increase the value of the surrounding land, and provide a landmark new amenity for the City. The existing ramps to I-94 would be reconstructed to connect to N 7th Street or Plymouth Avenue N.
- This proposed arena location would fill in three full blocks of the I-394 trench (from Fifth Street to Washington Avenue). Access for the arena and Target Field would be preserved. For commuters, I-394 would effectively end at the ramps at North Sixth and North Seventh streets. Filling in this part of the trench would (1) create 1.5 blocks of new taxable and developable land, (2) significantly improve pedestrian safety and reduce traffic volumes on Washington Avenue, and (3) improve connections between Downtown West and the North Loop, helping the former more easily benefit from some of the vibrancy of the latter.
- Ramp C would be a casualty of this approach. It’s a price Minneapolis should be willing to pay. Ramp C is the smallest of three downtown ramps (the others being Ramp A and Ramp B) and represents only a fraction of downtown's total parking capacity. The need for these ramps has been reduced significantly due to shifts in working habits precipitated by the pandemic. By the time any arena could conceivably be constructed, LRT extensions to the southwest and northwest suburbs will also have increased travel capacity to this location. This is a manageable tradeoff, and the City shouldn’t let a single parking ramp stand in the way of realizing the larger benefits.
AN ONCE-IN-A-GENERATION SHOT
In an ideal world, Minneapolis would already be realizing many of the benefits of removing these stub highways and capitalizing on their poorly-used land. The North Loop viaducts have not gotten more useful over the past few years. The I-394 trench does not become any better of an idea with age. What has happened is that the land that they are sitting on has gotten massively more valuable.
But change is hard, inertia is real, and sometimes it takes a big push from an unexpected force to get the ball moving. A basketball arena is the kind of project that is big enough to make a much larger vision happen.
And it could happen. Some public funds could be used for infrastructure removal. Solicit corporate donations to build a new park on the northern I-94 viaduct. Then let Lore and Rodriguez build the arena of their dreams on the best possible site in Minneapolis with their own cash. That’s how the City can realize an opportunity for both private and public benefit; by using one big stone to take out two stubborn birds.
We’re going to be talking about a new basketball arena at some point soon. It’s not too early to think about how to approach that discussion, not just as an opportunity to say no, but as an opportunity to achieve something bigger than just a new place to hoop and play music. There’s an opportunity cost to wasting money on an arena. There’s also an opportunity cost to passing up political windows like this entirely.
Why not give it a shot?