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Gold Medal Park

Gold Medal Park

A few weeks ago, I wandered around by the north side of downtown Minneapolis. Like many residents, I really enjoy the historic district in the area by the river. I admired the beautiful new buildings going up, and I loved visiting the Mill City Museum. It makes me happy that new creative things are happening in a locality that breathes history and revitalization. The Guthrie Theater and restaurants such as Spoonriver add new art and culture. A summer farmer’s market and the lovely bike paths along the river bring much-needed foot traffic. One thing lacking, however, is green space, especially along the streetscape. One step in counter-acting this phenomenon was the recent building of Gold Medal Park, just east of the Guthrie.

Green Space


While walking around, I happened upon the park. The sod had just been laid and curious citizens walked amidst the trees to check out the site. Last fall, at the Walker, I attended a lecture given by Thomas Oslund, the architect of the park. He didn’t say very much about it but showed a few slides of the plan and the progress thus far. At the time, it looked nice and it occurred to me that it would be pleasant to have more greenery in the downtown area, especially seeing as Minneapolis has no large downtown park.

Any project that adds 7.5 acres of green space to these dusty industrial blocks is an instantly appreciated oasis. Located along the river, it features a grassy man-made hill 32 feet high and 320 feet around (supposedly made of landfill material from the immediate area). A sidewalk curls around to the tree-lined crown, which presents lovely views of downtown and the river. The other space in the park is pure sod supporting 300 trees and 20 wooden benches. It has been described by some as “simple”, “modernist”, “ethereal”, and like a “paradise”. After spending time in the park and seeing it from several angles, I’ve come up with my own description: admirable but boring.

Questions of Usage and Aesthetics

Toward the River

Like I said, I admire the large green space. There is a kind of simple aesthetic that I can appreciate in the clean lines and simple forms. The mound is fun to walk up, especially at sunset to view the lovely riverfront scenery. But aside from that, I question the use of space. Yes, the trees are nice. Trees are always nice, and they will be especially lovely in several decades when they create a shady cathedral effect with their arching branches. In the meantime, I find it difficult to see the usefulness of the sporadic grassy spaces – not large enough for even a game of frisbee. The sod seems to go on for miles. Some say it’s pretty, others say it looks like astroturf. There is nary a shrub. I like grass as much as the next person, but if the architects wanted to create something uniquely Minnesotan they might have considered incorporating a few beautiful native plants. Instead we have seven acres of grass that will need fertilizing and mowing for constant upkeep. Seeing as the park is next to the river, where do you think all that run-off will go?

From the Guthrie

The park looks lovely from afar and from above [see my photos taken from the Guthrie]. But I don’t believe parks should just be lovely to look at; there should be some usefulness, some reason to spend a little time in the park. The Oslund and Associates website calls the park walkways “dendridic”. I’m not sure I would use that word, seeing as the walkways from the main sidewalks turn in a few feet and then end at a bench in the middle of nowhere. The wooden benches are pretty (and at night they light up a Guthrie Blue from the inside), but are they durable enough to last more than a few years? I’m no expert but I believe city parks should also take into account the environment, the locality, and the needs of the people.

Who is going to use this park? Upon looking at the surrounding area, I would say three types of people:

  1. Residents of the neighborhood (condo-dwellers)
  2. Patrons of the Guthrie and Museum
  3. Bikers/walkers along the river
Looking West

Residents might enjoy taking their little dogs on walks around the park (and perhaps using one of those 300 trees as a doggie toilet). Are they going to sit in the park? Maybe, but I find that most people who sit in quiet empty parks are either homeless or on lunch break. They might have a picnic if there were a reason to sit but plans for a bandshell were scrapped because residents didn’t want the noise.

Arts patrons might find the energy to walk over to the park after a show but they will find it a bit of a haul. There is a parking lot between the Guthrie entrance and the park, and there are no communal places to sit and visit once in the park. The only place worth loitering is at the top of the mound and I doubt ladies in heels would be willing to make the hike (I certainly would not).

Questionable Patrons

Mound and Guthrie

If you follow local politics or do a bit of detective work online, you’ll find that a good chunk of the money to build and maintain the park was donated by William McGuire, the former CEO of United Health Care who is under criminal investigation for fraud and other scandalous financial operations. Since this deal went down he has given millions of dollars to various arts foundations around the city. Seeing as his crimes are of a particularly heinous kind, I’d like to be able to say that his gifts cover over his sins but I just cannot. You cannot buy our love, Sir McGuire, with your big green park.

Disappointment and Hope

This all being said, I must admit that my judgments on the park may eventually prove short-sighted. Parks can last forever and most likely this one will improve with age. Anything is better than the brownfield that used to reside in this space, so can I really complain? Perhaps a shortage of funds left the architects with little room for plant variety, or all their original ideas for useful features were turned down. Who knows. I just feel that more could have been done with the area to create a useable, native space that respects the history of the area.

Mill Ruins Park

To me, the jewel of this district is Mill Ruins Park. A few years back the historic remains of the old mills along the riverbank were saved from complete deterioration and laid out for the public’s viewing. I was impressed with how the skeletons of history where uncovered but left untouched, and how the paths that led visitors through the ruins blended well with the surrounding area. Prairie grasses along the slopes bring to mind the milling days and the landscaping still feels refreshingly wilderness-y and real. It comes across as respectful, beautiful, simple, and peaceful. I just don’t feel that Gold Medal Park brings the same qualities. It feels a little alien, a little conservative, a little timid, and a little unthoughtful. I’m hoping that time will tell otherwise.

More Photos on Flickr


  • […] in Gold Medal Park after running —->  See photos here at this cool […]

  • Thanks for your post and photos. Thoughtful writing. I am originally from the area and appreciate reading your take on the new park. I am a LA in NYC and the office I work for also have created spiral mounds for various projects. I find them programmatically questionable. Please Landscape Architects, NO MORE SPIRAL MOUNDS!!! I am a bit suprised of the apparent formality of this new park.

  • […] came across one critical appraisal of the park at a web site called […]

  • […] is a good article over here about the opening of Gold Medal Park, one of the city’s new additions. I think it is a nice […]

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© Copyright 2006 Adrienne Bockheim.