By Adam Regn Arvidson
Ignacio San Martin had never set foot in the Twin Cities before he interviewed for the directorship of the College of Design's Metropolitan Design Center about a year ago. Yet he already includes himself when speaking of the region's problems and opportunities. "We have spent 60 years building freeways," San Martin said in a recent interview -- we meaning Twin Citians. He is concerned about low-density sprawl, underutilized riverfront, and the automobile's continued dominance in transportation.
But he also sees some greatness, and that inspires him. "Every place I go, I hear how Minnesota has the best park system in the world," San Martin said. "Well, we have this wonderful system because 120 years ago a group of very bold and talented individuals decided to do something important. So I keep asking myself, what should we do today so that 120 years from now, our grandkids can remember a bold group of people who also made a difference?"
Fresh from years in Arizona, where he taught urban design and directed an urban design laboratory in the context of an arid landscape, San Martin has some ambitious new goals for the Metropolitan Design Center (MDC). He hopes to expand the analysis of the Twin Cities landscape, which the center has been performing since its inception as the Design Center for the American Urban Landscape in 1988. He wants to look at the region with quantifiable measures, examining its ecological footprint, its degree of livability, and its overall mobility.
San Martin also plans to augment the center's academic program. It currently offers a certificate in urban design, and a master's curriculum is in the works. San Martin hopes to open the certificate program to practicing design professionals, and he is developing a variety of lectures and symposia.
San Martin's international credentials will be a boon to the MDC. He has lectured at or is affiliated with universities on four continents, has written and translated books in English and Spanish, and, prior to his academic career, was in the international projects office at Bechtel Corporation, which has locations in more than 20 countries.
Closer to home, the MDC is performing community outreach through its Direct Design Assistance Program. Funded by the McKnight Foundation, this initiative puts the MDC out in the community to perform site analyses, concept designs, landscape designs to improve storm water management, and other design projects. Communities and nonprofits apply for MDC time and are selected based on public benefit, community support, and a synergy with the center's research goals.
San Martin and his research fellows are in the midst of a multiagency process to re-envision the West Bank light rail transit station on the new University Avenue line. San Martin feels that current road rerouting and station plans would negatively affect both the Seven Corners and Cedar Riverside entertainment districts, and would also isolate the planned station on Washington Avenue between the two. The MDC's concept would establish that station as the core of both districts: a lively transit hub with a contemporary design.
The West Bank station project, with its focus on urban density and multimodal transportation, goes to the heart of San Martin's personal mission for the MDC. He sees some problems with the way the Twin Cities region was developing, and, although that has slowed now due to economic reasons, a rebound is inevitable.
"If in two years the boom comes again," he said, "are we going to do anything different? That is the main question."