Say “40th and Lyndale” and most Minneapolitans will scratch their heads trying to picture the intersection. Say “the two SuperAmericas” and they’ll know it instantly. The gas station on the southeast corner is operational; the other, on the southwest corner, was closed in April 2006 due to deteriorating structural conditions. In 1998, SuperAmerica purchased a residential property next to the now-defunct station and tore down the house in hopes of building a new, larger station on that corner. But the East Harriet and Kingfield neighborhoods, unhappy with SuperAmerica’s bullish course of action, did not support the design for the larger station. And that, in a nutshell, is the basis of a protracted neighborhood standoff.

Happily, the story has taken a decidedly positive turn this year, thanks to the efforts of a forward-thinking neighborhood task force. The 40th and Lyndale Task Force, led by area resident Matt Perry, has slowly reopened lines of communication by engaging SuperAmerica as a stakeholder and asking residents to broaden the scope of their goals beyond just ridding the intersection of the eyesore. In the past year, the group has organized two community forums and mailed surveys to 1,800 residents in a 16-block area around the intersection, all to gather input for a land-use proposal to be included in Minneapolis’ updated Comprehensive Plan. What task-force members lacked, however, was expertise in urban design.

Enter the Mayor’s Great City Design Teams (page 26; www.greatcitydesignteams.org), a program championed by Mayor R.T. Rybak and organized by AIA Minneapolis to provide design vision for neighborhoods with specific needs. The volunteer, multi-disciplinary team assigned to 40th and Lyndale supplied the “critical missing piece,” says Perry. “We needed to find a language that conveys what our aspirations are for this urban setting. And everyone seems to understand the universal language of pictures. It just brings people together in a way that words cannot possibly do. The Mayor’s Great City Design Team gave us a common language to use, and they helped educate the stakeholders on why, when they looked at one urban environment, it looked right, and why, when they looked at another, it didn’t.”

The design team visits in May included a community forum and a designers-only charrette (fast-paced design workshop) two days later. The forum, which drew more than 60 residents and business owners, two SuperAmerica representatives, two city council members, and a Hennepin County commissioner, featured presentations by the task force, Mayor Rybak, and design team co-leaders Christine Albertsson, AIA, and Adam Arvidson. The designers then led small-group discussions to gain a deeper understanding of residents’ hopes and concerns.

“It was immensely gratifying to be a facilitator in a community meeting like that,” Arvidson enthuses. “You get to walk around and listen to people talk to each other who are neighbors but may not really know each other. They get into these very civil but heated discussions about their neighborhood and their urban space. They’re not designers, of course, but they’re incredibly smart and so in touch with their environment.”

Galvanized by the public meeting, the designers began the charrette with an hour-and-a-half walking tour of the site and generated, by day’s end, two basic proposals. One redevelops the vacant SuperAmerica site as mixed-use while transforming 40th Street on the west side of Lyndale into a plaza-like gateway to Lake Harriet. The other, potentially more innovative plan replaces the defunct station with a Gas Station of the Future—a neighborhood transportation hub with gas pumps, electric-car charging, bike sharing, and an HOURCAR station. “The charrette was a great burst of energy,” says Albertsson. “It reminded me of architecture studio in school, where you have this kind of optimism that allows everything to just flow.”

Architects and active residents inspiring one another to create a better place to live. This unfolding story, and others like it in this issue, is indeed a cause for optimism.