Nicollet, the Greenway and K-Mart: A Vision for Discussion

We’ve all seen it, and by-in-large, we all loathe it: the K-Mart on Lake Street between Blaisdell and 1st Ave S.   You know, that place where Minneapolis’ main street used to come through.  Last spring I had the opportunity to analyze this site in-depth as my landscape architecture and urban planning capstone project.

At this site, there is a lack of connection across the site both to downtown Minneapolis and along Lake Street, as well as a disconnection from the Midtown Greenway.  After identifying these issues I thought to myself, “I can fix that”; easier said than done.  Because of the complicated nature of any urban landscape, there are a thousand ways to “fix that”, and with only 13 weeks to consider them all, I really only scratched the surface.

However, there are three important and obvious interventions that this site desperately needs.

1: Urbanizing K-Mart to address the street and minimize parking lot frontage.

2: Re-opening Nicollet Ave and re-establishing Lake and Nicollet as a vibrant pedestrian-oriented commercial node.

3: Using the void left by K-Mart to open the Greenway and connect to Lake Street.

You wouldn’t know it from the number of cars in their massive parking lot, but this K-Mart does surprisingly well as a business.  This is largely because of its market niche: it’s the only discount retailer for miles.  For parking, the site has 522 available stalls and is rarely, if ever, over 25% occupied.  Why?  Transit.  The Metro stop at this intersection is consistently one of the busiest in the city.

Daily Bus ridership in 2011, as compared to the adjacent intersections.

If most of the people using the store don’t drive, or more likely, don’t own an automobile, then why have a 300’ set-back for parking that is never used?   The obvious answer is to get rid of it, or at least minimize its presence.

So what does it mean to “urbanize” a sprawling 1-story retail store?  Take the downtown Target store as an example: it constitutes about half of the footprint of K-Mart (~92,000 square-feet), has almost the same amount of retail floor space, no surface parking, and serves many more customers.  So if we assume this is a good idea, what happens to the site?  We can move K-Mart so that it addresses the street and the intersection, and all of a sudden we have plenty of space for, say, a new road!

Enter your new, re-connected, pedestrian-friendly, Nicollet Ave.  In the 70’s, K-Mart was put in place as a block from downtown to prevent urban blight from creeping into the neighborhood, and as a disconnecting block it’s been extremely successful.  Unfortunately, this also means that the neighborhood began to atrophy now that it’s cut-off from the economic activity enjoyed by the Nicollet corridor north of 29th St.  It isn’t just the N-S connection that is missing; look at the Pedestrian Overlay District map from the City of Minneapolis.  Lake and Nicollet should be one of a contiguous string of commercial nodes along Lake Street, stretching from the Chain of Lakes to Hiawatha.  It would seem that increasing commercial density, and perhaps introducing mixed-use capacity could help mitigate this issue and help reconnect these two axes.  Additionally, the expansion of this pedestrian overlay district would bring a significant reduction in the amount of minimum required parking stalls.

Midtown Minneapolis Pedestrian Overlay Districts (green) with the current K-Mark site on Lake St (red)

Finally, the Midtown Greenway.  Don’t get me wrong, I love the Greenway, but one significant flaw is connection and wayfinding to the rest of the city.  For most new users on this corridor, there is almost no intuitive way of knowing where you are in relation to the rest of the street grid.  It can be a monotonous jag through the heart of Midtown Minneapolis, punctuated by a bike shop, a soccer field, and one or two gardens.  If you need to get up to a smaller non-arterial avenue, good luck deciphering which hellishly steep ramp to mount.

Just like Lake Street, I would love to see a series of true places along this corridor.  For safety’s sake, I’d like to see more eyes on the street, which means mixed-use development with frontage right down on the trail.  I say mixed-use because that would entail activity 24-hours a day: workers and commerce during the day, residents at night.  Furthermore, if we could peel back the topography of the Greenway into the space left by the urbanization of K-Mart, we could, potentially, make a graceful open-space connection between Lake and the Greenway.  This too, would start to form a legible “place” on the Greenway: a spot that would let you know where you are in relation to what’s above and around you.

A vision of what a place on the Greenway could look like: park space, community gardens, plazas, and ADA accessible ramp connection.

 

This image shows what a graceful connection from Lake St (left) to the Greenway (green line sloping down to the right) could look like.

 

A view from a pedestrian promenade facing the open space on the Greenway, this shows where Nicollet could come across, with a potential future streetcar stop at the Greenway with vertical circulation connecting the two.

 

A more technical section of the streetcar stop, this is meant to demonstrate that while there is automobile circulation, there is more space given to pedestrians and transportation.

Admittedly, the challenges to this type of change are many and varied.  Not least of which is the fact that the City of Minneapolis gave up control of the K-Mart parcels with a decades-long lease to an investment firm in New York.  Also, I understand that many of these proposals come with their own set of issues.  This is unavoidable.  While I don’t purport to have all the practical answers, what I can offer are ideas and vision, and I believe my generation of professionals has an obligation to do just that.  Wish me luck.


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12 Responses to Nicollet, the Greenway and K-Mart: A Vision for Discussion

  1. David Levinson
    David Levinson June 25, 2012 at 9:20 am #

    From an urban design perspective, ceding Nicollet to K-Mart was a terrible decision. From a transportation perspective, it was also terrible.

    But the status quo is now that Sears Holding (the owner of K-Mart) possesses the site. The city could presumably use eminent domain and reconnect Nicollet, that is the classic purpose of eminent domain, connecting roads. Why doesn't it do this? Is the "fair market value" too high?

    It can't be hugely profitable for Sears, surely redevelopment would offer greater profits. Yet they don't sell or redevelop. Has anyone made them an offer to redevelop? Or is the fear that Minneapolis would somehow extract all the profits out of redevelopment that it isn't worth doing?

  2. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke June 25, 2012 at 1:34 pm #

    another critical perspective: i think the new Mpls wayfinding signs are pretty good. i am skeptical about how much huge (non density) stuff we need to do here. the original Nicollet & Lake plan was all about increasing suburbanization of that space, but ended up really un-densifying that area, leaving it w/ a single use spread out set of buildings.

    i'd like to see some real density here instead of more open space.

  3. Prescott Morrill
    Prescott Morrill June 25, 2012 at 5:57 pm #

    Well put.

    There is a point here; you can increase open space, and at the same time increase density, if you are willing to sacrifice surface parking, and that is what I am getting after.

    At the moment, there is no residential density (as there are no residences, though there are many adjacent), and there is no office space density (though I recognize that speculative office development is a bit risky at the moment). This proposal would recognize the need to increase density, while making an allowance for place-making on the Midtown Greenway, which I think is needed on the corridor.

    At it's core, I agree with Mr. Lindeke; we do need more density in these areas. However, arguably, we need a public open-space framework on which to hang potential future private-sector investment. The larger question is: how do we get it done?

  4. Nathaniel M Hood
    Nathaniel June 26, 2012 at 3:45 am #

    Quick comment here …

    Why hasn't anything happened to this site? Anyone from the City able to comment? This building has been recognized as a problem for over two decades. I'm not entirely sold on the proposal above, but in general, I do like most of it.

    Good work. -Nate

  5. Prescott Morrill
    Prescott Morrill June 26, 2012 at 4:37 am #

    Most of the problem has to do with property ownership. In 1974 when this development went in (K-Mart and the adjacent Supervalu), the city sold a 99-year lease to a real estate investment firm in NYC. Since then, I believe there have been efforts made to talk about change with the firm, but the impression I get from people like Rob Lilligren and others is that this effort mostly falls on deaf ears. Part of me wonders, if there is a plan to eventually run streetcars N-S on Nicollet, is there a way to use imminent domain to reconnect the street? What would the takings issues be?

  6. Alex June 26, 2012 at 11:54 am #

    Nice ideas – I've been thinking about a similar open space terracing up from the greenway, although I was thinking more hardscaping. Green stuff would be good, too, and tends to be preferred in this town.

    One question – you seem to agree with the theory that the closing of Nicollet here negatively impacted the retail strip south of Lake. I've never understood the mechanism – if retailers suffered because of the reduction in through traffic, wouldn't the suffering be worse in the more isolated area north of Lake? How exactly would closing the street to cars cause the pattern of retail atrophy and geographically limited revival that we've seen on Nicollet between Lake and Franklin?

    Finally, I'd like to point out that the city is launching another planning effort here, seemingly triggered by a developer gaining control of site (although they imply that control of the Kmart half will not be secured until 2013). I hope that the planners take into account some of your suggestions and visions.

  7. Prescott Morrill
    Prescott Morrill June 27, 2012 at 4:57 am #

    Thanks for pointing out that planning effort. I'll try to get in contact with the city planners and see if they've considered a smart open-space framework as part of anything that is built adjacent to the Greenway.

    Regarding the cut-off to traffic and retail atrophy: it's true that the retail areas directly north of the K-Mart site are suffering as well. Regarding your question: I'm not sure that the cut-off of traffic did as much damage to the creation of "place" as the urban design of the area. The retail, as far as I know, is doing alright (the K-Mart is doing surprisingly well). The issue I take with the site is how the development addresses the street, or rather, how it retracts from the street.

    If the aim is to create vibrant, pedestrian-friendly commercial nodes that are similarly attractive to developers/development, then we have to think about sidewalk design, transit stop design (currently the busiest stop in the city consists of rusting metal posts that used to have wooden benches on them sticking out of a concrete slab shaded by trees on their death-bed), and reducing both the maximum set-back and minimum parking requirements. In short, what I'd like to see on Lake Street is not just a re-connection to downtown, but a redress of the character of the place.

    What does it say to regular transit riders when your stop, a very busy stop at that, has no shelter, and which dumps you at the edge of 300' walk across a barren, empty asphalt parking lot? It implies that the city and the development care more about the outside possibility of someone's need to park than they do about pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit riders, who constitute the large majority of users on the site.

  8. Daniel Olson June 27, 2012 at 8:26 am #

    I despise the Kmart in the middle of the street just like everyone else, but I'm curious how much the severed street has reduced auto traffic through the stretch north of lake. Could it be that a dead-end blighted street pushed rents down low enough to allow a concentration of small, unique, ethnic businesses? And once these businesses returned vibrancy to the corridor, did the reduced auto traffic allow Eat Street to become a pleasant place to walk and window shop?

    I've never thought about this until now, but what if the block was opened to buses, streetcars, bikes, and pedestrians but remained closed to auto traffic? We could turn the couple blocks from Lake through 28th into a transit mall like the one under construction on Washington through the U or Nicollet Mall downtown.

    Politically, I don't see it happening. Whenever the Kmart comes down motorist will want to get in on the connectivity action. But, does anyone have any estimates about how much opening the intersection to auto traffic will increase traffic counts on either side of Lake?

  9. Prescott Morrill
    Prescott Morrill June 28, 2012 at 3:28 am #

    Dan: awesome insight. As one of the iterations of my project, I proposed an idea that was exactly what you outline there: a pedestrian mall across Lake Street. But, there is absolutely no way you could push that through immediately. Reopen Nicollet and not allow automobile traffic? Not gonna happen.

    However, if you take a look at the final section in my post, you'll notice that there is much more space allocated to other modes and pedestrians. This is a manifestation of a shift in priority from automobiles to pedestrians and bikes. The underlying idea here is that this stretch would be difficult and slow for automobiles, but quite nice for pedestrians.

    Another idea is that the program of the mode-share could shift over time: initially allow automobiles on Nicollet, but then as fuel prices necessarily rise, as streetcars, bikes and pedestrians increase their share in transportation, you could potentially phase-out automobile traffic. This could be like a Nicollet Mall 2.0, where a few years after re-opening the street, there could be a public process aimed at reclaiming the street for cyclists, transit, and pedestrians.

  10. Froggie June 30, 2012 at 11:39 am #

    Theoretically, if you reopen Nicollet to regular traffic, you would no longer have a need to keep both Blaisdell and 1st Ave one-way in that area.

    Also, on the side, I finally got to bike the Greenway last summer…I thought the signage was adequate in letting you know which cross-street you were at or which cross-street the ramp took you to. Not sure what you were getting at with your Greenway complaint.

  11. Sam Newberg
    Sam Newberg July 9, 2012 at 4:34 am #

    A little coverage on the topic. http://finance-commerce.com/2012/07/city-of-minne….
    My concern is whether the neighborhoods and Greenway Coalition will accept the density required to make this thing work.

  12. Archiapolis July 16, 2012 at 5:25 am #

    @Prescott:

    First off, nice project- thoroughly researched, coherent and a good solution to this sticky urban problem.

    There are numerous examples of excellent "green space" preceding development/density-the area around Aqua in Chicago comes to mind. The development opportunities become MORE attractive if there is an active and beautiful green space as a framework for development. All of the research that you offer here points to the fact that green space (and a connected Nicollet obviously) is about the ONLY thing missing: High Frequency buses – check, biking thoroughfare – check, surrounding retail – check, major transit arteries – check. Your proposal binds all of these urban amenities together using green space and creating the framework for development that I just described.

    The Penfield development in St. Paul could be a precedent for a reconfigured Nicollet and Lake Street albeit with more private development in play.

    Go to K-Mart and use the stick of eminent domain and the carrot of partnership: i.e. The City of Minneapolis will pay to reconfigure the streets and the utilities, private developers and the city can partner to create the green space/connectivity similar to your proposal and private developers can develop mixed-use projects on the site with dwelling units over retail with a K-Mart corner/anchor lease space in the new development along with other retail opportunities (facing Lake Street, facing Nicollet and so on).

    The Midtown Greenway Coaltion is VERY resistant to any project that creates shadowing of the greenway and they are also able to dictate the terms of development along this corridor through Gary Schiff. Gary Schiff sits on the Planning Commission and is also the chair of the Zoning and Planning committee in the Minneapolis city council. The Zoning and Planning Commission recently overturned the Planning Commission's recommendation to approve a project at 29th and Lyndale because the Midtown Greenway Coalition objected to the height/shadowing even though it was approved by the Planning Commission. So, as long as any height is focused at the south end of the blocks (along Lake Street), then these kinds of developments could get approved. Too many people with no expertise PLAYING architect, too little recognition of the recommendation of actual trained professionals.