Nicollet Again & Still; A Word with Council Member Lilligren

This last Friday I had the pleasure and opportunity to interview Robert Lilligren, Minneapolis Ward 6 Council Member who presides over the blight known as the “Sea of Parking” and it’s associated K-Mart at the intersection of Nicollet Ave and Lake Street.

As you walk into Council Member Robert Lilligren’s office, one of the first things you’ll notice is the list of priorities on his wall.  Scribbled in red on the whiteboard is a large #1, followed by, “Reopen Nicollet”.  That note is years old, but today momentum is building and it seems this aspiration may very well come to fruition.

Similar to CM Lilligren, this issue has been on my mind quite a bit recently, and I’m here in his office to interview him on where this project sits now, and what we can expect in the future.

Below is an image from the City of Minneapolis Planning Department outlining the proposed project site (delineated in red).  You’ll notice that the proposed bounds of the project site extend well beyond the big parcel in the middle (delineated by white lines), but that’s largely because it is easier to start big and edit down than vice versa.

 

In the interest of time, the interview was kept pretty short, but I tried as I could to get right to the point.  You can hear the full edited version in a post later this week (provided by none other that Mr. Bill Lindeke).  For now, basic points are these: What’s the pitch, what is the big issue, what are the associated issues, and what are the next steps?

The big pitch is that currently K-Mart is a disconnected vacuum in three otherwise thriving corridors.  The most obvious is Nicollet Avenue.  Ask any conscious citizen of Minneapolis whether they’d like to see this site re-vamped and I will throw my laptop off the Washington Avenue Bridge if they don’t say “yes” in one form or another. Suffice to say this is a popular subject.

Nicollet used to be known as Minneapolis’ Main Street, stretching from the river all the way past Minnehaha Parkway. Now, thanks to poor TIF management, we have a huge plug in that corridor.  The second, still obvious gap, is the string of commercial nodes along Lake Street.  We have some great places there: Hennepin-and-Lake, Lyn-Lake, the Midtown Exchange, etcetera.  Thanks to the parking and the lack of streetscape, the K-Mart site is a comparative let-down.  Finally, last but not the least by far, is The Midtown Greenway.  In what other world do you find $10k carbon road machines mixed with all manner of commuters, just feet from both a vibrant restaurant corridor (Eat Street), and a disused ocean of parking traversed by the urban under-served, all in the same spot?  It’s amazing if you think about the proximity.  Grade-separation at it’s worst.

The big issue is site control.  Currently, the K-Mart site is owned by a land trust in NYC, who (I’m guessing) has probably never gotten to know the site, and who are only financially invested in the site.  According to Mr. Lilligren, discussions are moving forward with the family who constitutes the board of trustees to move possession into the hands of a developer who can do better, or into some kind of public-private partnership (warning: TIF may be involved).  The point that CM Lilligren wanted to stress is that the only workable solution that would come to fruition would be one with a strong public engagement process.

One of the big associated issues is, as always, parking.  Why so much parking?  Why so many minimally required parking spots?  In one of my previous posts I noted that this site is a gap in the Pedestrian Zoning Overlay District that should extend and intersect Lake and Nicollet, which would lower such requirements.  Even with these token deductions though, could we do more?  Mr. Lilligren mentioned briefly that the city planners could someday look to a time when we have (*gasp*) no minimum parking requirements.  What!?  Yep.  Not a typo.  Think about one of our most vibrant urban spaces, Dinkytown.  No minimum parking requirements in new developments.  A keen eye will notice that this does not manifest as a total lack of parking, but it’s relatively low, and is determined by market demand, not city mandate, and is works swimmingly for all.

Finally, where is this going?  It seems that momentum is building and that there is widespread public support.  Along with the project site bounds, Council Member Lilligren showed me a schedule that involves a preliminary community engagement process on August 15th.  Keep your eyes peeled for that.  It also mentions Minneapolis appropriation of resources for the project on Dec. 1, and hopefully full site control by Jan. 1.  It seems that things are really moving, but talk is cheap.  For know, I feel confident in noting that within my lifetime this may well happen, and if the right people and the community are on-board, it will be an awesome and welcome change.


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6 Responses to Nicollet Again & Still; A Word with Council Member Lilligren

  1. Mike Hicks August 7, 2012 at 12:43 pm #

    Wow, I suppose I've had a bit of tunnel-vision on this project, mostly only looking at the Kmart/Supervalu parcels themselves and maybe the southeast corner of that intersection.

    It's good that they're looking a bit to the north — certainly if Nicollet Avenue reopens to cars, then 29th Street and Cecil Newman Lane become less needed. However, I personally think it would be best to keep the car traffic off of the current missing segment of Nicollet and create a short transit mall there instead. It would make the area quieter than a street — quieter than Nicollet Mall too, since there are only one or two routes to service, with frequency only about 1/4 or 1/3 of what is on the downtown stretch where there are several regular routes moving through.

    • Prescott Morrill
      Prescott Morrill August 8, 2012 at 3:29 am #

      On principal, I totally agree with the notion of keeping Nicollet a pedestrian avenue after opening, but I don't think it's feasible, at least at the start.

      When considering this site in my graduate studies, I proposed as much, and the logical conclusion that I eventually came around to is that if you want to garner wide-spread public support, you have to give the circulatory connection back to all users at the outset. Anything else, I fear, would cause enough controversy to side-line the project.

      That said, as a perennial student of landscape architecture (get it…), I've also studies roadway cross-sections that give priority to all other users. Create sidewalks that are big enough to comfortably accommodate chairs and tables, narrow the driving lanes to decrease speed and make drivers more alert, paint bike boulevards all over the place, put a streetcar on it (like "put a bird on it", but applied to the planning world). Do all that, then start to program more Open Street events, and get people excited about pedestrian boulevards. Finally, phase-out cars as gas prices rise.

  2. David Levinson
    David Levinson August 8, 2012 at 5:05 am #

    I agree with Mike, that if you are doing streetcars or arterial BRT on Nicollet and you want to make it work, it would be best to use the new link as transit/pedestrian only. Closing even a single block (e.g. the bridge) to private cars would be sufficient to deter a lot of through traffic. It's not like Nicollet has a shortage of cars now with the disconnect, one imagines that a through street would get even more traffic, which would be compounded by (and further delay) the additional transit service. There also would need to be a major parking solution provided, since with the transit, the on-street parking will likely disappear (or a lot of it anyway). I see the politics Prescott points out, but whatever we install will be there for decades.

    • David Greene August 8, 2012 at 10:35 am #

      Kmart hasn't hurt traffic north of 28th but I think it's fair to say that businesses south of 29th suffer quiet a bit. I am sympathetic to the transit mall idea, especially with a streeetcar, but I don't think one can claim that there has been zero harm from cutting off the traffic flow between Lake and 28th.

      For this to work well, it seems to me that a Nicollet streetcar would have to be well-integrated into the LRT/BRT/Express Bus network. That in turn probably requires a Greenway streetcar. Otherwise I think people outside the immediate neighborhood won't have much improved access to the 2-3 blocks currently hurt by the Kmart.

      • Faith August 8, 2012 at 11:55 am #

        The Eat Street restaurant concentration is focused at 26th, with a gradual tapering down from there. I think the area south of 29th suffers from being adjacent to the rear end of the Kmart and grocery store more than it suffers from the lack of traffic. It looks like a very low rent location.

        Significant community support for transit/pedestrian only connection would be needed in addition to support from the developer. Lake & Nicollet is already a busy transfer location between two of the highest ridership lines in the region. Improving transit on Nicollet, adding a Greenway streetcar, and adding the 35W BRT station would make for a transit rich area in the context of our region.

  3. Prescott Morrill
    Prescott Morrill August 8, 2012 at 9:27 am #

    I couldn't agree more.