On 66th Street, Frontage Matters

66th Street is Richfield’s main street, and with a planned reconstruction of 3.5 miles in 2016-17, it has the power to transform this first-ring city. It also has an enormous influence on adjacent South Minneapolis: 66th Street is the longest east-west street south of Lake Street, as well as home to the only major bus line south of Lake. (That bus line also happens to be the only Hi Frequency bus line that does not enter Minneapolis or St. Paul.) Although these transportation aspects are important, the most important aspect in terms of Richfield’s future success is not a question of how many cars, bikes, or buses move on 66th Street. Rather, the most important aspect is something that’s been overlooked in the street planning process so far: the quality of the frontage along it.

Before I go any further, I will note that you have a major opportunity to help create a vital, urban 66th Street by attending the upcoming open house, which will help determine bicycle facilities for the new roadway:

Thursday, May 1, 2014
4:30p-6:30p
Woodlake Nature Center
6710 Lakeshore Dr
(walking distance from buses 4 and 515, and only 3 blocks away from the Bryant Avenue bikeway)


A Postwar World

Although Richfield is laid out on a prewar grid, the majority of its development came after 1950. Remarkably, some areas haven’t changed since. Behold, 66th and Nicollet, home to the Hub:

66th and Nicollet in 1956. Image from MHAPO.

66th and Nicollet in 1956. Image from MHAPO.

66th and Nicollet in 2013. Image from Hennepin County

66th and Nicollet in 2013. Image from Hennepin County

The roadway has changed slightly, but you’ll notice the basic function of it has not changed. New turn lanes were added, and some additional trees were planted, but the basic function to move users (mostly cars) from A to B remains. Large parking lots flank all three corners (and may soon cover the fourth). Despite being a major transit node, no development at the intersection actively appeals to transit users.

Newer Attempts

Although 66th and Nicollet remains stagnant, other portions of 66th have seen redevelopment of varying quality. One of the better redevelopments is Woodlake Center and the adjacent Oaks on Pleasant apartments, which have townhome-style frontage on 66th:

The Oaks on Pleasant apartments

The Oaks on Pleasant apartments

It’s unclear how useful these entrances are to residents, as most appear to access the units from structured parking behind the buildings. While it’s pleasantly built, the public-facing spaces appear underutilized.

One of the largest redevelopment projects along 66th is Cedar Point Commons, home to Target and Home Depot. This complex is also one of the worst in terms of frontage. This small, far-eastern portion of 66th was reconstructed more recently, and is much more attractive than older portions. It includes boulevard trees, pedestrian-scale lighting, wider sidewalks, and landscaped medians. If you don’t think very hard about it, it’s a pleasant street.

66th Street adjacent to Cedar Point Commons

66th Street adjacent to Cedar Point Commons

Unfortunately, if you do think hard about it — or turn your head slightly to the left — you see the problem: the frontage is made up of fire exit doors and gas meters.

Looking at the 66th Street frontage of Cedar Point

66th Street’s frontage. Welcome to your friendly neighborhood Subway!

Why would a business do this — place its most unpleasant features on permanent display to the public realm? For a simple reason: from the developer’s perspective, customers come from the parking lot. When the street exists only to move people (cars) from A to B, minimal cost and effort should be expended on creating appealing frontage or entrances from that street. The developer made a rational choice, and the city planning code failed to prevent the negative consequences of that choice.

Overcoming the choice

So what is one to do, when the rational choice — to favor cars — comes at the expense of pedestrians, cyclists, and transit users? The long-term answer is to increase the popularity of other modes, by building high-quality bikeways and improving transit along the corridor. But there is an important step to help achieve that long-term goal: align the interests of motorists with those of other street users. Or, put more simply, install on-street parking.

Thus far, on-street parking has been treated like a difficult burden on the 66th Street project. Small areas are being considered for it, but engineers have focused on the ways in which it complicates accesses (driveways) and requires more land acquisition. The influence on future redevelopment has been largely ignored, at least as presented to the public.

In other projects, on-street parking is often touted for other urban benefits, including calming traffic and providing a pedestrian buffer from moving cars. But perhaps the most important benefit is that it promotes meaningful frontage. This can be clearly seen on Excelsior Boulevard in St. Louis Park, a similar county road with development of a similar age as Cedar Point Commons. For the businesses — including “small-box” chain Trader Joe’s — the most convenient location to park a car is also the best entrance for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit users.

Excelsior Boulevard in St. Louis Park: attractive and meaningful frontage, with real entrances to businesses

Excelsior Boulevard in St. Louis Park: attractive and meaningful frontage, with real entrances to businesses

This serves as an immediate benefit to motorists, and it also makes walking and biking more viable, by providing more destinations that are bike/walk-friendly. In the long term, it also helps us reduce our need for low-value off-street parking.

Excelsior Boulevard has an attractive streetscape. But the decorative lighting and patterned concrete are insignificant compared to the roadway feature of on-street parking. This parking has helped to bring the most important street feature of all: meaningful frontage, and destinations that serve all users well. We must strive for the same result in planning for a new 66th Street.


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7 Responses to On 66th Street, Frontage Matters

  1. Matt Steele April 30, 2014 at 1:19 pm #

    This will require Richfield to stop acting desperate and taking anything they can get (Cedar Point strip mall, AutoZone, Menards, etc). And to strive to be Urban rather than American Boulevard North. What a welcome change that will be.

  2. soleary
    Sean Hayford Oleary April 30, 2014 at 1:34 pm #

    I think ideally, you shouldn’t even need local government to be obstinate on these points. Right now, our public rules and spaces serve to create bad frontage — we have requirements for minimum amounts of off-street parking, and we have streets that serve only to move people from A to B. Rather than doing that, we should foster good frontage, by changing our planning and zoning rules and creating spaces that attract customers and citizens.

    I would love to see a 66th Street where it actually makes more sense for an O’Reilly Auto Parts to build high-quality frontage on the sidewalk than it does to languish behind a parking lot. Such a world does not necessarily require particularly high standards on the part of local government.

  3. Gordon Hanson April 30, 2014 at 7:49 pm #

    Great analysis.

    The concept of moving storefronts toward the street for a more urban feel has been advocated by a number of us in Richfield for awhile. We like the idea of bringing life and vitality close the street. We won the battle by having it written into the Penn Avenue Design Guidelines, but lost with the first new construction project out of the gate with the CVS store. Of course, winning and losing is the nature of being part of a community. We will keep pursuing what is best for Richfield.

    But even when frontage is built on the street with parking to the rear, the end result has often been disappointing. In newer construction, the main customer entrance is generally located at the rear toward the parking lot, leaving the street-view side virtually devoid of human activity that gives life to the avenue. Kensington Park is an example of this design. I like your advocacy of more bike traffic and on-street parking, which could give incentive to moving main entrances to the street-view side.

    Attractive streetscapes should be given high priority. Standards that I would like to see adopted include:

    1) Pedestrian and bike friendly corridors.
    2) Spaces that allow community gathering, with benches, areas for outdoor dining, etc.
    3) Storefronts with windows that allow seeing inside the commercial establishment from the street. This makes a commercial district look alive. We should discourage street-view storefronts with windows obscured with drab brown coverings.
    4) Make sure what is seen from the street is attractive. The worst offender in Richfield is the Noodles and Company at 76th and Lyndale where the bathroom doors are what you see from the street.
    5) Decorative lighting that adds festive cheer in the summer and warmth over the long, dark days of winter.
    6) Trees and shrubs that add shade, greenery and life to the street

    With the coming reconstruction of 66th Street, the time has arrived for designing a corridors that enhances the community in all of these ways.

    • soleary
      Sean Hayford Oleary May 1, 2014 at 9:54 am #

      Good point, Gordon. The CVS outcome is particularly disappointing, since the same chain built another location at almost exactly the same time just across the border in Edina, and that location is about everything Richfield wanted. Ironically, the Edina/York location is a far less pedestrian-oriented environment, while the building itself is much more pedestrian-friendly. The solution is partly for Richfield to stand up for its plans and hold firm. While there have been many failures in this regard (Menards, Taco Bell, O’Reilly Auto Parts), there has been at least one recent success, in rejecting the Cedar Point McDonald’s.

      Still, I think one of the basic issues is that we’re sending mixed messages to business: one the one hand, our streets are designed for moving cars fast, and our zoning is designed to require more space to store those cars than they’ll likely ever need. One the other hand, our plans also want parking lots concealed and meaningful urban frontage on the streets. Without strongarming business, you can’t have it both ways. In the short-term, let’s provide on-street parking so that the most convenient place to park is also the entrance for pedestrians. In the long-term, let’s look at replacing our parking minimums with parking maximums, making sure our zoning code is in-line with our community goals.

      Regarding Kensington Park, I actually think the worst offender is Chipotle, which uses their street entrance for garbage cans (and more recently, storage of discarded kitchen equipment). The last time I was over there on foot, I attempted to enter through that entrance, and it was locked altogether. I complained to Chipotle corporate, who said they’d see it was reopened. But despite the neglect of some businesses, I think Kensington Park is much better than Cedar Point Commons, because there is at least somewhat useful frontage, and most businesses have some sort of entrance on the street. However, I think if you had on-street parking on Lyndale, you would see businesses favor the street side much more.

      I very much agree with your other points. A particular “detail” area that I’m concerned about is lighting along 66th and Portland — which for now, is undetermined. When I asked city staff about Portland, they seemed to indicate that the default behavior would be to install those seem metal “freeway” light fixtures again, at the same spacing. While that lighting is fine for our residential streets (in fact, we have much better lighting than Bloomington or Edina), it just is not adequate for our main streets. We need attractive fixtures and much more light to create quality pedestrian centers.

  4. Holly Cairns May 2, 2014 at 7:39 am #

    hi Sean! You are now older and always wise! As for your post, Having Edina family roots and after living there for years as a kid, IMO, the strange store frontside due to regulation and later biased analysis about “what works”. Biased towards a certain type of thinking rather than inaccurate results. I think you are right, I visit current locations and feel there is something wrong. May I suggest a reading from Jim Farrell? One nation under Goods, malls and the Seduction of Shopping.

    • soleary
      Sean Hayford Oleary May 2, 2014 at 11:39 am #

      Thank you, Holly! Yes, I read that book during my time at St. Olaf!

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