77th Street: The Stroad, the People, and the Lost Urban Village

If there were tenets of belief of urbanists, renunciation of stroads would surely be one of them. As transportation facilities, stroads are ugly, dangerous, and create incentives to drive a car, with disincentives to do anything else. As a tool of development, they fail to create value in their corridor in the same way a street would.

One block north of the I-494/MN-5 commons, Richfield’s 77th Street is a stroad unlike many others. On the one hand, the stroad is quite aesthetic, and provides a relatively good pedestrian experience. On the other, it’s further divided the community it runs through, and failed to promote desired development along the corridor.

The Stroad

The roadway itself is unremarkable. It’s a 35-40 mph 5-lane divided stroad. But just beyond the curbs, there are some important differences  The north side has a tall, freeway-style sound wall (behind which lies single-family homes). The south side has a conventional sidewalk and business frontage, as well as Richfield’s largest concentration of low-income, high-density housing.

77th Street

The grid stops short of 77th Street.

The other major difference is that this stroad was built in a traditionally developed context. To the north, the Minneapolis grid runs almost intact. This means at least 12 intersections per mile — and more conflict points if you consider possible alleys or driveways. To create a safe and pleasant environment for cars, this had to be addressed. Richfield’s Director of Public Works Mike Eastling, who was also with the City at the time of the 77th Street project, gave me background on the project. In the 1980s and early 90s, the City of Richfield purchased more than 50 properties along the north side of 77th, to create room to widen the street and a loop system of frontage roads. The actual road construction occurred in 1993.

The road has a nicely planted median, and is ornately planted on the roadway side of the sound wall. These plantings are maintained by the city, paid for by special assessments to businesses along the corridor.

Flowering trees in bloom by Menards

The view from the bus stop. Flowering trees in bloom by Menards.

Along the north side of the sound wall, sidewalks connect between the “loop” frontage roads, so there is a continuous path for pedestrians. Unfortunately, pedestrians must walk in the roadway where the frontage road is present — and pedestrians go down to roadway level, rather than creating a more obvious shared space. Pedestrians are considered, but the experience is discontinuous, at best. There is also a conventional sidewalk with a 6′ boulevard on the south side of the street.

Sidewalk along the back side of the sound wall

Sidewalk along the back side of the sound wall

The People

According to Eastling, the sound wall and removal of access for minor north-south streets were necessary to balance a city pursuing large, highway-scale development and resident concerns.  Unfortunately, the only resident concerns accounted for were those of longer-term, single-family-home residents on the north side of the street. No attempt was made to manage sound or other impacts on the multi-family housing, either from I-494 or 77th.

This isn’t troubling just to consider the differences in the types of housing, but also the types of residents. Richfield’s median household income overall was $50,000 in 2011 — with one census tract as high as $105,000. In the main residential area south of 77th Street, the median income is $27,000 — half the city’s median. While Richfield is about 60% white, this area represents about 70% persons of color.

The wall is not an absolute divide between these worlds. There are periodic crosswalks, in addition to the major through streets. (One can cross at about every third or fouth block.) But it is a troubling symbol of divide between two very different communities.

The Lost Urban Village

77th was designed to serve freeway-oriented business, and it does a good job of this. Eastling actually made a good argument on this point, arguing that — while Richfield is a generally urban community — this is a very suburban, freeway-oriented corridor. And it needs a suburban, car-oriented street to serve it well.

Other issues with 77th notwithstanding, this is a reasonable way to approach the question. Maybe 77th Street does work. Maybe it keeps traffic off of 76th, a recognized new Complete Street. And maybe the value it creates is enabling highway-oriented business to efficiently transfer auto-driving customers.

Unfortunately, this is not the official vision of the community. Enter the I-494 Corridor Land Use Plan, a part of the adopted Richfield Comprehensive Plan, and probably the most universally ignored planning document in the city’s history. The plan strives to promote high-density, mixed-use development, that both serves cars but also creates a “pedestrian-friendly environment” in a “vibrant urban village.”

The closest development to the plan is Kensington Park and Mainstreet Village at Lyndale and 77th. On their face, they do a pretty good job. Kensington Park in particular has well-concealed parking, a mix of different housing types, and excellent frontage along Lyndale Ave and 77th.

However, the details show something else:

Chipotle entrance

Chipotle (in Kensington Park) lays out the red carpet for pedestrians entering from the vibrant urban village.

Street entrance to the Mainstreet Village office

Street entrance Not Entrance to the Mainstreet Village office.

Even when the planning and orientation are done well, the businesses occupying the space still focus almost exclusively on cars and parking entrances.

On the other hand, sometimes the planning and orientation are also terrible:

Menards parking lot

Corridor Plan: “While parking is critical to the success of any future development in the corridor, it should not be a dominant land use seen from the public environment.”

The Menards at 77th and Nicollet — constructed several years after adoption of the 494 plan — contributes nothing to the goal of the “vibrant urban village”. It is a single land use that occupies nearly three full blocks, including a block of parking at the one of 77th’s most important corners. In deference to the 494 Corridor Plan, Menards did install some (now-dead) trees along the edges of the parking lot, and some billboards along 77th to avoid a blank wall.

Eastling may be right — the 494 corridor is inherently suburban and auto-oriented. In this case, 77th Street is doing a fine job, and the development along the corridor is acceptable. On the other hand, if we are to believe in the vision of a “vibrant urban village”, development along the corridor has failed dramatically, and 77th Street is contributing the failure. Either way, the street creates a distinctive divide — between different demographic groups, between different street grids, and between different eras of the way we build our cities.


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25 Responses to 77th Street: The Stroad, the People, and the Lost Urban Village

  1. Matt Steele June 16, 2014 at 2:01 pm #

    Wait, no ripping on the complete-waste-of-money absolute-zero-utility 77th St Underpass to Nowhere that the city and business boosters are championing without cause? It may be too late, but that project needs a major takedown here on Streets.

    • soleary
      Sean Hayford Oleary June 16, 2014 at 2:03 pm #

      The proposed underpass is worth a post in its own…

  2. Monte Castleman
    Monte June 16, 2014 at 4:10 pm #

    77th is one of my favorite roads since I can use it to bypass congestion on I-494, and there’s fewer stoplights than on American. I recall during the development it and American were designed to do just that- removed some local trips from I-494, drivers won’t do that on a cute urbanist street with a 20 mph speed limit. I’ve been waiting a long time for the underpass so I’m glad it’ll finally happen.

    As far as Menards- people in Richfield need to buy toilets and wood chips someplace. You’re not going to haul those on a bus or bicycle so you need plenty of parking. Putting Home Depot against Cedar and Menards against I-494 seems good places for them to me.

    • soleary
      Sean Hayford Oleary June 16, 2014 at 4:21 pm #

      I agree that many purchases at Menards are impractical to move on bus or bike (although I’d suspect if you were to watch people going out of the exit and back to their, you’d see ~50% carrying just a bag or two).

      But that’s not really the point. I’m not going to deny Menards’ need for parking. I’m questioning the impact that Menards satisfying their parking has on the articulated community goals — creating a “vibrant urban village”.

      People are also widely unsatisfied with the quantity of parking at Menards — dramatically less than Home Depot. It seems they could have satisfied both the need for parking and done a slightly better job of accommodating the official plans by placing the parking at ground level, and the building up one level (like IKEA) and providing a street entrance with a stair. As it is now, the best shot at making this more usable is the removal of the Nicollet/494 ramps, which will open up a corner of this site for (hopefully) some more human-scaled development.

      • Monte Castleman
        Monte June 17, 2014 at 7:36 am #

        The original plan was to put the Burger King out front, and while a Burger King might not be the ideal urbanist utopian use it would at least be a small scale building that people might want to walk to. In the end it didn’t happen because Menards said no to Burger King’s demands to basically build them a free building. To the poster that said big box parking lots are mostly empty- this one most assuredly is not, I suspect there’s a lot of traffic from south Minneapolis here, because they have to buy toilets too, and if you prefer Menards to Home Depot this is the closest one, and I think most people in east Bloomington go here too because there’s a psychological barrier with crossing the river, especially now that they rebuilt the store so it’s a decent size.

        I do wish there were more right turn lanes on 77th, but it still seems to move. On American you have Walmart and Home Depot, both which unlike Menards and Best Buy can only be accessed from American, and so it seems like there’s a lot more slow moving local traffic.

        If it weren’t for the Orange Line, Penn-American also seems to be a dumb place to build something urban, since it spans both Penn and American, both streets that the county and city have rightfully spent decades widening to handle the traffic demand- both the spillover from I-494 and the business in the area. Maybe they can lower American and put a short cap over it, or build a skyway.

      • Froggie June 17, 2014 at 7:41 am #

        FYI, removing the 494/Nicollet ramps is a MnDOT goal, but it’s also hingent on reconstructing the 494/Portland interchange (which in itself would remove the ramps at 12th).

        • Sean Hayford Oleary
          Sean Hayford Oleary June 17, 2014 at 11:30 am #

          Yes, I believe the working assumption is that would all be part of a 35W interchange project, where the whole section from 35W to Cedar could be reworked.

          I believe the thinking is that Nicollet (currently carrying CSAH 52) may also be turned back to City maintenance when the ramps are removed. City staff have also mentioned that 77th/76th is a possible future county road.

          • Monte Castleman
            Monte June 17, 2014 at 12:52 pm #

            Right now I-494 is stuck in the “no money to do it right” category. IRC their was a comprehensive ground up, 60 year concrete rebuilding proposal from I-394 to the MN 5 in the late 1990s (which itself was down-scaled from a $1 billion 1980s proposal), but west of MN 100 and south of I-394 (the cheaper parts) are the only ones that go built. They downs-scaled the I-35W interchange yet again to make it doable in phases, and we had an interim project to squeeze some extra lanes by repaving the shoulders but AFIAK the overall plan is still in effect. The freeway would shift to the south slightly near Portland, eliminating that as possible popup project like Penn and Lyndale were.

            Mn/DOT got a little ahead of themselves and ripped down the County 52 shields on the Nicollet signs, but Bloomington doesn’t want it.

            • Sean Hayford Oleary
              Sean Hayford Oleary June 17, 2014 at 1:06 pm #

              I don’t think the missing 52 shields are a sign of anything. 46th St and Lake St where they meet 35W are also county roads, as is Cedar/152 at Crosstown, but none of those are marked with county road shields. On the other hand, 66th on both 35W and Cedar is marked with the 53 shield. I’m not clear exactly what Mn/DOT’s criteria are for when they do or do not include the county road shield.

              Since CSAH 52 already dead-ends randomly at 61st St (to reappear 8 miles north at Washington and Hennepin), ending it at 494 would actually be a more logical terminus, if Bloomington and Richfield are not on the same page.

              As it stands, I believe the only project on the table is an improvement to the NB 35W to WB 494 movement. This will have an impact at Penn Ave, but no effect on the bridges further east.

              The lack of movement on this section (while greenfield projects like 610 continue to move forward) could be a good example of the diminishing returns of infrastructure investment that Strong Towns talks about. Building a freeway where none existed before is transformative and has real potential for growth. Making a constrained, expensive freeway more efficient and less ugly has an impact, but not in proportion to its much greater cost.

              • Froggie June 17, 2014 at 1:45 pm #

                The County 52 shields were likely removed from 494 signs to eliminate confusion with Highway 52. There’s precedent for this: the 494 interchange at Minnetonka Blvd omits the County 5 shields so as to avoid confusion with Highway 5.

                County routes within Minneapolis have always been poorly signed. And except for what was then the County 62 Crosstown Highway, weren’t signed at all inside the city until the late 1980s, even though they’ve existed since 1957. This is why county route shields are missing from several freeway signs within Minneapolis. Most of those that do exist are because those routes are former state routes (88 in Northeast and West Broadway in North), or because of “new” freeway construction (County 2 was added to the Penn Ave signs when old 12 was rebuilt into 394).

                Regarding turnback of County 52/Nicollet Ave, it should be noted that past versions of the county’s transportation plan suggested turning Nicollet back to the cities in both Richfield and Bloomington, and in return, designating Lyndale Ave between 98th and the Crosstown as a county route. The county’s latest (ca. 2009) transportation plan does not have this…only suggesting removing the last block of County 52 from south Minneapolis (between 61st and 62nd). Richfield’s Comprehensive Plan is the one that suggests removing County 52 from Richfield in return for designating 76th/77th as a county route.

                • Sean Hayford Oleary
                  Sean Hayford Oleary June 17, 2014 at 2:05 pm #

                  Interesting explanation — although CSAH 46 signage is again missing from the new freeway segment there. I’ve also wondered how they determine when to primarily identify a street by highway number or by name. The Excelsior Boulevard overpass over 494 has seemed particularly odd (the sign on the bridge says only “County 3”, even though Excelsior Blvd is much more heavily signed at street level).

                  While we’re at it, I don’t totally understand their trend of when Highway 5 is signed or not. Hwy 5 is missing from the Nicollet/Portland/12th interchanges. It’s also missing from the relatively new signage on the France Ave interchange, but was included again on the yet-newer Lyndale Ave interchange.

    • soleary
      Sean Hayford Oleary June 16, 2014 at 4:23 pm #

      Also, since you bring up American: had the article not already gotten so long, I would have favorably compared 77th to American Boulevard. Although the posted speed is 5 mph higher (east of Lyndale), 77th is far more humane to walk along, and much easier to negotiate on bike. I particularly appreciate the absence of right-turn and auxiliary lanes on 77th, which makes bicycling much easier.

      I think it’s a positive demonstration that it’s also perceived to be more efficient for auto drivers.

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller June 16, 2014 at 4:32 pm #

      The one feature that always strikes me when I have to visit a store like Menards (and specifically Home Depot at The Quarry the last time I was there) is that the parking lots are never anywhere near full.

      I’m not at all sure that people won’t take a “cute urbanist street with a 20 mph speed limit” instead of getting on the nightmare that is this stretch of 494.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke June 17, 2014 at 7:09 am #

      “people in Richfield need to buy toilets”

      hm.

  3. Froggie June 17, 2014 at 8:00 am #

    Sean,

    Something missing from your historical analysis (though Monte hints at it in one of his responses) is that one of the primary motivations behind building 77th was to create a nearby parallel alternative to 494. The same motivation was also behind the building of American Blvd, though as noted Bloomington took a somewhat different approach. Both roads were seen as needed to pull shorter-length trips off of 494 to preserve 494’s capacity, but also needed for what was at the time proposed as a corridor-wide major reconstruction of 494 (which, like the similarly planned rip-up of 35W, was halted due to lack of funding).

    Richfield also had other reasons. Constructing 77th was also seen as a way to build a buffer between the residential areas to the north and the largely industrial-turning-commercial areas immediately adjacent to 494 to the south. This, plus noise considerations necessary of any project involving Federal highway funding, are why the noise walls were added along the north side of 77th.

    Richfield also (rightfully) determined that 77th would draw enough traffic off 76th to where they could rebuild 76th with a smaller footprint (i.e. no longer needing 4 lanes). It just took the city a lot longer than they intended to line up the funding to do so. It’s a similar concept (add a lane to one road in order to remove a lane on a nearby parallel road) to what both Matt and I have proposed elsewhere.

    • Sean Hayford Oleary
      Sean Hayford Oleary June 17, 2014 at 11:39 am #

      > “one of the primary motivations behind building 77th was to create a nearby parallel alternative to 494”

      Yes, I should have stated this more explicitly. I’ll actually go back and tweak that, because that is an important detail in considering the design.

      > “Constructing 77th was also seen as a way to build a buffer between the residential areas to the north and the largely industrial-turning-commercial areas immediately adjacent to 494 to the south.”

      I think I did say that fairly clearly. What is problematic to me is that, while the concerns of the single-family home residents were clearly taken into account, the effect on the multi-family home residents to the south was not considered at all.

      > “This, plus noise considerations necessary of any project involving Federal highway funding, are why the noise walls were added along the north side of 77th.”

      Noise walls are required on city streets? (Particularly, a city street carrying as little as 2500 cars a day.) I don’t know that you’re wrong, but it has not come up on either Portland Avenue or 66th Street reconstructions, both of which are also receiving federal funding.

      > “Richfield also (rightfully) determined that 77th would draw enough traffic off 76th to where they could rebuild 76th with a smaller footprint (i.e. no longer needing 4 lanes).”

      This is true, but also doesn’t suggest what exactly was necessary to achieve this. Did 77th have to have a dividing wall and remove all access to the north to achieve this? Could a multiway boulevard have achieved this? And — if nothing else would work — was it worth sacrificing those who live along 77th for the benefit of those who live along 76th?

  4. Sean Hayford Oleary
    Sean Hayford Oleary June 17, 2014 at 11:42 am #

    Mike Eastling also pointed out the following projects, in addition to Menards, that have occurred since the 77th Street construction, which could be credited to the road:

    -Best Buy headquarters (on W 76th Street)
    -Meridian Crossings (currently occupied by US Bank)
    -Shops at Lyndale
    -Kensington Park
    -MN School of Business
    -Hampton Inn (now Sheraton Four Points)
    -Candlewood Suites
    -Richfield-Bloomington Honda

  5. Joe Hoover June 17, 2014 at 12:54 pm #

    In general, with all the issues Richfield is dealing with, it is very hard to manage and speak out about development long I-494. At most we will be lucky to have a voice to veto something that should not go in rather than planning what should go in or what infrastructure should be in place between 77th and I-494.

    Business district development is a lot like parks, neighborhood, city, regional and state. The businesses between 77th and I-494 are regional. While businesses may have some Richfield residents they attract from a larger region. We have to recognize that in our planning.

    That said we should not write it off, there are things we can do to influence it.

    Busing: I ride the ‘540’ bus home from work down 77th Avenue usually two to three times a week. It is a “short” bus and is usually packed. I can also ride the ‘542’ down American Blvd. since it diverts over to 77th street over to the Best Buy headquarters. That bus is a full sized bus that is almost always empty. Because Richfield has many residents living in the apartments along 77th we have a need for bus service. American Blvd has almost none and is reflected in the ridership but for some odd reason Metro Transit feels it is more important for appearance to have a full size bus going down American Blvd. but it has to make up for it so 77th riders get the shaft.

    Apartments: We need to have a hard look at the future of the apartments along I-494. For some like the Buena Vista Apartments, Richfield Tower, Fountainhead and New Orleans Court Apartments we need to both physically and program wise incorporate them into Richfield. We can start with better pedestrian crossings going across 77th and the city should have a tenant organizer to help tenant with issues and access to city programs and services.

    However, there are some apartment buildings along I-494 that have seen better days and/or the space would be better utilized as commercial property. Converting to commercial would help stabilize Richfield’s tax base. This is also why Richfield does need to build and have an Affordable Housing component for its new apartment developments which will be within the community of Richfield and not up against a freeway in a regional suburban business district.

    Church of Assumption: To me this is an area where Richfield could do some interesting things to bring the church back into the community. What to do? Currently I have no idea, but I think it is a big miss not to do so.

    Light pollution: This is a huge pet peeve of mine. I think what happened at the “Shops at Lyndale” is horrible and amazing to me that no one seems to mind to have the place lit up as bright as daylight all night until dawn. There is simply no reason for it. The businesses are closed and there is no merchandise out in the parking lot. It is simply bad retail practice.

    • Sean Hayford Oleary
      Sean Hayford Oleary June 17, 2014 at 1:11 pm #

      Thanks for your comments, Joe. Church of the Assumption is actually what first got me thinking about the issues of the division created by 77th. I was asked to help create a map of good bike-walk routes to the church. Even though many of the church members actually lived south of 77th, there were no safe bicycling routes to simply go straight east or west. (78th St, the frontage road, is fine to ride along, but has no help getting across Portland Avenue; 77th is a poor route for a young or inexperienced cyclist.)

      Basically the best option was them going two blocks north to get on 76th, wind through the sound wall to go through one of the inconveniently placed crosswalks (where cars most likely will not stop for them), and then go another block on the sidewalk back to the church. And we wonder why we don’t get more kids biking to school or families biking to church.

      As a broader question: if we want to accommodate our existing residents, but would rather have them not be in this 494 corridor, where should the affordable housing go? I seem to recall a certain citizen group that was very openly opposed to a new affordable housing complex on the north side of 77th.

      • Joe Hoover June 17, 2014 at 1:26 pm #

        Ah, but remember the proposed development was 100% high density income restricted housing (aka: affordable housing) not mixed with market rate. In addition to that, at least three other 100% income restricted housing developments (that we knew of) where on the table for Richfield at the time.

        All that fighting lead to a much better policy of not banning restricted housing developments but instead to have up to a 30% income restricted component with new market rate apartments in Richfield. This in spite that the need for affordable housing is in Edina (which has yet to build one single unit of workforce income restricted housing within its own city and school district limits) not Richfield.

        • Sean Hayford Oleary
          Sean Hayford Oleary June 17, 2014 at 1:48 pm #

          Although I think your point is one possible solution to the problem, that solution is also not at all in-line with the 494 Corridor Plan. That plan (linked in the post) envisions intentional, high-density, mixed-use communities in the 77th Street corridor.

          Maybe that’s unrealistic — I think in implementation, Richfield’s Planning Commission and City Council certainly seem to think so. But should Richfield condemn this major and highly visible commercial corridor to be a Menards parking lot and the loading docks of an abandoned Borders Books, simply because it serves a regional interest?

          I’d note that in the 494-adjacent regional office park at Normandale Lake, there have been successful restaurants, and are currently luxury apartments going up. I currently work out of a coworking space in a beautiful mixed-use building at 77th and TH 100, also in the 494 corridor. This entire area is on the cusp of a $500 million redevelopment, which will also include housing and minor retail, in addition to regional office space.

          I should add that both of these areas are farther from downtown, have worse access to transit, worse access to bikeways, and (in the case of Edina/77th) no compelling natural beauty.

          If they can do these things — that are in the same corridor, and largely in-line with Richfield’s plans for its corridor — why can’t Richfield?

          • Sean Hayford Oleary
            Sean Hayford Oleary June 17, 2014 at 1:52 pm #

            Not just Edina and West Bloomington, either. St. Louis Park has also seen similar highway-“urban village” development along the 100 corridor, especially at 36th Street and at the West End developments at 394/100.

            The 36th/100 developments are particularly salient, since SLP has an older Park Center development (Byerly’s, Target, etc) that are reminiscent of Richfield’s 494 regional commercial approach. On the other hand, newer developments are mixed-use, more attractive, and more transit-oriented.

      • Joe Hoover June 17, 2014 at 1:35 pm #

        BTW: I got into an argument with MNDOT when they repaved Nicollet Avenue Bridge and actually made the sidewalk narrower. I wanted them to make the sidewalks wider for pedestrians. I pointed out that many more people walk and bike across it nowadays – some by choice, many because they cannot afford a car. The representative from MNDOT was both ignorant and arrogant about making any changes and flat out refused to allow it to be considered. Sadly the City of Richfield paid no attention to the issue.

  6. Joe Hoover June 17, 2014 at 1:17 pm #

    Ironically I did not comment on the wall which is a big part of your post. However, the first part of my post does answer that somewhat,that the area between 77th and I-494 are regional in nature. It is very unfortunate that the apartment buildings are cut of. Richfield is still dealing with (and will be dealing with for a long time) its sins in the past of bad planning in the 1940 and 50s. The idea was Richfield was going to be a ‘Bedroom’ community with no industrial and little commercial so it seemed like a good idea to push the apartments up against the busy I-494. No one gave a thought to the issue of the city’s financial vulnerability in having all of its taxes from only one source – residential.

    As a direct beneficiary of “la Gran Muralla” I am grateful for it. I bought my grandparents house and grew up knowing the area. What is there now has little resemblance to what was there in the 1960s and 70s. It is much more developed and busy. The traffic on 76th did not even come close to what is going on 77th Street now. And it is only going to get worse as more development goes on against the freeway.

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    […] projects: 77th Street: The Stroad, the People, and the Lost Urban Village examines one chunk of Richfield’s streetscape relative to policy, performance and […]