Kensington Park – Ten Years Later

For the third installment of the “Urban Design – Ten Years Later” series, we head to suburban Richfield, Minnesota to take a look at Kensington Park. What was envisioned back then? How is it used and loved today? Has it lived up to the hype? Is it a great place for people?

The good news is Kensington Park, when viewed in isolation, is an attractive, successful project that mixes uses well and adds tax base to the city. Where it falls short is adding to the walkability and multi-modalism of the city, but this can be mostly blamed on its surrounding context and ongoing decisions that favor automobile use (more on that later).

Kensington Park, Richfield

Kensington Park, Mixed-Use With Condos Above Retail

Kensington Park was completed in 2005 and is a mixed-use project with 96 condominium units, 14 townhomes and 27,000 square feet of retail space (currently 12 retailers). It was developed by The Cornerstone Group and designed by ESG Architects. It occupies a full city block at Lyndale Avenue and 76th Street, and replaced an aging shopping center that was a blighting influence on the area. Together with Main Street Village across Lyndale, it forms a prominent gateway to the city of Richfield.

Kensington Park, Richfield

Retail Uses Line the Sidewalk on Lyndale Avenue

The project is attractive on three sides and functional on the fourth. Two buildings face Lyndale Avenue; a one-story retail building and a four-story building with ground floor retail and condominiums above. The four-story building mirrors the four-story building across the street, which was rebuilt in the early 2000s as part of the gateway project and includes a landscaped center median. A second four-story condo building faces 76th Street, connected by an underground parking garage. Two-story townhomes face Aldrich Avenue. Automobile entrances are found on three sides (not Aldrich) and sidewalks surround the project. All parking for the project is in the middle of the block or underground, and very little is visible from the sidewalks and surrounding streets.

The four-story mixed-use building facing Lyndale is the visual focal point of the project, and the beacon of hope, if you will, for retrofitting our suburbs in to more walkable places. It looks good, and the 14 pedestrian doors facing Lyndale (12 occupied plus two vacant retail spaces) result in a GDA (Gehl Door Average) of nearly 10, which is downright heroic in a suburban setting, and, incidentally, is greater than nearly every block of Nicollet Mall.

The Case of the Symbolic Doors

 

Unfortunately, the sad truth is only four of the present retailers even unlock their Lyndale Avenue pedestrian doors during business hours. When I visited on a recent day to walk the sidewalk and try all the doors, a solitary woman was the only other pedestrian. All other lunch customers arrived by car, an unfortunate reality. The upside is the doors exist, and if pedestrian traffic grows over time, perhaps more of these doors will be unlocked and function will one day follow form.

Sadly, "Main Entrance" Means the One by the Parking Lot

Sadly, “Main Entrance” Means the One by the Parking Lot

Interestingly, the one-story retail building is occupied by more prominent retailers that draw bigger crowds. Chipotle, Potbelly and Sprint have been there since day one, while retail spaces in the mixed-use building have struggled (other than Starbucks which occupies the prominent end cap). I’d speculate that retailers in the one-story building do better due to being physically located closer to both Lyndale and 77th Street, where most traffic comes from. Furthermore, the parking lot is essentially big enough for about three restaurants, which deters additional restaurants from signing leases. And don’t kid yourself in to thinking that 110 residential units plus another 125 across the street are enough to support a retailer without parking.

All Retail Spaces Are Accessible From the Parking Lot

All Retail Spaces Are Accessible From the Parking Lot

As nice as the mixed-use building facing Lyndale looks, the townhomes facing Aldrich Avenue are the best side of the project. The two-story units face existing single-family homes across the street, creating good context and transition in to the existing neighborhood, and all fourteen units have front doors with walk-up access. Even the four-story condo building steps down to three before meeting the townhomes. My only quibble here is that more condo units don’t have walk-up entrances off the sidewalk, particularly as 76th Street has been transformed in to a bicycle corridor.

The Aldrich Avenue Side is Very Well Done, Even Though Some of the Trees Shown Have Since Been Cut Down

The Aldrich Avenue Side is Very Well Done, Even Though Some of the Trees Shown Have Since Been Cut Down

 

Real Walkability is All About Context

And therein lies the crux of the slow transition to making our communities healthier and less car-dependent. Kensington Park is well designed and essentially “urban-ready,” but its context is not yet there for walkable urbanism to be achieved. While Lyndale Avenue was rebuilt as part of this gateway project, a landscaped median does not fool anyone. Lyndale is a fast moving four lane stroad (worse yet, north of 76th Street it is a Death Road), and 77th Street does a bang-up job as a reliever to Interstate 494. The landscaping along the curb of Lyndale looks nice but is really just a buffer from the fast moving vehicles of the stroadway, and that’s too bad. Just don’t bother trying to walk from Chipotle to the Best Buy store; you won’t enjoy yourself. The reconstruction of the Lyndale/494 interchange a couple years ago provided for a big ribbon-cutting but only encourages more driving. That said, Richfield should be credited with a major improvement to 76th Street by calming traffic and making it more bike-friendly and walkable, but it places Kensington Park at this weird dividing line between a tangible effort at urbanism and the very worst suburbanism has to offer. It’s high time to calm Lyndale Avenue.

Keep in mind, the city didn’t explicitly set out to create a walkable district where large numbers of people could get by without a car. Their intention was to eliminate some blight, add density and increase future tax revenues, and create a gateway to the city, and they did those things very well. Kensington Park is a success, should be replicated in other locations, and indeed has. It is “of its era” of urban and suburban four-story, mixed-use projects that received a Livable Communities Grant that have held up pretty well for a decade, Excelsior and Grand being perhaps the most prominent and ambitious example. Sadly, while Kensington Park challenged suburban thinking at the time, current projects like Lyndale Station seem like a wasted opportunity to create a great development at such a key corner, and are a step backward to 20th Century development and planning. Maybe a decade spent on mixed-use developments (the 2000s)followed by one that adds bike lanes and better sidewalks (2010s) will produce great results, or maybe great urbanism can only exist in an urban setting.

Kensington Park is Walkable, and Hopefully More That Surrounds it One Day Will Be, Too

Kensington Park is Walkable, and Hopefully More That Surrounds it One Day Will Be, Too

Primarily because of its lunchtime restaurants and coffee options, Kensington Park is a popular destination. The unfortunate truth is most customers are coming for the predictable national franchise food or coffee offerings and easy vehicle access (free parking!), not the urban ambience, and they use the parking lot entrance. The project also added housing options not previously offered in the city, or since for that matter. Very importantly, it is “urban ready.” It fits in to its context very well, and will do so even more as future infill, traffic calming and transit improvements (hopefully!?) occur. Kensington Park has much to like for urbanists, but don’t blame the project itself or its developer if it doesn’t ultimately “move the dial.” Land use and transportation must work in unison; there is more work to do.


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8 Responses to Kensington Park – Ten Years Later

  1. Sean Hayford Oleary
    Sean Hayford Oleary April 9, 2015 at 10:07 am #

    Good comprehensive review, Sam, although I cringe at the thought of “maybe great urbanism can only exist in an urban setting.” In our metro, the lines between urban and suburban move back and forth. Lake Street in particular is a good example of original urban bones, turning to suburban land uses, and moving back dramatically toward urban and mixed uses. (My favorite being the retrofit of the Hi-Lake shopping mall with Aldi.)

    I agree with pretty much all of your comments on Lyndale Avenue. The interchange was an expensive way to make it extremely unpleasant to cross the Richfield-Bloomington border. Although the actual walking surface is much better (the old bridge’s sidewalks were maybe 3′ wide), the traffic control is awful for pedestrians.

    The single change that I think would make a difference in encouraging retails to better engage Lyndale Avenue is to allow on-street parking on Lyndale. This puts some of the driving customers in the same boat as bicyclists, walkers, and transit users. Existing traffic would easily allow that, as long as it widened out to four lanes south of 77th. (Since there is no real frontage in Mainstreet Village, it would probably be fine to have a merge space north of 77th on the northbound side.) I wouldn’t be surprised if this happened as funding materializes for a 4-to-3 or 4-to-2 conversion of Lyndale to the north.

    The development-stroad relationship is pretty similar to Excelsior & Grand, although that development benefits from its size and attractive, calm internal streets. This being a single block, it is limited by its surrounding streets.

    • Sam Newberg
      Sam Newberg April 9, 2015 at 10:21 am #

      Yes to on-street parking on Lyndale! That is the first thing I noticed visiting the project 10 years ago, why not? And couple that with at least a 4 to 3 conversion on Lyndale to the north, just like Penn between 66th and 76th, which seems to be working well.

    • Matt Brillhart April 15, 2015 at 8:10 am #

      Could fit a couple of on-street parking spaces there today by simply converting this right turn lane from SB Lyndale to WB 77th: https://www.google.com/maps/@44.86444,-93.288477,3a,75y,215.25h,85.66t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1sYI-jbh-x-HSotsanyDuVvQ!2e0!6m1!1e1

      By restricting parking 30 feet from the corner, there would still be a de facto right turn lane there anyways.

      • Matt Brillhart April 15, 2015 at 8:22 am #

        Correction: there’s a bus stop there, so parking would have to be restricted 80 feet from the corner, which gets you to right about where the turn arrow is painted on the street. Everything behind that painted arrow could be parking, so approximately 80 feet of on-street parking for ~4 vehicles.

        • Sean Hayford Oleary
          Sean Hayford Oleary April 15, 2015 at 9:19 am #

          The right-turn lane is bizarre, since we barely have any in Richfield, and there’s not one on the south side of the intersection, northbound (which would make more sense, moving interchange traffic onto 77th). So yes, I’d support repurposing this, even if just for a few spots. Could be useful for Potbelly.

          But if we’re going through the muss and fuss of doing a study and restripe, I’d rather just advocate for on-street parking for the whole block. My preferred would be:

          1. On-street parking + bike-lanes in existing 5-lane (64th to just south of 67th) — this is already planned.
          2. One-side street parking + bike lanes, transition to no parking + center turn lane at major intersections (just south of 67th to 74th)
          3. Three-lane + bike lanes where there are a lot of business driveways (74th-76th)
          4. On-street parking + bike lanes in existing 5-lane (76th-77th)

          • Sam Newberg
            Sam Newberg April 15, 2015 at 2:15 pm #

            Bring it on, Sean!

  2. Albert Hepp April 14, 2015 at 4:10 pm #

    As a Kensington Park owner, and former/aspiring Lyndale Avenue bicycle commuter, I couldn’t agree more with your ideas for Lyndale Avenue. Thanks for an excellent write up.

    • Sam Newberg
      Sam Newberg April 15, 2015 at 2:18 pm #

      It is always nice to hear this sort of comment, Albert, because maybe, just maybe, this post will help push for changes to make this little part of Richfield an even better place.