Reflections on the Grand Opening of the Northside Greenway Demo

It’s been over a month since the grand opening of the Northside Greenway Demonstration segment, on the 3000 – 3500 blocks of Irving Avenue North. As someone who has been volunteering on this proposal since 2008, the event was an exciting milestone. It was also incredibly daunting, because it was the most contentious public event I’ve ever participated in.

Northside Greenway Demo

Northside Greenway Demo

The concept of the Northside Greenway was developed by residents who saw the positive impacts of linear parks in North Minneapolis and elsewhere. In North Minneapolis, Victory Memorial Parkway is a destination in itself, and also provides access to other trails and large parks. Milwaukee Avenue, a few blocks of street that were converted into a park in the 1970’s, has become one of the most beloved corners of the Seward neighborhood. The Midtown Greenway has attracted hundreds of new apartments and condos on adjacent former industrial sites. Residents saw the potential to borrow design elements from these successful parks, to create a new green connection between several existing parks in the heart of North Minneapolis. The Park Board has acknowledged a need for improved access to parks in North Minneapolis.

Grand opening

I attended the grand opening on June 25, 2016 with my son, and when we arrived a little before the official start time, there was already a shade tent set up on the 3500 block with ‘Stop the Greenway’ signs prominently displayed. There was a person with an anti-greenway sign over his shoulder on a stick, who walked back and forth on the proposed Greenway route. Another participant had decorated his bike with anti-greenway stickers. There were ‘Say NO to the Greenway signs’ in front yards along the route. A resident who walked along the block compared the experience to ‘running the gauntlet.’

The afternoon also included face-painting, a double-dutch station, music, pavement painting, people walking dogs along the demonstration segment, and kids playing. There were neighbors watching it all from their lawns, some of which displayed white ‘Say no to the Greenway’ signs, while others displayed yellow ‘We support the Greenway’ signs.

My hat is off to the people who made speeches at the grand opening event. I find public speaking quite intimidating, even when I’m making brief remarks to a friendly audience. I’m deeply impressed by those who spoke at the grand opening, because public speaking requires extra bravery when part of the crowd clearly disagrees with the topic of your speech.

Listening to protesters

I also want to acknowledge the many people who voiced opposition to the Greenway proposal, and were willing to have conversations with me during the event. I was wearing one of the blue shirts that identified me as an event volunteer (and thus a likely supporter of the Greenway proposal). I appreciate the courage it took for the people I spoke with to bridge a divide and share their thoughts.

From these conversations, I learned that there is more nuance to the perspectives of residents than can be captured by lawn signs. Neighbors with white signs aren’t necessarily saying ‘absolutely not’ to a street with less traffic, less speeding, or less noise. The most common themes from several conversations with folks voicing concerns were: include everyone in the planning going forward, and make sure the project addresses practical needs and concerns. Some people said things like “I’m not opposed to the overall idea, I just think it needs to be planned out differently.”

At first glance, the ‘Stop the Greenway’ signs and the ‘We support the Greenway’ signs seem to be saying opposite things, and on the surface they are. But deeper, all of the signs are saying: ‘I am paying attention to this proposal, and I don’t want to be left out of the planning process.’

Choosing the Greenway

At its core, the demonstration installation isn’t about a project, it’s about a choice. There are roughly 20 residential streets that run north-south in North Minneapolis, and they all look about the same. These streets have two-way traffic and parking on both sides. For homebuyers or renters seeking a new place to live, it’s like you’ve got 20 options, and they’re all vanilla. You might say ‘Hey, I like vanilla ice cream, it’s the most popular flavor – what’s your problem with vanilla?’ Or more to the point, you might say ‘Typical streets with parking on both sides of the street are convenient, they’re normal, and people know what to expect.’ That’s a fair and reasonable perspective. But what about renters and homebuyers who would rather live on a block with less traffic and more green space? Is there going to be a place for them in North Minneapolis?

The Northside Greenway proposal isn’t that every street in North Minneapolis should be turned into a park. No one is proposing that all 20 of the buckets of vanilla ice cream behind the display glass be changed to mint chocolate chip. The proposal that’s up for discussion would leave 19 buckets of vanilla ice cream, and replace one of the buckets with mint chocolate chip – giving people a choice that wasn’t there before.

In an analogy about ice cream flavors, it’s obvious that common sense would support adding a little variety to the menu. But life is more complicated than this simple analogy. Especially because picking a place to live is more complicated and challenging than buying an ice cream cone. And once someone has made the choice, switching locations is not as easy as picking out a different flavor of ice cream. Nevertheless, the key question remains: a decade from now, will people looking for less traffic and more green space be able to find what they’re looking for in North Minneapolis? A decade from now, will the line of parks in the heart of North Minneapolis be connected by an inviting amenity that works well for residents, people walking, and people on bikes? These are questions that can only be answered by ongoing community discussion, and it’s a discussion that began many years ago.

Greenway process

The public conversation about a potential Greenway started with residents making presentations at neighborhood group meetings. After the presentations, we would hear comments like “It’s a nice idea, but Minneapolis Public Works will never go for it.” Then when we talked to Minneapolis Public Works staff we’d hear: “It’s an interesting idea, but residents will never go for it.” It took three years of work by local residents and grant-funded community outreach to demonstrate enough resident support to get the city involved in the community engagement. This is not a criticism of the city. I mention this only to make it clear that residents got engaged first; the city got involved later.

The City’s first step, once it got involved, was a series of forums and surveys to get a better understanding of the level of local support. The forums were especially informative because people could interact with neighbors, ask questions about the proposal, and hear what everyone in the room was thinking before completing a survey. The dynamic at these meetings was respectful: neighbors who liked the Greenway proposal explained their interest in safer streets for their children and themselves, and noted that traffic-calming and additional green space would be welcome changes. Residents also expressed concerns about access, lighting, and safety in alleys, and potential solutions were discussed. Even though the results of this stage of surveys showed majority support for the Greenway, the city did not start building. Instead, the city recognized a need for additional community engagement – to hear from more people, and to explore potential solutions to the concerns that were raised.

That additional community engagement included over a dozen local organizations reaching out to their stakeholders, it included door-knocking, it included a one-day Greenway demonstration and other events, and it included a survey with over 2,000 responses. Once again, the results of all of this community engagement showed majority support for the Greenway. And again, the City recognized a need for additional community engagement. Along the proposed route, a majority of the survey responses were positive, but there were still many homes that hadn’t weighed in with an opinion. The demonstration segment on 5 blocks of Irving is part of that expanded community engagement effort. The demonstration segment doesn’t represent the beginning of Greenway construction. Rather it represents a continuation of the community engagement that seeks to hear from as many people as possible before making final decisions about the Greenway. Placing a test installation in the street allows neighbors to interact with potential designs, and give feedback based on their experiences with a temporary change. By spurring input from people who were not previously aware of the Greenway proposal, the demonstration segment has already been a success.

As challenging as the grand opening event was, it was mostly encouraging, because it is clear that people’s preferences and values are much deeper than a binary ‘yes/no’ about a specific project. The love for North Minneapolis that has driven residents to devote many hours to the Greenway proposal is not better or worse than the love for the North Minneapolis that has driven people to raise their voice in concern or opposition about the same proposal. It’s ultimately the same love, a love that says “I care about this place, and I care about what happens here.” That common ground isn’t always obvious, but it is definitely there. Finding that common ground will help residents determine together whether a Greenway should be built, and if so, what it should look like.

Painting the Greenway green

Painting the Greenway green

 

 


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8 Responses to Reflections on the Grand Opening of the Northside Greenway Demo

  1. Monte Castleman
    Monte Castleman August 18, 2016 at 9:22 am #

    I guess it’s tough if you invested in a house because it came with an endless supply of free vanilla ice cream, and yours is one out of 20 that was picked to take it all away and put in mint chocolate chip just so new people moving in have that option. Although it sounds like most of the residents are more concerned about the specific implementation than the concept. Did you get a sense what percentage simply opposed it and what percentage would support it if their concerns were addressed?

    • Alex Cecchini
      Alex Cecchini August 18, 2016 at 9:47 am #

      I encourage everyone to read the many reports from community engagement efforts for this project, found here: http://www.minneapolismn.gov/health/living/northminneapolisgreenway I haven’t been involved in this project, but the outreach process thus far has been incredible in my opinion.

      I’ll reiterate my opinion that it’s a shame the elements put forward for the “half & half” options (both two-way and one-way, but if I’m being honest the Milwaukee Ave approach as well) aren’t actually more commonplace for residential street reconstructions in Minneapolis. One-off designs like this for one street (of 20! just on the Northside!) miss a huge opportunity for safer, quieter, “greener,” cheaper residential streets with amenities people crave right out their front door – as long as we’re willing to give up free parking on one or both sides of the street.

    • Matthew Hendricks
      Matthew Hendricks August 18, 2016 at 9:54 pm #

      You really hit the nail on the head. Viewed more broadly, the challenge is that even if 60-70% of people in a neighborhood prefer a street with less traffic & parking and more green space, there will still be some people on every block who prefer the way the street was when they moved in. So in a neighborhood where 60-70% of people would prefer to live on a park, increasing the supply of greener, quieter, safer streets to meet the demand will require working with skeptics and opponents to carefully understand and address concerns.
      My sense is that some residents would become either supportive or neutral if their concerns were addressed well, but that tipping point is probably different for each individual. Parking is a big issue, but it’s definitely not the main factor for everyone. For example, many neighbors on the block with no parking at all (3500 Irving) are supportive of the Greenway, while some of the most vocal opponents can still park on the street in front of their homes. Winter maintenance, especially plowing in the alley, is often mentioned as a key problem to solve. Doing this well could be decisive for a significant number of people.

      • Matthew Hendricks
        Matthew Hendricks August 18, 2016 at 9:59 pm #

        Alex, I completely agree. One of the issues we recognized with the ‘half & half’ option is that it provides a good path for bicyclists, but it doesn’t add much green space to the street, if any. The 3200-3400 blocks of Irving Avenue North take a different approach to providing some access for motor vehicles. These blocks use bump-outs to make the travel path for motor vehicles less direct, which is intended to discourage speeding. Restrictions at some intersections reduce the total traffic volumes as well. With these changes, the streets are designed to provide a comfortable shared space for bicyclists, which is more space-efficient than creating a separate trail space. The brightly painted areas represent green space that could be gained using this approach. In a permanent design, these could be expanded or reduced in size depending on how a given block wanted to balance parking and new green space.

  2. Zoey August 18, 2016 at 12:24 pm #

    The current antigreenway mood on the proposed route is very disheartening. I’ve looked forward to this project for a long time, and I fear that the amount of energy opposing the Greenway may kill it before it ever has a chance.

    I live on the North Side, and commute by bicycle to work daily year round. I travel through the demonstration segment of the proposed Northside Greenway most days of the week by bicycle.

    The way that the temporary trial has been implemented seems to be the biggest risk. The painted street and cheap looking planters and street furniture make it very difficult to imagine the Greenway as it will be. Also, there is a very big feeling that the city put the stuff in, and then walked away without monitoring and maintaining the street.

    I feel strongly that the Greenway, if implemented, will become one of the most desired locations in the North side.

    The one bright spot is that the renovations on 26th Avenue are nearly finished. I’m hopeful that, in seeing how dramatically improved 26th avenue feels with its new layout, residents will be better able to visualize what the Northside Greenway can become.

    26th avenue’S cycling path is half complete as of a few days ago. The redesign is amazing. I think it is the best path design in the city right now.

  3. Matthew Hendricks
    Matthew Hendricks August 18, 2016 at 10:08 pm #

    Zoey, you make a lot of great points. Clearly, the temporary demonstration doesn’t precisely match what the final design might look like. I have heard a lot of compliments focused on how much quieter and safer the street feels to residents, but certainly the aesthetics of the temporary installation require residents to visually fill in some of the blanks.

    To shed some light on one of the decisions: the design team initially wanted to install sod where the paint is now. However, the up-front and maintenance costs of installing grass over a street proved to be well beyond the budget for the temporary demonstration.

    The temporary demonstration shows that the City is serious about considering a Greenway, and is equally serious about hearing from all residents before making a final decision. Having something ‘in the street’ has raised awareness about the proposal, which is positive.

  4. Zoey August 20, 2016 at 2:09 pm #

    Matt, please know that my comments are meant to be objective rather than critical. The demonstration segment surely is meant as a way to test out different approaches in the real world and learn from them. I take great pride in living in Minneapolis. A big part of that pride comes from the fact that people like you are out there working to make the city cycling and pedestrian experience better for all of us.

    • Matthew Hendricks
      Matthew Hendricks August 22, 2016 at 7:16 am #

      Thanks Zoey, I appreciate that clarification, and thanks for the very kind compliment as well. It’s been a big team effort to get the project to this point, with dozens of people involved over the years.