The Problem of Hiawatha Avenue

Hiawatha Avenue – Image via

Hiawatha Avenue has been a thorn in the sides of south Minneapolis residents for years, and it has been the source of much discussion, including here on In a recent post called The Urban Future of Hiawatha Avenue, Sam described the corridor as follows:

Hiawatha is a “Stroad,” in the words of Chuck Marohn. Marohn writes about our 45MPH worldwhere stroads are neither streets nor roads and do nothing well – they are not fast and access-restricted enough to move traffic efficiently nor slow and humane enough to concentrate density in a pleasant urban environment. The physical layout and speed limit of Hiawatha means it does nothing well, and it has a lousy pedestrian environment.

A bit hyperbolic, perhaps, but I tend to agree. In that post, Sam argued in favor of Hiawatha Avenue becoming an urban boulevard, including elements like better pedestrian crossings, on-street parking, reduced speed limits, more trees, and other humanizing elements.

I was reminded of a post from August of 2009 by David called Time for overpasses on Hiawatha?, where he asked whether it was time to fully grade-separate Hiawatha Avenue from the cross streets, a proposal I think is worth additional consideration.

Hiawatha Avenue as it exists today is literally a result of the tension between these polar opposite visions for the corridor. The short version of the history of the corridor (as I understand it) is as follows: MnDOT proposed a fully grade-separated 6-lane freeway. The neighborhood balked, and the compromise was the existing 4-lane at-grade configuration plus LRT, along with a few additonal roadway capacity items (like interchanges at Lake Street, grade-separating Minnehaha Parkway, and re-aligning the southern end of the corridor closer through Minnehaha Park.

As it turns out, even the compromise solution that was supposed to be more palatable to the neighborhood still turned into major headaches for MnDOT (and everyone else, from my reading). Readers who have been around the Twin Cities longer than I have will no doubt remember the Minnehaha Free State, a group of protesters who camped out in Minnehaha Park for months protesting construction. I read about it in Mary Losure’s Our Way or the Highway: Inside the Minnehaha Free State, an excellent book easily worth the $17 new price, and certainly worth the $0.35 one seller is asking for a used copy on Amazon (I wrote more about the book here, although I think my feelings about it have changed a bit since writing the review in early 2008).

After a bit of googling, I was amazed to discover that the official MnDOT project web page for construction activities that took place along Hiawatha Avenue in the 90’s and early 00’s is still active. It appears to be virtually unchanged since 2000 – one page still refers to future construction activities that will occur in 2000. I wonder, is there a reason MnDOT keeps this page active, or is it simply a relic that has long since been forgotten by the MnDOT IT department?

The reality is that we are receiving some very mixed messages from agencies about the future of Hiawatha Avenue. On one hand, Hennepin County was one of the biggest proponents of the Hiawatha LRT in the corridor, and they are the primary agency agreeing to make several intersections more pedestrian friendly (as Sam wrote about), both indications that they envision a more pedestrian friendly corridor. On the other hand, Hennepin County was also lead agency behind the iconic Sabo Bridge constructed so that bikes and peds wouldn’t have to cross Hiawatha at-grade. Moreover, simply moving ahead with the construction of the Lake Street and TH-62 interchanges (after agreeing not to grade-separate the rest of the corridor) suggests that MnDOT hasn’t entirely given up on the possibility of grade separation.

One thing we can say for sure is that there are no easy solutions for this corridor. This is a very clear example of how our collective lack of a clear vision for this corridor has resulted in a corridor that in all likelihood will remain exactly in its current state for many years  to come because the costs (social and financial) of doing anything different are too great. The decisions we’ve made in the past will make it very difficult to realize either vision for the corridor. We’ve done some things out of order (if we were going to grade-separate, it should have happened concurrently with LRT construction, for example). No matter what we do, including doing nothing, it’s going to hurt.

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27 thoughts on “The Problem of Hiawatha Avenue

  1. Alex

    While I can get behind full grade-separation as a solution for the dysfunctional quasi-freeway design that exists, I really question whether it would be worth the costs. I doubt that these interchanges could be kept to $10m a pop because for one thing, any time a rail line is involved you can double the cost right there ("complexity" they'll cry) and for another, there just isn't much room here. If it can't be done cheaply, there just isn't enough traffic here to justify it. Hiawatha carries about the amount of traffic as a typical suburban arterial – I believe in triple convergence theory, but are 100k cars going to appear to use this facility if it's grade-separated?

    I think that calming is a better option. I'd like to point out that, typically for MnDot, pedestrians were an afterthought from the beginning with this road. Not sure if this is because of the signal timing work they're doing, but when I rode the Hiawatha trail last weekend, not only did the crossing signals not activate by default, but they didn't even activate when you pushed the beg button. Vehicular traffic would get a green in both directions and the pedestrian signal would stay red. I guess that's kind of a digression, but I think that we should try pedestrian/bike accommodations first, and if that doesn't work, then consider grade separation.

  2. Matt SteeleMatt

    I really think that Hiawatha as a corridor, with a sense of place, is a lost cause. Things would be much improved by focusing on the following:

    – Building good neighborhood connections across the corridor

    Hiawatha is such a mental barrier between the neighborhoods on both sides. This is especially true in the areas with stoplight crossings instead of grade crossings. Crossing Hiawatha between the Parkway and Lake seems like no-man's-land because of how long it can take. Some sort of grade separation should have happened at 38th street, but now it's too late to do it right.

    – Enhance the true urban corridors (and potential corridors) which cross Hiawatha. Hiawatha itself does not need to be one of these corridors. But we need good urban corridors that cross it instead of getting cut off. We have significant room for improvement at Franklin, Cedar, 26th, 35th, 38th, 42nd, 46th. And Lake Street has maybe shown that having an urban SPUI adjacent to an elevated rail station does not help the urban and pedestrian realms.

    One thing I always imagined would be nice at 38th (and maybe 46th or others) would be to depress the rails and the stroad, bridge the cross streets over and build incentives for air rights development facing the sidewalks on the "bridge." This would cut away the psychological barrier between the two sides, and help create continuous crosstown urban corridors that can develop especially around LRT stops.

    Finally, the freeway section between downtown/13th Ave and 26th Street has far too much capacity for what is actually needed. This is an area where the infrastructure could be scaled down and we could build some sort of urban connection across 35W/94 to connect Franklin and Lake. Not sure what this would look like but it is needed.

  3. Reuben CollinsReuben Collins Post author

    @Alex – well, it looks like that's what Hennepin County has in mind. Even if MnDOT did all of a sudden decide to grade separate, it would still take us 20 years to get it done, so minor bike/ped and signal improvements in the mean time are a welcome improvement.

    If grade separation was pursued, we'd have to make some difficult decisions about where we would or wouldn't have interchanges. I assume we'd have one at 46th street, or else the Ford Pkwy bridge would be deprecated. But how about 38th or 54th? interchanges at these locations would be logical and useful, but both would be very difficult to build. However, grade separating without building an interchange would be relatively easy.

    The hardest part, in my opionion, would be 26th and 28th Streets, both of which would probably just end up closed and cul-de-sacs. With better planning, I could envision both of these roadways grade separated (without interchanges) with Hiawatha Avenue flying overhead. I can even imagine 28th Street continued further east to intersect with Minnehaha Avenue. However, with LRT and the Sabo Bridge constructed the way they are now, doing anything other than simply closing the intersections is very unlikely.

    1. Alex

      I guess I'm still trying to wrap my head around this. If the goal was to grade-separate all intersections, wouldn't you have to depress basically the entire length of the roadway?

      1. Reuben CollinsReuben Collins Post author

        yes, basically. You'd have to raise or depress Hiawatha everywhere you wanted to grade separate, and close the rest of the intersections. For example, we wouldn't grade separate, say, 32nd Street. We'd probably just close it.

        Again, I'm not arguing in this post that we should do it, just pointing out that we will probably end up doing nothing because doing something would be really hard.

  4. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

    Grade separating Hiawatha is politically, financially and physically infeasible. All the land acquired in the first attempt is gone. Besides, it is a terrible idea. It would further divide communities on either side, and it would be detrimental to property values.

    Having moved to a location one block from a light rail station (and by default Hiawatha), I have been active as a community member to encourage good walkable development (public streets, sidewalks and buildings and private sector development) that improves the quality of life for the area. I'd be the first of a long line of residents to put my home up for sale if construction began on a grade-separated Hiawatha Avenue. The overpass at Lake Street and the pedestrian mess made underneath is enough evidence to deter us from further costly "improvements." Improvements for whom? Those driving through or those who live nearby?

    That Hiawatha continues to be a dividing line between neighborhoods is purely for a lack of imagination for considering realistic solutions like reducing the speed limit, improving crosswalks, allowing on-street parking and planting trees. All these can be done for considerably lower cost and all of which would improve the livability of the street and the desire to spend time near it or develop real estate nearby.

  5. Matt SteeleMatt

    Sam, I live near the Parkway and Hiawatha and the land bridge helps connect the neighborhoods. The reason why Hiawatha divides the neighborhoods is because it's a giant scar of a stroad that divides sections of urban corridors with lots of potential (38th is a prime example). And there's not a lot of point in making Hiawatha an urban corridor other than to a) make it pedestrian friendly especially around stations and b) get rid of the divides between urban cross streets. I think it would be much more efficient and effective to focus on these cross streets and make it so someone barely notices they crossed Hiawatha to get from Cedar to Minnehaha Ave.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt

      Think about if development happened along Cedar Ave on air rights over the Washington Ave stroad/freeway/future LRT trench. This is what I'm talking about. It would connect Seven Corners with Cedar Riverside to link two physically separated urban districts. That's the same type of thing that could happen along Hiawatha.

  6. Faith

    I agree that grade separating Hiawatha is politically, financially and physically infeasible. The liklihood of City elected officials ever giving consent to such a proposal by MnDOT is probably much closer to 0% than 50%. But it also begs the question, what return on investment could be seen from grade separation compared to traffic calming?

    Sure, cars could move a bit faster, but what would the conditions look like? Franklin & Hiawatha? (see Planning Blunder #8: The Franklin / Hiawatha / Minnehaha intersection

    In the Mayor's 2011 state of the city address, he called for growing jobs, business and the tax base in Minneapolis with transit-oriented development corridors, including the Hiawath Corridor. If those are the City goals, then the Hiawatha Avenue should be designed to accomodate them.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt

      Again, I think people are assuming that the point of grade separation is to improve things for cars traveling along the Hiawatha Corridor. And they assume that since grade separation was done poorly (due to a car-centric plan) at Franklin and Lake, that grade separation equals that type of environment. No, grade separation can also be done to enhance urbanism and pedestrian accommodations. Hiawatha as a TOD corridor is sort of a lost cause… the transit along Hiawatha is more effective for building out crosstown TOD corridors.

      1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

        Matt, I don't think we're that far off. I very much like the idea of air rights along Cedar Avenue – The Cap at Union Station in Columbus is a very good example, but these are very expensive to pull off and require high densities that Seven Corners and Cedar Riverside have but cross streets across Hiawatha do not.

        Taming Hiawatha a little bit combined with some pedestrian-friendly improvements will add substantial value to the entire corridor at comparatively little expense.

      2. Reuben CollinsReuben Collins Post author

        Matt, I agree. From an urbanist perspective, raising or depressing Hiawatha over or under the cross streets presents an excellent opportunity to improve urban conditions along the cross streets, especially at locations where interchanges are not constructed.

  7. David LevinsonDavid Levinson

    I don't think grade separation should be done to make cars move faster. It should be done to make the corridor safer, that is where the primary benefit would lie. This includes cars on Hiawatha Avenue and cross-streets, the LRT, and pedestrians and bicyclists.

    As noted above, sinking Hiawatha would have been a lot better for the cross-streets. I suspect that bridge has sailed. Building overpasses on the cross-street over both the LRT, the Avenue, and even the freight tracks on the other side is technically feasible, and while far from optimal, might be better from a safety perspective. As Reuben notes, not all of the overpasses would require interchanges, but simple signal or roundabout controlled diamonds, or possibly SPUIs (though I am not a fan), or even diverging diamonds (though Chuck is not a fan) would all be options.

    I agree this is not high on the agenda, and the likelihood in the next decade or two is quite low. But let us remember, in transportation, no line ever drawn on a map is ever really erased.

    The Hiawatha Avenue corridor (both road and LRT) has a purpose, it is to move people. It does not do that terribly well or safely now. The cross-streets have a purpose to move people as well, but they also serve land access in a way that Hiawatha mostly does not (only a few businesses have land access directly on Hiawatha, and those should be bought out). Making both serve their function better requires they be designed to fit their purposes.

  8. Faith

    Any engineers care to weigh on on what it would cost to put Hiawatha below grade under cross streets?

  9. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

    As well, Hiawatha carries fewer than 30,000 vehicles per day in some portions south of Lake Street – hardly a number to justify and "improvements" and roughly similar to Lyndale Avenue north of Lake Street.

    Reuben, I checked that old website for Hiawatha construction from 2000. What is really interesting is even at that time one of the maps show a commuter trail but no mention of light rail. This project started in 1988 at a time when light rail was a distant possibility. Had the roadway improvements really taken light rail in to account, I suspect the road design would be very different, and much more pedestrian-friendly.

    There are plenty of urban boulevards, some in this country, others primarily in Europe, that carry higher traffic volumes than Hiawatha and are pleasant and pedestrian friendly to boot. There is hope.

  10. Matt SteeleMatt

    I've seen it mentioned a few places that Cedar carries just as many cars as Hiawatha. And I'd really like traffic calming on Cedar (remove the freeway stub and the bridge over Nokomis?)

    Agreed we can see how much of a problem Hiawatha really is based on these comments. And in a way I'm thankful we HAVEN'T built grade separations (except for the land bridge at the Parkway) because when the middle chunk of the road was built in the late 80's it would have been much more of a grade separation for freeway's sake than grade separation for urban cross-corridor's sake.

  11. Michael

    It's a little too early to give up on making Hiawatha a great street, if you ask me. For most of Hiawatha north of Minnehaha Park, there are endless opportunities to upzone on the east side of the street, and the roadway is much wider than it needs to be right now, meaning there's room to make it more of an attractive urban boulevard (see The Boulevard Book).

    For instance, just north of 45th Street, the current alignment of the roadway (excluding sidewalks) is about 90 feet wide even though it has just four 11-foot traffic lanes. The alignment is roughly: 8' shoulder, 11' lane, 11' lane, 24' median(!), 11' lane, 11' lane, 14' shoulder (which becomes a turn lane at intersections).

    Simply by rethinking the excessive median and shoulders, you could transform this into a much more livable street. What if the median was reduced to a utilitarian 3', and the east side sidewalk was widened from ~14' into a 35' tree-lined grand promenade, serving both as an appealing recreational area and a buffer from the traffic? It would have to narrow a bit at intersections, but could still be quite nice. Suddenly, development might even be more viable on those east-side-of-the-street parcels.

    This project would be expensive, but given how much we've invested in light rail, can we afford not to make the most out of development opportunities?

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

      The Boulevard Book is an excellent resource. There isn't enough about traffic counts, but plenty of cross-sections as examples. Including the sidewalks, the roadway is about 125 to 130 feet across. The Boulevard Book has many examples of roughly that size. Is a center median even necessary long term? I'd love to see an access lane on the east side of Hiawatha – a median separated strip with on-street parking lane and a slow drive lane.

      My initial suggestions simply take the roadway largely as is, slow it down, use the shoulders for parking, etc. But eventually we could reduce or eliminate turn lanes, particularly right turns, eliminate some turn islands, square off some corners, the list goes on and on. But we can slow the speed limit and plant trees right now if we want (given the political will).

  12. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    Perhaps a simplistic question: but is there a reason why a freeway must be six lanes? The traffic doesn't really justify it. It seems the most appealing solution would be:

    1. Four-lane freeway/expressway design, as narrow as possible, and below grade to minimize visibility.

    2. Bike path at street grade following the route.

    3. Streets that currently have lights cross at overpasses.

    But that would be enormously expensive to implement now, and still wouldn't address the issues of people fighting the trains. (Funny that we're more eager to grade-separate a street than trains.) The most practical approach, then, seem to be the one proposed in that Urban Future post: a true city street.

    In the meantime, though, I absolutely love Hiawatha as an example of the inefficiency of suburban stroad design: despite a higher, more dangerous speed limit and absolute defiance of aesthetics, it takes me far longer to drive there than on narrower, lower-speed, Minnehaha or Cedar Avenues.

  13. Xan

    I cannot understand why anyone thinks Hiawatha should be in any way any kind of a freeway. People live there. Any street that runs at diagonal to the grid has much commercial potential. See Hennepin. Or the many blvds of Paris or Barcelona.

    If Hiawatha went straight, it would end downtown right at what will be the new dome. Including the light rail, it has a huge ROW. Even without light rail, it has the widest ROW in Minneapolis. If traffic warrants, maintaining an overpass (or better yet, an underpass) at Lake may be justified. (I think not) But what a waste to use that passage as simply a way to move cars back and forth at the neglect of the development potential and neighbourhood on either side.

    It has the chance to be quite the grand blvd, stretching from the Dome to Minnehaha Park, if we stop thinking of moving cars first and foremost at all costs.

    Look at this large walkway and bikeway through the middle of the Avinguda Diagonal in Barcelona:
    The grassy area on either side is the tram line. This street is about 160 ft wide. In other words, narrower than the narrowest part of Hiawatha, if you include the LRT. This is the fastest growing part of Barcelona.

    Now I realize we are not rich, like Spain. We are only the United States, in one of its poorest states, Minnesota. But surely we can learn something from overseas. Lesson 1) enough with freeways through the middle of our cities. Lesson 2) diagonals should be important streets, not feeder roads. Lesson 3) build for people first.

    1. Xan

      I should also mention, if anything should be below grade, it would be the electric light rail line that needs little ventilation and mush less room than car lanes. Then you have a massively wide blvd.

  14. Michael

    Xan, that is such an excellent point about the ceremonial importance of Hiawatha: Hiawatha, University Ave and W 7th St form what should be the Golden Arrowhead of the Twin Cities, connecting the two downtowns and the historic fort as well as the capitol. These should all be great streets, but none of them are right now. Done right, the Golden Arrowhead could be as powerful a planning concept as Copenhagen's Finger Plan.

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