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.

Reuben Collins

About Reuben Collins

Reuben lives in South Minneapolis with his wife and kids. He authors the cycling blog and tweets at @reubencollins. In his spare time, he enjoys renovating his 1939 tudor home and riding bicycles.

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