Time for Multi-Way Boulevards in Minneapolis

A recent post about multi-way boulevards by our friends at Placemakers got me thinking about Hiawatha Avenue in Minneapolis (I think about it a lot, especially when I’m attempting to cross it on my bike with my kids in tow, one on the tagalong and one in the Burley). As I wait for the light and watch the commuter refugees get off the train and try to cross Hiawatha, I think “there must be a better way.” So what about a multi-way boulevard?

The multi-way boulevard is like Superman compared to the standard suburban arterial that we’ll call Lex Luthor. As the Placeshakers post describes, the multi-way boulevard allows fast moving through traffic to use the center lanes, whereas a slip lane at the side of the roadway allows for slower traffic and parking. It is this slip lane area that could be so beneficial to Hiawatha, as it would create a more pedestrian-friendly environment buffered from fast moving traffic, and the on-street parking would help attract retailers. The added benefit is the islands between the slip lane and through traffic lanes allow for easier street crossing as the distance across the primary roadway is much less.

So why not a multi-way boulevard for Hiawatha Avenue? A key aspect of the multi-way boulevard is it can be created in sections. In other words, a two or four block section can be built near light rail stations for example. How much of an improvement would it be for apartment and retail leasing efforts at the proposed Longfellow Station if it fronted a multi-way boulevard, as shown above?

The example shown is from Washington D.C. where there is a multi-way boulevard for a short stretch of K Street. It makes imminent sense to build a demonstration section on the blocks surrounding 38th Street in conjunction with proposed pedestrian crosswalk improvements and the rebuilding of 38th Street between Minnehaha and Hiawatha, scheduled by the city in the next couple years. And there is no need for a slip lane southbound, since the light rail line and bike path exist there (just plant better trees).

To date, with all the transit-oriented development along the Hiawatha Line, not one project actually fronts on Hiawatha Avenue. To me, the reason is the functionality of the street itself. Why would you want to develop a pedestrian-friendly Superman of a building along this Lex Luthor of a roadway? If Longfellow Station rises out of the ground, it will be the first to front Hiawatha, and it would benefit immensely from fronting on a multi-way boulevard. If the City and County are serious about transit-oriented development, it is time to work with MnDOT to consider solutions like the multi-way boulevard.

This was cross-posted at www.joe-urban.com.

Sam Newberg

About Sam Newberg

Sam Newberg, a.k.a. Joe Urban, is an urbanist, real estate consultant and writer. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two kids, and his website is www.joe-urban.com.

9 thoughts on “Time for Multi-Way Boulevards in Minneapolis

  1. Matt SteeleMatt

    For the first time, I now think Hiawatha actually has a chance of being a nice street instead of just a highway to connect cross streets that already show development potential.

    This seems like it would be especially beneficial for the east side of the street, since there are redevelopment opportunities along the corridor. What about the west side of the street where the LRT tracks are right up against it?

    1. Matt SteeleMatt

      If we had an actual Hiawatha boulevard instead of a Hiawatha highway, along with some slight transit restructuring, maybe the existing bus turnaround/layover facilities at 38th and 46th could be turned over for TOD.

      Also, maybe there could be a way to offer air rights over the LRT tracks, especially closer to stations, so we could have condo buildings fronting Hiawatha with vertical circulation facing the street, but build a few stories above the actual tracks. In a few areas parking could be provided on the west side of the tracks.

      1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

        The Oaks Station Place project at 46th Street is a pretty good example of what you are talking about. Metro Transit has an easement under the new building to access the bus turnaround. It is turning out to be a cool project.

    2. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      The west side of the street needs a better tree canopy, and perhaps reasons to walk or bike it like historical markers and/or public art.

  2. David LevinsonDavid Levinson

    The problem is you are starting from scratch on Hiawatha, as you say, nothing fronts the road (well McDonald's does, but almost nothing). In one sense, it is an opportunity. But there are no synergies to be leveraged. The other problem is that there is rail on both sides of the road, not much room for high density fronting the road (i.e. you are a bit far off for it to have a lot of people who will want to walk along Hiawatha).

    Parts of Minnehaha Ave seems a much better target for creating a good walkable shopping street.

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      It is a bit of a circular argument, isn't it David? No development fronts Hiawatha and it isn't pleasant to walk along because the public right-of-way wasn't built for that, and vice-versa. But the evidence shows development wants to be in the area, and making Hiawatha a more urban boulevard (should have been part of LRT construction in the first place) would encourage development to actually front the street. In other words, until Hiawatha is addressed not much good will happen.

      Interestingly, Minnehaha is also scheduled for rebuilding in the next five years or so. It is already a nice street with attractive buildings fronting it. However, it doesn't receive much benefit from LRT as only tiny fractions of it are within a quarter mile of a station.

      1. Alex

        And the city is actively removing Pedestrian Overlay zoning from Minnehaha for some reason (whining property owners and apathy towards pedestrians probably).

      2. David LevinsonDavid Levinson

        All development is a circular argument. That is, it is a positive feedback system, more begets more (in competition with other places trying to do the same thing), less begets less (vicious cycle). I just think you are so far from take-off on Hiawatha that this is tilting at windmills. There is nothing (from a land use perspective) to work with.

        The system is open for 8 years and there is almost nothing in the way of new unsubsidized development in the corridor. (The closest to unsubsidized I can find is Oak St., which was granted the land from Met Council at a discount, but maybe there are others). Compare to Central Corridor, the U of Mn, North Loop, and Mill District, where things really are taking off.

        Spurious claims of tons of development (Met Council propaganda, e.g.) are counting stuff in the Mill District, which is there independent of Hiawatha.

        Now of course the street is not conducive to this. And it was rebuilt 10 years ago, so in 30-40 years when they rebuild it again, you might have a shot. But unless development does take off, no one will spend the money to rebuild the street nicely.

        The frontage problem is also complicated because on the west side, you are really fronting tracks. The east side is more likely, since it is such a narrow strip. But demand for housing backing to railroad tracks is limited as well.

        1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

          Sure there is something to work with – Sherman Associates is about to close on financing for Longfellow Station, with 180 units of housing plus 10,000 square feet of retail fronting on Hiawatha Avenue at 38th Street. That is a start, and a pretty big one at that. Whether or not it is practical or possible, I have no doubt that a multi-way boulevard would improve the usefulness and leasing of Longfellow Station, and a two-block example would make for a great test case.

          Yes, the Met Council, Hennepin County and City of Minneapolis do overstate their TOD numbers. However, I will point out that development near the VA, 46th Street, 38th Street, and Lake Street alone totals several hundred units, all of which are successful and more on the way. The Oaks Hiawatha Station at 46th Street reports nearly half of its tenants use the train. So make no mistake, there is very clearly demand for housing along the line, and having done the market study for Longfellow Station, I believe there is demand for 180 units of housing in spite of Hiawatha Avenue's current configuration. My fear is leasing pedestrian-oriented retail there will not work and a multi-way boulevard would help greatly.

          The section of Hiawatha I'm talking about was rebuilt in 1990, and if in 15 to 20 years time it is again rebuilt as an urban boulevard, then I say well done!

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