Five years ago, RT Rybak made my day. Somehow I ended up at an event he was hosting at the Riverview Theater. I think I had glanced at an announcement in the newspaper, some sort of meeting about architecture and city planning for Minneapolis. Being an underemployed urban peripatetic, I had nothing better to do. I crashed the party.
It turns out, I attended the grand shindig for Mayor Rybak’s “Great City” initiative, co-sponsored by the AIA and the ULI. There was a roomful of architects hanging out in the theater lobby, largely ignoring a dozen posterboard renderings of different parts of the Twin Cities in their most fantastical and utopian light. The evening was headlined by Mayor Rybak giving a fantastic speech on the Riverview stage all about streetcars and walkability.
At the time, I wrote this:
The projects looked good, in that architect-y fantasy world kind of way with all the pretty full-grown trees and people and color. More importantly, they show that the city is symbolically invested in thinking about how neighborhoods are groomed and incubated. […]
More importantly, though, the Great City project shows that the mayor has a good sense of priorities. He gave the keynote speech of the evening, an impassioned talk of the longterm history of Minneapolis that began with a story about riding the bus down 38th Street as a kid to see movies at the Riverview, the crush he had on a girl who worked at the corner joint, and how Minneapolis is lucky enough to have small neighborhood centers that stemmed from the streetcar days. Today, he argued, what we need is a “fine grained urban fabric” that doesn’t depend on cars.
The talk pushed all my buttons (so to speak), but the best was yet to come. After the talk, I wandered lonely round the lobby, appreciating the manic art of high-concept mingling and (knowing nobody) doing my best to imitate a guard railing. It was at that point that Rybak came over to me, asked me to introduce myself and pierced my soul to its root with his dreamy blue-grey eyes. I mumbled something about being a freelance journalist interested in planning, and he shook my hand and thanked me for “my work.” I was amazed! Rybak had found the least important person in the room (no contest, that), and made a point to chat. After my heart slowed down, I had little choice but to become a RT (stands for rootin’ tootin’) Rybak fanboy.
Well, that was years ago. A lot has happened since then. I’m still blogging about Minneapolis sidewalks, and I’m a lot more cynical. It turns out, talk is cheap.
The true test of a plan…
The best thing to come out of the Great City initiative was the plan for Washington Avenue, or as Rybak’s group christened it, “Washington Boulevard.” The planning document, which you can see here, is an extensive collection of impressive platitudes about sidewalks, streetcars, and cafés shaded by tree leaves. It begins with some of the “challenges,” pictures of how empty and alienating current state of Washington Avenue. Quickly, the plan begins overflowing with photos of Paris and more Paris and Portland. The “vision study” is filled with hopes and dreams.
Five years later, as it turns out, not much has changed on Washington Avenue. There are a few new buildings, mostly five-story condos with underused street-level retail, but Washington Avenue is still a terrible place to take a stroll, and you’ll not find a single sidewalk café (except maybe Runyon’s?). The street is a smelly car sewer designed to get people to and from 394 and 35W. Crossing Washington instills panic, and makes you feel like Washington crossing the Delaware. Five years after Rybak’s watercolor vision, Washington remains a vast moat keeping people downtown from finding the Mississippi.
That’s the problem with urban planning. Anyone who’s spent any time involved with city planning has a shelf of old plans gathering dust, pining for the trees that gave their papery lives. The truth of the matter is that most plans never come true. Most plans do little more than inspire the gullible, rarely serve a greater function than to display themselves in lobbies or on screens. Most plans are like bedtime stories people tell themselves late at night before closing their eyes to dream.
That’s because the real measure of a plan isn’t in the text, but in the implementation. The Washington Boulevard plan might have made people feel good back in 2007, and might have won the heart of this local sidewalk blogger. But the test of its worth is not in pictures of the Champs Elysées, but in the amount of people strolling each day on Washington Avenue. Sadly, you could probably go outside right now and walk the length of the street without finding anyone to tell about Rybak’s forgotten vision.
“Washington Boulevard” vs. “County Road 152”
On that day, back at the Riverview Theater, the mayor was truly in his element. He made everyone in that room feel good about their work. With every picture of Paris and childhood story about streetcars, Rybak boosted morale. That’s the kind of political work that’s fun and rewarding.
But the real measure of a good politician isn’t what kind of speech they can give to which audience. The true test is twisting arms. It’s hard unrewarding work where you make more enemies than friends. For every one of our city’s leaders, we have to ask: on which issues do they push the hardest? When do platitudes turn to demands?
On that count, it sure seems like the Vikings Stadium trumps Washington Boulevard. There’s a public meeting tonight about the future of Washington Avenue, or as Hennepin County calls it, “County Road 152.” The County is drawing up plans to re-design the street from Hennepin to 5th Street (halfway to I-35W), and there’s a lot of debate about how the street will look. The Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition has been calling for protected bike lanes on the street.
For me, how this matter is resolved will be the clear test of Rybak’s legacy. Today, despite being his signature corridor, Washington Avenue is little better than it was five years ago. Washington should be downtown’s main street. It runs all the way from North Minneapolis to the University of Minnesota, through all the key intersections of the city. It should be the absolute center of town, the welcome mat for the riverfront. It should be the place where all paths cross, where everything comes together.
Instead, a walk down Washington is a highly unpleasant experience, filled with a never-ending stream of honking cars turning too fast around corners. There are no cafés, because sitting out on the sidewalks of Washington would be like going camping in a Walmart parking lot.
The street needs some serious re-thinking. Washington needs traffic calming, fewer and narrower lanes. Washington needs to stop being an extension of the interestate, and start being an extension of the sidewalk. The city of Minneapolis, and especially its mayor, should use every available means to pressure Hennepin County on this re-design to calm traffic so that this street stops severing downtown from its #1 amenity. A real pedestrian boulevard, not the ponderous football stadium, should be Rybak’s legacy.
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