University Avenue’s Evil Twin: 4th St SE

Gather around, students and colleagues. I am going to tell you a story about a magnificent avenue called University, and its less acknowledged disgruntled twin, 4th Street.


But mom… University gets everything!

Once upon a time, these two thoroughfares happily ran side by side. 4th Street housed one of Twin City Rapid Transit’s most used streetcar lines, and University Avenue SE carried the masters and learners alike by vehicle. Between Oak Street and 15th Ave SE, 4th Street hosted many buildings along its blocks, including several blocks of homes. University Avenue followed suit by holding the architecturally magnificent Fraternity Row homes. Both were equally appreciated and used, from both a vehicle and a pedestrian standpoint.

Quickly, however, the tides turned as Minneapolis evolved and turned a cheek to its past. As the transportation wars of the post-WWII era ensued, streetcar lines were ripped out of 4th Street, and to meet the increasing vehicle demand of the metropolitan area, each of the streets were redesigned to run one way. The two twins, once close partners, were now mortal enemies running counter to one another. Vehicles now had more lanes and more space to accommodate their ever increasing speed, but at the expense of a pedestrian and bicycle-friendly feeling around the U of MN campus.

As part of the declaration, Dinkytown and Fraternity Row were allowed to stay relatively the same, even as the One Way streets were put into effect. In order to make way for the vehicle quantity explosion, many of the houses and buildings along 4th Street SE were razed in favor of parking lots. Due to Fraternity Row’s impressive stature and historic designation, however, much of the land along University Avenue was spared.

Would you rather be surrounded by beautiful architecture or beautiful asphalt?

Would you rather be surrounded by beautiful architecture or beautiful asphalt?

And so, for years, 4th Street tried to be like its twin brother. Wide sidewalks and generous bike lanes were created, and bus shelters were placed generously along the eight-block corridor. New hockey arenas named Mariucci and Ridder were even built, as well as a lovely tennis center named Baseline. However, the vast stretches of parking lots, the large slate of tennis courts with a necessary lack of large vegetation sources, and the lack of public plazas as main entries to the venues truly made 4th Street seem barren. The venues were and still are appreciated, but since these buildings are only used on a sporadic timescale, the street life on 4th was artificial.

To this day, University Avenue, even with the same amount of traffic lanes as 4th Street, attracts more pedestrians and hosts a much more relaxing feeling for the large amount of walkers. 4th Street does indeed have pedestrians, but is set up like Marquette Avenue downtown, where commuters using busses only have to wait for a short amount of time near good shelters. The barren feeling of 4th Street does not give the commuters or common pedestrians alike good walking vibes. Although it will improve the streetscape when it is complete, the construction of the 17th Ave Residence Hall has put a burden on bikers especially, as the bike lane has been barricaded since May, and only relocated surface parking to the old Klaeber Court site.


Another building victim to the driving times – and even in its death in 2012.

Even with the rerouting of bicycles, MNDaily reported that the Dinkytown entry intersection of 15th Ave has been reported as having a large number of bicycling-related accidents over the past decade. According to the report, University had more bicycle-related accidents, but 4th Street, being half as long, had a higher concentration of accidents within its corridor.

So, my friends, what is the ultimate fate of 4th Street? Will it ever become amicable with University once again, and turn its cheek on its tainted past? Hopefully, the good heart of the street will open up to pedestrians and bikes once again. Hopefully, the vast parking lots will eventually be replaced by what the 2009 Campus Master Plan called “future development”, as is currently being illustrated by the new residence hall construction. Hopefully, if there is parking to accommodate stadium traffic, it is built in the form of garages with street-friendly facades (my personal hometown example). Hopefully in the distant future, the Minneapolis Streetcar study will not just be a gleaming idea and enhance the tunnel vision-like avenue it is now. And hopefully, greenery and large trees will sustain in the area, reducing sound and radiation pollution along the asphalt.

If 4th Street SE can change back to its pleasant city-friendly past and move away from its vehicle-oriented present, the two parallel streets can be equivalent on all sides, and they can live happily ever after.

Chris Iverson

About Chris Iverson

Chris Iverson is a transportation engineer & planner for the City of Bellevue, WA and currently lives in Seattle. He holds degrees in both Civil Engineering & Urban Studies from the University of Minnesota, and worked on a myriad of transit & multimodal transportation projects in the Twin Cities. He is a former Minnesota Daily columnist, RAGBRAI participant, bad musician, marathon finisher, and an unabashed generalist.