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.

9 thoughts on “University Avenue’s Evil Twin: 4th St SE

  1. Nick MagrinoNick

    At some point in the past couple years, there had been plans for the Greeks to build some sort of apartment complex on one of those parking lots–I think the one on the same block as Sydney Hall. That may have fallen through when Housing and Residential Life decided to incorporate a Greek component of the new res hall on 17th.

    I’m a little sad that the new res hall seems a little wall-ish along 4th Street:

    Not that you can have a ton of access points to a residence hall building, but it would have been nice if they’d found a way to put the dining hall along 4th Street instead of what looks to be laundry rooms or something.

  2. Alex CecchiniAlex

    Things are changing.. you cite the residence hall but up against 15th Ave the new apartment complex also went up with ground-floor retail (CVS). Other stuff is coming, although unfortunately I think some of it will be very single-use. I would bet dollars to donuts the lot to the NW of Sports Pavilion will become the much-desired basketball practice facility. This is not only a large monolithic structure but will also be only available to a relatively small subset of students.

    I don’t particularly like the fact that every single building going up in Dinkytown is a large apartment, one of which spans 2 whole blocks and removes pedestrian access. I will give props that many are adding (or keeping) existing commercial space with ground-floor retail components, which should help the neighborhood. it would be nice to see a different variety of housing go in to some of the vacant lots on 4th, one that addresses the street better. Whether this is 4-story (multi unit) row houses or more ground floor retail (not sure how much the area can support), anything is better than a monolith with no windows or surface lots.

    My recommendation for 4th/University.. follow through with the streetcar network on both, one in each direction. Turn each in to a bi-directional boulevard with 1 10′ lane each way, a turning lane in the center, and a protected area on each side. One side is a protected (by 3′ median with trees) bike lane (6 ft wide) and streetcar lane (9 feet wide). The other side of the street has on-street parking not separated by a median. 5′ sidewalks on both sides. Streetcar on University runs east on the south side of the street, 4th Ave SC west-bound on the north side. The widths of 4th University are not as wide as many arterials, around 67′ at their skinniest (including sidewalk space). This plan allows for that, and in the ped-heavy areas where buildings have a little more setback, the extra space is used for sidewalks.

    This gives 2 lanes in each direction, reducing car capacity, but increasing bike capacity and safety while also adding a dedicated streetcar along the route. It ties the university area to Marcy Holmes and beyond that St Anthony much better that current streets, and requires absolutely no ROW acquisitions.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      I objection leveled my way once before when I talked about 2-way conversions on these streets was the 35W onramps, and how they couldn’t be tweaked to accomodate this.

      1. Alex CecchiniAlex

        Seems like hogwash.. the frontage roads on each side of 35W provide ample flexibility to get on NB or SB coming from either direction on 4th/University. Center turn lane provides room and since you’re doubling the corridors that take traffic you essentially halve the required back-up space needed. Off-ramps can convert space to handle 3-direction turns instead of only 2. Let’s also not forget that planning for future car demand is silly as vehicle miles traveled have been on the decline and a project like this (along with the development in the area) reduces the number of car trips taken on a given school day.

        1. Matt SteeleMatt

          Speaking of streetcars, since it relates to 4th St SE and University…

          I’m curious what the advantages/disadvantages are to running one way pairs with streetcars versus running both tracks in one street. I feel like one way pairs, while popular in Portland, makes the system slightly more confusing for people who use it less frequently.

          1. Alex CecchiniAlex

            In this case, my suggestion was merely to allow bi-directional auto traffic on each street as well. 2×9-10 ft ROW on one street takes up a pretty big chunk of space. I suppose you could use one track for both directions with 2 tracks every so often that use bike lane space (as a biker you would rarely run in to a problem), and then use the recovered space on the other street for car parking. This could be a way to appease the business owners on 4th St who will no doubt see the reduction of one side of on-street parking (from my original proposal) as a huge negative (even though 1 block away University would be gaining a lane of larking).

            I’m not sure what the real disadvantage is to running one-way pairs.. you would assume most of the people using the line either live there or frequent it. In today’s age of smart-phones it would be tough to say people are ill-informed. And the pairing is only a block away with frequent streets of open space to see the tram/tracks to know where you need to be.

            Truthfully, I’d be fine with either option.

    2. Froggie

      Alex, streetcars need more than 9ft of lane width. While modern streetcars themselves are going as narrow as 7.5ft, you need clearance space on each side of the car to avoid obstructions and for turning. With an 8ft-wide streetcar (slightly wider is fairly common), you need a 10ft lane. With an 8ft-8in wide streetcar (the “de facto” US standard according to several streetcar pubs I’ve found, including the u/c system in DC and the proposed system in Providence), you need an 11ft wide lane.

      A slight tweakage of your proposal would accommodate having both streetcar track directions on the same street. For example, University could be reconfigured for 1 lane eastbound and the streetcar tracks, with 4th St reconfigured for 1 eastbound lane and 2 westbound lanes. But with the width required for the streetcar lanes, I don’t think you’d get your “median”…

      1. Alex CecchiniAlex

        Luckily 4th and University are completely straight shots from St Anthony all the way to the Stadium and don’t need to turn 🙂

        I’ll take your word for it. I suggested these lane widths assuming a smaller stock train of 8 ft given the corridor. I also figured that if the streetcar tracks were in a dedicated ~16 ft wide area, with the streetcar right up against the pavement (for boarding purposes) and the rest of the space (separated from the auto portion of the street by the tree-lined median) being used primarily for bike traffic that you wouldn’t be too short on space. I’m not a certified engineer or planner, so I’ll defer to others. My take is don’t over-design a space that won’t have too much conflicting uses or obstructions.

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