I Love Some of Our Streets

This week’s Streets.mn love-fest has produced good content. Curiously, none of its content involves any of us writers proclaiming love for the streets in our Twin Cities or suburbs. We talk about trails and parks, which Minnesota does very well. Brendon Slotterback loves trees that line our streets and Andrew Owen loves accessibility that comes from how our streets are used, but what about the streets themselves? Given the name of this website, this is profoundly disturbing, although I suppose one of the reasons we exist is to seek answers to why our streets are so lacking.

Still, it begs the question what Twin Cities street do we love? Grand Avenue? Nicollet Mall for a couple blocks? Hennepin Avenue between Lake and 31st Street? Grand Way at Excelsior and Grand? The pickings are painfully slim for an urbanized area with 3 million people.

As I sit here and think about my favorite streets none in the Twin Cities rises to the top. State Street in Madison, Regent Street as it approaches Piccadilly Circus in London, Espanola Way in Miami Beach, Haight Street in San Francisco, some of the multiway boulevards I’ve seen in Europe, the list goes on, but they are far from home.

I use the image of Churchill-laan in Amsterdam because this is an easy street to love. I’ve used this before and I don’t care – this street embodies everything that can be right about streets, including (and very importantly) the land uses that surround it.

Maybe a couple stories about how to properly frame this situation.

The reason I’m in this industry derives from my last night of freshman year at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, when some friends and I emerged from a wonderful dinner on to State Street at dusk. The street was positively humming on that perfect May evening, with people heading from finals, campus and shopping to coffee shops, dinner and the bars. People were riding bikes, skateboards, walking, and lingering in the fresh spring air. The sun had just set in the west and the Wisconsin State Capitol framed the view up the street to the east. It was a perfect street moment and something I’ve been driven to re-live or help create since.

The other story did take place in Minneapolis. A few years ago I took a professional course in July at St. Thomas downtown taught by two guys from New York. On Friday after class was complete, I was out for drinks with friends and ran in to these two guys sitting enjoying a drink on Peavey Plaza, with all the buzz of Sommerfest and a typical summer Friday evening around us. As first-time visitors to Minneapolis, they explained that all week they had been downtown seeking “the urban scene” and only now in that moment did they find it. Being from New York, they feared they were in a cowtown but were suitably impressed by Nicollet Mall at 11th Street. I looked around and understood what they meant; there is a well-appointed street with bus and bicycle traffic, a public plaza (how Peavey Plaza turns out in a couple years is another matter), the lovely Brit’s Pub building, a YWCA and WCCO (not much to look at but generators of activity and interest, respectively), Westminster Church, residential, office and hotel towers, all of which converge to make the south end of Nicollet Mall a really nice stretch of street, arguably (and you will argue with me I’m sure) the nicest in the Twin Cities.

Why don’t we have more streets like this? Not all streets can be Nicollet Mall at 11th, much less Piccadilly Circus or Times Square, but we can make streets not just adequate like 29th Avenue but more like Churchill-laan. That involves a myriad of solutions, not the least of which includes different road standards that don’t rely on continued automobile traffic growth projections. It also requires street trees, places for people to sit and linger, and appropriate buildings facing those streets with more people doors and less doors for vehicles. Yes, a tram in a grass median is a bonus but not a requirement. Perhaps what we need to revisit the very definition of the word “street” and what it means to us.

And so we have seen by this week’s Streets.mn posts that there is much to love about the Twin Cities, but our streets are sadly not among them. They can be, though, but it will take readers of this site and many more to mobilize and demand better streets from our planners, public works officials, transportation engineers and elected officials.

Here are some of my favorite streets, in order: Denman Street in Vancouver, Canada; historic street near a square, Savannah, Georgia; State Street in Madison, Wisconsin; I wish I could remember where, Utrecht, Netherlands

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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 “I Love Some of Our Streets

    1. David Greene

      I love Milwaukee Ave. What a great little pedestrian mall!

      I also love Johnson St. NE at 29th Ave. NE, Central Ave S/NE, all of the parkways, King’s Highway, Marshall Ave. NE, University Ave. NE, E. and W. 7th St., too many to list, really.

  1. William Henry

    New York, or at least much of Manhattan, has done a tremendous job in maximizing the use of land for the common benefit (Manhattan does, however, have SO much wealth and SO much density, that it’d be absurd if it weren’t the way it is). I’ve also been to Madison a few times, and I admire Madison’s ability to maximize the urban use and charm of their little city.

    For Minneapolis, I believe there needs to be a certain amount of unity with St. Paul by working to make University Ave the main street of the Twin Cities metro area. With the Central Corridor coming, I’d like to see great parks and dense, smartly designed developments on both sides of the light rail (not like the Hiawatha rail line that utilizes only one of its sides and utilizes it quite poorly). I hope Minneapolis and St. Paul continue to urbanize every light rail route as much as possible. I think there will also be great urbanization potential for the Southwest Corridor, even in suburban parts of the line.

    I hope that a Nicollet street car will be able transform Minneapolis for easy transportation from south to north with urban developments and well-planned parks, as well. I hope to see a Hennepin street car as well for easy transport from uptown to downtown.

    Additional streets that should be redesigned would be Grand Ave (which I envision being a higher-end string of developments, which could hopefully transform the neighborhoods near Grand), Lake Street, and Xerxes (which could also be for higher-end developments and could transform its surrounding blocks significantly).

    I find it crucial that residents will be able to travel corner-to-corner of the city using public transportation.

    I really would like to see a small payroll tax (employer and employee) that would be designed to provide funds for long-term investment in city parks, streets & infrastructure and that would be designed in a way that wouldn’t deter non-hospitality businesses.

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      With regard to University Avenue becoming a Main Street, it won’t as long as all that on-street parking is removed. As Jeff Speck says in “Walkable City,” rail transit should displace MOVING cars, not parked ones. By rail pushing a lane of moving traffic right up to the curb, University Avenue will feel less safe to pedestrians. Spending $1 billion on transit but discouraging pedestrian movement while encouraging driving is slightly crazy if you ask me. So no Main Street for now. At least St. Paul managed to plant trees, though….

      1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

        Totally agree with you. What if it took up a moving lane of traffic but also added a protected bike way in place of one side of parked cars while leaving the other in tact (at least on 4th through the U), but add a lane of on-street parking along University?

        Our built environment rarely allows us a clean-sheet perfect re-dos. What are the tradeoffs?

    2. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      By the way, William, excellent points, but what do you mean by Lake Street should be redesigned. It already has, and was rebuilt about four years ago. What it now needs is a better zoning code to encourage better looking development along its route.

      1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

        And for MnDOT not to screw up the 35W overpass even more than it already is.. it simply makes east and west of the freeway completely disconnected. A SB exit ramp and other proposed additions would make it far worse, and we’ll all be surprised when the freeway BRT stop is rarely used by pedestrians…

    3. David Greene

      Xerxes is an odd one to include in your list. What’s your thinking there? It is mostly residential now.

  2. Chris IversonChris Iverson

    Wait for the CCLRT to be done – Washington Avenue between Coffman Union and Huron Avenue will be fantastic. That transit & pedestrian mall will hopefully become something that other cities and large universities can look up to.

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