Streets Must Be Priority #1 for Downtown East

If we get the streets right, good things will follow in downtown east. Much hand-wringing is occurring over whether or not there will be good development around the new Minnesota Vikings football stadium in downtown Minneapolis. When we look backwards 30 years at why development hasn’t happened since the current Metrodome stadium was built, we find three main reasons. One reason is some property that remained zoned industrial until very recently. A second obvious reason is five entire blocks of land owned by the Star Tribune blocks didn’t get developed in part because the newspaper was using them and didn’t want to develop nor sell them (this situation is very likely to change so new development can coincide with the new stadium). However, the real culprit is the public realm and a network of streets in the area that are much better suited to racing to and from downtown rather than for creating sustainable neighborhoods. Any successful plan for good development around the stadium will require an honest reckoning for the role of streets in the area.

Think about it, nearly all the streets in the area are either glorified on-ramps for freeways or one-way thoroughfares designed to speed the entrance to or exit from downtown. There’s 3rd and 4th Street, which descend in to a car-friendly cut to access the University of Minnesota – the shortest and most unnecessary freeway in the Twin Cities (luckily this stroad is partially being mitigated by the Green Line light rail). 5th and 6th Streets provide access to and from Interstate 94 to the east (the on-ramp seems to begin at Chicago Avenue). 7th and 8th Streets also access a non-freeway (Hiawatha Avenue (why do we have all these non-freeways?)). 4th and 5th Avenues access 35W. Portland and Park Avenues are one-way couplets intended to speed traffic to and from downtown as a reliever to 35W. Nearly all of these streets have three-lanes for maximum efficiency, and man it works! Coming off these freeways and stroads nothing about the design of the streets intuitively tells a driver to slow down despite a 30MPH speed limit, and it is tempting not to hit 40 on those last few blocks before the city fabric gives way to the freeway decking. Gentlemen, start your engines! Not one of these streets has helped create a good neighborhood.

Standard Issue

Moreover, as the above image shows, none of these streets is particularly nice to walk along. There is hardly a street tree for shade, a bench for sitting or other amenity to encourage walking, much less many destinations to reach on foot. Just try walking from the Metrodome station to the Guthrie or to HCMC. It is an unpleasant no-man’s land in search of a good plan, as was recently noted by a group of students visiting the area as part of their design competition for the area.

The 2013 Urban Land Institute/Gerald D. Hines Student Urban Design Competition is using downtown east as its location, and members of the four finalist teams made their first visit to Minneapolis on a recent snowy Friday to walk the area. As they did, several students commented how few people were walking. I assured them it wasn’t the weather; hardly anyone walks in this part of downtown unless they have to.

Our walking tour with the ULI design competition students included pointing out the stretch of 5th and 6th Streets around the current stadium, where the three blocks between Chicago and 11th Avenues are divided by a fence preventing any pedestrian crossings (to a stadium!) while the street as designed encourages cars to speed despite a posted speed limit of 30 MPH. Effectively the on ramp to Interstate 94 eastbound begins at Chicago Avenue and this must be addressed. A common complaint is the Metrodome interrupts the grid, but this simple fence dividing 5th and 6th Streets is an even bigger barrier. There is no reason on God’s green earth why a three-block stretch of two streets in a downtown area cannot be crossed on foot. Facing what some call an ugly stadium notwithstanding, the design of the street in this location actively discourages development. As you can see below, my son isn’t wild about it, either.

Shaw 6th Street

Lo and behold, the four finalist teams’ plans include some measure of making at least one of the streets greener and more pedestrian-friendly. One team’s plan is called “Portland Avenue,” and it gives the street a “road diet,” reducing through traffic lanes, making it two-way, adding trees and other amenities that create a spine of activity that frames development in the district. Students from other cities get this concept. Do we?

Periodic plans for the stadium that appear in the press and the ULI competition show streets somehow magically transformed in to pedestrian plazas. 5th Street in particular seems to be cut off from its westbound Interstate 94 off-ramp entirely. I’m pretty sure these plans have not yet been vetted by transportation engineers, and I fear a lack of spine from planners and elected officials when they sit down at that table and hear that the off and on ramps need to remain. A compromise must be reached to be sure, but I encourage planners and elected officials to be strong and make good streets a priority. Plans for the area, whether they are the downtown east plan approved several years ago by the city, the winning ULI student team, or even the Vikings, call for the area to become a neighborhood (albeit a neighborhood anchored by a stadium). It is imperative that any neighborhood must have good streets. Not having good streets precludes all the good development we are hoping for.

The plan for the stadium area must include better streets and pedestrian connections, including more two-way streets, crosswalks, street trees, pedestrian-scale lighting, benches and public art, no more barrier fences and no parking (surface or ramps) visible from streets. What actually gets built on all the private property is a topic for a related post.

Pedestrian connections from 7th street to the new stadium must be in place along Carew Drive and 10th Avenue. That means crosswalks and traffic signals, and the removal of the barrier fence between 5th and 6th Streets. The same is true north of the stadium, where Norm McGrew Plaza needs an improved crosswalk and traffic signal at both 4th and 3rd Streets as well as a continuous pedestrian connection past the Wasabi building and across Washington Avenue continuing on 9th Avenue to the river.

Let’s indulge the students’ plans and give these streets a road diet, make them two-way, build curb bumpouts, cycletracks, and plant some street trees. Transforming Portland Avenue in to a spine of activity, making it a Main Street for downtown east, makes imminent sense.  But don’t stop there; let’s make every street in downtown east a pleasant walk. All streets should become two-way.

The on-street parking meter system should be modernized and priced variably and accordingly for business days, hospital shifts and game days, ensuring there is always on-street parking available, with revenue captured for public realm improvements to the district.

We need not worry about access. People arriving downtown from the east metro and other locations can slow down a few blocks earlier or speed up a few blocks later. After all, some of the freeways originally imagined never materialized (Hiawatha) or no longer exist (State Highway 122). And people don’t need to leave so quickly; what’s the rush? Stick around, downtown is fun! Why not move in? Exactly why we need three lanes of 8th Street racing eastward through downtown when only one of those lanes actually survives to access Hiawatha Avenue (not a freeway) is beyond me.

Visitors can also choose to use our multiple transit options to arrive downtown. Continuing to allow streets that encourage driving fast will limit development and the value of east downtown. Slowing the traffic and building streets for people will greatly encourage development and increase real estate value (and tax revenue lost to the stadium).

We cannot directly control what gets developed on all of the private development parcels in downtown east, but we can control the streets. We are giving the Vikings a boatload of money to stay downtown; the least we can do is expect good urban design that adds value to our city. That starts with the public realm. We must do everything in our power to build an improved grid of streets and public realm to make downtown east a more livable neighborhood.

This was crossposted at Joe Urban.

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11 Responses to Streets Must Be Priority #1 for Downtown East

  1. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke March 27, 2013 at 10:26 am #

    Yesterday I was in downtown Chicago. The way they built cycletracks there would be perfect for Downtown East: http://on.fb.me/109h84Y

  2. Jeb March 27, 2013 at 11:58 am #

    “Visitors can also choose to use our multiple transit options to arrive downtown.”

    Try coming in from anywhere other than near the Mall of America to downtown during the evening to, say, take in a show or something. It’s near impossible, especially to get back out after the show.

    From a visitor’s perspective (coming from the northwest), I would love to take transit into downtown, but there’s no viable option for me to park and ride and take an evening show in downtown. If someone has actual options, let me know.

    • Alex Cecchini
      Alex Cecchini March 27, 2013 at 1:29 pm #

      Well, CC LRT will be opening very soon, SW LRT not long after that. Bottineau will get something, be it BRT or LRT. In the meantime, I think the fact that anyone not living within a 5 mile radius of downtown has to drive to a park and ride to even consider using transit is the problem in the first place. Why drive, park, transit, walk when you can just drive, park, walk and cut the time/expense of transit, right? We need to come to grips with the fact that living in a place not convenient to downtown while expecting all the benefits of being able to enjoy all that downtown offers (whether that’s once a month or daily for work) was not the result of the free market. People (including myself – I live very far from downtown and reduced parking there would make getting in more difficult) need to deal with the choices they’ve made.

      Spot on suggestions, Sam.

      • Jeb March 27, 2013 at 8:27 pm #

        Until Bottineau gets through, there’s still for nothing south of 394-University. Nothing for the east metro, either. Frankly, if it becomes difficult for people to park downtown, and we don’t give them other options to come downtown, people will simply avoid downtown. Certainly, there should be more people living in denser areas, but what if people simply don’t want to live in the city? Should we exclude them from downtown? Realize that that will probably mean a much quieter downtown and less people downtown, especially in the short term.

        As someone outside of the immediate metro area (but still considered part of the CSA that includes Minneapolis and St. Cloud,) not having transit options to get downtown at night where I can park my car (other than going well out of my way to either the 28th Ave. P&R or Fort Snelling P&R) makes it almost a necessity to park downtown. If it’s too expensive or difficult to do so, I’m going to simply avoid downtown (and whatever money I’m bringing with me.) There are plenty of options here, or traveling to St. Cloud, or traveling to another suburb.

        I fully understand the need to remove parking in downtown areas and make it more limited. But we need to pair that with solid options for people to park outside of downtown and come in, more than likely via transit. Otherwise I fear that downtown will become even more dead than it is now.

        • Jeb March 27, 2013 at 8:37 pm #

          Nothing north of 394-University, sorry.

        • Alex Cecchini
          Alex Cecchini March 28, 2013 at 10:04 am #

          “Frankly, if it becomes difficult for people to park downtown, and we don’t give them other options to come downtown, people will simply avoid downtown. Certainly, there should be more people living in denser areas, but what if people simply don’t want to live in the city?”

          My point is that we are giving people something. One might argue too much, given that the transit infrastructure going in toward the north, SW, east metro will not truly help solve poor development patterns (800+ space parking garages encouraging further driving and sprawl, etc).

          As for people who simply don’t want to live in the city… Chuck has a great post about the want for something vs the affordability. http://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2010/2/9/strong-towns-rebuttal-let-them-eat-lobster.html

          We have made living in places that aren’t “the city” (not just Minneapolis, but denser, productive areas) affordable for far too long. Zoning restrictions, parking minimums, mortgage interest deductions, FHA loans requiring housing styles, subsidized freeway expansions, etc etc. If people were to pay the true cost of the location and size of their homes, their gasoline, their road usage, the desire would still be there but a very large chunk simply wouldn’t be able to afford it. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just the free market. I would love to eat at Fogo de Chao every night, but I simply can’t afford it. Instead I eat Target brand pasta and meat most of the time. Not because it’s my favorite food, but because it’s a sensible financial alternative.

          Taking it one step further.. people may not like living “stacked on top of each other” in a city (or dense rural town). I could argue, though, that there needs to be a moral imperative for people to do so for environmental reasons.

  3. helsinki March 28, 2013 at 4:19 am #

    Thanks for writing this post. Everything recommended here is really necessary. DTE isn’t foreordained to be a walkable mixed use neighborhood; it could still languish as a massive parking lot for years to come. Despite LRT and the development clustered on 2nd Street, there doesn’t seem to be a consensus yet that large parking ramps and auto dominated streets are inappropriate for the area. Hopefully your thinking gets through to the people who make the decisions.

  4. Jeremy Bergerson March 28, 2013 at 8:43 am #

    I really and truly hope that the Metro Orange Line will be sent north up 5th and south down 4th, with each alignment having its own dedicated lane that is physically separated from the rest of the street. Having rapid transit stations along these corridors could help spur development, and not just the vikings tailgaiting kind. Here’s a map I made of my dream rapid transit system for the Twin Cities, where you can see my ideal Orange Line route: https://maps.google.com/maps/ms?msid=208204957059538730846.0004d390988f39d2a55b9&msa=0

    Furthermore, I hope that they repurpose the old Strib building for something. Its streamlined moderne exterior is very handsome, and given all the chintzy new construction in downtown, and given how many buildings of architectural value that we’ve already lost, I worry about this one’s fate.

  5. minneapolisite March 30, 2013 at 11:53 pm #

    And just look at how many cars are using the travel lanes in the first pic. Maybe one? If it’s not parked, that is. The funny thing is, there *has* to be studies done to *prove* the need for reducing lanes or lowering the speed limit, but where are the studies proving the *need* for the current configurations? These streets are ghost towns easily 22 hours a day and the other 2 certainly aren’t utilized enough to make up for the rest of the day. Wanna know why I’m even able to run red lights on my bike Downtown? Because local traffic engineers are so GD stupid that I am able, even during most peak/rush hours, ride through an intersection because not nearly enough motorists are using the cross-road/street, i.e. they over-projected like an MF-er.

    I certainly wouldn’t want these guys to gamble with my money: they’d spend $100 trying to win $20 tops. And based on the results they get in their traffic “expertise”, they’d consider that an all out “success”.

  6. SR March 31, 2013 at 11:32 pm #

    That’s all fine and dandy, and I support redevelopment of the streets, but its not going to happen without a massive influx of cash. What’s the funding model? Is there a federal streets program besides that used for the Marq2? Unless theyre scheduled for regular replacement, I wouldn’t expect much change anytlme soon, and then piecemeal at best.

    • Sam Newberg
      Sam Newberg April 10, 2013 at 5:57 pm #

      This is an acute observation – the city has no mechanism to change the right-of-way (i.e., curb bumpouts, for example) unless the street is scheduled for a rebuild. Ideally we’d have a funding mechanism to allow for the street to be rebuilt at least to its mid-point when redevelopment occurs, perhaps partially funded by the development in return for higher FAR. At least then the street and adjacent development match like carpet and drapes. It will require a pretty fundamental change to the way the city does business, but we should try it.

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