What is the Value of Closing a Street?

We need to move beyond Open Streets.

Open Streets closes down auto-oriented streets in Minneapolis and St. Paul along major corridors and opens them up to pedestrians, cyclists, strollers and skaters. The transformation is astonishingly beautiful. But, when the streets turn back into uninhabitable congested roadway the following day I’m left asking myself “What’s the point?”

Herein lies a problem with tactical urbanism and Ciclovía-styled events. They must go beyond the event and aim for a greater good. Open Streets must be a tactic in a broader strategy, and merely raising awareness may not be enough to accomplish their mission of enhancing healthy living, local business, sustainable transportation and civic pride.

I mean no disrespect to Open Streets. They’re an excellent organization and I support them 100 percent. But, amongst all their other much needed work, there needs to be collaboration on behalf of the cities beyond just permitting it. They need to join forces to help make these needed infrastructure adjustments the other 364 days of the year.

We have one of the best examples in our own backyard: Milwaukee Avenue.

Milwaukee Avenue South by Franklin Avenue

Milwaukee Avenue Historic District runs for 2 blocks in South Minneapolis and is composed of small homes built for lower-income residents between 1880 and 1890 on quarter-sized lots. Deterioration occured throughout the second World War and preservationists in the 1970s helped save the homes and turn the street into a park. Today, Milwaukee Avenue is a magical place (especially after a fresh snow).

Closed streets have livablity, but what does that mean? It’s a soft, open-ended concept that doesn’t mean much. I wanted to see if the livability of a closed street created any monetary return. I took Milwaukee Avenue and compared the property values against a similar nearby street open to vehicle traffic.

mil26th

There are no perfect equivalents when comparing complex urban environments. Here are important notes about the comparison:

  • The homes along Milwaukee Avenue are small compared to their neighbors, but have better architectural character.
  • The homes on 26th Avenue were likely built for middle-class residents, whereas Milwaukee Avenue homes were built for the city’s lower class.
  • Commercial properties on the corner of each street at the intersection of Franklin Avenue were excluded.
  • 26th Avenue South included three (3) tax-exempt properties owned by Hennpein County. In an effort to be fair, since no value is assessed on public record, I assigned each property the mean value of all other properties ($209,986).

Here is what I discovered:

  • Milwaukee Avenue has 47 properties with an average value of $223,647 with an overall market rate taxable value of $10,511,400.
  • 26th Avenue  has 38 properties with an average value of $209,986 with an approximate market rate taxable value of $7,979,458.

In this comparison, the closed street has a total taxable value of $2,531,942 more than its neighborhood (approximately 31 percent). Again, I’d like to put this into perspective: Milwaukee Avenue has smaller lots, smaller homes and was originally built as affordable housing. This means the City of Minneapolis takes in about $43,043 more in property tax revenue per year on these two blocks.

There are wide streets all over Minneapolis that have limited functionality in our grid network. Upon repaving and/or reconstructing, we need to  really examine whether or not we actually need these streets for vehicles, especially if the homes have adequate alleyway access.

This is where Open Streets comes back into the equation. How can they (and we) help sell this idea of a closed street as a permanent fixture for creating a permanent and tangible community value? I don’t believe that Open Street events are just “feel-good projects”, they are real economic development if transitioned into infrastructure. Imagine the value that could be created by the City of Minneapolis if they were to replicate the success of Milwaukee Avenue?

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14 Responses to What is the Value of Closing a Street?

  1. Joe November 11, 2013 at 2:08 am #

    Great post!

    There are some great options for closing down streets to cars, including the North Minneapolis Greenway. However, to really be a signature piece for the city with lots of vibrant shops and restaurants, and most importantly people, it should be along a commercial corridor. If a streetcar is built on Nicollet, it would make sense for it not to sit in traffic. Why not shut down the street from downtown to Lake St. This would accelerate the development of Nicollet, and drive new apartment developments east of Lyndale. Considering the success of Nicollet Mall, it is unfortunate that expansion isn’t even being considered. No more buses and taxis, just a streetcar, a cycletrack, and of course pedestrians.

    • Nathaniel M Hood
      Nathaniel November 11, 2013 at 10:14 am #

      Closing down Nicollet (and possible even Central, north of downtown) for the streetcar is a good idea. The loss of on-street parking would make it a very tough fight (the streetcar won’t be easy to begin with). But, I’d agree with you that a streetcar should have a dedicated ROW, otherwise it isn’t much of an improvement (transit-time-wise) over buses.

  2. Brendon Slotterback
    Brendon Slotterback November 11, 2013 at 9:39 am #

    I would direct you to the North Minneapolis Greenway planning effort: http://www.minneapolismn.gov/health/living/northminneapolisgreenway

    • Nathaniel M Hood
      Nathaniel November 11, 2013 at 10:12 am #

      Brendon – Thanks. I should have mentioned this in the post. It’s a great project that I’d love to see built!

  3. Kyle Werremeyer November 11, 2013 at 10:19 am #

    My first home purchase was in a planned subdivision in Illinois called Hometown, which generally mimicked the Milwaukee Ave idea of no front streets, big porches and encouraging neighbors to interact through traffic free and reduced traffic streets.

    Unfortunately, most people just came and went through their garage on the alley, and the front streets were pretty much deserted. There was very limited parking, especially for visitors, which for a suburban community was problematic.

    The housing market crash probably didn’t allow Hometown to reach its full potential. During and after the housing crash the community started to attract owners and renters who were more interested in the value-priced housing than the idea of the walkable neighborhood, the business node never developed, and when I was there the most mature plantings were only about 2 years old. Many parts of the subdivision remain unfinished even a decade plus later. So certainly it’s not an exact match to a city scape and closing established streets, but through personal experience I would say closed streets are not as attractive an option as may be at first glance.

    I believe a better option to closed streets in the city would be to cul-de-sac a number of streets per neighborhood to encourage more kids and families in front yards, but still provide local vehicle access and parking.

    • Nathaniel M Hood
      Nathaniel November 11, 2013 at 11:03 am #

      What I am proposing is to strategically identify streets in existing walkable neighborhoods and closing down one (or two or three) blocks down to traffic and using that space as a park, or some other non-motorized vehicle space.

      The devil will always be in the detail, and this is not a “one-size fits all” plan. It’s something that can be replicated in small doses. For example; in Minneapolis and St. Paul, we could easily find one street in each neighborhood that could successfully do this.

      What we need to do is look at streets in an entirely different way. It doesn’t have to be this model of turning a street into a park, it can be a number of things. The link shared above on the North Minneapolis Greenway project gives a few of these options:

      http://www.minneapolismn.gov/www/groups/public/@health/documents/images/wcms1p-099071.jpg

    • TOM December 3, 2013 at 2:20 pm #

      By “value-priced” you mean “fire-sale”, right.

      So they ran the flag up and nobody saluted. Too bad.

  4. TOM November 11, 2013 at 4:30 pm #

    Am I correct that these homes do have car ‘access’ from the rear? That appears evident from the sky-view. Hide the cars at the rear and make the site more attractive from the ‘front’. Of course, there is no loss of parking opportunities.

  5. Nathaniel M Hood
    Nathaniel November 11, 2013 at 4:42 pm #

    Tom – That is correct. There is alleyway access to the homes. Plus, on the side cross-street, they took the space dedicated as a cross-street and turned that into two parking lots (where the road would have otherwise been). It creates about a dozen spots reserved for residents. There is ample on-street parking on adjacent streets.

  6. Nick Magrino
    Nick Magrino November 12, 2013 at 6:58 pm #

    This particular comparison isn’t particularly bad, but a number of times on UrbanMSP I’ve seen the “a street was closed here” or “a lane was removed here” logic stretched out to the point where the person appears to be arguing that because a lane was closed once, somewhere, and traffic didn’t become a problem, that you can close all lanes, everywhere, and traffic wouldn’t become a problem. Pointing out exactly why (with numbers) that’s silly isn’t really in my department, but maybe one of our more technical writers can take a stab at it.

    • Nathaniel M Hood
      Nathaniel November 12, 2013 at 10:25 pm #

      Each closure needs to be strategic and this isn’t something you can do across a large scope. It is something that can be replicated in each neighborhood at least once. Consider it one tool in a broader toolkit.

      • TOM December 3, 2013 at 2:23 pm #

        By strategic you mean asking the homeowners first for their overwhelming approvals so when they lose their convenient access to their homes they won’t bitch too much.

  7. Brendan in California November 14, 2013 at 12:38 pm #

    The 2 western blocks have alleyways, but on the 2 eastern blocks it looks like just an internal sidewalk. But there are maybe 5 or 6 private parking lots (including maybe a shared garage) on the 23rd Ave side for 40 or so additional parking spaces. This is in addition to the 12 spaces on the former cross street. Is this parking on former house lots, or maybe shared portions of reduced lots? There’s possibly 2 or 3 more on the north end, unless these are exclusively for the Franklin Ave retail. Not sure if this affects your analysis.

    I still prefer to not close streets completely to cars but rather to develop our techniques for severe control and restriction on them. Reduce the street to a single very narrow, very very slow (walking speed/ 3-5 mph), non-thru lane, while also preserving some parking. This keeps more constant human activity on the street/former street, and increases social safety. Sort of a green suburban woonerf.

  8. MplsJaromir December 3, 2013 at 12:26 pm #

    Did you know Detroit has a car free street?

    http://detroit.curbed.com/archives/2013/10/pallister-park-detroits-strange-pedestrianonly-street.php

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