Washburn Ave in the 1940s

Completing Richfield’s Streets

Washburn Ave in the 1940s

Washburn Ave in the 1940s. Photo from Richfield Historical Society.

The City of Richfield has all the bones of a good place to walk. It has higher density than any other major suburb. It has a nearly intact urban grid. It has better transit service than any other suburb, and in some regards, better than most of South Minneapolis. But as almost anyone who has walked in Richfield knows, it certainly doesn’t always feel like a good place to walk. Sidewalks on major streets are disheveled and unbuffered, and there are virtually no sidewalks to be found on residential streets.

The story behind this is a typical for a municipality caught between urban and suburban: Richfield expanded rapidly after World War II. There was not time nor money to build full streets at the time — the roads were mostly unpaved, and certainly had no curbing or sidewalks. In the 1970s, the City of Richfield embarked on an ambitious campaign, called “Richfield Permanent Streets,” in which almost all of today’s streets were built. Despite being relatively integrated with Minneapolis, the 1970s Richfield went for the same design that was being popularized in newer suburbs at the time: broad streets, and sidewalks only where there was a high volume of traffic.

Diagonal Boulevard. Some of this space was filled in this year with bike lanes.

Diagonal Boulevard. Some of this space was filled in this year with bike lanes.

And that’s where we’ve been ever since. The 1970s was not all that long ago, and thanks to shade, low traffic, and routine maintenance, the streets haven’t even been repaved since. That initial lifecycle of those streets seems to be coming to a close, as the Public Works and Engineering departments now want to pursue a $20 million plan to mill-and-overlay all of Richfield’s residential streets. This is being wrapped into a larger campaign — “Better Roads, Better Richfield” — to promote both the mill-and-overlay project, as well as full reconstructions of Portland Avenue and 66th Street.

I applaud Richfield for taking good care of their streets for four decades, and I don’t oppose spending the $20 million to repave them. But when we’re talking about “Better Roads, Better Richfield,” shouldn’t those roads be better for everyone?

Better Roads, Better Richfield postcard

“Better Roads, Better Richfield” postcard

There is no doubt that Richfield’s 100 miles of sidewalk-less streets are leaving people out in the cold. As of the 2010 census, more than half of Richfield households have one car or no car at all — that’s more vehicle ownership than Minneapolis as a whole, but notably less car ownership than the Minneapolis zip codes immediately to the north. And simply looking at cars per household doesn’t begin to address those too young or too old to drive. In 2009, Richfield conducted a Safe Routes to School Study, and found that 64 of the 65 parents surveyed — 98% — felt that continuous sidewalks were “somewhat important” or “very important” in their decision to let their child walk to school or not.

So why is Richfield in the situation that it’s in? As far as I’ve been able to tell, it’s simply inertia. I have talked to dozens of Richfielders, and I hear the same thing every time: “well I don’t really have a problem with sidewalks, but other people are really not going to like that.” I have no doubt that these feared sidewalk curmudgeons do exist, but they may not be nearly as pervasive as we might think.

Yet this mill-and-overlay project is a unique opportunity for Richfield, easily the largest public works project since the original street construction in the 1970s. It will involve a $20 million bill being passed to the citizens. It involves extensive public outreach. And it will affect nearly every street in town.

So my proposal is simple: we can’t completely undo a bad decision made 40 years ago, but we can make it much better for a fair cost. I want to see a sidewalk on at least one side of every residential street in Richfield. City staff have been receptive to the idea, and have assisted in rough cost estimates: the general ballpark is that it will cost $10 million to build the 100 miles of sidewalk that this would require. Sidewalks on both sides of the street would cost about double, $20 million. The idea of including sidewalks was first discussed with the Transportation Commission (a board to which I am a bike-ped liaison) last week. While it was not a ringing endorsement, the Commission did direct staff to continue to examine the viability of such a project, and begin to broach the subject with the City Council. Believe it or not, that may be the biggest progress toward sidewalks in Richfield in four decades.

Creating a network of sidewalks on every street in Richfield will be an opportunity for us to attract more young homeowners and families. It would be an opportunity to be a leader in the first ring for pedestrian safety and walkability (as we already have for bicycling). And most important of all: it would be an opportunity to make walking safer and more comfortable in Richfield.

Sean Hayford Oleary

About Sean Hayford Oleary

Sean Hayford Oleary is a web developer and planner. He serves on the Richfield City Council, and previously on the city's Planning and Transportation commissions. Articles are written from a personal perspective and not on behalf of Richfield or others. Sean has a masters in urban planning from the Humphrey School. Follow his love of streets, home improvement, and all things Richfield on Twitter @sdho.