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.

20 thoughts on “Completing Richfield’s Streets

  1. David LevinsonDavid Levinson

    The plan should be for sidewalks on both sides of every through street. This reduces the amount of time people walk without sidewalks and reduces the number of times people need to cross the street to use a sidewalk. (Assuming we are not going to have a shared space).

    Given the cost of construction, I suspect there are some economies of doing both sides at once (the crews are there, the cement mixers are there, the disruption is there). This would amount to $20M/36000 people about $555 per person. If we amortize that over 30 years, or $0.05 per person per day.

    Are sidewalks worth a nickel today?

  2. Jeff Klein

    Richfield also happens to be nasty for biking, because it has a bunch of those four-lane stroads with a median in the middle and no shoulder. Those mini-freeways are about the only thing I truly hate biking on.

    1. Sean Hayford Oleary

      Richfield’s arterials are generally undivided (the only exception being 77th Street and portions of 66th). But median or not, I certainly agree with your characterization of them, and also find them uncomfortable to bike on. We’re making progress on the no-shoulder, no-bike lane front. Portland Ave was converted to a 3-lane section between 68th and 76th a few years ago, and it’s anticipated that that will be done for the full length of Portland in Richfield in 2015. 66th will also likely have a bikeway for its entire length (though the details have yet to be determined).

      Just this year, bike connections were completed at Bloomington Avenue and Lyndale Avenue — the first on-street bike connections between Minneapolis and any of its neighboring municipalities. Possible restripes are in the works for Lyndale, Nicollet, and Penn Avenue in the coming two years. We also have on-street bike lanes on most of Bloomington Avenue, and all of 76th-75th Street.

      We still have a long way to go, but Richfield has made laudable progress with bicycling. Unfortunately, that attention has not yet been paid to pedestrians. That’s why I think now is the time to ramp up and do a city-wide sidewalk installation program.

      1. Jeff Klein

        Thanks for clarifying. I don’t spend a lot of time in Richfield and that’s just where I happened to go, so it’s what I remember.

      2. Froggie

        Given that Portland Ave is CSAH, how much pushback was there from the county on that 4-to-3 conversion on Portland?

        Assuming that Jeff is referring to 77th St in his dislike for 4-lane divided streets, as I recall when 77th St was being planned, the plan was to build 77th as it wound up becoming and downgrade 76th from the former 4-lane undivded into a 2-lane with bike/ped facilities. I haven’t been to that part of Richfield in ages so I don’t know if the 76th St part actually happened.

        1. Sean Hayford Oleary

          Actually Portland’s 4-to-3 conversion was the County’s idea. The possible restripings on Penn and NIcollet are coming more from the City’s end.

          And yes, 76th Street (and 75th Street west of 35W) was redone in 2011 and 2012, and the resulting street has been a terrific improvement. Two travel lanes, two bike lanes, one sidewalk, and one MUP. I’m not sure that necessarily justifies 77th Street, or makes it the right choice, but I do think what was done to 76th was a very good design.

  3. Moe

    I grew up in Richfield and my parents still live there. While I think sidewalks would be great, the streets really are wide enough to walk on, especially since fewer residents park on those streets. My parents have walked on the streets nearly every day for the last 10 years, and it’s not a big issue. Our family has walked with young kids, on bikes or pulling wagons, and it’s fine on the side streets.

    If I could make one change in Richfield, it would be to improve the walking and biking on 66th St. Walking on it is horrible, biking is dangerous, and you just rarely see anyone doing either. And yet it’s the Street in the city that is hard to avoid if you want to get anywhere.

    1. Sean Hayford Oleary

      66th Street is going to be rebuilt in 2016-2017, and while no details are nailed down, I can promise you that that street will be dramatically different from what is on the ground today.

      Richfield and Hennepin County are investing a lot of money and effort into redoing major streets. I think building sidewalks in our neighborhoods helps us capitalize on that investment, by allowing people to safely and comfortably access those streets by foot.

      1. Froggie

        That 66th St website is severely lacking. Though it has links to the city and county, I can’t get the city’s page to load, and the county link is a 404…I found the county’s website on it, but it doesn’t have much detail either.

    2. Alex

      I’m not sure if this is comparable to the situation in Richfield, but recently the City of New Ulm decided to build sidewalks (on both sides of) the street that my gramma lives on. Neighbors were generally opposed (according to my gramma) for the compelling reason that the street is very wide with very little traffic and parking that is pretty much only used when my brother and I visit my gramma, so people usually feel comfortable walking in the street anyway. 6′ wide sidewalks were built with a 4′ boulevard, so people lost 10′ of their front yards (a good thing IMHO but usually unpopular) and an already too-wide street got effectively wider by adding a 10′ clear zone on each side. Though it slows the construction, I’d much rather sidewalks get retrofitted with a full reconstruction in cases like these, where the 38′ wide roadway could have been slimmed to 20′ and sidewalks with boulevards where you can actually grow a tree added. Not only does that calm vehicular traffic (which is often way too fast) and create a more aesthetically appealing roadway, it uses far less of the asphalt that blocks absorbtion of stormwater, over-absorbs sunlight, and due to its petroleum base will be very expensive for the next generation to rebuild. A pie-in-the-sky dream would be for the state to create a funding program for this kind of street retrofit.

      1. Sean Hayford Oleary

        This is a similar situation to what we were doing in Northfield, but having watched that play out, I can say that doing it one fell swoop is a better approach if it’s viable. The primary problem with the Northfield approach is that almost every project becomes a dead end — homeowners get all the obligation of sidewalks (shoveling), but they don’t get the benefit of being able to walk on them anywhere.

        The other consideration is that, due to the relatively young age and good condition of Richfield streets, it could be 30-50 years before we see large-scale, city-wide reconstruction. Can Richfield afford half a century of not providing a major pedestrian amenity that both Minneapolis and many newer suburbs provide? I don’t think so.

        And I don’t see this as either/or. If this goes forward, that does not preclude Richfield from narrowing its streets as they are reconstructed. That could allow a more generous boulevard and provide better traffic-calming.

        1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

          Speaking of snow removal, why can’t neighbors with snow blowers step up and become block leaders? This happens frequently on my block in Minneapolis. Someone with a snowblower will do the entire loop around our block. Two passes and the sidewalk is clear.

          Also, in my experience in South Minneapolis, it’s much more pleasant and effective to move around on foot by sidewalk than it is to move anywhere in the street. The sidewalks get shoveled very fast and sidewalk activity often seems to increase on evenings after a snowstorm (people do crazy things like walking to the grocery store a few blocks or way). It’s great.

        2. Betsey BuckheitBetsey Buckheit

          Northfield has struggled with sidewalks for as long as I’ve lived there (20+ years) and as a former member of the PlanningCommission and City Council, I’ve cynically thought “Everyone loves sidewalks except when one is proposed in front their house where one does not now exist.” List of reasons why sidewalks should not be built available on request.

          For local government, I think it would be easier to do all the decision-making at once, rather than face a battle for each new segment. It would also be better to put sidewalks on both sides (equity as well as better connectivity). In conjunction with sidewalk construction, though, I’d hope Richfield also looks at how much street they need (narrow some?), traffic calming, and ensuring destinations are well-connected and really easy and pleasant to walk. I’m sure you’d agree, Sean, that putting a few more sidewalks near Northfield’s middle school wouldn’t help anyone walk to school.

          1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

            I agree, Betsey, about the larger point of walkability. Richfield has been fortunate to be landlocked, as that fact has completely avoided sprawl development like Northfield Middle School, YMCA, or Northfield Hospital. That’s not to say everything is perfect — if nothing else, we have some big boxes like Menards and Target to contend with. But there is absolutely nothing as unwalkable as Northfield MIddle School or the Hospital. (For the uninitiated, the Northfield Hospital was built over a mile from any existing development, and is literally surrounded by a cornfield on three sides. But there is technically a MUP that goes out there…)

            Sidewalks can’t solve everything, but for a municipality that’s already got a lot going for it in walkability terms — good transit access, high density, an easy, consistent grid — it can really tie together all the other walkable elements. Something needs to be walkable, but it also needs to feel walkable. In addition to objective safety improvement, sidewalks really improve the feel of walkability.

  4. Reuben CollinsReuben Collins

    Great post, Sean. This is an interesting initiative and I will eagerly be watching to see how it turns out. Echoing Moe, one thing I expect we will nearly all agree on is that the presence or absense of a sidewalk by itself does not determine walkability. Plenty of communities don’t have sidewalks on local streets, and I don’t think this automatically makes them unwalkable.

    There are many european examples of very walkable spaces and local streets that have no identifiable sidewalk. Whether Richfield could effectively implement a shared-space feeling on the local streets is a valid question.

    A couple years ago, my wife and I along with our 4-month-old daugher found ourselves living in a friends basement for a couple months while we were between homes. The home was in a lovely area of northeast Edina that was a great place to walk despite not having sidewalks. Occasionally our evening walks would take us across the border into southwest MPLS where there were sidewalks, but we often chose to just continue walking in the street, even while pushing a stroller (actually, the poor condition of the sidewalks played a little role in this as well).

    That being said, I live in MPLS where there are sidewalks, and I don’t see myself every buying a home in a neighborhood that does not have sidewalks.

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      >> “That being said, I live in MPLS where there are sidewalks, and I don’t see myself every buying a home in a neighborhood that does not have sidewalks.”

      Yes, that. Exactly. You’re definitely not the only one. Even the Richfield City Engineer noted that, when she was buying a house two years ago, she really wanted to buy in Richfield, but just couldn’t get over the idea of not having sidewalks in her neighborhood. And this is the person who more than anyone else is responsible for the safety of Richfield’s streets. If she can’t be convinced that it’s still safe and comfortable to walk on streets without sidewalks, who will be?

      I have no doubt in the effectiveness of shared space, but I do doubt its applicability to a place like Richfield. I’ve lived in Oslo for two years, and looking at their residential streets, they’re basically slightly widened shared-use paths. No ditches or curbs, and certainly no sidewalks. They’re terrific places to walk — but they represent something radically different from what we’re used to. There’s significant inconsistency in setback; some structures are just inches from the edge of the roadway. They’re much narrower than most Minnesotan roadways. And they seem to scoff at any notion of pavement management, even in affluent areas.

      I acknowledge the safety, cost savings, and aesthetic pleasure of such streets. But they’d be far more difficult to attain — and as a retrofit, more expensive upfront.

  5. Paul Chillman

    My family just moved to Richfield from South Minneapolis this summer. The irony is that we have many more stores and parks within short walking distance now, but the lack of sidewalks makes walking a lot less pleasant. It may seem like it shouldn’t be a big deal to walk on low-traffic streets, but from personal experience the difference is really noticeable. My younger son just learned to ride a tricycle a few weeks ago, and having to human-shield him on the street the whole way made me wistful for sidewalks again.

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