Northeast’s Public Realm Needs a Makeover

I’ve spent a bit of time in the St Anthony area recently, looking for homes and reminiscing about my runs along the river during college, attending the midnight opener for Snakes on a Plane at St Anthony Main, and memories of the church my wife and I were married in.  The area is quite beautiful, with some great date spots, places to grab a bite, or simply some utilitarian walking.  The commercial areas are starting to see some major investments in addition to the great concentration of existing retail, restaurants, townhomes, condos, and century-old residential to the east and west.  This development is even more impressive when you consider we’ve made no major transit investments recently (though the Nicollet-Central streetcar certainly won’t hurt).

However, it’s painfully clear poor street design hinders the area from becoming a truly welcoming environment to pedestrians, and one that fosters non-auto modes of transportation.  First, Hennepin, and Central Avenues stick out in particular, with University and Fourth not too far behind (but less terrible).  Let’s talk about how short-term changes can really make the public realm in this neighborhood worthy of the infill with street-fronting retail and transit improvements coming online.

Commercial. Residential. Big trees. Skinny lanes. Doable.

Commercial. Residential. Big trees. Skinny lanes. Doable. (image source: Google Maps)

First, I’ll be referencing traffic counts from the Minneapolis Transportation Data site.  I’m going off the assumption that a 2-way street with up to 20k AADT can be 4-3’d without major issues, and therefore one ways with 10-15k AADT could be handled with 2 lanes (since there are no conflicts when making left turns).  I like to use personal experiences in great urban environments as gut checks to what can work here under ideal political and financial circumstances.  I was lucky enough to spend some vacation time on Charing Cross Rd in London last spring, and noticed how easily the street made do with two (quite narrow – 9 feet!) one-way lanes.  I checked traffic counts through Transport For London‘s site and found this exact point handles between 7,000 and 10,800 cars per day since 2003 (though counts have declined as London has emphasized bicycling and other modes in the last decade).  Keep these numbers is mind as we talk changes closer to home.

First Ave
First Avenue NE sees roughly 10,000 vehicles a day on its one-way path between 4th & 5th Streets, with the numbers bumping up a bit while crossing the river.  The rightmost lane alternates between on-street parking and right-turn lanes through the area.  I’ll be nice and simply say the combination of freeway spec lane design coupled with the lack of pretty much any sidewalk greening make First a hot & sunny (summer) / windy & desolate (winter), dangerous area for those on bike or foot.

We never built I-335, so I'll dub this I-First Ave

We never built I-335, so I’ll dub this I-First Ave (image source: Google Maps)

First_Ave_ProposedThree lanes seems excessive given current/future land uses and one-way daily traffic counts that have only surpassed 10,000 twice in the 8 times it’s been measured since 1999.  Add in the fact that sidewalks run between 8 and 11 feet wide, less than any individual travel lane, and you really have to question Minneapolis’ resolve to be a pedestrian-friendly place.  Take a look at the image on the right for what I propose, assuming the streetcar runs along 1st in the future (in the meantime bus routes 4 and 61 can use the dedicated space to build area ridership through slightly enhanced service).  The loss of parking on one side of the street is an obvious tradeoff, but I believe bike parking and Nice Ride stations paired with quality area bike facilities plus enhanced mobility via eventual streetcar service makes parking on both sides unnecessary in this district. I also included a proposal for how bikes, peds, streetcars, and vehicles cross the bridge, which can be mirrored for…

Hennepin Avenue
Between University & 4th Street, Hennepin Ave sees around 13-14k AADT; again, numbers vary between river and crossing Central, but they hover in this range. Hennepin is far better than First in how it treats pedestrians, limiting on-street parking on both sides with curb bumpouts that widen sidewalks, add trees for shade, and provide bike parking.  That said, sidewalks are still just 11′ wide and lack continuous tree cover in lieu of a third traffic lane.

Much better, though still not perfect (image source: Google Maps)

Much better, though still not perfect (image source: Google Maps)

East Hennepin Ave ProposalI propose using the forthcoming streetcar project, which will already inflict a little area pain, to make some changes in this strip (the area north/east of 7th St where Hennepin reverts to two-way will require some different tactics).   Re-do the east-ish curbside when rolling the streetcar through, removing parking and widening the sidewalk with newly planted trees.  The west-ish side can wait for change if utilities and storm sewers aren’t conveniently placed, but this is an excellent opportunity to complete the one-way cycle track pair (1st Ave being the other) by changing the  current bumpouts/parking to a raised cycle track.  The existing left travel lane becomes street parking, with a re-painting narrowing the rest of the thru-lanes (I’m not aware the last time Hennepin was reconstructed, but it seems to be in decent enough condition).

Central Avenue
Central Ave Proposal
Between 4th & 5th Streets, Central sees ~14,500 two-way AADT, with numbers again varying between the river and further north, but all below 20k.  Central is definitely the least bad of the three, and looks to have been recently resurfaced, but the sidewalk is definitely cramped in many spots – quite the recurring theme.  It’d be great to leave room for a bus lane for a future Central Ave “E Line,” (assuming Chicago-Fremont and Lake St come first, but I think Central would best serve the area transportation needs via a 4-3 conversion with a raised cycle track on each side.  Minneapolis believes Central is a critical piece of the cycling infrastructure (so do I), so let’s do it right and skip the sh(itty)arrows.

Parking only on one side, not shown in lieu of bulb-out transit stop here. The 12′ travel lanes may seem blasphemous, but they include necessary gutter pans.  The right of way is just wide enough for a 12′ pedestrian zone adjacent to (but separated by trees) a passable cycle track.  This track can pass behind transit stops, and on the east side of the street be completely separated from right turning traffic.  Unfortunately, the west side cycle track would  share the right turn lane with vehicles – far from ideal, but better than sharrows for the whole corridor in my opinion.  Further north where traffic is lighter and right turns less frequent, right turn lanes can be eschewed in favor of protected intersection designs.


  • Ownership – Both the state and Hennepin County have a say in how these streets are designed, and both have different goals than the city for how they function.
  • Snow storage – narrowed lanes provide less wiggle room in our climate that dumps snow then stays below zero for 50+ days.  I’d say the a BID type situation with all the development could help pay for snow removal rather than plow & store, but this would need to be evaluated
  • Utilities – mentioned earlier, but it’s possible storm sewers and other utilities won’t allow for these projects until full street reconstruction time
  • (Dreaded) Traffic – Area growth and vitality does mean more trips generated here as some people will likely still drive for work, and more will want to come visit new retail and restaurants. Central is also a bit more spiky with peak hour directions than other 4-3 conversions Minneapolis/St Paul implemented.  I’d counter this with the relative gap between the maximum AADT that works for 4-3 conversions and actual AADT in the area – there’s still capacity, particularly with declining driving region-wide.
  • Transit-Traffic disruptions – with only one thru-lane, buses stopping every other block without pull-outs may challenge traffic engineers’ models.  Proper off-board equipment, stop design, and far-side intersection placement can limit this impact, but it may be necessary to force buses to pull out to parking areas.

Alright!  Like the idea(s)? Hate em? Ideas for handling changes as you move away from the St Anthony Main core?  Let’s move the conversation forward and get the city/county on board with making this area safer and more valuable at the speed development will likely occur over the next few years.

23 thoughts on “Northeast’s Public Realm Needs a Makeover

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini Post author

      It would go against my principles to pull an “urbanist Robert Moses” on MSP, so I’ll just keep writing here!

  1. Tony HuntTony Hunt

    I have lived in Northeast for 8 years so I can heartily give a hoorah to these. I have a few things I’d want to add to an overall picture of NE; though I think I may just need to write up a post so as not to bog down the comment section.

  2. scott Engel

    The Minneapolis Pedestrian Master Plan identifies this area as one of the highest priorities for improvements. The City’s Pedestrian Advisory Committee (PAC) has been working to get Minneapolis and Hennepin County to add the streets to the “capital improvement project” lists because significant change is more feasible / cost-effective during a major road reconstruction. Readers of this post should talk to City, County, and State policy makers to draw attention to it. Apparently, they hear a lot about auto traffic congestion from constituents and that becomes their priority.

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini Post author

      Thanks, Scott!

      Any contact info for project/team members or PAC/etc groups for readers here to contract to push for some changes sooner rather than later?

  3. minneapolisite

    I couldn’t believe they didn’t even add the lowly sharrow to 1st after they resurfaced it. All these streets definitely need to be calmed and narrowed in that order and they would still more than suffice for current and future (dropping) numbers of motor vehicles passing through. The county and state have no case for them to continue in their current state. And what about two-way conversions for Hennepin and 1st? It would be a lot easier to bike around…

    1. Jeff Klein

      That’s a nasty bike spot during rush hour because the right lane keeps disappearing, so you’re continually merging left into heavy traffic.

      1. minneapolisite

        Well-placed sharrows if nothing else would at least guide one down a straight path without needing to merge unnecessarily. When I go a while without riding it I tend to forget and have to wait for traffic to clear before changing lanes. If signals weren’t timed for traffic to speed through several consecutive green lights that would make it much easier to navigate too.

  4. Monte

    It’s worth noting that MN 47 and MN 65 south of I-694 are not principal arterials, therefore they are possible candidates for transfer from the state to a local agency which might be more receptive to a reconstruction project. I have to agree with this classification- they just aren’t that important to overall mobility in the area. Even when I drive to the MN 65 and I-694 area from Bloomington it’s faster to take I-94 through the tunnel.

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini Post author

      Thanks, Monte.

      I’ll say that while I’m a proponent of a long-term vision of some urban freeway link removal, I know pragmatically this probably won’t happen due to institutional inertia. So, what I’d advocate for is making their impacts smaller (some strategic land-bridges, fewer exit viaducts, etc), and recognizing that if we do have high-capacity through-routes that cut through urban areas, let’s at least make arterials and commercial corridors as calm as possible and more geared toward local traffic, not through-traffic of >1-2 miles. If one wants to save time on longer auto trips, some freeway or major highway (ie 55, 280) is never too far away.

      I didn’t say it in the post, but the point of these proposals isn’t to make driving difficult, but to make other modes as safe and easy as possible. (mostly single occupancy) Vehicles still retail ~40% of the ROW between lanes and parking, a fair tradeoff in my opinion (note, I’m not suggesting you were instigating ‘war on cars,’ just ‘splaining my mindset so folks know).

      1. Monte

        There’s lots of precedent. I have highway maps dating back to the 1920s, and it’s interesting all the changes to the routing of trunk highways over the years. As recently as 1978 Cedar, Lowry west of Lyndale, 50th west of Lyndale and Lyndale south of 50th, the entire length of University, Broadway west of Lyndale and what’s now Bottineau Blvd, Washington, and Lake/Marshall were all state maintained highways. For a more recent example, Robert Street will be transferred away from the state when reconstruction is finished and MN 101 south of Rogers has been “turned back” in bits and pieces over the last two decades.

        If Minneapolis or Hennepin county said “we want Central and University, give them to us”, I’m sure Mn/DOT would jump at the chance. But nowadays usually such transfers involve money- either Mn/DOT will reconstruct the road first or give the local agencies money to do it. This comes from a special fund separate from the general highway fund, but like all funds is limited, and there are already several years worth of commitments.

  5. mnjimn

    Small potatoes in the grand scheme but i would love to see some sort of crosswalk or traffic signal at 1st and 5th streets where the “I Like You” store is. Pedestrians from the St. Anthony East/West neighborhoods and those using the bike boulevard on 5th pour through that intersection, crossing gets especially hairy in the summer months.

  6. Cadillac Kolstad

    I think the most important suggestion is more trees it seems pretty simple because it is.
    To add to the transit mix I would like to see the city / county look into taking advantage of the current rail corridor(s) to add transit. This is a quick way to get added connectivity, the area is connected by rail to U of M, downtown, and a lot of other places. Many other cities have taken advantage of sharing existing tracks with passenger trains for years.
    Changing snow removal is a very good point, if the city seeks to become more pedestrian friendly perhaps this should be addressed at the city level for all business districts. Maybe its time to pull back from plowing out the parking lanes on side streets and focus on a better removal plan for busy pedestrian commercial areas. The “BID” model is problematic on many levels, mainly its hard to get everyone to agree to it.
    Replacing the bumpouts with something else is a good idea, a reexamination of traffic / road policy. Our city is 49th in size, but ranks 19th for traffic congestion nationally. I understand that recently a study found that there are over 600,000 cars commuting from outside the city limits. This could be part of the problem. For contrast NYC has only about 300,000 auto commuters.
    As a cyclist I am not a fan of bike lanes on busy streets, I always try to use side streets nearest the corridors. Consideration of bikes should also include pedicabs.
    My biggest concerns that I would add to “challenges” are: How much will this cost? Who will pay for it? Transit oriented to a 24 hour culture most important here is having transit that runs after bar close, given the number of bars.

  7. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    Good ideas. I agree except that I like bike lanes, especially on busy streets (though there aren’t a lot of good examples of this presently).

    BTW I think those rankings might be misleading, probably looking only at Minneapolis v. the metro area. I’d always thought that the TC metro ranked about 15th in both size and traffic congestion?

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini Post author

      I think it’s unfortunate that cyclists would need to even have a discussion about which one of side streets or commercial corridors is the “right” place for cycling infrastructure. Autos have access to both, and they have different features that meet different riders’ comfort level and trip needs. I’m also a fan of great protected infrastructure on commercial corridors (obviously), and I’d like to think breathing fumes could be mitigated by mode shifts. Besides, pedestrians do it (and again, plenty of great bicycle infrastructure in European cities right on commercial corridors).

      I’m skeptical on the numbers considering all of Minneapolis contains just shy of 300k jobs (according to the Census tool On The Map), of which a significant chunk (~72k) come from within the city limits (even if many of them do drive). I’m not saying changes like this might not have adverse short-term effects, but long-term people will shift modes, living locations, and/or discretionary/commute trip times. As a society, we need to be comfortable with some short-term pain (congestion, etc) to allow our cities to intensify in both population and jobs.

  8. Cadillac Kolstad

    I just don’t like breathing heavy next to all that exhaust or biking near angry motorists.
    I’m not sure if the congestion issue is MPLS or metro area, all the websites just say mpls. As as i understand all the stats I mentioned are for within the mpls city limits.
    and the NYC stat is commuting in and out of manhattan.
    The Metro area is higher in ranking, as i recall it’s also near the top of the “urban sprawl” ranking. Shame on the met council!

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini Post author

      Let’s narrow streets and lanes and build enough great bike infrastructure so there are a) fewer motorists because cycling/walking/transit becomes so attractive, and 2) angry motorists don’t feel comfortable driving over 25 and have no way of physically interacting with bicycles via separation.

  9. Adam MillerAdam

    And, of course, this should be one of the most walkable neighborhoods in the region, with a grocery store, a pharmacy, a liquor store and a bunch of places to eat all within easy walking distance. And yet it isn’t.

    This has become my mantra. Everyone should live where they can easily walk to a grocery store, a pharmacy, a liquor store and at least one place to eat.

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