The Enormity of the Hennepin/Lyndale Spaghetti Bowl

There are a lot of ways to subsidize a thing. We subsidize homeownership with tax breaks. We subsidize corn production with price floors. We subsidize highway driving by transferring billions of dollars a year from the general fund to the foundering Highway Trust Fund. Whether or not you agree with these policies, they’re visible and quantifiable. But some subsidies aren’t so easy to see and measure.

Take the Hennepin-Lyndale spaghetti bowl (HLSB). Just north of the Wedge neighborhood, the HLSB is a mess of undulating streets and arcing flyover ramps to and from the freeway, and wide swaths of dirty, grassy land between and underneath them. This is a subsidy, too. We’re devoting a big chunk of public land — maybe three city-blocks’ worth — to speed up cars in the middle of the city. It’s not a line item in anyone’s budget. I haven’t seen anyone estimate the property tax revenue that the city is forfeiting by prohibiting development here. But the opportunity cost of it is still there, even though it’s hard to see.

It’s hard to see for simple reasons. At any given time, almost everyone in the HLSB is speeding through it in a car. This high-speed perspective distorts their perception, making the HLSB seem smaller than it is. They’re also benefiting from the HLSB. Wherever an HLSB-user is going, their trip would take longer if they had to go through a few more blocks of streets with sidewalks and traffic lights. People who would benefit from the dismantling and re-development of the HLSB — pedestrians, cyclists, aspiring renters and homeowners, local businesspeople — have little reason or opportunity to stand in the middle of the bowl and imagine something different. The owner of the now-closed Rye Deli said his restaurant wasn’t consistently busy enough to stay in business. He didn’t mention the human-hostile infrastructure right across the street.

I, however, have free time and a camera. So I went and did the work for you. Here’s what three blocks of nearly human-free space looks like:

Standing in the spaghetti bowl facing north.

Standing in the spaghetti bowl facing north.

Standing in the spaghetti bowl facing northeast.

Standing in the spaghetti bowl facing northeast.

Standing in the spaghetti bowl facing south.

Standing in the spaghetti bowl facing south. A panhandler jogs across the street in the background.

Standing in the spaghetti bowl facing north.

Standing in the spaghetti bowl facing the bottleneck to the north.

If we sloppily copied the land use of the surrounding neighborhood and pasted it into the HLSB, it would look something like this:

Mmmm, grids.

Mmmm, grids.

If you want detailed and professional plans for reforming freeway access here, you can read the proposals by Adam Froehlig and Joe Polacek. Ethan Fawley at the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition has specific complaints about the bottleneck’s $9.1 million reconstruction project. David Levinson and Brendon Slotterback have written about more radical solutions for the bottleneck.

So that’s my spiel for redeveloping the HLSB. I anticipate a counter-argument: that the flyover ramps are necessary for the transportation network, and that they keep traffic moving quickly. In response, I’d say we need to step back and remember what transportation is. At last night’s Theater of Public Policy at the Bryant-Lake Bowl, David Levinson said that transportation is about moving from point A to point B, and speeding up travelers is only one way of improving a network. Another way is to let there be more As and Bs closer together. When destinations are nearer, people will be able to make shorter trips by more efficient modes of transportation, and the network will actually be better.

Do you like Minneapolis? Do you want there to be more of it? Then let’s drop the spaghetti bowl and sharpen the edge of the Wedge.

Scott Shaffer

About Scott Shaffer

Scott Shaffer works for a nonprofit community development corporation in Minneapolis. He has a master's degree in urban and regional planning from the University of Minnesota. He and his wife live in the Powderhorn Park neighborhood with their daughter and two Siamese cats.

10 thoughts on “The Enormity of the Hennepin/Lyndale Spaghetti Bowl

  1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    Great post. If removing lanes and creating quality public space for human beings is off the table due to requirements attached to the federal funding of this project,

    — despite the federal funds being mislabeled as bike/ped improvement rather than codification of another pavement lifecycle of costly automobile subsidy and human hostility —

    then we should just refuse the federal funds and build something better ourselves. What is it, $9 million? They could easily get $9 million by selling a few parcels currently devoted to ramps with a design geometry only necessary to accommodate high automobile speeds to and from the freeways.

    Not to mention
    -The added property tax revenue every year (which would necessarily lower the property taxes us existing folks pay)
    -The added amenities (and requisite property tax revenue) from other parcels in the neighborhood no longer saddled with the giant value suck of this interchange as a neighbor
    -The reduced long-term maintenance costs
    -The reduced long-term liabilities to redo the pavement again the next time it needs to be redone

    We need to stop accepting the status quo. Our city can do much better. And it doesn’t have to cost more. Get rid of some lanes!

  2. MplsJaromir

    Great post! Thank you for giving a human being’s perspective on the automobile dominated landscape. Sharpen the Wedge could be a great slogan for fostering some real change.

  3. Al DavisonAl Davison

    I agree, this area actually needs to look like an actual urban intersection rather than some quasi-freeway-like tangled mess. The area will always have traffic jams, but we might as well make it look more desirable especially for pedestrians and cyclists.

  4. John

    Here’s a question: Who owns that land? When I drive by, I see a no trespassing MnDOT property sign. That would complicate redevelopment there. I’ve always wondered why homeless folks camp out there and maybe it’s because it’s MnDOT land and the city doesn’t have jurisdiction to kick them out.

  5. Froggie

    Never heard it referred to as a “spaghetti bowl”, probably because of potential confusion with what most people call “Spaghetti Junction”, the nearby I-94/I-35W/Hiawatha Ave interchange complex. Aside from the specific streets involved, the only name I’ve ever heard or read for the Hennepin/Lyndale area is simply “the Bottleneck”.

  6. minneapolisite

    It’s not only the loss of a few blocks worth of residents and businesses that provide tax revenue and jobs, but when I think of the 100s of blocks torn down back in the day removing a huge chunk of the tax base, population and business loss, how did it ever sound like a “win” for any city? Much of the developed land is gone and undevelopable, so it’s hard to believe they’d think they’d be able to rebuild all that elsewhere.

    I would hope his gets changed to free up some land, but if not they might as well expand bike and pedestrian facilities: why not raise the multi-use path through intersections to make intersections safer if nothing else?

  7. Matt Brillhart

    In case anyone is wondering, I looked up the net annual property tax contribution by the properties Scott Photoshopped (or MS Paint’d) onto the dead space, and it was pretty damn close to $500k/year. A little more than half was from “The Kenwood” senior living complex alone.

    Of course, not all of that land can be built upon, due to the tunnel underneath not being able to support it. Perhaps some of it could be though…

    It would absolutely be a great location for some parking-free or parking-lite buildings, if you could get them financed.

    On a separate note, something I’ve been saying on UrbanMSP looks to be reflected in most fantasy proposals I see for the area: entirely removing the southbound bottleneck to eastbound I-94 movement. I think that absolutely needs to happen. It does not benefit the immediate area at all. It may serve to quickly clear regional visitors from that edge of downtown and the Walker, etc., but there are at least 3 other access points to eastbound I-94 available (upstream at Olson Hwy, through downtown via 6th Street S, and at 5th Av S & Franklin. Getting that traffic movement out of the bottleneck would provide enormous benefit to local southbound bottleneck traffic.

    Regarding your new surface streets added: What if Lincoln was a one-way eastbound, and Summit was a one-way westbound? Definitely Summit, and probably Lincoln, would probably have to intersect both Lyndale and Hennepin at grade, so the ramp grades aren’t too steep, as Froggie mentioned on Joe’s post. Those intersections could maybe be handled by roundabouts.

    1. Froggie

      The fly in your ointment (and especially with Nathanael’s proposal) is you still have a good bit of industrial land along I-94 in North Minneapolis, including trucks that are prohibited from going through the tunnel, which may also include trucks making local deliveries in north Minneapolis or nearby areas that are going to/from I-35W. These trucks still need an alternative to the Lowry Hill Tunnel that doesn’t involve going through downtown. There’s also a huge volume of traffic, both from along Hennepin Ave and from the west edge of downtown and Dunwoody that access I-94 from Hennepin/Lyndale. Removing that ramp doesn’t solve the problem. In fact, instead of spreading traffic out, it’d concentrate it in areas that can’t absorb it (the tunnel itself or downtown).

      Best thing to do is as others and myself have suggested…redesign the area to remove the ugly flyovers and restore street grid, but retain the direct freeway ramps to/from 94.

  8. Nathanael

    OK, I’m going to go ahead and propose the most radical proposal yet.
    (1) Close Hennepin Avenue to through traffic from Dunwoody through 26th St as suggested previously by David Levinson — restoring the street grid.
    (2) Shut all exits at the Bottleneck except the entrance from Lyndale to I-94 east and the exit from I-94 west to Lyndale, which should have stoplight intersections.

    So far, this is basically David Levinson’s proposal, but with fewer exits.
    (3) Demolish the “long ramps” from from 4th and 5th St to north I-94, terminating them at 10th Ave.
    This has been suggested by others, and frees up something like eight blocks …
    Now, here’s where I get radical.

    (4) Demolish I-94 from Plymouth St. to the junction with I-394. Replace this with Lyndale Avenue, so that Lyndale is no longer condemned to the painful status of “frontage road”. Run this roughly along the alignment of the current “West Lindale Avenue North”, and make it 4 driving lanes, 2 parking lanes whereever possible (like the rest of Lyndale).
    (5) Demolish I-394 east of the junction with I-94. Leave some exits to Hawthorne Avenue, but scrub the rest of it.
    (6) Resign I-694 as I-94.
    (7) Terminate the stub of I-94 (US 52) from the north at an intersection with (new) Lyndale.
    (8) Resign “downtown” I-94 as I-394. Now I-394 simply turns from west to south, allowing the elimination of vast quantities of intersection ramps.
    (9) Build two stoplight intersections and ramps for traffic from I-394 (westbound) to Lyndale, near the former I-94 / I-394 junction.
    (10) Bury (new) I-394 (old I-94) under Dunwoody. This should become possible now that it doesn’t have to climb to get over the railroad lines.

    Lyndale is a complete mess in the area where it’s been turned into a frontage Road”, and will need to be rebuilt soon enough anyway.

    By the way, this implies a logical new station for SW LRT — Lyndale Avenue.

    I’m not sure how much of this vision is possible, but in some ways it’s conservative. You have way, way too many expressways running through the downtown core and you need to get rid of some of them.

    There are two really awful expressway junctions way too close to downtown: the I-394/I-94 is the one which can be removed. (The Spaghetti Junction, I-94/I-35W/Hiawatha, seems much busier.) The heavy traffic between I-394 and I04 appears to be between I-394 to the west on the one one hand, and the I-94 tunnel on the other hand, so ripping out the other two legs makes sense.

    The true long-distance traffic on I-94 shouldn’t be going through downtown, so it makes sense to re-sign I-94 onto the beltway. The part of I-94 north of downtown has no “through route” function which isn’t better served by 35W or highway 100 or the Beltway; as such its purpose is to dump commuters downtown, and it can do that perfectly well from a mile north of downtown at West Broadway..

  9. Cadillac Kolstad

    Great points Scott,
    This pattern is repeated throughout the city. There are spots even more wasteful of land, look at the cloverleaf by 35w and Washington and the whole 94/35/55 interchange between franklin and downtown! Finding ways to better use this land should be a top priority, adding density, vibrancy and taking demolition pressure off of existing buildings.
    The freeways were never meant to cut through cities, the intent was connection of cities. Ike was dismayed over the execution of the freeways. He is said to have stood on the porch atop the White house in his last days in office watching the freeway encroach DC streets. His commentary was something to the effect “this is not what was intended”.
    We should stop investing any money in new freeways and focus federal spending on long distance rail. This would be a major positive for cities and small towns alike. (Urban is defined by the US census as 2500 or more living in close proximity)
    One thing we do want to avoid is connecting 2 major freeways with an urban street. Cedar avenue is the connector from 94 w to 35W this causes all sorts of unwanted traffic in the neighborhood and presents difficulty for pedestrian and bike oriented uses.
    Minneapolis has one of the most disruptive and land intensive freeways systems of a major city in the united states. We could benefit by reexamination of the land use around these roads.
    Big trucks cause 90+% of the wear and tear on, and therefore cost of upkeep to the system, as well as causing equal if not greater urban sprawl than car culture by decentralising shipping related jobs. Another argument for refocusing on long distance railroads.
    The economic and environmental cost of dismantling the system is quite significant. I would advocate building around it and perhaps repurposing some of it once it becomes obsolete.
    I really like the idea of refusing federal funding for projects that are a bad idea.

Comments are closed.