Anatomy of a Proposed Urban Railway: Van White Station

Looking north on the new(ish) Van White Memorial Boulevard

Looking north on the new(ish) Van White Memorial Boulevard

It was only a throw-away comment in a photo caption in my inaugural post, but it got me thinking. As it turns out The Great Divide is also the future home of several proposed SWLRT stations. I’ve seen a fair amount of discussion of those stops, and in particular some who argue that they will provide import access to jobs in the southwest suburbs for residents of the north side.

I don’t really have an opinion on that, as I’ve never lived on the north side and I don’t really understand the transit network there. Expanding access to transit options and jobs to north side residents is obviously a laudable goal, and if SWLRT has that effect, it will be an unmitigated good thing.

But I do have significant concerns about the viability of the only proposed stations within the borders of Minneapolis and I thought they were worth a closer look. They are all within reasonable walking and biking distance of my home, so I decided I’d go take some pictures.

You’ll have to excuse the fact that I took them on a dreary day. I don’t have the photoshop skills to make them better. I shot them on my phone, but I think you can still get a good sense of the physical settings of the proposed stations – a sense that I think is often missing from SWLRT routing discussions.

Let’s start with the Van White station. I’m not certain of the precise plans for the station, but we know that it’s supposed to be in the vicinity of the new(ish) Van White Memorial Boulevard. That short new street is relatively recently completed connection between the north side and downtown. It’s named after the city’s first African American city council member. As you can see in the photo above, it’s a pretty attractive bit of civil engineering, and it includes bike and pedestrian facilities. All of that is wonderful.

But, unfortunately, there are limits to the wonderfulness of the boulevard. For one, it doesn’t do a whole lot to connect to downtown to the south/east. That end of the bridge connects most directly to the no man’s land under 394 and, after that, to the large parking lots of Dunwoody, the Parade sports facilities and then the Walker’s Sculpture Garden. Aside from the parking lots, those are actually nice facilities. Unfortunately, they aren’t exactly lively bits of urban landscape that draw people to cross them and interact with what’s on the other side. Worse, as nice as they are, they are cut off from the urban fabric of downtown by yet another freeway no man’s land.

Boulevard to nowhere?

Boulevard to nowhere?

Okay, so that end is a well-meaning but maybe not high-impact improvement, but what about the immediate surroundings? Well, those are all potential. There’s not much going on there at the moment, but the new crossing of the Great Divide, especially if a new light rail stop is added, is ripe for redevelopment. Seriously, ripe. Like, there really can’t be anything to be “preserved” there. Like, maybe even a little too ripe. But let’s have a look, maybe just a bit to one side of the new crossing.

Van White heap of something

Van White heap of something

Hm. Well, there’s nothing there to stand in the way of putting in a new light rail stop, so that’s good. Unfortunately, the most appealing thing that’s not the bridge in the photo, at least to me, is the freight locomotive. On the one hand, there’s a lot of potential here to change things completely. On the other hand, things need to change completely for this to have value as a light rail stop. What about the other end? Well, there’s this:

Van White Basset Creek Bridge

Van White Basset Creek Bridge

Okay, so, that’s maybe a little better. There isn’t a giant heap of who-knows-what. But there’s not exactly a lot going on. There are some trailers parked over there. We can probably move those and put something there. Again, all potential; no current punch. And, of course, there’s yet another bridge, this time over the oh-so-attractive Basset Creek:

Pessimistic Basset Creek at Van White

Pessimistic Basset Creek at Van White

I don’t want to get too pessimistic. Basset Creek needs major help, but it has potential. Just looking the other way gives me quite a bit more optimism:

Optimistic Basset Creek at Van White

Optimistic Basset Creek at Van White

Okay, so maybe the weather and poor photography prevent the full optimism from coming through, but please take my word for it. Things looking this way really do look a lot better than the other way. And no, that isn’t faint praise. The creek and skyline views could be a good thing to build around.

But maybe where the hope for Van White really lies in in the municipal impound lot that straddles the site:

Impound lot from Van White

Impound lot from Van White

So we still have no people, no businesses, and, really, nothing. But at least its property that the city can readily choose to offer for redevelopment. I’m sure someone who is better informed than me knows exactly where we are in doing something with this space, but you can at least imagine the path from here to new mixed use development. At least as long as there is going to be a train stop nearby.

But lest I sound too pessimistic, let me offer one more glimpse of hope, just a bit further down, where Van White intersects with 2nd Ave. N:

Van White and 2nd

Van White and 2nd

Yeah, that’s more open space, but at least in the distance you can see the International Market Square. I don’t know if we can call the IMS redevelopment successful, I’ve only been in it on weekends, when it’s been depressingly empty.  But at least it looks nice both outside and in, and seems to include some healthy businesses and housing. Even better, it too is right next to a raised urban freeway (how’d we get so many of those?), so maybe being next to 394 won’t be such a hindrance for Van White. Maybe whatever is coming for this space can connect to that space and thus be a catalyst for the surrounding area. But that’s a  lot of maybes and ifs.

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17 Responses to Anatomy of a Proposed Urban Railway: Van White Station

  1. Jeff Klein May 14, 2014 at 8:11 am #

    I think ideally the Van White bridge would connect north to Uptown, not downtown. But it doesn’t even really do that.

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller May 14, 2014 at 9:40 am #

      Perhaps, but there is a big hill with some mansions on it in the way.

  2. Eric Anondson
    Eric Anondson May 14, 2014 at 9:26 am #

    This brings up the Van White Blvd. elephant , the presence of the impound lot. Development here will take off when this goes somewhere else. Until then it will be tenuous and scattershot.

    There isn’t really any better land in the city for this use. We could develop over it.

    Or we could free up the land by relocating it to the top of a capped freeway, creating new space and placing it more centrally and accessibly. Possibly the best cap would be over 94 at Lyndale and 7th.

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller May 14, 2014 at 10:03 am #

      Makes me wonder if within the city is the right place for the impound lot. I don’t know.

      I also don’t know exactly what the plans are for it, but it certainly makes no sense to put a train stop there if there aren’t plans to do something different with that land.

      • Rosa May 16, 2014 at 10:00 pm #

        once they take people’s cars (which happens an awful lot from snow emergencies) people have to be able to get to the impound lot to get them back. It has to be in the city. It would be better if it were on better transit.

        • Adam Miller
          Adam Miller May 17, 2014 at 9:12 am #

          I’m not sure “in the city” defines the universe of accessible places it could be. For example where it is now is pretty inaccessible.

          And being on transit is a plus, but not a reason to build an expensive light rail stop.

          I wonder how many people currently arrive there by transit.

  3. Steven Prince May 14, 2014 at 10:16 am #

    I need to go look at the new boulevard, I am curious how well it connects with the grade/elevation of the proposed LRT stop.

    The future evaluation of SWLRT’s impact on Minneapolis is going to depend on what happens at this stop – because it really is the only stop along the Kenilworth alignment with any development potential.

    Here is a link to the County’s map of the stop: http://www.swlrtcommunityworks.org/stations/van-white-station

    Despite the underused parcels nearby, this location is less than ideal because it is bound by Bryn Mawr Park and 394. The county’s belief that this stop will be used by Kenwood residents is laughable.

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller May 14, 2014 at 10:40 am #

      I would think you’d get more Kenwood people, to the extent that you get any at all, at the Penn Ave. station.

      I’m planning posts on that one and Royalston too, but there looks to be at least some redevelopment potential at that latter.

  4. Joe May 14, 2014 at 11:44 am #

    The pile is the city’s concrete crusher and soils yard.

  5. Doug Trumm
    Doug Trumm May 14, 2014 at 12:01 pm #

    SWLRT boosters point to the Bassett Creek Valley Development Plan (http://www.minneapolismn.gov/www/groups/public/@cped/documents/webcontent/convert_258120.pdf) as indication development will take place near this station. It was adopted into the city’s comprehensive master plan in 2006, but the recession really sapped its momentum and I guess Ryan Companies rights expire next year for the Linden Yards land where they were going to build an office complex that was one of the central pieces of the plan. So, there’s a lot of uncertainty with the plan.

    To me, it seems like a big gamble to expect extensive redevelopment along the SW corridor in Minneapolis. The payoff could be really big if redevelopment repairs the gash in the landscape between North and South in a reasonable amount of time. And light rail could certainly help make these borderland neighborhoods hemmed in my freeways more attractive. However, it also possible these projects get bogged down in red tape and economic flaccidity and Minneapolis is left with 3 underused stations for a good while.

    Another complication, apparently the city is also toying with the idea of stashing Linden yards for railcar storage for a future Chicago passenger rail line. (http://www.tcdailyplanet.net/news/2012/06/11/north-minneapolis-revitalization-plans-slowed-economy-and-hennepin-county) But that seems a long way off.

  6. Claire May 14, 2014 at 5:22 pm #

    Adam-

    The Harrison Neighborhood spent over 10 years and engaged over 600 participants in the creation of the Bassett Creek Valley Master Plan for all areas that you’ve documented above. The Master Plan was passed by City Council in 2007 and here’s a link:

    http://www.minneapolismn.gov/www/groups/public/@cped/documents/webcontent/convert_258120.pdf

    Additionally, there will be a meeting in the Harrison Community Center on May 19th at 6pm where the City will bring their studies of different plans to shrink the impound lot in the coming months. Please feel free to come and check it out!

    -Claire Bergren, Community Organizer at Harrison Neighborhood Association

  7. Cameron Conway
    Cameron Conway May 14, 2014 at 9:50 pm #

    In really excited to see what happens here, as it does seem like this station has the most redevelopment potential in Minneapolis. I’m worried that the first few projects will be positive and not really establish any real neighborhood identity. I’ve seen neighborhoods developed from relative greenfields (like DC’s NoMa and Seattle’s South Lake Union) that satisfy the requirement of ‘raw square footage’ without establishing a tangible sense of place. Moving the impound lot will definitely be the catalyst, hopefully there’s enough vision to ensure that the station is a cultural and amenity asset to the LRT network, not just a bedroom stop.

  8. Archiapolis May 16, 2014 at 8:46 am #

    Cheers for taking the time to document and explore potential. Masterplans are great but actually going to the site and looking at the conditions is absolutely critical. I also think it is important to do these kinds of explorations while admitting that you don’t have all of the answers. It doesn’t make sense to rely on masterplans that are drawn/designed from 5000 feet up and we shouldn’t wait for a perfect masterplan before looking at detail. The “perfect being the enemy of the good” and all of that. I have to admit that this site has a LOT of potential based on your exploration. My proposal would be to relocate “messy” land uses like the impound lot and the concrete crusher DIRECTLY adjacent to highways. I know that the impound lot is already technically directly adjacent but there is no light-rail line there currently. Once we decide to invest the money/time/space to the light rail line, these “messy” uses make less and less sense. Not to mention the land values of these lots will surge once light rail is present. Minneapolis needs to have a long term vision for relocating messy infrastructure and I say, it is time to prioritize people and move these uses to places that are already NOT desirable for humans – near highways. Last thing, included in the plan to relocate “messy” infrastructure should be the decommissioning of the HERC. As we move towards a “zero waste” city, we should be designing recycling and compost facilities as part of the “messy infrastructure” areas that I am proposing a “HERC” shouldn’t be necessary if we are truly going to “zero waste.”

  9. Rosa May 16, 2014 at 10:07 pm #

    I just rode Van White last week. Got really lost because of a near complete lack of signage and my ignorance of Near North geography.

    But the ride was really beautiful and I think that area has more potential for bike & transit than you give it credit for. Going under the highway sucks and is ugly but it doesn’t have to be, signs & a little bit of redesign would help a lot. (SIGNS. Please signs). It’s a short shot to Bryn Mawr as well – I don’t know how we did it but we went up a bike ramp and got to a path or sidewalk along the highway that was very useful because a person was there who told us which way to go.

    I am glad to know that the avenue is relatively new, I was seriously embarrassed to have never used it before – I used to have friends over North and I never biked there because I didn’t know how to get there. It is actually only a 5 or 10 minute ride from downtown to some lovely and affordable parts of Near North. Once you know how to do it, I mean, because of the near total lack of signage.

    Plus, it’s not that hard to get to Loring Park from the bike underpass behind Walker/Blake, because of the pedestrian bridge.

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  1. Anatomy of a Proposed Urban Railway: Royalston | streets.mn - June 11, 2014

    […] Royalston station. But first, please remember where we’ve already been. The area around Van White is largely empty, but ripe for redevelopment. Penn Avenue is in a park under a freeway and perhaps […]

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