Anatomy of a Proposed Urban Railway: Penn Station

A vista over the proposed Penn Ave station

A vista over the proposed Penn Ave station

Continuing with my series of poor photographs of the landscape around the proposed Minneapolis SWLRT stations, let’s take a closer look at the Penn Avenue station. To briefly review where we’ve already been, the Van White station is 100% pure redevelopment potential. There’s nothing there now, but there is definite room to build new things, potentially taking the area from close to zero to a lot more than zero.

Penn Ave is a bit of a different critter. As near as I can tell, the proposed new station is in the midst of a combination park and rail right of way. Two different freight rail systems run through here, in a space that’s practically right underneath 394. I may be missing something, but that implies to me that there is basically no redevelopment that can be expected in the immediate vicinity of this station. There simply seems to be nowhere to put new buildings of any type, here in the trench between Lowry Hill and the north side.

The first time I approached this spot from the north, I came on foot after surveying plans for West Broadway in the early spring. Getting from Penn Ave across the train tracks to the Cedar Lake Trail, much less out again into Kenwood, was nearly impossible. There was no sanctioned way to pass across the two sets of railroad tracks and the slushy early-spring earth did not offer up an easy crossing. The new station will have to offer something better.

If redevelopment is not going to be a major factor, maybe the station has other positives, like serving existing centers of population, business or employment? Unfortunately, not so much. Look closely at the photo below and you can maybe see what might be the closest residence to the proposed station to the north:

Penn Ave Station from the pedestrian ramkp

Penn Ave from the pedestrian ramp

Can you see that bluish house right above the green interstate sign? No? Well, take my word for it, there is a bluish house up there. While it’s technically not the closest to the proposed station, it’s the closest one you can see to the north from the vicinity. As you can see here, the rail right of way is substantially down hill and across two segments of raised interstate from the nearest north side residential areas. Worse, the roadway crossing this photo from left to right is Penn Ave., the nearest street connecting to those neighborhoods.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have a means for careful measurement of that distance, but you can see that it’s rather a ways from this spot to where people actually live to the north. That gap – whether a quarter mile or whatever – seems to be the challenge for this station. Will people cross it? Will people ride buses to the top of the ramp that leads to this spiral walkway to catch a train?

Penn Station spiral walkway

Penn Station spiral walkway

It seems that the plans call for new connections to the north, apparently involving a new bridge for a multi-use path. That might help, but there is still the problem of sheer elevation. How steep with the climb be and how many people are going to be comfortable walking or biking it?

Location and access, including future plans (via

And what about that park? Bryn Mawr Meadows sits just on the other side of 394, connected by an existing pathway, and the plans for Van White seem to imply expanding it toward that new stop as well. Will the Penn Avenue station’s main effect be to join the Bottineau proposal in over-serving park space? I suppose it’s possible some people will ride the train to their adult kick ball league competitions in the park, but how many trips can recreational use possibly drive?

Take another look at the yellow-shaded “walkshed” in the access plan map above. Look at how much of it is park and how little of it is populated neighborhood. Worse, perhaps more than half of the populated neighborhood is in Kenwood, to the south.

Maybe there will be a parade of would-be train riders from the south making this a heavily trafficked stop?

Mansions above the Penn Ave station

Mansions above the Penn Ave station

Well, what do you think? Do people living in mansions on a hill want to ride the train? Does the answer depend on the extent that the train is populated by people from the north who want to get to suburban jobs?

Adam Miller

About Adam Miller

Adam Miller works downtown and lives in South Minneapolis. He's an avid user of the city's bike paths, sidewalks and skyways. He's not entirely certain he knows what the word "urbanist" means.