Editor’s Note September 2020: The article below has been referenced in a political flyer in a Richfield city council race. The flyer has the headline of “Tear down the 77th Street Sound Wall?” The article does not propose tearing down the 77th Street sound wall. Questions can be directed to either candidate.
If there were tenets of belief of urbanists, renunciation of stroads would surely be one of them. As transportation facilities, stroads are ugly, dangerous, and create incentives to drive a car, with disincentives to do anything else. As a tool of development, they fail to create value in their corridor in the same way a street would.
One block north of the I-494/MN-5 commons, Richfield’s 77th Street is a stroad unlike many others. On the one hand, the stroad is quite aesthetic, and provides a relatively good pedestrian experience. On the other, it’s further divided the community it runs through, and failed to promote desired development along the corridor.
The roadway itself is unremarkable. It’s a 35-40 mph 5-lane divided stroad. But just beyond the curbs, there are some important differences The north side has a tall, freeway-style sound wall (behind which lies single-family homes). The south side has a conventional sidewalk and business frontage, as well as Richfield’s largest concentration of low-income, high-density housing.
The other major difference is that this stroad was built in a traditionally developed context. To the north, the Minneapolis grid runs almost intact. This means at least 12 intersections per mile — and more conflict points if you consider possible alleys or driveways. To create a safe and pleasant environment for cars, this had to be addressed. Richfield’s Director of Public Works Mike Eastling, who was also with the City at the time of the 77th Street project, gave me background on the project. In the 1980s and early 90s, the City of Richfield purchased more than 50 properties along the north side of 77th, to create room to widen the street and a loop system of frontage roads. The actual road construction occurred in 1993.
The road has a nicely planted median, and is ornately planted on the roadway side of the sound wall. These plantings are maintained by the city, paid for by special assessments to businesses along the corridor.
Along the north side of the sound wall, sidewalks connect between the “loop” frontage roads, so there is a continuous path for pedestrians. Unfortunately, pedestrians must walk in the roadway where the frontage road is present — and pedestrians go down to roadway level, rather than creating a more obvious shared space. Pedestrians are considered, but the experience is discontinuous, at best. There is also a conventional sidewalk with a 6′ boulevard on the south side of the street.
According to Eastling, the sound wall and removal of access for minor north-south streets were necessary to balance a city pursuing large, highway-scale development and resident concerns. Unfortunately, the only resident concerns accounted for were those of longer-term, single-family-home residents on the north side of the street. No attempt was made to manage sound or other impacts on the multi-family housing, either from I-494 or 77th.
This isn’t troubling just to consider the differences in the types of housing, but also the types of residents. Richfield’s median household income overall was $50,000 in 2011 — with one census tract as high as $105,000. In the main residential area south of 77th Street, the median income is $27,000 — half the city’s median. While Richfield is about 60% white, this area represents about 70% persons of color.
The wall is not an absolute divide between these worlds. There are periodic crosswalks, in addition to the major through streets. (One can cross at about every third or fouth block.) But it is a troubling symbol of divide between two very different communities.
The Lost Urban Village
77th was designed to serve freeway-oriented business, and it does a good job of this. Eastling actually made a good argument on this point, arguing that — while Richfield is a generally urban community — this is a very suburban, freeway-oriented corridor. And it needs a suburban, car-oriented street to serve it well.
Other issues with 77th notwithstanding, this is a reasonable way to approach the question. Maybe 77th Street does work. Maybe it keeps traffic off of 76th, a recognized new Complete Street. And maybe the value it creates is enabling highway-oriented business to efficiently transfer auto-driving customers.
Unfortunately, this is not the official vision of the community. Enter the I-494 Corridor Land Use Plan, a part of the adopted Richfield Comprehensive Plan, and probably the most universally ignored planning document in the city’s history. The plan strives to promote high-density, mixed-use development, that both serves cars but also creates a “pedestrian-friendly environment” in a “vibrant urban village.”
The closest development to the plan is Kensington Park and Mainstreet Village at Lyndale and 77th. On their face, they do a pretty good job. Kensington Park in particular has well-concealed parking, a mix of different housing types, and excellent frontage along Lyndale Ave and 77th.
However, the details show something else:
Even when the planning and orientation are done well, the businesses occupying the space still focus almost exclusively on cars and parking entrances.
On the other hand, sometimes the planning and orientation are also terrible:
The Menards at 77th and Nicollet — constructed several years after adoption of the 494 plan — contributes nothing to the goal of the “vibrant urban village”. It is a single land use that occupies nearly three full blocks, including a block of parking at the one of 77th’s most important corners. In deference to the 494 Corridor Plan, Menards did install some (now-dead) trees along the edges of the parking lot, and some billboards along 77th to avoid a blank wall.
Eastling may be right — the 494 corridor is inherently suburban and auto-oriented. In this case, 77th Street is doing a fine job, and the development along the corridor is acceptable. On the other hand, if we are to believe in the vision of a “vibrant urban village”, development along the corridor has failed dramatically, and 77th Street is contributing the failure. Either way, the street creates a distinctive divide — between different demographic groups, between different street grids, and between different eras of the way we build our cities.