Tourism Urbanism in Park Rapids

Every year my family takes a vacation to Brookside Resort on Two Inlets Lake, near Lake Itasca and Park Rapids, MN. Despite the great hydro-biking infrastructure on Two Inlet’s Lake, the best urbanism in all of Hubbard County is in Park Rapids.


Traffic jam on bikes in the lake.

Park Rapids is a small town (pop. 3681) with an economic eye on the lake country and tourism. Downtown Park Rapids confines itself to about a block on either side of Main Avenue, for about three and a half blocks, with one and two floor buildings, ground floor retail, slow traffic, excellent pedestrian amenities, and many businesses facing the street, the small town charm is not lost on the visiting vacationer.


Seriously, everything faces the street, interacts, and even shelters pedestrians.

An argument against excessive traffic controls, the different colored pavements mark intersections, parking, and crosswalks, even as the central parking and low speeds may violate the expectations of many metro area travelers.


Beautiful Park (in the middle) Rapids


Ok, so I stole the park in the middle joke from a T-Shirt…

The sidewalks are wider than normal, about eight feet wide, and several awnings shelter the inevitable rain for the tourists in town (why would you leave the lake on a sunny day?), the windows and displays cater directly to passerby,  the buffering of the sidewalk from vehicles with nose in parking, and the slow speeds of vehicles on the street lead to an awesome pedestrian environment.


Although this building faces the cross street, it avoids a blank wall, provides shelter and still gets a passing grade for its contributions to the pedestrian environment.

Main Avenue is a great street, however there are a few very minor issues. The main issue has to deal with the fact that the street is almost strictly segregated, between tourist shops on the north half, and businesses geared for locals on the south half of the street. Otherwise, some more bike racks, and an extension of the Heartland Trail across U.S. 71 would properly round out a fantastic street.

The segregation of Main Avenue is likely due to the economic efficiency of clustering similar businesses, allowing them to feed off each other’s customers by concentrating the shared customer base. This is seen mainly among the tourist shops (I will not go specifically to a novelty T-Shirt store, but between the ice cream parlor and the candy shop/movie theater combo… I might stop by, however I only need one haircut), but there are some issues with this segregation of stores.


The Park Theater’s promenade is classic urbanism and it is awesome that it still exists today.

Segregating the stores leads to an awkward allocation of parking, with summertime having the touristy north end of Main’s parking entirely utilized, while the south half is wide open. This makes the businesses with a mixed customer base less attractive, as locals must walk past two blocks of kitschy tourist stores to see a movie, get dinner, or a drink. By finding a way to thoroughly mix the businesses, and their customer bases, the street can be active along its entire length, and allow for people to find parking easier on the block of their choosing. The parking being spread further would calm traffic along all of main street, allowing everyone to enjoy the restaurants, theater and bars, and utilizing the space that has already been built.

Please share thoughts on what your perfect small town downtown would be!


Looking north, there are few empty spaces.


Looking south, the parking is much more available across the street.














Joseph Totten

About Joseph Totten

Joe is a graduate of Civil Engineering-Transportation and Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota, and has a masters degree from Portland State University. Born and raised in Saint Paul, Joe has worked with nonprofits and public agencies in MSP and Portland.

13 thoughts on “Tourism Urbanism in Park Rapids

    1. Joseph TottenJoseph Totten Post author

      While I would like to be that good at computers, I think this must be a case of us having great minds.

  1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    What is fascinating to me about these vibrant downtowns is that the buildings themselves are often pretty banal — even ugly. Look at the buildings in this picture — were those facades behind even 30 feet of parking in a strip mall, urbanists (or even non-urbanists) would decry them as blight, dying to be replaced with something modern and more pedestrian-friendly.

    But the simple fact that it immediately abuts the pedestrian realm makes all the difference. Rather than a dumpy strip mall, it’s a vibrant “main street” sidewalk.

    Also good evidence of Jan Gehl’s belief that the first floor of the building — that is, how it is read to the pedestrian walking past — is the only part of the building that really matters.

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

      I doubt many people would complain that much about the buildings themselves. To me, the blight is the surface parking, which oftentimes looks even worse than this low-price exterior. Certainly, the finishes on the exterior are what separate a facade like this from the really endearing stuff made of brick with intricate cornices we associate with 2nd stage US main streets, or other designs less common in America. That highlights to me how starved we are for quality, urban, walkable places in this country.

      1. Sean Hayford Oleary

        I think you’re maybe talking to too many urbanists. I think the average, red-blooded Minnesotan (unfortunately, including policymakers) sees a run-down strip mall and does not see the parking lot as the problem. They’ll say that what we really need is a new, better strip mall (or whatever they’re branded as now… “lifestyle centers”) with tiny little trees in the parking lot that will die, and brush and turf grass to buffer the edge of the parking lot.

        In Richfield, people regularly complain about the Hub — a 50s strip mall behind an enormous parking lot. But one of the newest developments nearby is basically the same format. But the asphalt is black, the curbs are shining white, and the years of salt and stress to come haven’t yet had a chance to kill all the plants. So people think it looks great.

        On the other hand, buildings as plain and architecturally insignificant as the Hub can remain vibrant for much longer in walkable pedestrian districts.

        1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

          Not that I disagree with you, but it probably does look better than the abandoned K-Mart (I think) that it replaced, just as the co-op with the big parking lot looks a lot better than the abandoned garden center.

          1. Sean Hayford Oleary

            Which is why it’s really hard to ever speak against those kind of projects — because, while they might not be sustainable, they’re better than the past. Since the sites degrade over time, that can be true every time a leaf is turned over, without the project ever becoming meaningfully better.

            The Co-op redeems itself by having its primary entrance on the sidewalk, and major wall facing Lyndale. I was also told by the developer that the southern half of the parking lot would likely be reconfigured pending later development (new building on the street, and driving aisle moving behind it). But still, I agree: that very large “side” parking lot is certainly a far cry from a continuous main street.

            I don’t think Lyndale Station has redeemed itself in any way. Yes, it probably deserves the title of “better than abandoned K-mart loading dock”, but little more. The approved plans show a future building that will hide much of the parking lot. If it ever gets built, that may change my opinion.

      2. eric

        Even in this apparently pleasant town center, the cars dominate. The street seems to have four lanes devoted to parking ( or 4.5, if the nose-in parking counts for 1.25). That’s a LOT of parked cars! If this is small town charm, I think I’m glad I live in the city!

          1. Joseph TottenJoseph Totten Post author

            I’d prefer street furniture instead. But yes, any thinning could be used very well. Unfortunately in a small town it takes a lot of space to get the customers to support a business, I took a picture of the first bus I’d ever seen… a senior shuttle… there’s not a lot of other options.

        1. Monte

          I guess all the people should have taken the light rail rather than driven their evil cars into the town.

          1. Eric

            Light rail probably isn’t realistic. The ideal is that you have enough people living within walking/biking distance that the businesses don’t need quite as many customers arriving in cars. Otherwise, what you have is basically a mall. That’s okay; malls aren’t so bad. Maybe Sean is right; people don’t care about parking, they just want a nice sidewalk and charming storefronts.I would probably prefer to have the parking hidden away somewhere (behind the stores?) Cars aren’t necessarily evil, but I think they are kind of ugly.

            But I still think the best thing is more people living nearby. My own neighborhood went through a rezoning process a few years ago, and at the neighborhood meetings the three big desires were for more storefronts, for more parking, and for as little new housing as possible. What you get if you put those three desires together is: a mall! I personally wanted five-story apartment buildings on our main avenue–but I was outvoted. 🙂

            1. Froggie

              Things operate a little differently Outstate. You can’t completely rely on the “urban model” simply because the population and densities can’t fully support it. Nevermind that, as Joseph noted in his article, Park Rapids benefits from a lot of tourism and nearby lakes, and those tourists don’t exactly live nearby…

              As others noted, sidewalk space and store frontage play a bigger factor.

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