Imagine a Dinkytown Pedestrian Mall

Some of my recent posts have seemed to bemoan some of Minneapolis’ public realm or proposed projects, asking for better.  I intended to shake that up, but I couldn’t swing it.  Instead, I’ll keep the theme going by bringing up a place near and dear to me as a U of M alum – Dinkytown.  This charming neighborhood center has been in the limelight lately from a development standpoint, including a range of controversial but approved development, under the radar yet nearly universally agreed terrible projects, to the camel-straw hotel proposal that’s been put on hold for now (plus a whole lot more nearby).

The Marshall - so large. But hey, Target Express, right? (source: UrbanMSP via Nick Magrino)

The Marshall – so large. But hey, Target Express, right? (source: UrbanMSP via Nick Magrino)

Area Strengths and Challenges

Like or hate the new development going in, they mostly have great urban bones – hiding/limiting parking, fronting the sidewalk with retail, stepping back after the first couple stories, and other features that would line up very well with a form-based code to guide design.  The recently completed Dinkytown Greenway strengthens connections to downtown and beyond, and the neighborhood is probably one of the most heavily used pedestrian and bicycle areas in the state (even if it’s sometimes against the will of the man).

So what’s the problem, you ask?  If it has all these things going right, why change anything?  It’s precisely the level of foot traffic, pedestrian orientation, and local residents able to patronize shops that make me yearn for just a slice of the public realm to be turned over exclusively to these purposes.  One-way mini-freeway pair University Ave. and Fourth St. SE loom nearby carrying thousands of cars a day (more precisely, sometimes over a thousand an hour) at 35 mph or more because the whole corridor, including Dinkytown proper, values cars above other users.  This makes getting in or out of campus a pretty frustrating part of the journey for students, at best uncomfortable.

The Precedent

I’ve traveled Big Ten country a bit to take in some football and hockey games, with Madison and Iowa City being favorites.  For the past few years I’ve visited to visit  Iowa City more frequently as my in-laws live in Coralville.  This gives me the chance to see campus and the commercial areas at all times of the year, without the big football crowds clouding the normal experience.  I bring them both us as they each have significant pedestrianized streets near campus and along major mixed-use zones.


Left: Ped Mall location (Google Maps). Right: Least great shot of the pedestrian mall.

Left: Ped Mall location (Google Maps). Right: Least great shot of the pedestrian mall.

Iowa City’s area isn’t much – just 3 total blocks worth forming a T close to the main part of campus.  But they do it right: lots of trees, benches, outdoor patio-style seating, pedestrian scale lighting, open pianos for public enjoyment, pavers, even a little covered walkway between some buildings (shown in blue).  I’m not an Iowa City historian, so I don’t know what the surrounding streets were like in the past, but the mere presence of the pedestrian mall seeps to the design of proximate streets that do allow cars.  We see great sidewalk bump outs at intersections, continuation of pavers in some cases to calm traffic, and beyond.


A four lane street in an 80′ right of way (similar to 4th/University in Dinkytown) that could have been a major stroad and barrier for students getting around.

As a result, farmers markets, art fairs, and other events take place in the area on weekends, taking space from cars, yet if feels completely natural.

A regular June art fair in Iowa City. Also, two tall buildings, one old one new - the place survived!

A regular June art fair in Iowa City. Also, two tall buildings, one old one new – the place survived!

I don’t have many great photos of State Street, Madison’s two-thirds of a mile pedestrian/transit street, but the idea is the same, just with transit running up and down it.  Our own Sam Newberg has discussed the relation of the capitol building to the city as a whole, and nothing sums it up better than how State Street flows downhill from it toward campus, allowing students, professionals, professors, and anyone in between to shop, grab a bite to eat, or just enjoy a wonderful urban area.  It’s pretty cool, and the capitol building really does provide the perfect vista as the street’s termination.

Don’t worry, that bursting flame is Homecoming sanctioned, not a Halloween riot-induced.

Of course, we have our own precedent right on campus in Minneapolis.  The newly opened bike/ped/transit mall on Washington Avenue has a two-block section with non-university buildings fronting it.  Signal and signage issues aside, this could be one of the best places on campus, but that doesn’t mean we should only have one.

The Plan

This is all not to say “Madison and Iowa City have one, we should too,” (because, well, we kinda already do have one) but rather to emulate what makes good spaces even better.  My main criteria for a pedestrian mall in Dinkytown include:

  • High number of commercial spaces with good sidewalk frontage
  • Relatively low (car) traffic counts to appease the engineers
  • Direct connections to campus and the neighborhood to draw people in

I’m sure we could come up with more, but I doubt we even need them.  14th Ave SE is the perfect place for a Dinkytown pedestrianized area (OK, bikes are welcome, too).  By my eye, it’s nearly 100% commercial space from University to 5th St (trench bridge and Subway parking notwithstanding), with nary a curb cut to halfway up the 5th/6th St block (and only on one side).  New and old buildings front the street marvelously, and traffic counts are low – just 4,400 a day (and only between University and 4th – most likely some people existing campus by car heading toward I-35W).


Let’s close off two and a half blocks to (car) traffic (shown in red), and plan for the full third when/if that parking entrance is no longer needed (blue).  The new (and awesome) Dinkytown Greenway deserves an access point to Dinkytown and campus proper as well, something along the lines of the Midtown Greenway entrance/exit ramps.  I say this because the current exits to the east and west make using the trench a bit out of the way for many area residents.  This could easily be added as part of the Granary Corridor project over the next couple years.

I would think design elements discussed earlier provide a great baseline for how to shape the space, but some paint and planter boxes could go a long way in the interim.  Why not try it out on a few spring/fall weekends to start?  Who knows, maybe this type of traffic calming will push the city/county (and university maybe?) to step in and make those E-W mini-freeways a bit more pedestrian friendly as well.

Alex Cecchini

About Alex Cecchini

Alex likes cities. He lives with his wife, two kids, and two poorly behaved dogs just south of Uptown (Minneapolis). Tweets found here: @alexcecchini and occasional personal blog posts at