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.

12 thoughts on “Imagine a Dinkytown Pedestrian Mall

  1. Cameron ConwayCameron Conway

    Great idea! The Dinkytown Greenway is embarrassingly without direct entrances to Dinkytown… although I could understand how that could be tricky. It’d have to be built on U of M land, which is in short supply down there.

    As far as the pedestrian way, I think you’d end up with quite a bit of resistance towards removing parking on those blocks, which is a shame considering how much sidewalk traffic is sprouting up from the area’s increasing population density. I’d bet that a structure dedicated to district parking could alleviate those fears (like Mosaic I in Uptown), not that I really want any of Dinkytown’s lots dedicated that.

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini Post author

      I’ve heard talks that the U parking management group is becoming more amenable to using the 4th St ramp as off-peak district parking. A group of businesses already runs that (highly unnecessary for a 0.2 mile walk) shuttle. Either way, yes I’m sure there are challenges. I guess I would hope pointing out the extreme success of other Big Ten pedestrianized streets would alleviate some business fears. Are there other examples from big campuses around the country?

  2. Froggie

    At first glance, 13th might be a better option than 14th, since 14th ties directly into East River Pkwy. You know, that whole network grid and spreading traffic out thing…:o)

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini Post author

      Potentially, though as a rebuttal (and justification for why I picked 14th (since I didn’t really delve into it in the post), here are some challenges with 13th:

      – 13th has far more curb cuts for parking entrances (now and future), and is further from the core of the commercial center, lacking as many destinations.
      – I did point out that E River Pkwy does dump cars northbound between University and 4th for the PM traffic. I’d argue this could simply be re-routed slightly (3 whole block faces extra driving!) to a R on Univ, L on 15th, L on 4th. Or take an alternate path through campus and out the Pleasant/15th campus gateway.
      – The Marshall limits pedestrians from accessing 13th from the north thanks to a major blunder on the city’s part in not forcing the developer to follow stated city goals of stopping superblocks from limiting ped/bike connectivity.
      – 13th has no signal at University currently. Not that adding a stoplight is a huge barrier since there are 3 in a row on 4th, but does represent another challenge.

      Certainly, 13th has merits if the “Le Maison” co-op is built with ground-floor retail as planned, and the commercial nature of Dinkytown will probably shift west more than north (though who knows for sure..). Also, 14th does have the open spaces above the trench that make filling in those missing teeth a bit trickier (expensive) than 13th on the southern side. I just felt the scale tipped a bit in 14th’s favor.

    2. Matt Brillhart

      I’d settle for just doing the block of 14th Ave between 4th and 5th if it meant actually getting this implemented in the near term. Raise the price of on-street parking on nearby blocks to ensure spaces are always available. The current 2-hour time limit is probably good, but $1.25/hour is too low. Raising that to $1.75 or $2/hr isn’t going to cause anyone not come to Dinkytown when you can only park for two hours anyways. Also, meters could be added to more blocks adjacent to the current ones to make up for the loss of short term parking. Current meter area & rates:

  3. Jon Jackola

    I love the idea! Greenway access is a must. At the very least maybe even bike racks below and stairs up to street level.

    Plus, more room for the line at Al’s.

  4. Joe

    Love the idea! This would transform a fun place into one that is truly magical. This would really bring even more life to this street and could potentially become part of a network of pedestrian malls on campus . I think they should at least evaluate this option on game days. Plan some events, expand outdoor seating, and beautify with planters as you mentions. Then allow the restaurants to experience, what it might be if this transformation were to become permanent with sculptures and other public art.

  5. Cadillac Kolstad

    Great point, I agree with the sentiment here, however I would suggest one alteration. Closing the streets for one block in each direction radiating out from 14th and 4th in a big “plus” would be great at peak pedestrian times. Weekends, special events etc. Barricade these streets to enhance the pedestrian experience. Remove the barricades at non peak times in the spirit of sharing. This would also make more room for street vendors. There are many examples of this working throughout the country. As far as the auto traffic on 4th, I’m sure a way to detour this area could be figured out.

    Last time I checked 14th and 4th had the highest daily pedestrian counts in MN. As we saw during the so called hockey riots there are times when the sidewalks just can’t handle the demand by people on foot. Of course many of the areas with these thriving pedestrian areas also have strong historic preservation policies, I suggest this for Dinkytown as the land use is well suited for pedestrians. That is not to suggest we should not have more high density or skyscrapers near here.

    I would also like to see the same thing on Cedar ave. from Washington to Franklin. This would also be great for pedicabs, I cant figure out, if we are so bike friendly why we don’t have more of a culture for this as places like Denver and Austin do??

  6. Cadillac Kolstad

    Alex this should be proposed as part of the Small Area Plan for Dinkytown! I think you would find a lot of support for closing 14th at peak times ( I was suggesting 4th for super peak times ). The more I think about it the more I really like the idea of closing 14th on weekends by using bike rack barricades, this would not take much investment and could happen fast. At the very least the street could be narrowed or traffic restricted.
    The only issue is that band and other deliveries will need limited access to the clubs to move equipment and supplies. I have seen this work fine in many other cities. (I know many of you have seen my band and all our equipment pulled by a bike-mobile, but usually moving a piano and the band gear involves a motorized vehicle.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      It could be like 7th Place in Downtown St. Paul (but with people) – whenever I’ve had a gig at Wild Tymes, I’ll turn onto 7th Place from Wabasha and drive slow down to the door near the stage.

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