Rethinking 66th Street

Note: I chair the Richfield Bike Advocates, and represent that group as a non-voting liaison to the Richfield Transportation Commission. However, I am not speaking on behalf of either group.

Tonight, the Richfield City Council will make a major design decision that will affect more than 20,000 people every day. The City Council will consider whether or not to approve Concept 4B for 66th Street between Penn Avenue and 35W (already approved from 35W to 16th Avenue). The design features wider sidewalks, boulevards, protected bike lanes, and (likely) planted medians.

Concept 4B, approved by Transportation Commission from Oliver Ave to 16th Ave

Concept 4B, approved by Transportation Commission from Oliver Ave to 16th Ave

This concept represents community consensus of how our major streets should work, and also meets Hennepin County’s demands for auto capacity (four through lanes). But there’s a catch: it doesn’t fit. The new street would be about 100 feet from the the outside edges of the sidewalks, while the existing street fits tightly in the 66′ right-of-way. To make room for the new space, eighteen homes will have to come down on the south side of the street.

There are a lot of obvious conflicts here: Hennepin County demanding 4/5 auto lanes, while Richfield might find three acceptable. Bicyclists asking for dedicated space on a roadway, requiring width that doesn’t exist currently. Homeowners adjacent to the street, some of whom strongly wish to stay in their homes, while other groups vie for the land. But there’s an underlying conflict: the old school of thought, who likes 66th Street the way it is, and perceives its future as solely a piece of automotive infrastructure. The new school of thought isn’t satisfied with the 1958 design, and sees it as having potential for something more, as a space that serves everyone, and as a symbol of community.

Guiding Principles and a New Vision

The Transportation Commission recommended approval of Concept 4B in their November meeting, but that was only the most recent decision in a public process that has lasted over two years. The first step was a task force that developed “Guiding Principles” for street reconstruction — the first of which was multimodal design.

Richfield guiding principles

Richfield guiding principles

The Guiding Principles are a terrific vision, but they lack balance with the auto infrastructure concerns. Not a thing in the Guiding Principles document mentions automotive capacity. Is this because we’re designing it first as a public space, and only as the very last consideration taking cars into account? Probably not. Rather than addressing how the two might interact, the Guiding Principles seemed to have an implicit understanding that any and all of these community priorities may be overridden as needed for the flow of automobiles.

Yet the Transportation Commission and city staff have stood behind the Guiding Principles throughout the project. There has also been a second set of goals they’ve stood behind, that the proposed street should be safe and practical for pedestrians, transit, recreational bicyclists, commuter (transportation) bicyclists, (motor) vehicles, environmental concerns, and roadway maintenance. Commissioners have repeatedly emphasized that the street built today will likely outlive most of the people making these decisions, and that we must see this as a 50-year-plus commitment.

Practical, Cynical, or Barebones?

Not everyone has been as eager to rebuild 66th as a complete street. Around last summer, criticism came in heavily toward the possibility of removing 18 homes to make way for a wider 66th. Homeowners west of Penn Avenue — who would have had right-of-way impacts, but would not have had any risk of their homes being taken — were particularly strongly organized against the widening. (They were ultimately successful, in that the proposed design does not include a bikeway west of Penn.) Homeowners whose homes were on the line between Penn and 35W were also concerned. One of those stories was even documented in the Star Tribune.

City staff came up with a concept they called “low-impact”, which was essentially a copy-and-paste of the current street, plus some trees:

Low Impact Concept

Low Impact Concept for 66th

Some city leaders initially praised the concept, as did local reporting. And city leadership’s support for keeping the street more-or-less the same didn’t stand alone. A homeowner who lives west of Penn on 66th Street — apparently not considering bike or pedestrian safety improvement to be safety improvements at all — said in a letter to the editor:

The terms “safety,” “green space,” “maintenance” and “planning for the future” have been used to justify this $40 million project. Safety is a subject everyone is concerned with. […] Instead of addressing that problem we are going to reduce lane size, add cycle tracks, walking paths and biking paths.

Another homeowner complained that increasing public space was not worth the impact on private homeowners:

Since property has been taken from residents twice when the road was previously widened, further possession for bikes, boulevard and wider sidewalks would encroach upon the privacy of taxpaying residential owners.

Yet not everyone stood in favor of rebuilding the existing street as is. One west-side homeowner wrote:

I’m disappointed that Mayor Goettel and Councilmember Elliott are supporting a plan for the reconstruction of 66th Street west of Nicollet [sic] with no option for bicycles. This isn’t a frivolous extra for a few people to get exercise; 66th is a vital corridor for the north half of Richfield. It’s the only place to cross 35W north of 76th Street, and right now it might as well be a stream of lava as far as bike safety is concerned. I don’t see anything in the “scaled-back” plan to fix that.

After five open houses, comments solicited from the general public seem to follow similar trends. Many wanting major improvements to change the way the street works for all users, while some truly believe the best approach is to fix what’s in place. One resident writes:

I support the proposed concept to bring the best for all modes – pedestrians, motorists, bicyclists and think this is a very forward looking plan which will serve Richfield for many years into the future.

Is Tearing Down Homes Consistent With Goals?

One of the criticisms of the project that seems the most profound and simple is this:

I agree that a 66th Street for All at the expense of your neighbors is baffling and wrong.

Is it? It certainly could be. But if it is baffling and wrong, who’s to blame? The 20,000 cars, many of whom use 66th as a reliever for the Crosstown Highway? The engineers who say that there is no way the cars can function in three lanes? The bicyclists who want to be able to ride along the sides? The pedestrians who require sidewalks?

Despite going into the 66th Street project knowing that homes would have to be torn down to make improvements, this issue was never addressed in the goal-setting. Nor was the more general issue about balancing automotive demands and community demands.

So for now, we’re left between two camps. One who sees the purpose of the street only to move cars, and who thinks it basically works well today. And the other that sees the street as drastically deficient, a relic of a bygone time that will not serve a multimodal future.

Tonight, for at least this one segment of one street, we will see with which camp Richfield’s leaders most align.

If you are interested in attending:

Richfield City Council Meeting — December 9th, 7:00pm
Richfield City Hall
6700 Portland Ave S
Richfield MN 55423

Sean Hayford Oleary

About Sean Hayford Oleary

Sean Hayford Oleary is a web developer and planner. He serves on the Richfield City Council, and previously on the city's Planning and Transportation commissions. Articles are written from a personal perspective and not on behalf of Richfield or others. Sean has a masters in urban planning from the Humphrey School. Follow his love of streets, home improvement, and all things Richfield on Twitter @sdho.