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.

22 thoughts on “Rethinking 66th Street

  1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    Sean, great post. My first reaction is that there is some wasted space in 4B. Can the lanes be 10′? 10.5′? Is the 2′ curb reaction distance really necessary (and does it only encourage careless driving rather than encourage people to pay better attention)? Why is there an extra 1′ on either side? I also don’t understand the 2′ buffer between the cycletrack and sidewalk. 6″ for a mountable curb between these s/b sufficient I’d think.

    Certainly the big enchilada though is five motor traffic lanes. If there were three what would happen? Would many of these people simply take better alternate routes like crosstown or 494 or is 66th really the best route? More important perhaps, how many of the folks driving along here are on short trips of 1 or 2 miles that could be better done walking or bicycling if there were safe and comfortable places to do so?

    An overly simplistic way to look at it is to start with a 5′ sidewalk, 6′ cycletrack, and 10′ traffic lane on each side as the base required configuration. Then if there is room add stuff; buffers (which allow higher motor traffic speed), center turn lane, wider cycletrack, wider sidewalk, and then more through lanes for motor traffic.

    Are they paying attention to creating safer junctions as well?

    1. Sean Hayford Oleary

      Thanks, Walker. To your first question, the basic answer is that you are right that there is some extra space in the 4B design, but it doesn’t make or break the need to acquire homes. The most you could possibly cut out is maybe 8′ (narrow lanes to 10′, curb reaction distance to 1.5, and narrower buffer between bike lane and sidewalk). But even that would still require buying out the homes, and would be very difficult to get cooperation with Hennepin County on. The travel lanes may be narrowed from what’s shown to 10’8″, however.

      Were the street 3 lanes, you could fit everything in without buying out whole homes, but you’d probably still need to buy a lot of land from the properties to the north. I didn’t go into it here, but that concern (about 10-12′ of yard space) is one of the major problems with the low-impact design.

      Regarding intersections: yes, there will likely be some changes, although less in this area. At 35W, Lyndale, and Nicollet, the Transportation Commission recommended replacing signals with roundabouts, plus the existing roundabouts at Portland Ave and Richfield Pkwy. If this plan goes forward, the only major signals that will remain are Penn Ave and York Ave (just outside the project limits). There will also be some minor signals at Lakeshore Dr, Bloomington Ave, etc, since there’s not enough traffic to balance out a roundabout.

      1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

        If they do roundabouts will they design bicycle/disabled/pedestrian portions appropriately?

        Would a combination of a 3 lane design plus pulling out the extraneous space at least significantly reduce how much of peoples yards are needed?

        Are the houses in an area that is appropriate for residential or more appropriate for mixed use? Personally I wouldn’t consider having a house on a road with 20,000 daily cars and trucks a good idea, but others might.

        1. Sean Hayford Oleary

          Regarding roundabouts — the new ones should be an improvement on what’s out there today. The protected bike lanes will remain separate from the travel lanes and sidewalk throughout the whole thing, and will have a separate bike crosswalk. There will also be pedestrian flashers.

          By my count, you could get it as narrow as 72′ — so a 6′ intrusion into the north-side yards, which isn’t a huge deal. I’d support this, but it would take serious political will to get it approved — both by reduction in number of lanes and squeezing every proportion down. (The travel lanes are shown at 12′ to be really 10′ + 2′ curb reaction distance. Standard required curb reaction distance for a single lane is 4′ — 2′ would already be an exception. Emergency vehicle operators might not accept this.)

          Regarding living on the street — depends on whom you ask, I guess. In its current form, I wouldn’t want to live on 66th, but I’d consider it if it was rebuilt in the style of 4B. I might want to pay extra attention to getting noise-insulative windows, etc. But there are lots of beautiful, well-maintained homes on streets like Lyndale Ave S in Minneapolis, which as well over 10,000 ADT in segments. Presumably those people are comfortable living on a busier street.

  2. Alex

    How has land use factored into the conversation? Has there has been discussion of changing the zoning of adjacent land to match the larger scale of the 4B design?

    1. Sean Hayford Oleary

      Sort of, but they’re not that well integrated. The entire stretch of 66th between Lakeshore Dr (west of Lyndale) and Nicollet is envisioned as a future mixed-use district. The Penn Avenue corridor is also envisioned as mixed-use, and there are visions to intensify land use on 66th Street east of Portland Avenue. The areas between Portland and Nicollet, and between 35W and Oliver or so are envisioned to remain low-density residential.

      Future land use has factored in a couple of ways, but mainly in the Visual Quality Guidelines, and not the basic cross section.

  3. Adam MillerAdam Miller

    This is a good summary (well, seems like one to a reader who has not been up on all the details here.

    To me, it seems like there are three, legitimate competing interests (1) homeowner’s property rights, (2) complete streets, and (3) car capacity.

    If it was me, it would be an easy choice to sacrifice the third in favor of the first two, but I’m sure it’s not that simple.

  4. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    I’m hoping there’s significant planted median action wherever turn lanes are not needed. That’s a major traffic calming element, especially as trees and vegetation mature.

  5. Sean Hayford Oleary

    In a 3-2 decision, the City Council approved widening 66th in the controversial segment of Penn-35W. This means that the 18 homes will be torn down. It also means that no section of 66th will remain 4-lane undivided, and that there will be a continuous cycletrack from Oliver Ave to the eastern project limit.

    1. Joe

      Awesome! Whether you want to admit it or not, you were clearly instrumental in making this happen. That is very inspirational!

      1. Sean Hayford Oleary

        Maybe, but probably not. In past takings, the only time there was a legal dispute was the car dealership torn down for the Best Buy headquarters. (None of the homeowners tried to stop it in court.)

        If it were challenged in court, it’s highly unlikely residents would be successful in stopping it. This is a textbook case of appropriate use of eminent domain — an important street that has documented safety issues, where a widening is proven to help resolve the problems.

        And for what it’s worth as a barometer of dissent, of the 15 or so residents who spoke last night, nobody from the 18 homes spoke. Three neighbors who were the second houses in spoke against it (not eager to become the new corner house), and three who lived on the north side spoke in favor of the widening.

        1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg


          your comment about who spoke at the public meeting is fascinating. You could be correct that none of the owners of the 18 homes being taken spoke against the project, because they’re happy to be offered market value for their homes in return for not having to live near that awful 66th Street anymore; take the money and run!

          Conversely a few who spoke against will no have to front 66th.

          Interesting, that’s all.

  6. Julie Barton

    Does this mean the house on the south side of 66th with the turret and black and white tiling on the outside is going to be torn down? (It seems to fit into the basic geographic area I think we are talking about). I respect the plan, but that house has always made me smile when I see it.

    1. Sean Hayford Oleary

      Yeah, unfortunately, this house will be one of the ones taken. It is a neat landmark. But the silver lining is that the removal of that house will allow the park behind it to be much more part of the public realm.

  7. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    I was at the meeting last night as well. It’s clear the council wanted to see the existing four lane configuration striped to three lanes, even as a test. But that push was by too few too late in the process.

    There’s definite talk of a popup project to six-lane Hwy 62 from 77 to the commons, and from the commons west through Edina. My only remaining concern with this project is that with 26 foot carriageways in each direction (11′ lanes plus curb reaction on both sides) it would be difficult to restripe this to three lanes down the line in any meaningful way without adjusting the curbs.

    If they restriped three lanes with parking, that would essentially be a 13’+ parking lane between 35W and Oliver. Clearly the on-street space won’t be needed for bike lanes since there will be cycletracks next to the sidewalks. So then where does that leave this excess space? Could it easily be converted to aBRT amenity space? Peak-hour bus lanes?

  8. Sam NewbergSam Newberg


    Curious what Penn Avenue’s traffic counts are and the initial results of the road diet south of 66th Street? Will those changes be made permanent through a rebuilt, narrower street some day?

    In all my years as a kid and adult, I do not recall ever being stuck in traffic on 66th Street. In fact, these days I choose to drive it for that very reason. Is that justification for rebuilding it without losing lanes? Perhaps, but is it good policy to encourage people like me who don’t live in Richfield to drive through their city because it is easy? I guess I’m addressing those who don’t like 66th Street being used as a reliever to the crosstown – drivers wouldn’t choose 66th if it wasn’t so relatively uncongested.

    1. Sean Hayford Oleary

      In the section of Penn converted, it was about 12,000 ADT. I believe the official, most recent count for the controversial section is about 19,000. The busiest section of 66th that will be made 3 lanes is between Nicollet and Portland, a little over 16,000.

      Long-term plans for Penn will probably not see the curb-to-curb width narrowed, at least not significantly. Either Penn or Oliver will be designated as a through bikeway north-south. Oliver was supposed to be made a bike boulevard a number of years ago, but neighbors protested (the concept was pretty new then). The master plan for Penn includes more on-street parking between 68th and the Crosstown, to encourage sidewalk-fronting business and more a whole business district feel, rather than tiny, individual parking lots.

      It’s possible that south of that business district the curbs would come in slightly in the long term, as we don’t need 7.5′ for a bike lane, and the travel lanes could be narrowed slightly. Most likely, it would be similar to what they’ll be doing on Portland next year — sidewalks and the 6′ of green space next of them will flip to get a proper boulevard, and the curbs come in just a little bit. Extended gutter pans will be used on Portland, not providing a cycletrack level of separation, but still a bit more delineation than paint from the roadway.

      Your thoughts about 66th are similar to the thoughts of the mayor and Cm. Elliot, who voted no on Tuesday night. However, that choice isn’t really on the table. If city leaders want to force it to be on the table, that would mean some radical steps — possibly splitting the project, withholding municipal consent on the west end, delaying it and giving up federal funding for the rebuild. And stringing homeowners along for possibly another several years while it’s worked out. The human cost of that would probably be greater than simply buying the homes now.

      Although I do think three lanes is better in principle, they way Hennepin County grasps tightly to the neck of this project makes the battle to get it even worse than just buying out the homes today.

      1. Sean Hayford Oleary

        Also regarding Penn: this is the only 1950s street that Richfield does not currently have a plan to reconstruct. 76th is already redone, except for the far west portion which is funded for 2016. 66th and Portland are both funded and scheduled. Nicollet is slated to be rebuilt in 2018-19. Penn, however, stands alone, but staff continue to seek funding sources to get it rebuilt.

        (Lyndale between 67th-76th is also older, but not as old or in as poor of condition as Penn.)

      2. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

        “Hennepin County grasps tightly to the neck of this project,” eh? Interesting choice of words, and not the only occurrence of said entity doing so….

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