Free Idea: Let’s Close Portland Avenue for a Few Weeks and See How It Plays Out

(Editor’s Note: There’s another streets.mn post today about the Downtown East Commons park that covers many of these same points and describes the process a little more thoroughly, and so you could probably consider this post to be a wacky spin on the first. We’re going to publish both at the same time.)

Portland Emojis

Earlier this week, there was a public forum at Mill City Museum to discuss plans for the new Downtown East Commons park that’s planned for the ~1.7 blocks of land near the new Vikings stadium, across 4th Street South from the two-block Wells Fargo project currently under construction. There’s a lot going on in that part of town right now, which is awesome, and the park is a great opportunity to really add a whole new regional amenity to a tremendous amount of public and private investment already flowing into the area.

(They are soliciting lots of ideas online at the not-at-all-cumbersomely-named: downtowneastcommonsmpls.com, and you should definitely go and fill out that survey: Vote Fire Pits ’15!!!)

One of the things that came up at many of the tables (8 of 12) was that, hey, what if we closed Portland Avenue?

Back in 2013 when the plans for the two major Downtown East redevelopment projects (the Wells Fargo office towers + park on land formerly owned by the StarTribune, and then the new Vikings stadium) were announced, it was immediately apparent that the renderings were wrong and that Hennepin County wasn’t going to let them close Portland Avenue. This did not stop the StarTribune and many other media outlets, some even without a direct financial stake in the approval of the plan, from repeatedly running the old renderings that showed a larger and more cohesive park. Here is one from the day of the meeting. Do renderings matter? Probably!

Site sketch (Source: City of Minneapolis)

Site sketch (Source: City of Minneapolis)

While Hennepin County is not planning to close Portland, the idea of cutting it down to two lanes is being bandied about. It’s a little odd trying to wrap my head around a road cutting through the middle of the site–my first thought was that they shouldn’t even bother with the .7 block chunk between 5th Avenue South and Portland. Right now they’ve slapped a five story apartment building on the western edge of the site, presumably to block views of the county jail from the park and stadium plaza. There are overall aspects of the park that feel like afterthoughts–though, of course, the specifics are yet to be filled out (see above).

Click to Enlarge (Source: Hennepin County)

Click to Enlarge (Source: Hennepin County)

I don’t mean for that all to sound negative, because I’m very excited about the park–Vote Fire Pits ’15!!!–and its potential to be a real place. But it just seems odd…who’s taking Portland, a southbound one-way, from Washington Avenue to points south and absolutely needs that automobile link? Portland Avenue continues past this park, uninterrupted, for 11.6 miles before ending in this nice neighborhood in East Bloomington by the Minnesota River, but it starts just a few blocks north of the park at the Mississippi River.

Maybe if there was some kind of brain-freeze-related mass medical emergency at the Izzy’s Ice Cream factory in the Mill District, and we absolutely needed to get a bunch of ambulances ten blocks away to Hennepin County Medical Center as soon as possible. In any case, I’m pretty sure cars are still the most dangerous thing in America other than cigarettes and most of the food, so we’d still be coming out ahead, safety-wise.

So here is a crazy idea:

What if we just closed that block of Portland Avenue for, say, three weeks, and we let it play out?

If: There are casualties and the sun goes dark and Target, US Bank, and Hennepin County announce their plans to move their offices to Minnetonka, then, shoot, didn’t work out, and we can reopen the street. But, if everything pretty much is fine, then maybe we can just do that? And save the $???,??? and ?? months that we will spend trying to figure out whether or not we should close the street.

I bet it will be fine.

There are, as some people have pointed out, four streets traversing Central Park in New York City. This is a terrible comparison. Central Park is 843 acres. Downtown East Commons will be 4.3 acres. Not the same thing. But while we’re talking about New York City, keep in mind that they have closed streets in the past decade in a city larger, busier, and more congested than Minneapolis by several orders of magnitude. Traffic always finds a way.

I mean, symbolically, wouldn’t it be nice to close a street named Portland?

Nick Magrino

About Nick Magrino

Nick Magrino grew up all over the place but has lived in the Loring Park neighborhood of Minneapolis longer than anywhere else. He has a new cat, Sweater, and does not use hashtags at @nickmagrino. He is probably on a bus right now.

35 thoughts on “Free Idea: Let’s Close Portland Avenue for a Few Weeks and See How It Plays Out

  1. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker

    Listening to the facilitator at our table describe the dire warnings from the traffic engineers about what would happen if that one block of Portland were closed, my gut reflex was to slam my head violently on the table. I resisted the urge, but it was powerful.

    1. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker

      Frankly, this is what I eventually expect to happen. The architects shared this image: (http://imgur.com/FbZ6lUF) of work they’ve done. That’s somewhere in LSU, and the middle section IS a road. It IS possible to turn Portland into something reasonable.

      But is that better than not cutting the park at all?

  2. Matt Brillhart

    On a serious note, closing that one-block stretch of Portland actually seems to have popular support among the general public. To be honest, the only people standing in the way of this are Hennepin County traffic engineers. If we can show our elected County officials that closing this one-block has public support (which, again, I believe it does), then this shouldn’t be too hard to accomplish.

    1. Tom O.

      I’m not as convinced of that level of support, but it may exist. Perhaps that support will be more noticeable and burgeon once people understand that closing that stretch is an option. I was at the meeting on Tuesday and most folks at my table were surprised when closing Portland was floated by someone. They didn’t even think to consider that possibility. The first idea was a ped bridge.

    2. Matty LangMatty Lang

      In theory, you could get 4 out of 7 votes. In reality, it would take a huge organizing effort to get there. It’s possible, but even Commissioners representing the inner districts would need to see a ton of political support in order to vote against the traffic engineers.

      1. Matt Brillhart

        As far as we know, Hennepin County (nor the city) has even studied it or run the numbers (both in terms of vehicle congestion and how much it would cost to re-do the signals to make Park a two-way).

        My (limited) understanding is that it showed up in an initial rendering put together by Ryan Companies and was quickly swatted down by the County with little discussion.

        As Nick noted, the closed street continued to show up in renderings for more than a year, even though newer renderings with the street still there had been made widely available. Star Tribune continued to show the incorrect rendering several times, even though they should know better (it was their property after all).

        I’m not convinced that a thorough traffic analysis was ever done for closing Portland and making Park a two-way street, aside from a higher-up county engineer looking at it and going “nope!”

        It is on us to first convince our City leaders (ATTN: Jacob Frey, Mayor Hodges), who can then help us in convincing County leaders that this is the right thing to do.

    1. Nick MagrinoNick Magrino Post author

      I kinda did!

      “It’s a little odd trying to wrap my head around a road cutting through the middle of the site–my first thought was that they shouldn’t even bother with the .7 block chunk between 5th Avenue South and Portland.”

      1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

        Spot on, Brendon. Max and I both have been asking this question for a while. Let’s remember, a park in this location wasn’t part of the city’s plan, nor the county’s plan for it’s downtown streets, until the park was tossed to the public as a consolation prize for funding the new stadium (a slightly cynical but not inaccurate assessment).

        Of course it is way too big. Well-designed and programmed urban parks cost a ton of money, and current cost estimates are nowhere near enough, which will lead to public disappointment.

        From that perspective, Portland Avenue is the least of our worries.

  3. Phil

    Jacob Frey, who is seems to be supportive of closing Portland, said this when I emailed him the idea a couple days ago: “Something to consider, however, is that any pilot project happening this early in the game, and before the stadium opens, would not simulate traffic flow after the stadium opens.”

    Isn’t Portland going to be closed on these very days for events anyways?

    Also, we seem to be able to close major arterials pretty slapdash-ly for public works projects like bridge rehabs and road reconstruction. Closing a block of Portland really shouldn’t be an issue.

  4. Ethan OstenEthan

    My only thought: what’s the most natural way for an ambulance to get from Washington Ave to HCMC without Portland? Third Ave and 6th? I doubt that would add much time.

  5. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

    Here’s my amendment to the proposal. Let’s have it closed everyday except during the exit hours after game days. Build a woonerf where Portland passes through, but the woonerf space is blockaded by movable obstructions.

    It can function as a paved plaza space most of the time, but when the traffic flood after game events happens, the space is cleared for traffic a couple hours then goes back to normal plaza space.

    Closing it now can be the test that we can get along just fine on those hours we aren’t pressed to eject game fans out of downtown.

    1. Nick MagrinoNick Magrino Post author

      1) Planning this around 10-20 hours of annual usage out of 8,760 total hours is ? to me

      2) Who is heading southbound on Portland after Vikings games anyway? The freeway onramps are on 4th Avenue South and Washington Avenue. The remaining huge tracts of parking in Downtown East are already south of the park, and the others are located north of the park along Washington Avenue. How many people are driving from Phillips to Vikings games?

      1. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

        Yeah, I agree that a few dozen hours out of a year is questionable, which makes it questionable that it even be a dedicated road only. If we’re going to fight the county who insist if carry traffic from the games, make lemonade.

        I doubt the counts of game day exiting traffic are that abundant, but they have the numbers and are sticking by them.

        I guess I can see room for a paved gathering space in this park, lot of great parks in the world have them. While such a space is closed from traffic it could be used for Aquatennial tennis, or pickup games of basketball.

  6. Keith Morris

    Plenty of single lanes on cross streets approaching Nicollet were closed temporarily for construction and proved that cars don’t need the extra lane, but we aren’t permanently closing them, why again? We could easily replace all the DZBLs with buffered or protected lanes by only taking over one travel lane. These dumb traffic engineers don’t even notice this, so it’s no surprise they’d be so myopic as to react just as stupidly to closing a couple measly blocks. How come they don’t have to prove that the necessity is there with suggestions like the OP? If the street backs way up then they’re proven right and if not they’re proven wrong. Guess their egos are too fragile to handle the latter.

  7. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

    Here are some traffic count figures from 2008 for the closest portions of the following one way streets near the “park”:

    Park Avenue – 7,300 per day
    Portland Avenue – 8,000
    4th Street – 9,900
    3rd Street – 11,900
    5th Avenue – 12,000
    6th Street – 11,700

    FYI, by the time Portland leaves downtown (crossing over I-94) it is up to 14,300 per day, and 14,400 south of Lake Street.

    More recent figures may exist, but I’m willing to bet they are similar relative to each other today

  8. David MarkleDavid Markle

    Yes, this is a case where it’s quite easy to do the test and evaluate the consequences. It’s been my experience that city governments are rather prone to pour concrete based on speculative theories rather than base action on practical trials. By all means, do the test first!

  9. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

    We should be out there testing a lot of things, from traffic calming to programming future park space. I argued for this in a post last month (https://streets.mn/2015/01/15/making-downtown-east-commons-a-great-place/). If this includes a test Portland Avenue closure, let’s go for it.

    Pros and cons to permanent closure. I strongly believe a grid of streets should be maintained whenever possible, as it is good for all kinds of transportation (walking, biking, transit, driving, etc.). Of course, Portland Avenue as it presently exists is untenable running through a park, but so are the existing streets like 4th Street that run alongside the park.

    Most urban downtown parks have a number of disparate uses in different sections, and therefore a street running through it doesn’t preclude it from being a wonderful space.

    Has anyone asked R.T. what he thinks?

  10. Blake

    Another thing to consider – not only will the project will add further traffic impact with its residential and business development, but the commons is expected to attract even more development around it in the future, as pointed out by the CEO of the architecture firm.

    I still don’t think that would make closing Portland necessarily problematic though. The benefit of closing it would greatly outweigh the cost, imo. Even if Portland is kept and made more “park like”, it’s going to feel like two parks.

  11. David MarkleDavid Markle

    If the testers do a good job, will the test be interpreted in a biased way? We have some potential safegard here, because the county wants the street to remain open and the city seems to want it closed.

  12. Janne

    I think the most important set of users on this stretch of Portland are people riding bikes. While there are lots of other great pathways for people driving cars, this IS a critical bike link. The two lanes of one-way traffic is more than is needed, so I’d vote for either 1 lane + bike path/bikeway/protected bikeway (with protection extended all the way to Minnehaha eventually). That might be a woonerf way — that protects the grid as Sam insists is so critical. That’s viable TODAY and should be done now, in any case.

    Alternatively, boot the cars for bikes only OR boot the other .7 acres on the other side of Portland and still reduce the lanes to two or better one.

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