It’s Time For Hopkins to Be Selfish

blake-roadHopkins has been the model of cooperation for the past few years. The city collaborated with Hennepin County on a Shady Oak Road expansion despite harms to longstanding businesses. It accepted the Southwest LRT’s operations and maintenance facility even though the city suffered the biggest hit to tax base of any community along the line. I’m genuinely proud my city’s leaders have risen above the parochialism that’s plagued other communities.


But it’s time for Hopkins to be selfish.


Blake Road is in the midst of a major makeover. Planners envision a complete street on the stretch between Highway 7 and Excelsior Boulevard — also known as County Road 20. This isn’t just a road project. It’s part of a larger effort to reinvigorate a neighborhood that is among Hopkins’ poorest. The area is barricaded by highways that wall in the many families without vehicles. The Southwest Light Rail stop planned for the corridor and improved bus connections could better connect residents to destinations outside the corridor. Pedestrian and bike improvements could make it safer for residents to reach closer-in destinations.

But to reinvigorate a neighborhood, you need a neighborhood street. Blake Road is on track to remain a big road despite all the good intentions. Planners will still be pressured to adhere to the same over-engineered standards regulations insists upon. Even if the city were willing to push for something more intimate, Hennepin County would be required to sign off on any changes since it’s a county road.

Blake Road is the place where Hopkins should threaten to withhold municipal consent unless we get exactly what we want. This is where Hopkins must draw a line in the sand and declare that our city’s needs come first.


Smooth traffic flow hurts Hopkins

An auto-focused Blake Road isn’t just about unrealized potential; it actively degrades Hopkins properties. The corridor’s location on the city’s extreme eastern end means smooth traffic flows only speed drivers out of the city toward St. Louis Park’s competing retailers off Aquila Avenue.

This is particularly counterproductive because Hopkins is working so hard to develop specific identities for its neighborhoods. The downtown is intended to be the city’s primary retail destination. Blake Road’s ample housing, on the other hand, will allow it to continue as a dense residential neighborhood with some neighborhood retail that serves residents there but doesn’t compete with downtown retail.

None of this planning matters if Blake Road continues to steer drivers to Cub instead of Driskill’s. Communities shouldn’t be in the business of picking winners and losers, but they also shouldn’t be in the business of subsidizing properties in neighboring communities that undermine their own tax base.

There’s no doubting this is the engineer’s focus. The first slides of their presentation to the community last fall highlighted “level of service” in reference to vehicles, not people. Traffic counts came before any discussion about pedestrian impacts, which are relegated to bullet points on lists of pros and cons.

This would be less of an issue if an easy-driving Blake Road either catalyzed development in the corridor or helped people get around Hopkins. It does neither. Decades of auto-focused design have failed to cultivate anything more than pawn shops and fast food chains. That’s the very reason we’re planning something different. For some reason, though, engineers are doubling down on that approach and hoping to get better results.

Improved traffic flow on Blake Road also doesn’t do anything to help people get around Hopkins. Drivers headed to Hopkins’ downtown — again, the city’s stated focus for retail and entertainment — wouldn’t be delayed any more if they were routed to Fifth Avenue or 12th Avenue. That’s true whether they’re on Highway 7 or Excelsior Boulevard. If we want to direct drivers to the downtown, we should obstruct Blake Road traffic flow, not facilitate it.

Engineers will — and already have — protest that capacity is necessary to prevent traffic from backing up. Presentations at community meetings focus on the need to move nearly one-third more vehicles through the corridor. Admittedly, many residents are focused on traffic, too.

Yet Hopkins residents should ask what, exactly, we lose by having slower traffic in a neighborhood that our comprehensive plan envisions as a heavily residential area. Congestion will reduce speeds, increase pedestrian safety, boost business at Hopkins’ retailers and decrease maintenance costs. I fail to see a hardship for anyone who pays taxes in the city.


There is very little hardship for the regional transportation network

Of course, communities must sometimes sacrifice local benefits for a regional good. Blake Road, though, is a very minor part of the regional transportation network. Highway 169 offers a convenient north-south route just half a mile to the west, and the newly (and expensively) upgraded Louisiana Avenue interchange offers an alternative three-quarters of a mile to the east.

Comparing it to other roads in the metro illustrates just how over-designed this two-thirds-mile stretch is. Hopkins Crossroads (County Road 73) is a two- to four-lane road, and it’s a north-south connector for busy thoroughfares like Highway 7, Minnetonka Boulevard, I-394 and Highway 55. Shady Oak Road (CSAH 61) is being rebuilt as an approximately 60-foot-wide, five-lane road through Hopkins because it’s a connector to routes like Highway 7 and Highway 62.

The controversial Shady Oak Road redesign is an especially good point of comparison. Planners said the redesign was particularly important as a route to move cars from point A to point B, particularly with the promised arrival of the light rail. Whatever the merits of this argument, it’s a sign of just how misguided the planning has been that Shady Oak — a vehicle-moving road — is actually smaller than some of the proposals for Blake Road, which is meant to anchor a neighborhood.

Officials have very different visions for Shady Oak Road and Blake Road, but their designs are similar.

Officials have very different visions for Shady Oak Road and Blake Road, but their designs are similar.

The Blake Road plans presented in the fall proposed designs ranging from a three-lane, 47-foot roadway to a divided 67-foot-wide four-lane road. A two-lane road wasn’t even considered. In a sign of just how skewed the planning process is, the widest option was the only one that didn’t list pedestrian safety concerns as a drawback. The slides actually declared it “safer than other roadway alternatives.” A two-lane option wasn’t even discussed, even though pedestrians would have to cross less with such an option than they would with the so-called safe 67-foot plan.

The three-lane roadway option for Blake Road, as presented in fall 2014.

The three-lane roadway option for Blake Road, as presented in fall 2014.

The four-lane option for Blake Road

The four-lane option for Blake Road

The five-lane option for Blake Road

The five-lane option for Blake Road

The divided four-lane option for Blake Road. This option -- the widest of those presented -- was the only one judged to have advantages for pedestrians.

The divided four-lane option for Blake Road. This option — the widest of those presented — was the only one judged to have advantages for pedestrians.

All but one of these options are bigger than parts of Hennepin Avenue as it travels through Uptown. They’re bigger than most roads in downtown Minneapolis. The idea that a two-thirds-mile section of road in an 18,000-person town needs anything close to 67 feet of roadway — or even the more modest 47, 48 or 59 feet — is ridiculous. It provides nothing like the regional utility of comparably sized roads from a vehicle connectivity standpoint. Meanwhile, it undercuts the potential to provide a huge amount of utility for individual residents if it were scaled down to carry cars at neighborhood speeds.

In a more rational world, the corridor would be a city street, not a county road. It would work great if it were redesigned to be more like Mainstreet or even 12h Avenue — a road perfectly capable of carrying cars in and out of Hopkins’ downtown but still compatible with the homes surrounding it.

If drivers can’t handle some slowdown in the air conditioned comfort of their cars, how can they expect pedestrians to walk a few minutes out of their way? The reality is that drivers will simply adjust their habits over time to reflect Blake Road’s design as a neighborhood street instead of a bypass.


What should happen instead

There’s no denying it’ll take big changes to make Blake Road into the street it needs to be. But city and Met Council officials were just urging residents to think outside the box at an April 6 planning meeting for the Blake Road station area, so let’s take them up on their offer.


Petition the county to turn the road over to Hopkins

Hopkins should formally request that Hennepin County relinquish control of the road. Blake Road has no business being a county road. It has purely local significance and should be designed with that in mind, not as an over-engineered throughway.  Sure, city control will incur maintenance costs that’ll hit the city budget. But this kind of thinking is why we have such a broken system. Taxpayers are on the hook whoever controls the road. Pushing funding and design decisions down to a more local level better aligns transportation choices with the needs of the community and its willingness to pay for those choices. Meanwhile, the county should be grateful to any city that takes this approach because it’s one more maintenance responsibility off the books. If they’re not wise enough to see this, Hopkins can always refuse municipal consent.


Cut it down to two lanes

The next step is carving Blake Road down to a scale more suited for its intended purpose. Hopkins has several two-lane roads that admirably carry drivers into key areas without disrupting the surrounding neighborhoods. Fifth Avenue, 12th Avenue and (from the south) Eighth Avenue excel at this. In addition, 17th Avenue is two lanes for all but a couple blocks as it travels through Hopkins’ core.

The best example, though, is the jewel of Hopkins: Mainstreet. This is the city’s prime retail destination. It has multi-story mixed-use complexes, regular bus traffic, cyclists, pedestrians and surrounding homes — and it manages just fine with only two lanes.

Look at the planning documents for Blake Road, and you’ll see a sort of Mainstreet-lite with more of a focus on residential. If this is truly what Hopkins wants, it needs to make Blake Road look more like Mainstreet.

Cutting Blake Road in half won’t be enough. The road should also include the normal traffic slowing measures. Lanes should be no more than 11 feet wide, and ideally closer to 10 feet. Roundabouts should be used instead of traffic signals. Where signals are necessary, such as turning onto Excelsior or Highway 7, the city should prohibit right turns on red in order to minimize pedestrian-vehicle conflicts. This neighborhood needs strong design statements that people come first.

To further discourage vehicles from using Blake Road as a throughway, it should not allow drivers to enter or exit the LRT park and ride from Blake Road. All access should be via Excelsior Boulevard, which has convenient access to Highway 169.

Of course, all of this will lower traffic capacity on Blake Road. But so what? We have other roads nearby that excel at carrying vehicles. Let’s focus on building a street that does an awesome job serving the neighborhood instead of a road with so many ambitions that it fails at all of them.


Beef up pedestrian, bike and transit amenities

Now comes the fun part. The removal of two vehicle lanes and narrowing of the remaining lanes will leave plenty of room to add in protected bike lanes and widen sidewalks, perhaps enough to allow for patio dining or public space where neighbors can get together.

An example of what a neighborhood-scale Blake Road might look like.

An example of what a neighborhood-scale Blake Road might look like.

It also offers a couple options for buses. The space could be used for dedicated bus lanes, but a four-lane road is a sea of asphalt to pedestrians whatever type of vehicle happens to occupy that asphalt. The three-quarter-mile-long corridor is short enough buses can travel through it expeditiously regardless of the number of lanes.

In fact, the short distance would allow just a single bus stop on Blake Road proper while still maintaining a quarter-mile distance between stops. That stop could be a bump-out midway down the road. The remaining two stops could be at Blake and Highway 7 and at the Southwest LRT station planned near Blake Road and Excelsior Boulevard.


Get creative with how the extra space is used

An economical use of space will leave a fair bit of land unused. Hopkins should deed this land over to the property owners along Blake Road. This isn’t an entirely selfless gift. The extra square footage will make the land more attractive for development and transform nontaxable land (ie. the roads) into taxable property.

Using the plan above, that’d add about eight feet of depth along each side the corridor. That’s about 0.1 acres to the Knollwood Towers property, 0.15 acres to the Westside Village I and II proprerties and 0.2 acres to the Cold Storage site. That may not sound like much, but it could be enough to add or a few more aisles of retail space in a store or a few more units in a housing development — in other words, enough to push a proposed development from unprofitable to profitable.

But this shouldn’t come without some caveats. Hopkins should establish maximum setbacks that keep buildings close to public areas and foster a more active streetscape. It doesn’t matter whether these are retailers, offices or residential areas with attractive stoops. The key is that the design blurs the line between public and private space so neighbors feel comfortable being out and about.

Hopkins has outstanding elected officials. It’s the best-governed city I’ve ever lived in, and the civility that the City Council members show toward one another and their colleagues in other levels of government is a huge part of that. But this is the time for them to put their foot down.

This is the time for Hopkins to be selfish.


James Warden

About James Warden

James Warden is a former reporter who spent nearly a decade covering communities in Wyoming and Minnesota, as well as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s now a Hopkins resident and member of the Zoning and Planning Commission. James works as a media analyst at Cargill. Views are his own.