Hopkins 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.
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.
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.
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.
Thanks for this James, glad there is another Hopkins author here!
I used my editor’s privilege and added a few links to the post for additional context. Here they are in case anyone is looking for some additional context:
Hopkins’ corridor planning: http://www.hopkinsmn.com/development/current/blake/
LRT Station planning: http://www.swlrtcommunityworks.org/explore-corridor/stations/blake-road-station
Also, I found a Facebook group for a Blake Road Corridor Collaborative: https://www.facebook.com/blakeroad
Thanks for doing that.
It appears from maps that there are other good alternatives for heavy north-south motor traffic in this area so Blake shouldn’t be needed for that. I would guess that some good bit of the current traffic is people going to the Knollwood area?
Somehow we have to get engineers to begin thinking of something other than motor traffic and LOS. They need to learn to factor in the impact on the local neighborhood and set some limits where they say that regardless of how much people might want to drive a certain route, it’s not appropriate for the neighborhood and so won’t be made easy. A slower 2-lane will certainly do this and drivers will choose 169 or other alternatives that have less negative impact. Or better, they’ll choose to walk or ride if that is made pleasant enough.
I would also swap the planters and grass strip. Bicycle riders should be connected to what is along their route, not separated from it. They should be separated from motor traffic however.
Blake carries about 15,000 cars between TH7 and 2nd. 11,600 cars between 2nd and Excelsior. Consultants for the Blake project have “projected” 19,000 cars in twenty years. There is significant traffic coming from Minneapolis down TH 7, south on Blake, to 2nd to get to the Cargill campus. But this traffic, in theory, would drop with LRT bringing Minneapolis residents to Cargill.
I asked the consultants what they based this on, they responded that “future development”. I can’t see how we could have any development around Blake that could generate that much future traffic.
The two big pushbacks against proposals for two lanes was the congestion when freight rail comes through. And the congestion from the extreme light times at TH 7, which today back waiting cars through Cambridge.
One thing the article doesn’t clarify is the curb-to-curb or sidewalk edge-to-sidewalk edge widths of existing or proposed Blake Rd. These are far better (and more mainstream) measurements to go by when gauging and comparing street widths. I noticed the author didn’t include the cycletrack/bike lanes in his street widths, and doesn’t mention sidewalk widths at all.
Hennepin Ave through Uptown, BTW, is 60ft curb-to-curb and 80 to 90ft sidewalk-to-sidewalk.
I have the numbers for the lanes in a document on my home computer. My recollection is currently lanes are 13′ with a 17′ turn lane(!). Proposal is 11′ for all lanes, but outer lanes have a 2′ forgiveness space by curb. The sidewalks and bike lanes are slightly different with each proposal.
The final design will be revealed on the 20th at round 2 of the Blake Station Area workshops.
I presume the reason Blake Road is a CSAH for that short segment is to connect TH 7 to CSAH 3 Excelsior Blvd. This does seem like a reasonable use of the county system, IMHO. The issue isn’t who’s paying the bills, the issue is that the design sucks.
And on that point, I agree. I find it particularly baffling that a 2-lane divided (with turn lanes as needed) isn’t discussed, and that a three-lane is “not preferred from a safety point of view” — in fact, to watch this presentation, apparently a three-lane roadway is more dangerous than 4-lane undivided “death road”.
Hopkins seems to be getting the brunt of bad Hennepin County design, between the very stroady Excelsior Blvd from 20 years ago and the new Shady Oak Stroad. Frankly, the treatment is unequal compared to comparable environments elsewhere in the county. Richfield’s segment of Portland Avenue, which serves a similar function of connecting E-W principal arterials to E-W minor county arterials, is slated for a better 3-lane + median island design this year. Hopkins should put its foot down — not on turnback, but on quality design.
The bike-ped edge details don’t seem bad. I cringe at the MUP, but bother other options look good to me. I also dislike the TH 7 trail overpass, unless they intend to do it on both sides. Negotiating free rights and crossing three legs of an intersection are even worse than crossing on-grade.
And last thought: I like the roundabouts, but why not a roundabout at Excelsior?
I’d agree with you about making it part of the county system if we didn’t have 169 just to the west and an expensive new interchange at Louisiana. Those already have easy access to the key locations that would require drivers to move north and south. Blake is just duplication.
Fair argument, but I still don’t know any city in their right mind who would ask for turnback for a 40 (?) year old street that’s on-schedule to be reconstructed. I think it would be fiscally irresponsible for a small city to do so, frankly. Yes, it’s ultimately all taxpayer money, but Hopkins taxpayers have been paying for building exurban stroadways in Maple Grove, and they should get theirs, too.
Perhaps post-reconstruction they should look at turnback. In the meantime, I agree they need to to push Hennepin County for a better street. Hennepin has given better streets to other cities… why not Hopkins?
I think you’re 100 percent on target about the politics of it.
I’ve seen Blake Rd as a turnback candidate in past versions of the county transportation plan….as recently as 2005 (got, was that really 10 years ago?). It’s not presently, though that wouldn’t preclude from the county turning it back to the city at some point in the future.
Also, regarding the “politics”, state law requires that the turnback parties are in agreement before a road is turned back. Common sense would suggest that the receiving party (Hopkins in this case, should it happen) would want the road to be in good condition before receiving jurisdiction.
Due to the volumes on Excelsior, it’d require a 2-lane roundabout. My guess is it was considered but dropped due to impacts (Section 104f) on the park in the southwest quadrant and the building in the southeast quadrant.
I’m not so sure about that, because the intersection today is pretty massive (free rights on the north, left-turn lanes on all legs and double-left on one).
Here’s a sloppy overlay of Portland-66 at Excelsior-Blake at the same scale. Obviously this makes it looks like there are huge impacts, because the approaches aren’t aligned right. But the actual circulating part of the intersection is smaller than the signal. The only impact I think you might see is a couple parking spots on the SE or NW corner. You’d actually potentially create more parkland, since EB Excelsior would only have two lanes rather than 5 approaching the intersection.
Ask Eden Prairie how well deliberately designing a road to make it hard to get to the next city worked out. And the other streets mentioned appear to only carry 1/3rd the traffic as Blake.
But it might be another thing if US 169 was five lanes in each direction or something. With it so woefully over capacity it’s essential to keep traffic only going one or two exits off it- whether on Blake or somewhere else I don’t know.
? Hopkins Crossroad carries 11k (the lower end of Blake Rd’s 11-14k). Shady Oak Rd also carries 11k. I’d say they’re pretty apt comparisons.
The comparisons I was referring to were to MainStreet and 12th.
Which road in EP was designed to make it more “difficult” to use?
Eden Prairie insisted on stoplights on US 169 so it wouldn’t be too easy for traffic to skip over and drive on to Shakopee.
Ah, of course! I think the context of upgrading old county road 18 in EP/West Bloomington is vastly different Blake. Blake will never again be fed by a growing larger region, for one, except for spotty infill along its length.
Shady Oak on the other hand the county forecast significant growth because of the United Health campus down the road. I find that extremely questionable, but the county traffic guys insisted the projections of that traffic was unimpeachable.
Highway 169 isn’t woefully over capacity between Excelsior and Highway 7. That’s the very route I drive to get to Target. It’s clear the vast majority of the time. In the section between the two roads above, there is less than one hour of congestion between 5 a.m. and 10 a.m. and one to two hours of congestion between 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.
MnDOT defines congestion as less than 45 mph, which is still a pretty good clip if you’re only going one exit. It’s also faster than you’re ever going to go on Blake Road since it has beaucoup stoplights.
It also gets at the whole point of the article: What do we lose by prioritizing driver speed? I don’t deny that there are some times you want to move cars fast. But it’s not the job of the Blake Roads of the world to take pressure off highways like 169. That’s actually the exact reverse of what should happen. Highways and other arterials should carry cars swiftly between productive places. Blake Road and streets like it should should as the backbone of those productive place and the communities we call home.
Looks like Blake/CR-20 is actually a candidate for turnback to the city, according to this map: http://www.hennepin.us/~/media/hennepinus/Business/work-with-hennepin-county/Documents/map-e-transportation-issue-areas.PDF
Also, Hennepin County states the following policy regarding County-to-City jurisdiction transfers: “The turnback of a county roadway to a city is accomplished through a dialog
intended to lessen the maintenance burden to the accepting city. The county’s
policy is to ensure the road has been upgraded to provide a long service life prior to
the turnback. Hennepin County will not proceed with a turnback action to a city
unless the city is comfortable with the terms of the turnback.”
The second workshop of four for the Blake area was held last night. Simultaneously the Blake Corridor final design was revealed in the adjacent room. This workshop was around the “block exercise”, if you haven’t been part of one it’s basically this: there is a very large printed aerial photo on a table and participants are asked to stack blocks representing certain amounts of square feet of retail or residential around the property for what they would tolerate.
I could describe every scenario that were stacked up by the participants, snark at different attitudes (… “but we’re will everyone park!”, <- okay just that one) but I just wanted to say I was pleasantly surprised how many people stacked up buildings 8-, 10-, 15-, stories tall in places.
I think many people there had a misconception that "apartments" is code for "low income", which the Blake Road area really has an abundance of, many were asking that there is minimal new housing that is subsidized. I think saying things like "market rate housing" gets past certain people's distaste for rental. Not sure that will fly considering the two government agencies owning two of the three big plots to be developed.
I went over and stared at the Blake Road Corridor design, also spoke with the city engineer about design decisions. I posted some of my quick takes over on the forum, but I'll repost them here too:
– No roundabouts.
– 10.8' lanes.
– West Side apartments keep their main entrance on Blake.
– 10' multi-use trails separated by a six foot boulevard are on each side on Blake. There wasn't enough room for a true cycle track separated from a sidewalk… so multiuse trail it is.
– Even with traffic counts under 6,000, Aquila to stay five lanes.
– MNDoT "implied" putting a pedestrian bridge over TH7 would be an unwise use of funds.
– 2 left turn lanes from Blake north to 7 westbound (1 currently)
– 2 left turn lanes from Blake south to Excelsior eastbound (1 currently, was 2 back in the 70s–80s)
– Excelsior's huge pork chops on the northeast and northwest corners of the Blake intersection will be eliminated.
– the large pork chop at 2nd and Blake will be gone.
– there will be no access to turn into the fast food restaurants from northbound Blake, U-turns will need to be made at Cambridge. A 10-foot median will be installed there, clearly a pedestrian refuge.
– South of Excelsior, Blake's gravel parking strip is being eliminated, a 10-foot multiuse trail replacing it. Blake School is going to have its own reconfiguring of its athletic fields, it will put in a parking lot behind its new baseball diamond to replace the lost parking.
– the shameful narrow sidewalk on Blake between Boyce and Excelsior on Blake's west side (that currently has bike traffic routed on to!) will be replaced with a 10-foot multiuse trail.
– and the most controversial element stays, that is the two block long sidewalk in Edina on Blake's east side from Spruce to Maloney. Heh.
I’m disappointed no roundabouts will be included. Was this concern from the engineers or community opposition? As I said elsewhere, I particularly would have liked to see a roundabout at Excelsior. Given the super-sized nature of the intersection today, I think that could have been included without taking much, or any, new right-of-way.
The switch from cycletracks to MUPs is a major bait-and-switch. Give this choice, I would have rather seen 6′ sidewalks + 6′ bike lanes (which would fit in the same space as 10′ trail + 2′ curb reaction).
Put more simply: 5-lane stroad with two MUPs on either side are the same worthless complete street bandaid they use in Maple Grove. This is a vastly different context. Do engineers not see this?
The roundabouts had many in the open houses favoring them — “posted speed limits don’t work, but roundabouts are a fail safe way to slow speeders down” was one comment I overheard at a past open house — don’t want to generalize but nearly all opposed I heard came down to “I hate them, they are so confusing”. Seeing a growing minority of drivers on Louisiana treating the Yield as a Stop, I guess I can see that 2-lane roundabouts are an extra level of “OMG WTF is happening here?” from those who aren’t familiar with them. My mom is one of those who stops at a roundabout until the entire circle at Lousiana and 7 is cleared of cars before entering. *facepalm*
But the engineering decision came down to the railroad crossing, and the impact the roundabout would cause on the creek’s flood plain. Trains come through today and back up traffic well past where the roundabouts would have gone. A train would have filled the roundabout and shut down access to 2nd, but with stop lights you can set the lights so 2nd (and whatever develops at Cold Storage) isn’t cut off. At Lake Street and Blake Road, that roundabout would have eaten into the park space so much and ended up so close to the creek it would have required additional expense to mitigate the impact on the creek and the arguably tiny flood plain there.
Nate suggested that were the tracks not there he felt they could have dropped a lane making it a 3-lane road. What an opportunity that would have been! Engineering a grade separation of the tracks was never a consideration because of be impact on the businesses and apartments. That said, Nate said that while he won’t call it a certainty, the county grade separating the bike trail is as close to happening as you can be.