Last week, I went to the Downtown Public Library for a meeting on the Hennepin Avenue Reconstruct, which encompasses the street from Washington Ave to 12th. As I often do when headed downtown, I walked Hennepin, weaving between slower foot traffic, waiting impatiently at poorly timed lights, and enjoying the pleasure of moving under my own power. As much as I love busy streets full of fellow Minneapolitans and visitors, for many it can be difficult or unpleasant to navigate the tight sidewalks and thread through throngs of people during the many events and shimmying past at-capacity transit stops. It’s easy, given how often the street is bustling with activity, to forget how unpleasant it is as currently designed. For all its vitality, Hennepin itself isn’t a nice street. It’s a road designed around cars, from its highway style lights to its wide lanes, and there’s nothing like walking home during a low-traffic time after a show or happy hour downtown to make that all painfully clear in a kind of bleak un-glory.
The proposed design for the Hennepin Avenue Reconstruct provides some major improvements for people walking downtown. While the initial mock-up shows an unfortunate 2’ decrease in dedicated sidewalk across the board, the City plans to apply for and will almost certainly receive variances for narrower lane widths and reaction zones more appropriate for vehicle traffic in our very walkable and very walked downtown. Chief among the benefits of the proposed redesign is the decreased crossing distances at most intersections (the most dangerous places in downtown); they decrease from 58′ to a likely 44’ spent crossing in front of vehicles. When adding in the distance of the bike lanes, the crossing will be 58’. While this is the same as the current distance, the risks of intersections—certainly in terms of serious injuries and fatalities—come from drivers. I’ll take the trade of cars for bikes any day of the week and twice during rush hour.
Beyond the narrowed crossing distance, this full reconstruction offers Minneapolis a great chance to do the streetscape right, creating a space where the road design supports downtown’s growing vibrancy. I have reservations around the narrowing of the sidewalk right of way to accommodate transit stops (see above), but these are tempered by a hope that this space, if well designed, can both improve efficiency for those walking as well as offer more of a sense of place for those gathering. Right now, Hennepin’s sidewalks are haphazard spaces: transit shelters blur into the walking right of way when people prefer to lean against buildings and fences in all but the most inclement weather and street furniture seems randomly placed at best and downright antagonistic* at worst. Bringing a user-centered framework to the next stage of Hennepin’s planning can help us design a street that is both route and destination for those of us who walk along or to it, regardless of how we get there.
The biggest full-block improvement to me is the north side of the street between 12th & 13th, where a single building looms over the entire sidewalk. It’s a nice high density building, but with a street level design that feels like a late 80s/early 90s understanding of city-ness,evocative of both the suburbs (brick facade! driveway! entrance for people totally hidden!) and the skyways (protection from the elements!). The proposed concept removes the driveway as well as the street parking, opening up sight lines, and the bike lanes put more users, the kind who might hear a cry for help, back on the street.
The addition of the protected bike lanes is particularly exciting to me. If traffic engineering doesn’t have a term for someone who’s been forced into a vehicle because the street isn’t meeting their needs, they need one. That’s often me on Hennepin once I hit 10th to 12th. Not only does the street become less “sticky” (and therefore less pleasant and more boring to walk), but here, at the western edge of downtown’s heavy foot traffic, the platooning of cars along Hennepin during non-peak hours can lead to sudden pockets of desertedness between 10th and Dunwoody. As a small female, I’ve regularly made the unpleasant choice of spending $1.75 and 10-15 minutes waiting to take the bus a quarter or half mile; I’ve just as often chosen otherwise, finding myself painfully alert to every shift of a shadow in the sudden and total silence of the cavernous street as I walk between the blank faces of the buildings. I’ve noticed how the presence of bike lanes changes those patterns elsewhere in the city, with the more varied pacing and similar exposure of people biking. As someone who walks a lot (to and from) downtown, I’m excited by the potential for protected bike lanes to extend and enhance the safety I feel while walking.
I walked back to my apartment along Hennepin recently after a particularly happy hour; I noted, in passing, the bigger-than-usual crowds for a Thursday evening, the way the street pulsed with the same energy that was in each brisk step I took. It wasn’t until I got home that I realized I’d missed the first evening of our public mourning for Prince. I remembered the crowd, the life of Hennepin Avenue as I walked along it, how safe I felt even as I occasionally stepped into the street to pass a stopped group. That sense of community and safety enveloped the street long after I’d passed 7th.
That’s what streets are. Yes, they’re routes, as I’ve talked about above. But they’re also public spaces where community forms with no entrance fees or dress codes or need to explain oneself. For me, as for many other Minneapolitans, Hennepin Avenue is at the center of much of my life, whether as route or destination. I’m excited to see our City working on a design that can support both.
*e.g. the hidden speakers that aggressively blast tinny music at passersby outside Block E.