We Deserve Better

We moved to the Hale neighborhood in South Minneapolis just over a year ago, after looking around at houses for almost two years. The search took awhile because we were generally happy with our downtown condo and needed to find something that ticked all of the right boxes to tempt us away. It needed to be in the right price range (not wanting to wind up house poor), I needed a few options to be able to get to work downtown without having to drive, and, importantly, it needed to be close to stuff.

Our new neighborhood ticked enough of those boxes to make the switch. There was a grocery store, a place to eat in a brand new location, a recently expanded neighborhood liquor store, a coffee place and ice cream shop in easy walking distance. Even better, a really good Italian restaurant opened up not too long after we arrived. The area isn’t directly served by transit, but you can catch a bus a few blocks over on Bloomington Avenue or a bit farther north on Cedar Avenue. Cedar itself is not terribly appealing (this is one of several issues still unresolved), but overall, being near Cedar and Minnehaha Parkway means you can walk or bike for many of your daily needs.

There was one glaring missed opportunity. At the corner of 47th Street and Cedar, there’s an aging little strip mall. The north end used to be a gas station that’s been closed and empty for awhile. Tom’s Popcorn Shop and what seems to be a food prep for catering of some sort are the remaining tenants. There’s also a building that I’ve never seen inhabited on the parcel immediately to the south. Overall, it’s a depressing little spot amidst a bunch that’s recently changed for the better.

I go by every so often to peer through the windows in hopes that something that makes the neighborhood better will happen with the spot. They took out the old gas pumps last fall and there’s occasional activity cleaning up inside the gas station. Recently, I’d heard rumors that these properties were being consolidated and something proposed for the combined lot, which sounded like great news. The neighborhood could really use a pharmacy (the closest one is about a mile from here), another place to eat and/or some more apartments.

Now a Master Land Use Application has been filed, and it’s hard to imagine a more disappointing proposal:

Proposed renovation/expansion of the strip mall

Rendering from the application for a proposed renovation/expansion of the strip mall

In a nutshell, the proposal is to renovate and expand the existing strip mall. The old part would be the future home to two businesses, while the new expansion would house one more, with a drive through! And more parking.

Honestly, the drive-through alone is reason enough for me to dislike this proposal. Sure, this area isn’t super-dense city (and Cedar carries a ton of cars), but drive-throughs are terrible. They’re dangerous and they’re hostile to pedestrians and bikes. And this spot is just over a block away from Minnehaha Creek paths that carry a ton of bikes and pedestrians.

But I think this drive through is even worse for cars. It’s already difficult to get out of the grocery store parking lot (in a car or on a bike) and turn left to head south. There are steady streams of cars from both directions, and no stoplight at 47th to provide a break. Either you wait quite some time or you turn right (maybe it should be right-in-right-out anyway). Extra volume alone will make things worse.

But that’s not all. Let’s look at how traffic is supposed to flow through this new drive-through:

Proposed traffic flow

Proposed traffic flow

If I’m reading this right (and I may not be), this is a mess. Consider how a car traveling southbound (top to bottom on the image) on Cedar gets to the drive-through.

One option is to turn right off Cedar into the left hand lane of the parking lot entrance (bottom of the image). Perhaps the hope is that these customers will have experience abroad driving on the other side of the road. Alternatively, a driver can turn right on 47th and immediately left into the parking lot. Doing that means passing cars leaving the drive through window and hopefully not having to line up in front of them.

But northbound looks even worse. Either you turn left through that heavy traffic and hope that once you do, there’s enough room for you to wait without blocking the sidewalk or southbound traffic (there are regular queues at the Caribou on the other side of the street in the morning already). Or you turn left at 47th, where there is no light to aid you. Either way you’re going to be blocking traffic and drivers are going to be in a hurry to get around you (we may need more than the painted bumpout that everyone already ignores).

And everyone remember to drive on the left as you leave! Or, well, at least until you get out on the street again.

Moving beyond the realm of what’s wrong with this proposal, let’s think a little about what else is possible. First, I have to acknowledge that I’m talking about someone else’s property and giving no consideration to costs or potential returns. But still, let’s fantasize just a tiny bit.

Let’s take a look at something that’s recently been proposed in Richfield, at 66th Street and 1st Avenue:

Mixed use proposal in Richfield

Mixed use proposal in Richfield

This drawing shows roughly 10,000 square feet of first floor retail with 5-10 units of housing upstairs and, importantly, no drive-through. The building meets the sidewalk and all of the parking is in the back. This is how you design for people, not cars.

Obviously, doing something like this would mean starting over rather than re-using the existing structure, which would certainly add to the cost. But if they can do it right (or better at least) in the suburbs, why can’t we in the city?


Adam Miller

About Adam Miller

Adam Miller works downtown and lives in South Minneapolis. He's an avid user of the city's bike paths, sidewalks and skyways. He's not entirely certain he knows what the word "urbanist" means.