Once you get bitten by the urbanist bug, it’s impossible to stop looking at streets with a critical eye. Wherever I go now, I end up noticing things like curb cuts, corner radii, storefront design, and lane width. I’m always stopping to take pictures.
It’s a bit of an addiction. These are things that, once you develop a taste for them, you cannot un-see. (In that way, it’s a bit like the cheesy sci-fi flick, They Live.) Curb cuts are all around you and they are coming for your children.
So when I’m walking around the Twin Cities, I’m almost always attuned to the harmony or dischord between design and the social life of cities. Today, I want to report on my findings. (I will follow this up soon with a contrasting post about streets that frustrate me.) Walking through Minneapolis and Saint Paul, there are certain streets that I end up looking at and thinking about how great they are. For many streets, the details of their design cohere into some of the finest urban spaces we have, places that improve, support, and catalyze the people that live around them. I wish these streets could be urban design models for the rest of Twin Cities.
So here they are, five of my favorite streets, offered to you in no particular order, along with some reasons why I think they work so well.
#1. Nicollet Avenue between Franklin and 29th
This mile or so of Nicollet (a.k.a. “Eat Street”) is one of my favorite places to walk. The history of this street is a bit ironic. There are two main reasons why this stretch of Nicollet is so great today, and they both have to do with the presence of the crappy Lake Street K-Mart store that rudely truncates the south end of the street. First, having the K-Mart forfitying 29th Street like a big-box wall lowered the amount of through traffic on Nicollet. That means that the street was never widened and/or turned into a four-lane car sewer as happened on similar arterials like Hennepin, Lyndale, or a dozen other examples. Instead, Nicollet has always been calmer. Today’s street design — parking, one lane in each direction and a center turn lane — is a wonderful result. Because of the three-lane design and on-street parking, speeds on Nicollet Avenue remain around or under 30 miles per hour. Keeping car speeds that low means that the street feels safe and comfortable for most people on foot or bicycle, and transforms strolling the sidewalks into a pleasant treat. I believe that if Nicollet had remained “open,” mid-century traffic-addled leaders would have widened it and ruined the place, as they did with so many other streets in the city.
The second big reason why Nicollet is so great today is that so many of the old pre-war buildings are still in place. Again, this is likely thanks to the street having been so economically marginal during the mid-century years. If you ask old-school Nicollet denizens (they can be easily found at the bar inside the Black Forest Inn or jamming within Creation Audio studio) about the old days, they describe an 80s and 90s Nicollet Avenue struggling with prostitution and crime. This was a part of town abandoned by developers and “left” to brave entrepreneurs, many of whom were immigrants from Asia or other places, and many of whom devoted their work and wallets to maintaining the building stock and growing their businesses
That hard work — see, for example, the story of “Eat Street” — means that today is a different story, and the stretch of Nicollet South of downtown has some of the most contiguous sidewalk-centered buildings in Minneapolis. It’s one of the main reasons why walking down Nicollet is so engaging. You’re surrounded by buildings with actual windows and doorways, and there are few large parking lots between them.
#2. Payne Avenue, between Maryland and Phalen Boulevard
Like Nicollet, Payne Avenue is a street that can tell the story of marginalization and disinvestment alongside diverse entrepreneurial activity, preservation, and a recent increase in investment and activity. Because of its unusual location away from the main arterial roads on Saint Paul’s East Side, Payne Avenue was never widened during the mid-century paving frenzy. Unlike the other East Side arterials, it remained a two-lane road with parking on either side. (And just this year, the city added bike lanes!)
At the same time, the street was economically marginal and most of the old building stock has remained intact. (Compare to Rice Street, just a mile or so to the East, which became a major Ramsey County arterial and half the old buildings were knocked down for parking.) The end result is that today’s Payne Avenue is the best stretch of historic streetcar buildings in all of Saint Paul. Meanwhile, with a narrow cross-section, traffic speeds stay low enough that you can walk and bike without fear for your life. It’s amazing to experience a stroll down a street where nearly all the buildings are architecturally committed to the sidewalk.
And just like Nicollet, the East Side’s diverse community of entrepreneurs from all over the world have kept many of the storefronts active, despite the surrounding poverty. This is one of my favorite places to walk around in the entire Twin Cities. Hopefully, the neighborhood can continue to keep improving public safety and rehabbing these wonderful old buildings.
#3. Selby Avenue, especially between Summit and Lexington
People tend to think that Grand Avenue is the most thriving streetcar-era street in Saint Paul, but my vote goes to Selby. It’s better designed, and the walkability differences are subtle but important.
For one thing, traffic speeds seem lower on Selby and it’s easier and safer to cross the street. (You’ll find no orange “surrender flags” here.) Selby’s narrower cross-section, with no center turn lane, feels tighter and encourages drivers to go slowly and pay attention. Because, they actually pay attention and drive more safely. Contrast to Grand Avenue, where there have been multiple pedestrian crashes and crossing the street is often dangerous.
Also, many corners on Selby Avenue have bumpouts that reduce crossing distance. I also love the median treatments that pop up between Victoria and Lexington, even if they’re often just painted yellow bricks. We should take all our commercial streets and calm them with similar small design touches.
Finally, I like stop signs! The corner of Selby and Western is one of the few places where pedestrians can simply walk out across the street without any fear of a car driver running them over. (Same holds for Victoria.) Sitting at the sidewalk café tables outside Nina’s offers an object lesson in the benefits of traffic calming, and today this stretch of the city is economically thriving.
#4. 13th Avenue Northeast, between Washington and Marshall
13th Avenue is another of my favorite streets, and for many of the same reasons. From the River to about 4th/Washington, this street becomes a calm urban place with wonderful sidewalks and historic, street-oriented building stock. Today it’s one of the hearts of the Northeast arts community, home to small shops, galleries, restaurants, bars, and a theater. The key here, as with the other streets on this list, is that cars move slowly and carefully, and that pedestrians can navigate both sides of the street in safety and comfort. And this might sound silly, but I also love the relationship between the building size (1-2 stories) and the sidewalk and street width.
The design of 13th creates a humane, beautiful place where people on foot are prioritized over driving, with one glaring exception, University Avenue, which, as a state highway, continues to encourage speeding and high traffic flow. (Just days ago, someone was killed trying to walk across University about five miles away, up in Fridley.)
Yet even here, it’s not the worst design in the world. The state continues to allow on-street parking along University for most of the day, and unlike many other places where this kind of parking technically exists but is largely unused, 13th is busy enough that these parking spaces actually hold cars much of the time. The on-street parking narrows University down and slows cars to the point where you can still feel comfortable on the sidewalks, most of the time. I wish they’d keep on-street parking along University all the time, all through Northeast. If this street were narrower, it’d be safer for everyone living in and walking in the neighborhood.
5. 1st Avenue North, between Washington Avenue and 10th Street
Yogi Berra once quipped, about a Manhattan restaurant, that “nobody goes there any more, it’s too crowded.”
The same is true of 1st Avenue on a weekend, where this street, a slow-moving two-lane street with parking and (thankfully re-positioned) bike lane comes to life as the most dynamic public space for hundreds of miles in any direction. Lined on all sides with mixed-use warehouses, 1st Avenue is the center of a Minneapolis’ night club and bar scene, one of the few places in the city that attracts both suburbanites and people of color in equal number. Concerns about crime need to be balanced against the amazing service that 1st Avenue performs every week, offering a place where people mix and learn about each other. (See Jim Walsh’s amazing photo essay describing one night in the area.)
Even if you don’t personally like it, 1st Avenue is a tremendous and well-designed urban place. It’s no coincidence that 1st traces the edge of the 60s Gateway renewal district that demolished dozens of square blocks of the old downtown urban fabric. It’s fun to imagine what Minneapolis might look like if these kinds of streets and buildings continued for a mile toward the East along Washington Avenue. How thriving would downtown Minneapolis be today if we had five times the historic building stock?
In the meantime, be thankful that this amazing part of the city has been preserved and still thrives.
The common denominator of all these places is that they prioritize the sidewalk, and the people using the streets and buildings, over the car traffic. Each of these streets is designed to reduce driving speeds. You can cross each of these streets pretty easily, without running or dodging speeding cars. Each of these streets has buildings (typically older) that give you things to see and do, that interact with the public realm in diverse and engaging ways. One of my hopes is that we can find ways to grow and foster new streets in our cities that will come to life like these wonderful examples.