Can the West Loop Still Happen?

If you asked one of the thousands of new Minneapolis residents who moved in since 2010 “What are the borders of North Loop?”, you may find they consider the western border to be the 4th Street freeway viaduct. Despite the neighborhood continuing on west up to I-94, the viaduct walls off a landscape of low density industrial and parking lots from the fast growing neighborhood. It gets even worse from the other side of difficult-to-cross 7th Street, and the I-94 trench creates a final barrier, separating lower North Loop from an even more neglected corner of the city.

“Lower North Loop” as the Small Area Plan calls it

City boosters and developers, in particular a group known as The 2020 Partners, have imagined this area declaring independence as the West Loop, a dense, modern neighborhood. According to their vision laid out in 2010, the construction of the Southwest Light Rail, MN United soccer stadium, and tearing down the 4th Street viaduct wall would break open the floodgates of development. Over time, broken street grids over I-394 would be reconnected, orphaned land next to freeway ramps would become luxury lofts, and an urban, linear park would bring some much needed green to this reclaimed industrial land.

The envisioned West Loop – in all its cubic glory

The idea is nice at least. There’s an incredible amount of underutilized city just within reach of downtown, and it comes at a time when we’ve all but declared war on the surface parking lot and residential vacancy rates are at 2%. But the reality is the catalysts envisioned by 2020 Partners haven’t come to pass. Southwest Light Rail won’t board passengers until 2021 at this point – and relies on the federal match not being locked behind moving goalposts (like a historical district that protects rail yards). MN United took their stadium to Saint Paul. And we still haven’t taken down the freeway viaducts, with the last available North Loop area plan implying some parties involved don’t consider the effort worthwhile (Page 74). On top of that, The 2020 Partners’ plan isn’t officially adopted by the City of Minneapolis. The 2020 vision actually runs counter to the North Loop small area plan in a number of ways, and is just a group of (admittedly, powerful) interests that want to see this corner of the city thrive.

While it’s pretty clear the full neighborhood build out wasn’t intended to be finished by 2020, the implication was that the major developmental catalysts would be in place by then. As 2020 is right around the corner, can West Loop still reach its imagined potential, even without the development boost from megaprojects? It’s certainly possible. If they were to fully commit to making this vision a reality, Minneapolis could even take the parts of the West Loop plan that were intended to be supplemental to the original megaprojects and turn them into the focal points instead.

Farmers Market Expansion

As a part of the soccer stadium plan, the Minneapolis Farmer’s Market was going to expand into a larger, year round facility. In contrast to US Bank Stadium’s “Yard” or the green space that has been planned to lead to Allianz Field in Saint Paul, the West Loop soccer stadium would have taken cues from Lowertown’s CHS Field and its proximity to the Saint Paul Farmer’s Market. The old farmer’s market would have been offered up for redevelopment, allowing the stadium to be surrounded with new construction as insulation from nearby I-94.

In the 2020 plan, the Farmers Market served as an entrance to the proposed MLS stadium

Even without the stadium plan, the Royalston Avenue Southwest Light Rail station is still planned to be subnamed “Farmers Market Station.” So without the stadium as a development hub, what if we went ahead with the Farmer’s Market move anyway?  Seattle’s Pike Place Market would be an excellent model to follow – combine a farmer’s market with a food hall. Do something we should have done with Target Field Station and put a roof over it! We’ve even got a leg up over the original Pike Place Market with an outdoor venue right around the corner at Target Field Station.

If something like that existed in Minneapolis, you’d want to live within walking distance from it, right? Well then Minneapolis should take a page out of Saint Paul’s book and develop the vacated former Farmer’s Market site into the first new residential development in West Loop. As it stands now, private development is only beginning to creep west of the 4th Street viaduct, and it may take years for someone to take the bait.

When Saint Paul invested in a failing apartment development that eventually became Penfield Apartments, it was an investment in the future vibrancy of Downtown Saint Paul. Years later, that investment paid off both in the form of a downtown grocery store and in an $8.7 million profit for the city. In order to jump start the neighborhood, it may be necessary for the city to directly invest.

Pedestrian and Bicycle Improvements

As mentioned above, if all goes according to plan, this neighborhood will be home to Royalston Avenue/Farmers Market Station. But let’s pretend for a moment that we’re living in a nightmare world where all the work we spent designing a line to kooky Bush-era ridership metrics might be for nothing.

Southwest Light Rail plans call for a signaled intersection to be installed at 7th St and 5th Avenue to make it easy for future train riders from the southwest to cross to the stadium promenade. For the same reason, we should plan on building this intersection regardless whether a train is involved or not. Pedestrian improvements to better connect the area to Target Field and Target Field Station would help to lessen the island effect from Olson Memorial Highway and 7th Street, effectively connecting this area to light rail even without the Southwest Extension.

Restriping Royalston Avenue to add bike lanes would be beneficial as well. Currently bike lanes on 12th St end at Glenwood, with an implication that riders will either turn onto Glenwood or enter the Cedar Lake Trail. Since the bike lanes pick up again once Royalston becomes Oak Lake Avenue north of Olson Memorial Highway, adding this link is a necessity.

Northern Stadium Promenade Extension

Turning focus away from the Farmers Market, a seeming footnote of the 2020 vision is an extension of the pedestrian area around Target Field north, past the Ford Center and the viaducts to connect with the 3rd Street stub next to Darby’s.

Proposal to extend the pedestrian promenade deeper into North Loop

Thanks to the freeways and the railroad, this area is a mess of incomplete streets and illogical connections. Someone unfamiliar with the area might not realize that 5th Street, by way of the train station, connects seamlessly to the stadium. And having giant freeway viaducts in your line of sight doesn’t help things.

An addition to the pedestrian walkway makes it easier to bridge the gaps in our street grid, having the promenade span between both sides of the freeway divide could help patch the neighborhood together, even if they’re here to stay.

West Loop Greenway

Of all the items listed, this may be the lowest of the low hanging fruit. Because of it’s history as a home for warehouses and not people (and because closed off the riverfront in the area with a suburban style townhouse development), North Loop is lacking in green space. Since we’re just about out of room for it in the booming part of the neighborhood, it makes sense to buy up land in the underdeveloped part now and store it away for when development arrives.

A linear park through North and West Loops

Or, you could build the park before the development and see if it helps lure developers to the other side of the viaduct. Under the original vision, the park eventually crossed over the 4th Street Boulevard that was proposed to replace the viaduct, but it could just as easily pass under – Midtown Greenway and Cedar Lake Trail both pass under many bridges and it doesn’t hurt their appeal as linear parks.

Building parks in the North/West Loop would undoubtedly require some environmental mitigation, but that could be said about any development on this side of town. I’d rather pay to clean up the land and preserve some space for relaxation in the neighborhood before there’s nothing left.

Transit Oriented Development

Even without a guarantee of light rail extensions, this neighborhood is heavily transit connected: the 5, 19, 22, and 755 bus routes all make stops in this neighborhood. And because the 5 and 19 pass through the West Loop, that means both the C and D Line Rapid Buses will serve the area. While the jury is still out on the A-Line’s ability to spur development like the Green Line, there’s no question that transit is in the area to stay.

Minneapolis is the majority landholder in the neighborhood. If they consolidated some of their maintenance facilities to open up real estate, they could either develop TOD themselves or put out a request for proposals seeking quality transit-centric development on the land. This may not be possible until other developments have dipped their toes into the area, but considering the stadium deal was lost because of concerns over property taxes, receiving nothing on 22% of the neighborhood’s developable land seems a bit silly. The city could even go a step further and bid out a development to fill in parcels over I-394, but a freeway cap might be asking for a bit much.

Put Lipstick on the Viaducts

I won’t mince words – the viaducts suck and if they didn’t exist, I probably wouldn’t be writing this article.

But the decision to bring them down could very well fall to the same people who refused to reduce the number of lanes on Olson Memorial Boulevard surrounding Penn Station on the Blue Line Extension. If that should happen, and we aren’t allowed to smash the viaducts to bits and recycle the concrete into something less odious, we could at least try putting lights underneath.

Underneath Highway 7 in St. Louis Park, they’ve got lights. And some patterned bricks. It looks a little more like the city cared about the presentation and wasn’t solely focused on how many cars could be rushed in and out of the city. I don’t know. It’s slightly better.

Dismantle the HERC

This one wasn’t in the 2020 vision. In fact, the HERC can be seen coexisting with all the vaguely urban buildings depicted in the presentation. But it takes a certain level of naivety to believe any sort of walkable, future-focused neighborhood could exist with a waste-to-energy incinerator as the centerpiece.

Eventually it will come to this. You can build a replica of Pike Place Market in Minneapolis, but if the view of the skyline is obstructed by a smoke stack spewing the exhaust of burnt garbage, your Kodak moments are limited.

Yes, I understand this plant plays a role in the city and county’s garbage control, and they’ve somehow convinced themselves that it’s also a useful part of their climate plan. But the reality is, even with a stadium and light rail access, you’re going to have a hard time finding neighbors for a trash burner. And that’s even just a footnote to the serious issues the HERC causes for residents of North Minneapolis.

Replacing the HERC with literally anything else would be an improvement to the neighborhood.

All these are steps the city could take to try and replicate the impact megaprojects like a stadium, light rail station, or removal of eyesore barriers might have had on the West Loop if they had been completed by now. Will the vision of The 2020 Partners become a reality for the West Loop? Or will they be filed away next to the Bassett Creek Master Plan as a good idea that required the city to give up too much of their underdeveloped land? With a new city council and growth-focused mayor, this forgotten corner of Minneapolis could finally get its day. But only time will tell.

Matt Eckholm

About Matt Eckholm

Matt is a filmmaker who played Sim City once as a kid and then was doomed to have the least interesting anecdotes to share at parties forever. He serves on the Saint Louis Park Planning Commission, and has always wanted to name a pet 'Boondoggle' to teasingly reference in biography sections.

23 thoughts on “Can the West Loop Still Happen?

  1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    The plan to keep the viaduct intact is really disappointing. Although I did not like the soccer stadium deal, the idea of replacing the viaduct with a multi-way boulevard on 4th St seemed like a great idea.

    Given the current situation, I agree that cosmetic improvements could help. I think one of the most unattractive aspects isn’t just the structure, but that most of the land underneath is surface parking — often unadorned. It would be helpful to at least buffer those lots in the way we would any other parking lot: fencing, possibly some shade-tolerant landscaping, etc. I like your suggestion of lighting to add interest and like the example in SLP.

    I worry about the suggestion of removing HERC. I agree that it is not the greatest thing to improve a neighborhood. But is it any worse in terms of visual blandness and occupying a large chunk of land than the MTC garage or the stadiums? I am very proud that we landfill very little of our waste in Hennepin County, and HERC seems like a more responsible alternative. We should absolutely continue to invest in compost and recycling, but let’s allow the growth of compost and recycling to naturally reduce demand for burning — not abruptly pull the plug on HERC and end up sending more waste to landfills.

    1. Matt EckholmMatt Eckholm Post author

      I started writing this while trying to find out if there had been any movement towards tearing them down and it was incredibly disheartening to hear the city didn’t consider it even worth trying. But that was written in 2010, hopefully there can be a revisiting of the subject now that the neighborhood has grown so much.

      It would almost be better if they just landscaped and filled in underneath. The empty neglected parking lots just create such a poor image.

      I wouldn’t want HERC removed without a plan to replace it with minimal landfilling. Which is why it frustrates me so much that Hennepin had such little foresight when they commissioned it and now lean on it so heavily that removing it would cause major issues.

      I’d at least feel better about it if Hennepin put more pressure on its cities to recycle. I live in an area that’s great at recycling, and yet I work in a (Minneapolis adjacent!) suburb where the entire building doesn’t have recycling. So much of what we’re burning in HERC shouldn’t be burned, not because it’s dangerous, but because we could recycle it instead.

      My feelings about HERC aside, I only mentioned it since it’s the elephant in the room that eventually, if the area continues to develop, Hennepin will have to deal with. I don’t pretend to know what they’ll have to do instead, and I can’t imagine them coming up with a solution that won’t be just as regrettable for some other reason.

      1. Andy E

        I’m a firm believer that a great usage for space like this (underneath a raised freeway that cuts a neighborhood) is to build things like bike trails, dog runs/parks, etc… They allow the neighborhood to take advantage of the space for outdoor activities that otherwise might not be feasible due to land use costs.

        Look up “I-5 Colonnade” for an example of what I mean. The city/county could literally build a couple miles of dirt bike/pump track/bmx bike infrastructure underneath the viaduct that would be a major attraction and amenity for the neighborhood.

  2. Sam

    Thanks for researching and writing this. Does anyone actually know how much air pollution is being generated by HERC vs freeways and industrial plants north of downtown? And can it be made to run cleaner until it can be replaced? It seems like that should be a deciding factor in what happens to the neighborhood, since we don’t (at least in theory) want to build a ton of new housing in a potentially toxic neighborhood. Ugly can always be painted and masked.

    If it isn’t (unusually) toxic, I’d love to see the city make good on their affordable housing talk by developing their land in the North/West Loop as (at least 50%) affordable housing. Hundreds of new affordable housing units in a dense, walkable environment in one of the most transit-accessible parts of the city could go a long way towards solving our affordable housing crisis. Especially if coupled with the greenway and farmers market expansion…

    1. Matt EckholmMatt Eckholm Post author

      As much as I wanted to call for 394 to be completely covered with air rights development, I have a sinking feeling that as long as there’s easy to develop land in Downtown Minneapolis, we won’t be seeing a freeway cap built.

      But better grid connections are a must, I agree.

  3. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker

    I don’t think there’s really any alternative to tearing down the 4th St. viaduct. That’s the whole ballgame.

    That doesn’t mean other improvements to the area ought to be on hold. But I think this article concedes defeat on that front a bit too easily. That has to be at the forefront of what urbanists are asking from the city of Minneapolis and what the city is asking from MNDOT. If the DFL candidate wins the governor’s mansion in 2019, there might be another opportunity to change policy on this issue with a new, progressive MNDOT comissioner (and maybe address some of the Olson Mem. Blvd issues too). I’m hoping people work to lay the groundwork to push the state on these issues.

    1. Matt EckholmMatt Eckholm Post author

      I don’t think I’m necessarily conceding on the viaducts any more than I’m conceding on Southwest Light Rail. I think we should continue to push MNDOT to try and make better decisions than they have in recent years, but I also don’t think it’s wise to sit and wait patiently for them to act before taking steps to improve Lower North Loop.

      At the very least, we should be pushing for changes to the North Loop small area plan to put the neighborhood and city back on the side of opposing the viaducts.

  4. Monte Castleman

    Before we tear down a perfectly sound and serviceable structure that saves hundreds of thousands of person hours and millions of dollars in congestion costs annually (using MnDot standard values and assuming each person in a car that uses it now will loose several minutes to congestion every day with it gone), might I ask a few questions

    1) As a pedestrian, is it really better to have to cross several lanes of a surface boulevard full of inpatient motorists anxious to get home to their families and angry at the stoplights and congestion they’re now forced to endure as opposed to walking underneath a bridge on a fully grade separated crossing like exists now?

    2) Is that bridge really why there’s not development in the “West Loop”. Or is it because it’s say many blocks from the riverfront or skyway system. Or because other land is more attractive to develop for completely unrelated reasons ? Or there’s no cute existing buildings to renovate. Building a bunch of new construction “warehouse” buildings is going to look about as convincing as the Old Block E. Is anyone really going to not walk to a store, or a developer not build a store, because people would have to walk under a bridge to get to it?

    3) Is it a plus for the metro if Minneapolis ships all it’s garbage to exurban landfills instead of keeping it in the city and turning it into energy just because people don’t like the way the garbage burner looks next to where they want to build luxury condos. Of course Becker would probably be happy to take it if it means jobs like they got when Minneapolis decided they didn’t want the jobs Northern Metals provided.

    Of course nothing lasts forever. When the life of the garbage burner and viaduct are up it’ll be time to ask questions about replacing them. For the number of people that use the viaduct it would probably make more of an impact on the overall congestion in he metro to not rebuild it, and instead put the money towards say another Cedar Ave bridge span

    1. Matt EckholmMatt Eckholm Post author

      1. That’s a rather leading question, but in reality a reconstructed 4th St Boulevard would be no more intimidating to cross than Hennepin or Washington. Regardless of what they would rather be doing, I expect motorists to not hit pedestrians as a matter of law. And besides, the viaduct currently expects traffic to slow from freeway speeds to downtown driving at 2nd Ave, an intersection I avoid at all costs due to danger from speeding drivers.

      2. West Loop/Lower North Loop is outside of the Historic Warehouse District and development is not held to the Warehouse District design restrictions.

      What do you think is the reason development hasn’t moved far past the freeway viaduct, then? North Loop is doing fine without direct waterfront access or skyways, so there’s no reason to think that’s what’s ailing West Loop. Much has been written on over the years by better writers than me about the very real physical and social barriers freeways create within neighborhoods.

      3. Since this wasn’t an article about HERC or pollution, I didn’t delve into the issues with HERC that go far deeper than people not liking how it looks. The HERC is a major problem for Hennepin both because of the pollution and how they built their waste management plan around it in a very short sighted way, and I don’t pretend to know how they’ll solve it. But eventually they’ll have to. Having said that, I don’t think jobs for jobs sake is a deep enough argument for anything, let alone maintaining an incinerator downtown.

    2. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker

      1. Yeah, absolutely.

      I think the big thing you’re not considering is that if the viaduct were replaced with an at-grade local street, that would free up a lot of space. Along the main straight stretch the viaduct is five lanes and two full shoulders wide. It also has two quasi-frontage local roads along either side. Demolish the viaduct, connect the freeway to the existing 4th St. instead, and reclaim all the land to the east for development or a linear park. The result is to take a 250′ gap between buildings and turn it into a 75′ gap. That’s an absolutely massive improvement to pedestrian movement.

      2. I guess if you are dubious that the viaduct has a negative pedestrian effect, you’re likely to question its overall effect, so in essence, one answer addresses both questions. But I think the aerial image at the front of this article kind of speaks for itself. There’s a pretty dramatic drop-off in profitable development in the area of the North Loop that’s split off from other, livelier parts by tentacles of the highway system. If those aren’t a root cause of this malaise, then what is?

    3. Daniel Hartigkingledion

      I agree completely on #1. The key is fully grade separated.

      For #2, its worth pointing out that a viaduct only seems like an obstacle because it is visible ‘tall’ and looks like a wall, sort of. However, if the average building height in North and West loop extends up to 35m/10 stories, the viaduct’s height will be much less noticeable. In a high density neighborhood, we’ll be thankful to have a viaduct creating more real estate so we can separate vehicular and pedestrian traffic.

      On #3, though, I have to disagree. Burning trash is (probably?) a good thing, but the plot of land, only a few hundred feet from the current/future nexus of our rail transport network (Target station) is way, way, way too valuable. There are no trash burning facilities in the Loop or Midtownn Manhattan.

      1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

        I’m not sure what you mean by “creating more real estate.” As Alex outlines above, replacing it would likely mean the portion dedicated to cars would take up a lot less space.

        1. Daniel Hartigkingledion

          With the viaduct, there is more total surface area available to the city, since there are now two levels available for streets to pass over/under each other. The question of usage of that space is, in my mind, less important. I’m just arguing that it is better to reuse the extra surface area that the viaduct offers (since its build cost is now zero) than to just destroy it.

          After all, if you ever were to build a grade separated heavy rail through downtown, what better way to enter than from the north on an already built viaduct?

    4. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      Let’s start by thinking about the incentives we’d like to create/change. Do we want to prioritize the convenience of living in the suburbs or do we want to have a pleasant and livable city? Obviously, people have different preferences, but seems like the preferences of those being asked to carry the burden of the bad infrastructure deserve more weight.

      As to 1, the viaduct isn’t particularly pleasant to cross underneath, especially at night, because it’s a dead space, but I’ll grant you there’s no conflict with the cars on it.

      As to 2, there are a lot of historical reasons why there’s no development, but I think it’s pretty easy to look at what has been built on its northeast side, including immediately adjacent to it, and see the viaduct as one barrier to spreading the same development further into this area. I think we can expect the new construction to be about as appealing as the other new construction (I think pretty appealing, but mileage varies). Yes, I think 200 feet or so of dead space (viaduct and parallel streets), partially under a bridge is a barrier to pedestrian crossings. (I’ll grant you the developments on 5th are a counterpoint.)

      As to 3, no, we should not substitute for the HERC with landfills. I don’t think the HERC is going anywhere soon.

  5. Andy E

    North of Glenwood, south of Olson:

    1- Run 3rd, Cesar Chavez, and 5th all the way from Lyndale/Lakeside to Royalston. Turn Border and Holden into transit/PED malls (think Nicollet or U of M campus). Busses, bikes, skateboards, walkers, etc… only.

    2- Move Farmers Market into the odd shaped land south of 3rd and Holden. Make it all weather with lots of garage door style doors to open up in warmer weather and remain closed in the winter. Include a dining hall as well as space (inside the structure) for food trucks to pull in and sell (either random raffle or let trucks purchase spots).

    3- Require retail and/or other service business (e.g., dentist, accountant, restaurant, etc) to be facing the new transit mall in any development. Also, minimum of 10 stories per building (we want it dense).

    4- Make sure to include office space, especially right off the proposed Light Rail Station and across the street from the Farmers Market. If you could get 500+ people working right there each day it would really add to full week vibrancy.

    5- Don’t forget the people. On the (as I count) 6 and 1/2 city blocks that would be alongside the new transit mall aim for at least 1,000 units of housing, with around 20% geared towards the 60% of area income and another 20% geared towards 30% of area income/Section 8.

    An additional thought. The city could ease parking requirements by allowing for a limited number of spots in the NW corner of the A ramp to become private/reserved for residents at a (greatly) reduced rate. Makes use of existing parking, lets developers squeeze more revenue out of the building, and helps people who need cars periodically (e.g., go visit the parents in St. Cloud, or the in-laws in Eau Claire, or a ski trip to Lutsen) but otherwise use transit/bike 95% of the time.

  6. Aaron IsaacsAaron Isaacs

    I’m big time in favor of tearing down the viaduct and rerouting the traffic via 4th Street. Besides removing a visual blight, it will open up 6 city blocks for redevelopment, most of it within an easy walk of the existing Target Field LRT station. Think of the additional tax base and the improved esthetics. It will also create a better bike/ped connection to downtown. Seems like a no-brainer to me.

  7. GlowBoy

    Don’t worry, when Amazon chooses the West Loop for their HQ there will be plenty of money to fix all this, and more. 😉

  8. R W

    The city could build a skatepark under the 4th street viaduct like local skaters have been asking for since 1990 and been brushed off or laughed at about every time. Especially since skaters skate there anyway even though it is nothing but rough asphalt.

    Meanwhile hundreds of other cities more forward thinking than “progressive” Minneapolis have built exactly the same sort of skatepark. Stockholm, Boston, NYC, San Francisco, San Diego, Portland, New Orleans, even friggin Boise has one…

  9. gopherfan

    The viaduct really does save A LOT of time. As someone who commuted from the North metro for a while, it easily saves 10 minutes both ways a day. As a pedestrian the choice between not worrying about getting hit by cars going 40 and running red lights or a viaduct… the viaduct wins every day of the week.

    The solution is to do THIS

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