Please Color Outside the Lines

Recently I realized my complaints about three new urban improvements boiled down to the same thing: Careful thought and design work seemed to stop at the edge of the project. Something just outside the lines had screwed it up.

My first and longest-standing complaint like this concerned the lack of a bus shelter on University Avenue SE next to the Green Line’s Stadium Village station.

People getting off the train to transfer to the Route 6 bus were standing in snow, rain or wind, sometimes shivering or wet, with nowhere to set down bags or rest legs, just steps away from a major piece of transit infrastructure.

Planners should have let their minds wander about fifteen paces from the station to realize something was missing. I griped about it on Twitter for years.

Then suddenly, last winter, to Metro Transit’s credit, a bus shelter appeared.

My second complaint had to do with an auto-oriented redevelopment that most in the community wouldn’t consider an “improvement.” But the situation there perhaps had more urgency.

At the new Holiday stationstore on Central Avenue NE in Minneapolis, two wide curbcuts now deposit cars onto a one-way stretch of Seventh Street NE that steers two lanes of downtown-bound traffic (plus two turn lanes) from East Hennepin Avenue to First Avenue NE. The problem: the one-way nature of the street wasn’t made clear to drivers leaving the new gas station complex.

The City of Minneapolis has two one-way signs high up on poles planted in the boulevard across the street from the curbcuts. But as it turns out, Route 2 buses lay over there between runs, blocking the one-way signs from view. Holiday had no one-way signs of their own.

In the first couple weeks after gas station’s grand opening, I swung by several times for the free air. Within a few minutes, I’d see someone at least start to pull out the wrong way.

This is a new use for that land: no one was accustomed to driving from that property onto that stretch of street. (Before Holiday’s sprawling suburban-style development, the site was mostly empty or dormant, with a shuttered fish store and a vacant parcel where an auto-body shop that had really been a meth lab had blown up.) All the more reason, when Holiday made the site active, to take extra care so people don’t turn the wrong way and drive head-on into oncoming traffic.

In response to my tweeted griping, Holiday, to their credit, saw the problem and installed their own one-way signs. (The city is apparently satisfied with its own often-obscured one-way signs and lack of wrong-way signage.) I was left to wonder how both a city that’s in the business of regulating traffic around reinvigorated properties, and a company with more than 500 locations like this  missed a potentially deadly situation just outside the redevelopment’s boundaries.

The last goof-up I saw involved the new bike paths along Washington Avenue South in downtown Minneapolis. One path starts by jutting out from the curb at Fifth Avenue South. In my car, I drove over the curb of that initial part several times and I wondered why. On closer inspection, I discovered the traffic and bicycle lane markings in the block leading to the bike path were mostly (or completely) worn out and hard or impossible to see. That hasn’t been fixed yet, but I assume the lane stripes will get refreshed at some point in the near future.

Whether it’s a infrastructure project that helps people get out of their cars or redevelopment of under-used land that helps people stay in them, the success of a project in an urban environment depends on attention to detail — including details that lie just outside the project’s boundaries.