With the Park Board’s Water Works project’s phase one underway, and improvements being made all along the river, I talked with two local Park Board commissioners, Jono Cowgill and Chris Meyer, about the future of West River Parkway, the parkway system, and Minneapolis parks.
Both share a vision for a parkway system that returns to its roots circa 1883, before cars took over the parkways. When the Park Board was founded that year, the Board hired Horace W. S. Cleveland to design a grand plan for the park system. His plan was later called the “Grand Rounds”, a system of parks connected by parkways. The Ford Model T was 25 years in the future.
Cowgill talked about how the area has become more populated in the last several decades. “As Downtown becomes far more dense than it has been since the [1950s] there’s going to be a need for the parkway to start to be more multi-modal-focused, even more so than it is today, and not as much of a way that some folks use to travel to and from work. […] It’s a beautiful drive, if you’re driving. It is. It’s a beautiful drive, but it can’t be the only use the more people that are down there.”
Improving Pedestrian Access and Safety
Right now, there are very few marked pedestrian crossings along the length of West River Parkway. For many, it can feel like crossing a riverside highway, with cars often going above the posted speed limit.
Commissioners Cowgill and Meyer are working on addressing the issue with improved crossings and measures to slow down traffic.
For a specific crossing, Meyer gave the example of Hennepin Ave Bridge and West River Parkway, where there is currently no stop sign and only a yellow pedestrian crossing sign. In his experience, cars stopped only about half the time for a pedestrian attempting to cross. “At pedestrian crossings like that, I want to have painted crosswalks at every crossing and also bump-outs,” he said. Other parkways that could see these types of improvements would be Saint Anthony, Theodore Wirth, Stinson, among others.
Cowgill talked about the pedestrian crossing at 4th Ave N. The Park Board is working with the City and has allocated money for improvements to ADA accessibility.
Constituents in the area have also been asking for a stop sign at 11th Ave S and West River Parkway. Cowgill thinks, “we can get there, but it begs a larger question about on the river roads and on all the parkways, ‘What can the Park Board invest in — short-term — that will slow traffic and mark it a much more enjoyable place for people who are not driving to be?’”
The Water Works project is in the Mezzanine Phase right now, and plans have changed some from the first proposals.
“We are hoping with a couple of the improvement in the first phase of Water Works, including changing some of the connections to the woonerf that is just north of there, and also changing how bikes are able to get down off of [1st St S] to the Stone Arch Bridge … […] It’s going to be safer for everybody. It’s going to be slower for bikers,” said Cowgill.
There will be new ADA ramps off of S 1st St that connect with sidewalk that leads to a pedestrian crossing on West River Parkway. The new plan also includes better connection with S 2nd St through the woonerf that runs between Mill City Quarter and Abiitan. It will be possible to walk and bike to the river while avoiding the dangerous hairpin turn at 5th Ave S and S 1st St where there can be heavy truck traffic at certain hours.
Car-Free Days on Parkways
One major issue I talked about with both commissioners was the possibility of more car-free days on West River Parkway. Right now, the parkway closes to vehicles for race days and the Fourth of July, as well as many other events during the summer. As Meyer said, “we close West River [Parkway] for events on a pretty regular basis.”
Meyer added, “I’m looking at other cities that have turned roads into pedestrian-friendly areas, like New York Times Square. Lots of European cities are doing this in their central business districts, and there’s precedent for doing that on our parkways.” For an international example, check out this post about how the roads along the Seine River in Paris were made car-free.
In 2004, Bob Fine — then Park Board commissioner for District 6, covering Wards 8, 10, 11, and 13 — had the parkways circling certain lakes car-free on Sundays during the summer. The neighborhood organization volunteered to put up and take down barriers and signage. Meyer was unsure why the practice stopped, but the fact that there is precedent for a weekend car-fee parkway makes it easier to pursue the issue today.
Asked about car-free days on West River Parkway, Cowgill said that he is, “definitely interested in piloting some days, maybe it’s just weekends, where the river parkway from [11th Ave S] the hill and down to 4th [Ave N].”
Cowgill also talked about the two private curb cuts on West River Parkway near the intersection with Portland Ave S. “We have to have that consideration,” he said, but added, “to be fair, we have blocked off that street many times for races, so it’s not something that hasn’t been done before.” Cowgill said that, to his knowledge, there was not vehicle access during those times.
Bikes from Plymouth Ave Bridge
I asked Twitter followers about what issues they saw with the current state of West River Parkway. The first response was about bike access from Northeast, across the Plymouth Ave Bridge, then south on West River Parkway. Currently, it can be very dicey for bikers.
“Kind of a logistical question, but as a westbound cyclist on Plymouth, getting onto parkway’s southbound path is confusing and dangerous. Better integration w/ city’s new bike infra (and future plans) would be great.” — @anton612
“I’d like to see it substantially slowed down. It is a pedestrian space. There’s a new development going in just south of [Plymouth Ave N],” Cowgill said. Plymouth Ave N is currently a county road, so improvements for bikes have been limited to paint and plastic bollards. Cowgill suggested that a vision could include a Dutch-style car and bike roundabout that slows down traffic and reduces accidents.
3rd Ave Bridge Reconstruction
A second Twitter follower asked about the reconstruction of the 3rd Ave Bridge.
“The [Downtown Minneapolis Neighborhood Association] was told recently that West River Parkway will be down to one lane under the 3rd Avenue Bridge for the entire bridge reconstruction project. I’d like to know if there’s any chance that both lanes can be closed as a pilot for eventually closing the whole thing to cars.” — @JoeySenkyr
Unfortunately for local control, the area of West River Parkway that the bridge shadows is controlled by the state. “The Board was informed about this work being done and about the staging plan for it, but there was no consent that was being asked for because we don’t own the MnDOT right-of-way,” Cowgill said.
Do you have a favorite parkway trail or destination? What would you like to see the future of our parkways become? Share your stories and your opinions in the comments!