The Future of West River Parkway

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.

West River Parkway And Hennepin Ave Crosswalk

Crosswalk paint faded and no signal to stop, the pedestrian crossing at Hennepin Ave is dangerous. Photo: Author

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.

4th Ave N And West River Parkway

4th Ave N and West River Parkway, adjacent to the North Loop Playground.

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?’”

Water Works

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.

Water Works Plan

Water Works 2018 plan. Credit: MPRB

Water Works Render

Water Works 2018 plan aerial render. Credit: MPRB

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.

Plymouth Ave N And West River Parkway

Plymouth Ave N and West River Parkway

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.

3rd Ave S And West River Parkway

3rd Ave S and West River Parkway

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!

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8 thoughts on “The Future of West River Parkway

  1. Janne Flisrand

    Correction: Plymouth Ave N is a city street, not under Hennepin County jurisdiction. The City added a bollard-protected bikeway over the bridge a couple years ago, and a cement-curb protected bikeway along much of Plymouth heading west from the river. It’s got some of the best bicycle infrastructure in Minneapolis.

    I agree with Anton that it doesn’t have intuitive or easy connections to the bikeways along the river.

    1. Anton SchiefferAnton Schieffer

      Yes, I think our riverfront bike path connections could/should become a real asset, especially in North and NE. We need to create real options for users; the less interaction with traffic the better! One upcoming example I’m excited about is a path under the newly-rebuilt Hall’s Island, so that cyclists and pedestrians on the river trail in NE don’t have to cross Plymouth at-grade. Currently, crossing that during rush hour requires cyclists and pedestrians to basically walk into slow-moving traffic and hope a driver stops.

      The bigger project that I’m excited about is allowing bikes and pedestrians on the train bridge that spans the river between Broadway and Lowry. That would allow me (I live in NE) to get to North and also use the West River Trail to get downtown, which is one of the best options for those like me who prefer separating themselves from cars.

      If anyone knows more about the timelines of either of these projects, I’d love to know.

  2. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker

    The river parkways should be close to cars entirely. Every hour of every day of the year.

  3. Scott

    Glad to hear the MPRB Commissioners are bringing this up. Go Jono and Chris!

    The Minneapolis 2040 Comprehensive Plan didn’t even identify the possibility of creating car-free streets. Perhaps, citizens can get such a concept included in the subsequent Transportation Action Plan, which is going on now?

  4. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    I appreciate these ideas, but I’d also want to mention how breathtakingly bad W River Rd gets when it crosses Plymouth — where the MPRB parkway designation ends and it becomes a City street. (But is still a street alongside the river, next to park space)

    This is stroady. I don’t care what agency owns it, but I think the style of the street should be made more like the rest of W River Rd (Pkwy).

    By comparison, the parkway portion of River Rd already seem terrific 😀

  5. Mark

    Just to clarify the portion of West River Parkway by downtown is a relatively new concept dating most recently to the mid-1990s, and several large portions of it aren’t owned by the Mpls Park Board, the City, or the State.

    Closing it to thru vehicular traffic seems like a no brainer to me. I’m hopeful the Water Works development will spur discussion about what other improvements can be made to enhance our connection to the river that essentially built Minneapolis.

  6. Andrew Evans

    This is the road I take to work every day, and hopefully that can contenue since it’s way easier and prettier than taking the freeway.

    That said, the pedestrian crossings aren’t lit that well and terrible at night. There are also a few of them that aren’t really marked well at all, and then some great ones with lights. I’d really like to see more flashing lights when someone wants to cross. It’s enough to pay attention to cars some days around the corners, let alone keep track of a pedestrian trying to cross who is hidden by the cars in front of me.

    I’m not really sure it needs to be closed 24/7, however parts by downtown could easily be closed on the weekends.

    There should really be painted turn lanes around Plymouth and Broadway, it gets a little confusing at times in traffic and it wouldn’t take much to make sense of it.

    I would love to see a way to slow traffic down, although most do drive around or under 30, but now and then I’ll get passed by someone who is treating it like any other lawless Minneapolis street. Maybe they can make some higher speed bumps or something that would force a car to stop. Or even stop signs at pedestrian crossings wouldn’t be terrible.

    I’m indifferent where it crosses Plymouth and becomes a normal street. I believe too that’s also a truck route around Broadway. Although the city or whomever could do a much better job painting lines on it, and parking lines, so it seems less of a free for all.

  7. Dave Carlson

    Since the Minneapolis Park Board refuses to put bike lanes on the parkway roadways, the bike paths along the river should be wide and separated from pedestrians. However, the plans and designs seem to show the pedestrian walkway along the river ending near the new Water Works Park area as it approaches the Stone Arch Bridge parking lot and combines peds and bikers onto one path. I strongly encourage the Park Board to keep these paths separated throughout this area, and also right at the Portland Avenue intersection where it is always congested with combined peds and bikers causing a lot of safety issues.

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