I recently attended an open house put on by the City of Minneapolis to discuss two options for the upcoming reconstruction of Hennepin Ave from Douglas to Lake Street. In a sign of progress on street design in Minneapolis, both designs reduce car traffic to a single lane to promote traffic calming and to provide space for permanent, dedicated bus lanes. Neither option has the bus lane being curb protected, even as staff acknowledge that drivers are likely to swerve into and occasionally stop in the lanes, but the red paint will have to suffice.
Like nearly all public hearings and open houses, this project isn’t without division. The heart of contention in these designs is that one of the options has a bidirectional protected bike line running on the east side of Hennepin and the other has no bike facilities at all as a means to protect parking in the corridor. In the events that I have attended so far, the questions and comments were heavily (75%+ in my estimation) supportive of pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, particularly given that such a design would conform to the existing Complete Streets policy and the City’s climate goals. There continues, however, to be a small but repeated call to protect parking in the corridor. These commenters insist that there is no way for a small business to survive without free, city-provided and maintained parking directly in front of every business. Neither the parking analyses referenced by staff showing ample capacity for side street parking, nor economic analyses showing that pedestrians and cyclists spend the same if not more at local businesses will assuage these concerns.
I understand the fears of the small business owners. These shops are located in a high rent area and have been punished by an ongoing pandemic and limited federal support (TBD on how much the new Biden stimulus helps). Running a small or startup business anywhere is incredibly challenging, and the majority don’t last longer than five years (I had my own business failure for a couple of years!). Finding the right product for the right customer type at a manageable price while making money is precarious. Removing parking feels like losing an amenity that brings customers in. What struck me as I was listening to the questions and comments, though, is how we parse out how something feels vs the reality of the situation.
Let’s take a look at other shopping experiences to compare parking realities. I grew up, for better or worse, in the western suburbs of Minneapolis near Ridgedale Center. This is a typical, sprawling suburban mall surrounded by a massive parking lot (shoutout to the rooftop solar, at least). There is really no instance where you can’t find a parking spot somewhere in their staggeringly large parking lot. Picking out a few random spots and mapping them to the nearest entrance to the mall, shoppers can easily walk 300+ feet from an average spot and almost 1,000 feet from the farther spots – and this is just to get to the mall entrance, not the actual shop!
Keeping those distances in mind, take a look at how far away someone could park along Hennepin and still have the same walking distance. Again, keep in mind, the distances in the Ridgedale example were just to get to the mall entrance. The Hennepin examples are to get to the front door of the actual shop. You can park multiple blocks away and be the same distance away, while getting a much more pleasant walk with houses to look at, shade trees, and generally enjoyable Cityscape.
Is Ridgedale an outlier? Not really. See several examples of popular shopping destinations in the Metro. It turns out, parking lots really are as big as multiple city blocks. Yes, you can find a spot right up front sometimes, just like in the City. It is also still very important to make sure that handicapped residents have a means of accessing shops, wherever they are. The point, though, is that the way that parking is talked about by Uptown businesses is a bit overblown. The reality is that parking is still ample, even if it requires a short walk in a delightful surrounding neighborhood. Businesses also get the added benefit of protected bike lanes, which allow another community of users to access their wonderful shops.
I hope that the City takes this kind of distance reality into consideration when choosing which option moves forward for Hennepin Avenue. One other reality is that we are dealing with a climate emergency and need to quickly find ways to encourage more trips by methods other than driving. EVs are an improvement but we need to reduce overall vehicle miles travelled. Creating a Hennepin Ave that supports walkers, bikers, transit users and cars is a good step for the climate, our community and our local businesses. Oh, and even with the bike lanes, there are still stopping/parking areas on nearly every block of the design, so it’s not like parking is totally left out anyway.
Share your comments on the project’s interactive map here. The project team is seeking input through April 16, 2021. City Council will vote to approve a design later this year, so make sure to reach out to your City Council representative, as well. Construction is slated to begin in 2024. Help make Hennepin better for everyone!
PS: One final fun fact for you in terms of urban vs suburban size and distance comparisons: The Ridgedale Center complex including the buildings and parking lots is a little under 75 acres. That is roughly equivalent to everything between Hennepin Ave and Lyndale Ave from 26th St to 28th St.