Junket: Tossed & Found's storefront with 'road closed' barriers during Minnehaha Ave Road Reconstruction in 2015

On Hennepin: Good Ancestors Build Better Neighborhoods

I’m writing today as a small business owner reaching out to other small business owners who are unsure of what the reconstruction of Hennepin Avenue might mean for them. In 2015, as the Minnehaha Avenue reconstruction started, I was still new to the corridor. Like Hennepin, it hadn’t been reconstructed in over a half-century, and the patched and rutted street wasn’t working for anyone. Drivers sped past my business too fast to notice shop hours, window displays, or crossing pedestrians. 

My business is structured around carbon competence and meeting community needs without exploiting people or planet, and I was eager for neighborhood infrastructure that would be safer for two wheeled family adventures while attracting additional business to the corridor. As I’m sure others can relate, however, the prospect of two years of disruption for a full-street reconstruction as a barely-birthed brick & mortar foretold a stressful and daunting future. 

During the design of Minnehaha Avenue, the policy guidance in place for the City’s traffic planners was still grounded in decades-old and mostly-disproven ideas about how small businesses like ours work, and outdated understandings even of traffic flow. Many of my peers—without clear updated information and guidance from the city—were themselves scared of the level of change proposed. We knew that the investment would serve the neighborhood well for decades to come, but we were also wary; it was our dreams, our passions, our businesses on the line.

Minneapolis has a good plan for future communities

The good news is that in the intervening few years—as CO2ppm have continued to climb and the need for change becomes more obvious and urgent—Minneapolis now has a plan: policies that offer a clear, science- and best-practices-based guide for how to redesign these major commercial streets in ways that are equitable, that support existing residents and small businesses, and that will reduce emissions. Minneapolis 2040, the Transportation Action Plan, and Vision Zero all offer specific guidance for how to act under the Climate Emergency, declared by our city in 2019. They provide us a framework for sustainable development during a once-in-a-civilization rally to confront the threat posed by our own emissions, the air pollution we face every day. 

With these policies in place, the design of Hennepin Avenue is where the rubber meets the road. We must ask ourselves: will we as a city respond to the clarion call of scientists and humanitarians worldwide? The reconstruction of Hennepin Avenue is a powerful opportunity for Minneapolis to model what a carbon-constrained and just future can actually look like. 

Due to jurisdictional idiosyncrasies, the decisions the city makes about Hennepin Avenue have ramifications for commercial streets around the city, and for the ability of our policies to guide our actions. Hennepin Avenue is a city-controlled street, meaning that the City of Minneapolis alone decides its future; virtually every other similar commercial corridor in Minneapolis is controlled by Hennepin County.

If our city fails to implement its own brand-new policies, crafted after years of engagement and consensus, it will be no surprise when Hennepin County traffic engineers in their offices in Medina—engineers who can’t reasonably reach the city *without* a car (or four spare hours to bike in and back)—sketch out designs for Franklin—or Lake, Broadway or Central—that lock in decades more of suburban drivers treating our neighborhoods like freeways, our potential customers afraid to cross the street. After all, why would the county adhere to Minneapolis’ climate and transportation policies on the streets they control if Minneapolis doesn’t bother to do it on the very first project to which this crucial plan applies? This is a watershed moment.

My business began—and continues to evolve—as a direct expression of my desire to ensure for my daughter a future that is not only livable, but beautiful and thriving. In the last ten years, I’ve learned that resilience in business involves the ability to pivot—sometimes quickly, even painfully, to circumstances that often fall far outside a proprietor’s locus of control.

Embrace the coming changes

Both the pandemic and the uprising have reinforced our understanding that things change quickly—and will continue to change far more rapidly and in a broader range of ways than most of us are able to fathom. We already know—even as we may be terrified to face it head-on—that the lives we’ll lead just ten years from now will be radically different than the ones we’re living now, more so than the shift we’ve experienced in the 20+ years since Y2K.

As hard as it feels to shed the familiarity of a street that gave rise to our businesses & livelihoods, it would be even worse to lock ourselves and our babies into seventy more years of a broken system, especially when we have—and understand—everything around us that we need in order to do better. Option 1 on Hennepin Avenue showcases exactly how good that future can be!

The reconstruction of Minnehaha made me anxious, as upheaval and change do for all of us, but my business-neighbors and I chose to focus our time and energy on thriving during the reconstruction, rather than fighting the necessary work of repairing and reconstructing decaying infrastructure. Starting before the construction, we rallied together to increase foot-traffic and strengthen our connections to the neighborhoods around us. We actually attracted new business while the heavy machines rolled in. And the people who never left us? The ones who showed up in increasing numbers even before construction started, who kept showing up after? They came on foot and by bike. 

The future looks bright for Uptown

Those of us on the Minnehaha Mile worked hard, together, connecting and supporting one another in ways we never had before. I look at Hennepin Avenue, and see the potential to do what we did, but bigger. Minnehaha Avenue holds charm in the pockets of commerce peppering a two mile stretch between Lake Street and the fabled Falls. Your stretch of Hennepin Avenue, though, is the city-wide destination we aspired to be—Uptown has the kind of name recognition we’d sought for Minnehaha. You’re in a place to not only survive the hardships that the pandemic have brought to so many small businesses, but to set the gold standard for what a thriving commercial street looks like. What an opportunity!

As we all adapt our lifestyles to live well within new CO2e budgets, more and more people are already choosing the more sustainable, smaller-footprint city-life. The development of former lumberyards into dense apartment buildings oriented along the bike-superhighway of the Midtown Greenway over the past twenty years is itself abundant proof of the concept that can feel so new and intimidating for businesses with narrow margins. Regardless of criticisms lobbed as blocks shifted from small warehouses to hundreds of new homes, as a small business owner, I know that meeting the needs of so many potential customers within a ten minute walk is key—especially as ever more car-free neighbors choose to move into the area for its exceptional walkability and daily ease of access.

It’s easy to think in ruts, especially when we’re stressed, scared about our future, unable to have casual face-to-face conversations with friendly regulars. When we act out of fear, refusing to hear new information or work to find consensus with those whose ideas threaten our sense of comfort, we make our world colder, our networks weaker, our customer bases smaller. Of course we’re scared now—we’ve seen so many small businesses struggling and closing during the pandemic, and our instinct is to cling harder to whatever might seem stable and familiar. 

What the pandemic has taught us, however, is that our stability is in our communities, our innovation, our people, and in our ability to adapt effectively—together—in rapidly changing circumstances.  Junket survived road construction, and while other factors led us to close the doors on Minnehaha, we pivoted successfully along with many of you in 2020, and we’re excited about the dynamic future we see ahead in the distance.

Having built Junket’s entire model based on a post-carbon time horizon, we see the power and potential of infrastructure that supports community members in the ways more of us are already traveling every day: on foot, by bicycle, in strollers & wagons and zippy little solar powered rentables. Further, the pandemic’s work from home transition is here to stay for many, meaning less vehicular traffic from elsewhere, and more neighbors able to run quick errands during work from home lunch breaks during the week.

By supporting Option 1 with bike and bus lanes, we give our customers more and better options when it comes to reaching the goods, services, and experiences we offer. We give some folks conversations on our patios without the roar of traffic interfering with dialogue and connection, and we make it easier for others to cross still-busy streets while holding little hands.  

For the sake of our collective wellbeing—and the just transition that those little hands are relying on us to deliver—we must allow ourselves to plan not for the past that has failed us, but instead, for a shared vision of a healed community in a thriving future

What stories do we want future generations—those who are living with the results of our decisions, for better or worse—to tell about the city they inherit—and about our legacy in that city’s evolution? If we care to be recognized as good ancestors, we’ll call on courage today—and choose wisely for our best possible tomorrow.