You have probably seen calls to delay the Hennepin Ave S reconstruction project claiming that there has not been enough public engagement. These calls must be rejected. Calls to delay and claiming insufficient engagement are disingenuous arguments used as a tool to stop the project by those who oppose the City’s recommended design. No amount of public engagement will be sufficient for those arguing for delay unless the design is changed to preserve the status quo. And to put it simply, there have already been years of engagement.
Rewind to April of 2018. I attended the first open house for the Hennepin Ave S reconstruction. It was at Jefferson Elementary School in the basement cafeteria. The meeting doubled as an open house for the METRO E Line BRT. It made sense to talk about a street reconstruction at the same time as this significant investment in better bus service, and ways that the benefits of each project could be self-reinforcing, bringing us that much closer to achieving the city’s climate and transportation goals. Staff from both Minneapolis Public Works and Metro Transit were there. There were different stations you could rotate through and talk to staff. There was everyone’s favorite exercise where you could drop small colored balls into different glass vases representing various priorities. There were huge maps of the corridor that were laid out across the entire lengths of cafeteria tables where we could make notes about problematic and dangerous intersections, curb cuts, etc. The thing that I remember the most is that after the meeting, a group of approximately 8 of us walked across the street to the Uptown Diner where we continued to share our hopes and dreams for the corridor.
Fast forward to today, almost 4 years later, and we still don’t have an approved layout for the corridor. In the meantime, the city applied for and was awarded $7 million in federal funding. Public engagement on the project started back up in the Spring of 2020. The City’s original schedule showed a plan for 3 open houses, layout approval at the end of quarter 2/beginning of quarter 3 of 2021, and construction to begin in 2023.
Obviously, the City hasn’t held to that schedule. The final of the three planned open houses, originally planned for the second quarter of 2021, did not happen until two weeks ago. Layout approval has not yet happened but is now planned for the end of the first quarter/beginning of the second quarter of this year. And construction is now scheduled to begin in 2024. I won’t speculate on the reasons for this delay, but the project has had an unprecedentedly long public engagement process.
When the public engagement resumed in 2020, I had the privilege of serving on the project’s Stakeholder Advisory Committee as the appointee of the East Isles Residents Association. The purpose of the committee was to advise project staff on how to do engagement in the unprecedented era of COVID. The committee was composed of representatives from neighborhood associations, business associations and special service districts, and appointees of elected officials (Minneapolis Wards 7 & 10, Hennepin County District 3). I took my role on the committee very seriously. Unfortunately, there were some on the committee that I felt were participating in bad faith. A landlord on the committee offered to assist project staff with renter outreach. That landlord later slipped flyers under the apartment doors in all the buildings that they own with false and misleading information in order to rile up opposition to the project.
At a later committee meeting, one of the business representatives wanted to make sure the City only engaged “legitimate” stakeholders. I still don’t know how useful the committee was or if the City will do this again on future projects, but some of what went on in those meetings felt like a microcosm of what this entire process turned out to be.
As a member of my neighborhood association’s Board of Directors, I have a fiduciary obligation to act at all times in what I reasonably believe is in the best interest of the organization. It has been my belief that since this project is a contentious issue, taking a position on the project is not in the best interest of the neighborhood association, but instead the best action to take is assisting the City with outreach efforts. And for the past two years, I have focused my work through the East Isles Residents Association and its Built Environment Committee to do just that. This work included mailing two separate postcards, one last Spring and one this Winter, to every residential household in East Isles to make sure residents knew about the project and where they could go to provide comments.
However, it felt like for every hour myself, and others with good intentions, put into doing quality outreach, twice as much effort was put into disseminating disinformation in order to rile up opposition by those with more time and resources who want to maintain the status quo. I received a letter from a business owner who claimed, among other things, that unless park-and-rides are built on both ends of the corridor as part of the project, buses would run empty. That’s not how transit works. I attended a meeting at which it was falsely claimed that one of the safety features included would make it impossible to continue the Uptown Art Fair. Recently flyers have been popping up from those who want to maintain the status quo attempting to trick people into believing they support biking and transit. These examples are just the tip of the iceberg.
There has been a common message that has formed by those opposing the project: a request to delay. The arguments made in support of a delay run the gamut but are all false. What is true is that further delay will jeopardize the project’s Federal funding and further delay implementation off the E Line. The City applied for federal funding as part of the 2018 Regional Solicitation, which provides funding for projects in 2022 and 2023. Only one extension may be granted per project for a maximum length of one year, and the project has already been delayed from 2023 to 2024. Requests to delay are simply a tool used by those who want to maintain the status quo in order to water down the City’s recommended design or stop the project altogether. Four years has been a long enough time to do engagement on a project with a layout recommended by the City’s Public Works staff, and with such strong support from over a decade of adopted City policies and plans. It’s time to move forward on Hennepin Avenue.