Like many people, I am excited about the redevelopment of the Kmart site at Lake and Nicollet in Minneapolis. New park space, the potential for new affordable housing, new businesses, and the reopening of an iconic corridor all promise new opportunities and increased connections of all types.
What isn’t exciting about the city’s plans? For me, just one thing — a darn wide road.
As explained by city staff and modeled on the pavement of the old Kmart parking lot at an engagement open house last fall, the city plans to establish a 100-foot right-of-way on the new block of Nicollet Avenue South between Lake Street and 29th Street. This is 14 feet wider than the right of way directly north and south of it.
A “right of way” (ROW) is land that a governmental body owns and typically operates for conveyance of people and goods with things like streets, transitways, sidewalks and bikeways, as well as utility and stormwater infrastructure. ROWs also commonly host transit stops, lighting, benches, green space, art and amenities like sidewalk cafés. Given this long list of wants that depend on ROWs, it would seem to make sense that transportation planners make them larger.
But by accommodating everything, we also lose out. Here are three less direct impacts:
- The distance between destinations grows. Every time we decide to make an individual ROW wider, we incrementally increase the distance and time that it takes pedestrians and cyclists to reach potential destinations. That land that is ROW could instead be a shop, a daycare, a friend’s home and more. Those decisions add up and make it harder for commutes, visits to friends and shopping trips to be achieved by walking and biking.
- We lose potential property tax revenue, which funds important city services like creating new housing and maintaining existing ROWs.
- As an engineer, I tend to stick to measurable facts rather than emotions, but I’ll concede that wide ROWs make a city feel less cozy. Yes, I said “cozy.” Now hear me out. If you’ve been to places where the ROW is something less than 60 feet — say, in a shopping district in Monterrey, Mexico,
on a neighborhood commercial street in Vienna,
or even in the Loring Park alley, now home to the Fawke’s Alley Café
— there is a feeling of being enveloped. The surroundings feel more human-scaled; I’m sure there are terms for or studies of this phenomenon. Other factors contribute, like first-floor and overall building heights, but there is still something inviting about a smaller ROW and closer-together buildings. This feeling can be recouped when trees are added to the ROW at least every 20 feet or so. For a 100-foot ROW on Nicollet, we’d need three rows of trees to achieve this. I’m under no illusion that Nicollet, as a collector street, will become a dainty alley. But it also doesn’t need to be a Haussmann-style boulevard.
ROW and street width are not exactly the same, but it is true that the wider the street, the wider the ROW. The United States likes to be the top in so many things, and compared with the rest of the world, our U.S. streets are some of the widest. “Bigger is better” is our ethos, and it’s not easily changed.
In highway construction, urbanists have long fought the instinct that “just one more lane” will solve traffic congestion. We’ve learned over time that the phenomenon of induced demand makes adding one more lane counterproductive. Here, too, bigger is not better. We need to fight the idea that asking everything of a ROW is the optimal solution. For each square foot of land in a city, we need to ask: What is its highest and best use? Is it a private or public use? Is that private use alleviating a public problem?
This brings me back to Nicollet. On top of the impacts listed above, we’ve heard that this heavily East African and Hispanic community has a particular need for homes that accommodate larger families. An extra 14 feet can be the width of another bedroom in a desperately needed affordable home. Multiply that one bedroom a couple dozen times along the length of the block and the likely 4- to 6-story height of a multifamily building, and the number of homes that can accommodate larger families notably increases.
Many minute demands arise during a street design process. It is also important to balance those with the bigger picture. Here’s an opportunity to do that. We have countless examples throughout the world of narrower ROWs that have succeeded in meeting the city’s strong Transportation Action Plan mode-shift targets. We can, and should, reduce the ROW on Nicollet at Kmart to at least be equal to that directly north and south of that block, if not narrower. There is no reason to make the ROW larger on that one block.
We should stop assuming that all potential ROW uses should be accommodated, and consider design options based on a narrower ROW. By doing so, we’re helping to achieve the city’s mode-share goals, improve accessibility by reducing the distances between destinations, improve city revenue and overall, create a cozier street.