Blue Line Extension Part 2: Land Use Problems

Editor’s note: This is the second of a three-part series covering the METRO Blue Line extension project. This part will focus on land use issues currently faced in the corridor. Part one covered the history, background, criticisms, hopes and future of the Blue Line. Lastly, part three will cover conceptual proposals for Bus Rapid Transit and local bus routes in the northwest suburbs.

Ridership across transit systems in North America, including right here in the Twin Cities, are still hampered by changing commute patterns, lasting effects from the pandemic, safety, travel time and more. Though it’s less discussed than other factors, land use may play an outsized role in the ridership struggle.

The land around transit can affect whether the system is successful. Lack of dense developments, station access, unappealing streetscapes, and unsafe bike and pedestrian infrastructure all are pieces of the puzzle. 

Like a freeway, a given transit project will attract little use if key destinations are inaccessible. Now, with the METRO Blue Line being extended to Brooklyn Park, let’s review the strengths and challenges of existing land uses along and around the corridor.

Land Use in Brooklyn Park: Oak Grove Parkway Station

Aerial view of the Oak Grove Parkway station area. Pink dots show proposed station locations. Image: Google Earth

Let’s start from the new terminus for the Blue Line, the Oak Grove Parkway station in Brooklyn Park. This station is adjacent to the Target Northern Campus offices that employ thousands and will be one of four with a park-and-ride attached. Transit-oriented field development, eh? It seems so, at least for now. In the future, commuters from the north, residents of recent apartment developments like 610 West (which plans to construct another complex) and existing multifamily housing could also help sustain this station. 

Intersection of West Broadway and Oak Grove Parkway, looking east | Photo: Author

Vast acres of empty land in the upper northside of Brooklyn Park will also be home to greenfield developments (development of an underdeveloped, typically agricultural area) consisting of mixed-used and transit-oriented developments (TOD) in the coming years.

The 722 and 724 unfortunately connect with the office park and parts of the shopping center only infrequently. As this station is virtually a blank canvas, there are so many opportunities to make this place a car-lite, densely populated, jobs and people-centered powerhouse. 

Park Place Promenade Mixed-Use Development  

Aerial view of Park Place Promenade. Photo: Google Earth

In nearby Park Place Promenade or the 610-Zane area, questions arose from the city of Brooklyn Park about the empty acres around the shopping plaza. New development here was put on hold as the city’s deliberations stretched on. The city published an unlisted video and a survey about the issue in June 2023, and the city council unanimously passed rezoning plans in October 2023 to ensure high-density housing, a pedestrian mall, mixed-use developments and people-focused infrastructure. A circulator bus service has also been proposed to serve residents and businesses as the light rail station is less than 1.35 miles away. 

With those zoning changes in place, development can continue, and the 610-Zane and Oak Grove Parkway station areas may very well become a true downtown for Brooklyn Park in the coming decades.

93rd Avenue Station

Aerial view of the 93rd Avenue station area. Image: Google Earth

The 93rd Avenue station area embodies the general vibe of a modern suburb. Swaths of warehouses and office parks dominate a landscape severely lacking in pedestrian infrastructure. A mile down the road, you can find the two-story Taco Bell Defy, a drive-through-only establishment. Despite the suburban feel, running the Blue Line through this growing jobs center will allow workers easier access to workplaces, businesses and future developments.

85th Avenue Station

Aerial view of the 85th Avenue station area. Image: Google Earth

The 85th Avenue station is situated near the North Hennepin Community College (NHCC), the Brooklyn Park Library, a shopping plaza and several fourplex neighborhoods. Traffic tends to be speedy due to roadway design, and some sidewalks here abruptly end. 

Station area master plans from 2016 suggest that NHCC will expand its facilities to accommodate changing needs and growth of the region. The shopping plaza could also see redevelopment into a mixed-use property with high-density development like the Tessman Ridge apartments already under construction. The college is served by the 724 only in the mornings and evenings, whereas the 723 serves the area every 30 minutes. 

Brooklyn Boulevard Station

Aerial view of the area around the proposed Brooklyn Boulevard station. Image: Google Earth

The Brooklyn Boulevard station will serve a bustling retail center amid two intersecting stroads (a street-road hybrid). Strip malls Starlite Center, Parksquare Shopping Center and Northwind Plaza and the surrounding businesses are ethnically and racially diverse, including Angelea’s Soul Food Kitchen and Vietnam House. It’s currently challenging to navigate this area even by car, and a huge portion of parking lots remain unused despite very low vacancies. 

A mile east of Starlite Center is the densest area of Brooklyn Park, which consists chiefly of affordable housing and low-income households. The station is accessible to those living there by bus on the 724, and is a short bike ride or 20- to 30-minute walk away. The 724, however, runs every 30 minutes at peak times and every hour otherwise, which isn’t ideal. 

A close-up on the area around Starlite Center. The purple dot shows the existing Starlite Transit Center. Image: Google Earth

The Starlite Transit Center is close to the future light rail station, but can be a bit of a walk and may need to be moved. A walk from the light rail station to the transit center is approximately a thousand-foot or three- to four-minute walk, which makes transfers to the 705, 723, 724 and the 764 express more difficult, especially for those using mobility devices. This concern is already highlighted on the project’s feedback map.

Starlite Transit Center in Brooklyn Park | Photo: Author

Northwind Plaza, located across the Brooklyn Boulevard/West Broadway intersection from Starlite Center, is also home to the new Brooklyn Park small-business center, which boasts over 60 office and retail spaces at affordable rates. The shopping centers here are overbuilt, and will require lots of changes even with the enacted TOD zoning.

63rd Avenue Station

Aerial view of the area surrounding the proposed 63rd Avenue Station. Image: Google Earth

The 63rd Avenue station, situated near the city boundaries of Brooklyn Park and Crystal, will connect with a pre-existing park-and-ride via a pedestrian overpass. Currently, pedestrians here must cross eight to nine lanes of car traffic just to get to the other side. The six-lane sections of Bottineau Boulevard will transform into a four-lane divided highway instead, which can reduce vehicle speeds and improve safety for both drivers, pedestrians and cyclists. It would be exciting to see an ethnic marketplace or a pop-up market square near the station, among other redevelopments.

Pre-pandemic, the 767 express bus to downtown Minneapolis served the park-and-ride. The service was terminated during pandemic ridership lows, and the park-and-ride remains unused. Metro Transit is eyeing the site for light rail, and may plan to return the Minnesota State Fair express service this August. The 716 services the area only hourly from Robbinsdale Transit Center.

Land Use in Crystal: Bass Lake Road Station

Aerial view of the area around the proposed Bass Lake Road station. Image: Google Earth

The first and only station in the City of Crystal, Bass Lake Road, will connect another ethnically and racially diverse shopping center with businesses like Black Diamond Hair Braiding and La Michoacana Rose to the Blue Line corridor. Once again, this is an area that lacks walkability, density and roadway safety.

A diamond interchange at the intersection of Bottineau Boulevard and Bass Lake Road will be constructed with the station nestled in between. Some of us have pointed out potential issues with the interchange, especially when it comes to pedestrian safety.

According to Kyle Mianulli, the Hennepin County communications administrator for the Blue Line extension, the issue is being addressed. The project’s first priority, he said, is “designing safe and welcoming places for people to be and move through” for that intersection and the Blue Line as a whole.

Community input is a driving factor for designs, but project staff has presented initial concepts of the Bass Lake interchange that will “incorporate best urban planning practices and human-centered design principles.” These include ample pedestrian-level lighting, landscaping and visually engaging architectural elements.

Then (September 2017)

Now (December 2023)

The City of Crystal reconstructed a portion of Bass Lake Rd’s streetscape in 2018. The new design provides easier navigation and wider sidewalks, which should help sustain a potentially redefined downtown as part of the station area masterplan. For example, the Crystal Gallery shopping plaza has been marked as an opportunity site for a 300-unit mixed-use multifamily development. Many other sites have been marked for potential redevelopment, which is a great sight to see. 

There is a decent NS/EW bus service, the 721, from Brooklyn Center Transit Center to Hennepin Technical College. It runs every 30 minutes.

Land Use in Robbinsdale: Downtown Robbinsdale Station

The Downtown Robbinsdale station will connect with a collection of restaurants, shops and bars dubbed “little Eat Street” by the Star Tribune. West Broadway is far more walkable in Robbinsdale than in Crystal and Brooklyn Park. The section with a “main street” vibe, however, is only about 860 feet long, give or take. Station area plans could also turn Downtown Robbinsdale into a walkable, mixed-use and densely populated hub.

Aerial view of the area around the proposed Downtown Robbinsdale station. Image: Google Earth

The Robbinsdale Transit Center, which houses the 14, 32, 716 and 717, will be moving closer to an LRT station that has yet to be finalized. The fourth and final park & ride will also be attached to the station, likely at the U.S. Bank branch at West Broadway and 40th Avenue North.

Lowry Avenue Station

Aerial view of the area around the proposed Lowry Avenue station. Image: Google Earth

The Lowry Avenue station is on the city boundaries of Robbinsdale and Minneapolis. The at-grade station will connect riders with North Memorial Hospital and some other nearby businesses. Several new apartments have sprung up since 2019, with about a 17-minute walk to the future station. Pre-existing bus connections could turn those 17 minutes to 4 minutes. 

The Lowry Avenue station was originally meant to be elevated. Based on feedback from stakeholders on accessibility and visibility concerns, it will now be at-grade with Lowry Avenue. With the new design, it will more easily connect with the 14 and 32, which runs about every 30 minutes. 

The West Broadway bridge began reconstruction in 2021 and wrapped up just last year in 2023. In an older version of the Public Coordinate map linked above, some people wondered whether another rebuild is necessary when the light rail comes. Based on information from the Blue Line extension February 28 quarterly meeting, the southbound bridge will likely need to be moved to fit the station and tracks in between the two bridges. More information on Robbinsdale’s stations are still in the works.

Density changes become apparent as we approach downtown Minneapolis. Traveling southbound, we started in neighborhoods that are zigzagged, car-centric, and sprawling and are now reaching neighborhoods that are gridded, walkable, and more compact. Even so, walkability and bikeability aren’t the greatest up here, or even in many parts of Minneapolis. Traffic crashes, meanwhile, are more frequent and worse in this area than other points on the line, resulting in increased injuries and deaths for motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians across the board. While mixed-use and TOD zoning is enacted in every city within the Blue Line corridor, plans similar to Minneapolis’ vision zero to eliminate traffic deaths and severe injuries could be beneficial to Blue Line riders—and even ridership.

Land Use in Minneapolis: Penn Avenue Station

Aerial view of the area around the Penn Avenue station. Image: Google Earth

The Penn Avenue station will connect with a redeveloping area, a vast array of diverse businesses, and staples such as the Capri Theater. The station now connects with the community far better than the old Golden Valley Road station, which was tucked along the edge of the neighborhood. It also will very provide easy transfers with the 14, 32 and the C Line, which runs from the Brooklyn Center Transit Center to downtown Minneapolis.

KMOJ 89.9 FM Radio and other businesses currently occupy and rent in an impacted building. Also in the realm of radio, WCCO personality Sheletta Brundidge chatted with Mianulli back in January about the Blue Line extension about the concerns of residents and business owners in this corridor. Fourteen commercial properties will likely be impacted by the right-of-way (ROW) of the Blue Line near the station, according to him and engineering drawings. Many of the impacted buildings are unoccupied or abandoned.

Mianulli said the Metropolitan Council has been in partnership and contact with KMOJ, businesses and property owners, and he described how the agency is working to alleviate displacement of people and businesses along with encouraging prosperity. In his conversation with Brundidge, Mianulli pointed to other problems with West Broadway based on community feedback: a lack of pedestrian safety, street lighting and bike lanes, along with thin sidewalks and high traffic speeds. 

James and Lyndale Avenue Stations

Aerial view of the proposed James Avenue (left) and Lyndale Avenue (right) stations. Image: Google Earth

The James Avenue station will be a diagonal station as tracks transition to North 21st Avenue.  One commercial building, four homes and two residential garages will be impacted by ROW. The Minneapolis Public Schools education service center’s parking lot will also be affected. If tracks had continued down West Broadway, as previously planned, more buildings would likely have been impacted. The station will connect with the 5, 14 and 30, and would be less than a six-minute walk from the D Line station to Mall of America.

The Lyndale Avenue station has fewer impacts, but would require acquiring two residential homes. This is due to alleyway access cut-offs and the general size of the station. These light rail stations will serve the heart of north Minneapolis, the most transit-dependent area in the entire city with about 60% of near north households owning one or no cars.

West Broadway improvements will also be coming to the segment parallel of North 21st Avenue between Interstate 94 and James Avenue. Mianulli told me that improving West Broadway “will ultimately be determined based on community input.” Potential improvements could include pedestrian-level streetlighting, wider sidewalks, public spaces, added greenery to add shade, outdoor seating with activities, upgraded underground utilities and a road diet (traffic reconfiguration, removing or repurposing travel lanes) to improve pedestrian safety.

Plymouth Avenue Station

Aerial view of the area around the proposed Plymouth Avenue station. Image: Google Earth

Plymouth Avenue is a more recently proposed station, added with the selection of the North Loop route over the North Minneapolis alignment (discussed in my prior story). This will connect with the northern point of a walkable and fast growing neighborhood. Unsurprisingly, this station has one of the best land use cases even with the low density offices adjacent to the proposed station. The neighborhood has also been consistently praised for its population growth, resilience and abundant nightlife. More information about the Minneapolis stations are still in the works. 

Keep an Eye Out

Although the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Transit Authority (FTA) ranked the Blue Line extension a “medium-high” for suitability of land use in 2016, more strides can be made as the Blue Line awaits reassessment. From mixed-use condominiums to a bustling civic plaza or even a museum, the possibilities are endless just about anywhere along the Blue Line. Keep an eye out for positive and negative land use changes within the next decade or so.

The northwest suburbs have plenty of potential, but we do need to make sure the project equitably serves communities of color and those with lower incomes. Hennepin County Commissioner of District 2, Irene Fernando emphasized that the Blue Line isn’t just about ridership, “It’s also about who we are serving,” Fernando said, adding that the project is a “generational equity investment in communities of color that have historically been underinvested in.” 

To move climate goals forward, the Blue Line will help us rely on cars less by biking, walking and using public transit more. Utilizing unoccupied spaces and transit-oriented development that prioritizes communities first will be major steps forward.

Editor’s note: A technical issue led to duplication and incorrect identification of several photos in this story. The photos were removed shortly after publication and restored later in the afternoon. We apologize for the error.

About Richie Song

Pronouns: he/him

Richie is a resident of Brooklyn Park, an advocate for transit and the developments of better cities.