Great cities tend to have great main streets. That helps explain Minneapolis' perpetual frustration with Hennepin Avenue, which in many ways fails to reflect the character of the successful city that surrounds it.
True, the avenue's downtown segment has improved remarkably in recent years. Sidewalks are safer and cleaner. Live theaters and restaurants bustle with weekend activity. The sports, music and art scenes are lively enough as separate destinations, but what's so obviously missing is an attractive atmosphere to tie them all together.
What's absent is the street itself -- not the street as a serviceable thoroughfare, but as an appealing, walkable strand of connective tissue, a place where people want to be.
A new public/private plan approved last week by the City Council aims to remake the two-mile stretch from the Walker Art Center to the Mississippi River into a pedestrian-friendly cultural district. That's a worthy goal, but it's not the first attempt at remodeling.
Metal trees were proposed (and thankfully rejected) in the 1970s. Block E, a contrived entertainment mall that opened to much fanfare, collapsed within a decade of its 2001 opening. Two-way auto traffic was restored in 2009 and has succeeded in adding energy to the street. Downtown's new street ambassadors and stepped-up efforts to combat crime and homelessness have helped, too. But more needs to happen.
That's where the new plan comes in. Its best insight is that Hennepin is already an impressive destination, with more than 50 cultural or educational organizations, more than 12,000 theater seats, more than 90,000 square feet of gallery space, and so on.
But the avenue is so gritty and gap-toothed that people don't want to linger to take in the wider experience. It's hard to imagine strolling, for example, from the Walker to the river, stopping in at restaurants and galleries along the way.
This lack of a consistently compelling urban experience is perhaps Minneapolis' greatest shortcoming. The city knows how to build public gathering spaces around lakes and in leafy residential neighborhoods. But it hasn't had a clue how to proceed in a hardened urban setting. For decades its downtown has been a festival of utilitarianism -- skyways, surface parking lots, blank walls, etc. Even its artists are sequestered in "malls" (Northrup King Building, International Market Square) rather than arranged in storefronts along public sidewalks.
The new plan calls for achieving a more refined Hennepin by replacing some of the grit with public art, mature street trees, pocket parks, creative lighting, street fairs, digital projections and other animating features. It also proposes infilling the many vacant storefronts and surface parking lots that pock the area. And it recognizes the need for seed money to establish storefront space for artists and art retailers.
Indeed, the plan meshes well with the transformation that downtown Minneapolis faces in the decades ahead. Doubling the residential population and emphasizing walking and transit are important aspirations. Strengthening the arts and entertainment to replace the fading retail scene is the other vital step. As always, financing will be the greatest challenge. A collaborative effort among public, private and civic sectors will be required. Plans are necessary -- but they're not sufficient.
An editorial of the Star Tribune (Minn.)