Downtown boosters were looking for advice last week when they took Charles Landry, a renowned expert on city-making, on a tour of Hennepin Avenue.
The drizzly morning excursion was part of “Plan-It Hennepin,” a year-long project funded by a National Endowment for the Arts to rethink Minneapolis’ cultural corridor. Speaking with the lilt of his native London, Landry joined Minneapolis art, architecture and government leaders on a bus trip to survey the avenue from the Mississippi River to the Walker Art Center.
Landry has built an international career writing books and advising cities how to draw out the creativity and innovation of their residents. He travels the world capturing some of the best examples in photographs, and he did that last week, frequently hopping off the bus to snap photos with a point-and-shoot.
“What we’re really talking about [on] Hennepin Avenue is how can we make this city — this street — a living work of art in some sort of sense?” Landry told a crowd of policymakers after the tour.
But at the forefront of his mind was a Minneapolis problem not unique to Hennepin Avenue.
“The main thing is there’s the curse and convenience of the skyways,” Landry said, observing that downtown needs more density to generate more vitality on the sidewalks — not just the enclosed walkways.
“The other thing to do [to bring people to the streets] is make those ground levels more attractive,” he remarked. “There are so many blank walls.”
As for the temperate reasons to walk indoors, Landry noted that Helsinki is just as cold but heats its streets instead. “A great city is a place that has great streets,” he said later.
Wearing blue trousers and a sweater draped around his shoulders, Landry played the part of an intensely curious tourist, fascinated with uninviting buildings and a spiral parking ramp that he described as maybe the ugliest or most beautiful thing he had seen in the city.
“What’s Dreamgirls?” Landry asked as the bus cruised past the strip club on 5th and Hennepin. “You can guess,” replied Bob Close, a Twin Cities landscape architect.
Plan-It Hennepin is hoping to identify a number of sites that have potential to help transform the avenue if developed. Landry said because of the Hiawatha Line light rail station, 5th Street and Hennepin should be one of them.
“Simple intervention,” Landry said of the transit stop. “Animating these walls in all sorts of ways — in modern ways, old-fashioned ways or something — could just simply make this actually a work of art.”
Guests on the bus tour noted that a Whole Foods is being constructed at Washington and Hennepin, in addition to a soon-to-open Lunds at 12th Street and Hennepin. Landry said this is a good sign.
“That is really for me the thing that struck me,” Landry said. “That there are two grocery stores book-ending that area.”
Another “opportunity site” was the immense surface parking lot between 10th and 11th streets. For a pedestrian strolling down Hennepin, “at that point you sort of feel ‘No, I’m not going to go that next step,’ ” Landry said.
A similar feeling struck him at the Basilica, as people discussed the best ways to cross Interstate 94 to the Walker Art Center, Hennepin Avenue’s last major landmark before Uptown.
“It feels so near but yet so far,” Landry said.
Altogether, Landry spent about a week in residency in the Twin Cities advising on a number of projects, including the Central Corridor light rail line.
Tom Borrup, project director for Plan-It Hennepin, said by July they will likely choose between eight and 12 “key sites that we think would be the most catalytic or that would signal change on the avenue.”