Hennepin Avenue in downtown Minneapolis is home to pretty, bustling theaters -- and unsightly parking lots and empty storefronts.

A coalition of arts groups has pushed to have the entire 2 miles between the Walker Art Center and the Mississippi River become a pedestrian-friendly cultural destination. Their plan, to be funded by a combination of public, nonprofit and business-community sources, emphasizes building on the avenue's existing strengths.

"To get more people downtown, we don't need to build a Millennium Park like Chicago," said Olga Viso, director of the Walker and a partner in the cultural-district planning group. "We already have great assets, we just need to link them. Right now, Hennepin is a disconnected experience."

Details were released Thursday, and the Minneapolis City Council approved the plan Friday. It includes making the avenue, as well as some parallel and intersecting streets, more appealing to young families and tourists. A new visitors' hub would let pedestrians buy theater rush tickets, get directions or simply warm up. Other amenities would be more trees and grass, direct street-to-skyway connections, courtyards and flexible event spaces, small street-level shops and restaurants, and mixed-use residential and work lofts. The plan also identifies several spots in need of the most improvement, such as the neglected Gateway area near the river, space-wasting surface lots and the Interstate 94 overpass.

The group also aims to attract teens with free youth-oriented programming and safe green spaces. "We found that for many of them, their only experience of Hennepin is riding the bus," Viso said.

One expansion not on the list: more parking, which the arts groups consider an unnecessary eyesore.

"Everyone's motivated by parking close to the theater, and then they don't want to walk," Viso said.

Devising the plan, which included public input, was mostly funded with $200,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts. But arts organizations won't be the only drivers. The city, the Park Board and private businesses, including sports venues, are integrated into the plan.

"Sports are very much a part of the culture of the avenue," said coalition partner Tom Hoch, president and CEO of Hennepin Theatre Trust, which owns four live-performance venues on the street.

While most of the development has yet to begin, a glimmer of what's to come quietly moved into a long-vacant small space in the former Witt Mitchell building at 7th Street and Hennepin two weeks ago. A prototype of a concept dubbed "Made Here" features art made by Minnesota artists, and Block E's owner has agreed to host similar efforts in that troubled property. The improvements will be a gradual process, Hoch said.

"We're thinking of it like decorating a room. First you paint the walls, then you add an area rug, some drapes, some flowers in a vase," he added.

The cultural-district project dovetails with the Minneapolis Downtown Council's "Downtown 2025," a plan with similar objectives as well as goals to double downtown's population and end homelessness.

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046