Hennepin Avenue is not only downtown's marquee artery, it's one of the oldest streets in Minneapolis. Layers of stories are piled up on every corner, under every sidewalk, from the down-and-dirty bar fights at the notorious 1970s dive Moby Dick's to the triumph of the world premiere of "The Lion King" at the State Theatre, from the original vaudeville-era Gay Nineties to the current Gay 90's dance club.

Now a coalition of the avenue's most prominent denizens wants to add a few more stories, by making it one long, continuous yellow-brick road of urban culture, stretching 2 miles from the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden to the Mississippi River. To kick things off, the group is hosting a panel discussion on Hennepin's colorful history on Thursday, and a related workshop on March 10. Some ideas are already trickling in.

"Listening to what a variety of people have to say about Hennepin, we've found that many view it as a series of disconnected experiences -- a good one, then a not-so-good one -- and they want us to fix it," said Tom Hoch, president of the Hennepin Theatre Trust. "Maybe after seeing a show, they had to walk back to their car past some boarded-up storefronts in a semi-deserted area, and they're saying, 'Hey, you brought us down here to the theater, do something about it.' That was a real a-ha moment, for us to hear that."

The goal, he said is to fill in less-inviting spots with pockets of green space, funky restaurants, small shops and lofts.

The initiative, called Plan-It Hennepin, led by the avenue's art powerhouses, the city of Minneapolis and funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, encourages anyone who uses the avenue to add their improvement ideas to the pot. The coalition envisions a Hennepin Avenue that will culminate in a restored Gateway Park, once located between the river and where the Central Library now sits.

Some might say Hennepin Avenue is already chock-full of culture, with Hennepin Theatre Trust's four stages, the Cowles Center and several smaller venues already established. Hoch doesn't dispute that, but wants to bring more foot traffic to an urban core that is already above-average on that score.

"Most downtowns would be ecstatic to bring 515,000 downtown to the theater like we did last year," said Hoch, who is also the current board chair of the Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District. "But we could bring so many more. We need to disabuse people of the notion that they have to park right next to where they're going and just have one experience when they can have three or four -- dinner, a show, a cabaret."

Hoch, who has pounded the pavement of Hennepin all his life -- he worked as a Best Steakhouse busboy on the avenue when he was in high school -- said he's seen a lot of plans for the avenue come and go and is convinced that an arts-driven process buoyed by public input can set a path for success over the next 10 years, if the economy continues to recover.

The coalition sees its job as setting the stage, perhaps launching a few storefront projects to encourage a "tipping point" at which private developers will come on board, he said.

"We want this to be an organic plan that comes from a constellation of people, especially those who will be consumers," he said. "So far we've heard they don't want us to sanitize it, they don't want to feel like they're in a mall," he said. "Trust me, there will be plenty of urban grit left."

From dust to development

In the beginning, grit was all there was. Hennepin Avenue began as a 17th-century footpath that Dakota villagers used to travel between two points of water -- Lake Calhoun and the Mississippi, where they struck up trading relationships with French fur trappers.

"There was a natural sort of transportation route for gathering, hunting, fishing," said Syd Beane, an Indian historian, descendant of one of those villages and a panelist on Talk-It Hennepin, the series of public conversations and the first phase of the yearlong Plan-It process. "They traveled the route where food was most abundant." (It will be again, when Lunds and Whole Foods open their planned downtown stores.)

The first bridge over the river was built in 1855, on roughly the same path as the present-day Hennepin Avenue Bridge. The city's first downtown business district formed between the bridge's head and where Hennepin and Nicollet used to converge, now the site of the ING Reliastar building (formerly known as Northwestern National Life).

In 1873, the first City Hall was built there. Later, the triangular-shaped building was razed and this plot of land became the site of the Gateway Pavilion and Park, which was meant to welcome visitors into the city as they arrived from a nearby train station. It was also meant to "clean up" Bridge Square, which had become a home of sorts to the migrant workers who filtered in and out of the city between seasonal jobs, said Penny Petersen, a Minneapolis historian who will also speak on the Talk-It panel.

"City leaders liked the migrant workers well enough when they were needed for harvesting logs or the grain that kept the mills running, but had no use for them otherwise," she said. "In time, the Gateway was viewed as part of the problem rather than a solution, as the homeless and elderly men living on meager pensions or Social Security continued to occupy the neighborhood as it offered cheap restaurants and lodgings."

In the early 1950s, the pavilion was razed and the park fenced off. An urban-renewal project leveled close to 40 percent of the downtown area "on the assumption that once the 'bums' were chased away, developers would flock to the area," Petersen said. Other than the Northwestern National Life Building, "much of the area remained a sea of surface parking lots," she said. "The effects of this urban clear-cutting remain with us today. Go take a look at what was Bridge Square -- you won't see much street life in that barren, wind-swept place."

Tom Borrup of Creative Community Builders, who is consulting on the project, points to cities like Portland, Ore., and Vancouver as examples of urban cores that offer visitors a cohesive experience.

"We want Hennepin to do what it's always done best -- be a place of cultural exchange," Borrup said. "It started out that way with people of different cultures trading goods, and whether it's fur pelts or musicals, it should be a place where people from different cultures can share space and safely travel through."

For more information on the project, see www.hennepintheatretrust. org/plan-it.

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046