A dozen years ago, Hennepin County made a mistake that it shouldn’t now repeat. It rebuilt a major roadway without noticing that the neighborhood around it was in the throes of a transformation that required a different kind of road altogether.
As a result, Minneapolis’ North Loop was left with a “new” version of the same ugly Washington Avenue, designed mainly to accommodate the truck traffic of a bygone era rather than the needs of a booming residential population. Handcuffed by misguided state guidelines that forbade trees in historic settings, the $8.4 million project excluded landscaping as well as bike lanes, parking bays, broad sidewalks, bump-outs and other pedestrian amenities that would have matched the district’s changing character and hastened its retail and residential revival.
Now, to its credit, the county staff has approached the rebuilding of Washington Avenue’s other end — the segment running through the Mill District — with eyes wide open to the street’s evolving context. After more than a year of town meetings and workshops, plus an exhaustive traffic report, the staff has designed an attractive street that includes all of the aforementioned elements and reflects a downtown that’s slowly learning how to be a 24-hour city.
Trouble is, the Hennepin County Board isn’t totally on board, so the project is on hold. Some commissioners are worried about the plan’s main attribute: narrowing the auto portion of the street from seven lanes to five and devoting the extra space to landscaping, bikes and pedestrians. But that’s the sensible approach.
The staff’s 73-page traffic analysis endorses the new five-lane alignment as long as certain turn lanes are kept and traffic signals are properly timed. In addition, a new freeway ramp feeding northbound Interstate 35W from 4th Street, near the new Vikings stadium, will greatly improve the district’s traffic flow when it opens next year. No, traffic backups along Washington won’t disappear altogether. But successful cities draw heavy traffic; the absence of any congestion would be a far bigger concern.
The broader point is that today’s downtown streets are no longer just funnels for morning and afternoon commuter traffic; they’re places where residents — even families — live and work.
“These new kinds of multiuse streets represent a cultural shift for us, and so it’s hard for everyone to understand,” said David Wilson, managing director at Accenture and a key player in the Downtown Council’s efforts to retrofit the city’s streets to meet the new market. “We have to ask the question of why we love to walk around cities like New York, Boston and Chicago, but not Minneapolis. The answer is that they have, for the most part, slower traffic, narrower streets and far more sidewalk amenities.”
Indeed, the county’s new design for Washington Avenue matches perfectly the Downtown Council’s vision and fulfills two important goals of its 2025 plan: softening Washington as a barrier between downtown and the river; and providing a scenic, seamless connection between downtown and the University of Minnesota. It also encourages downtown population growth — the plan’s top priority.
The segment now being considered runs only six blocks, from Hennepin to 5th Avenue. The next segment, running another eight blocks to 35W, isn’t yet scheduled for reconstruction, but the overall design would be consistent: five lanes of two-way traffic, several additional turn lanes, no planted median, parking bays southeast of 5th Avenue, protected bike lanes (cycle tracks) on each side, pedestrian green spaces that are a third wider than current sidewalks, and bump-outs that reduce pedestrian crossing distances by as much as one-third. (Sidewalk cafes and more extensive landscaping could be possible if one or both bike lanes were moved to parallel streets.)
“These are the kinds of streets that are now the default position in urban America,” said county commissioner Peter McLaughlin. As with other urban transportation investments, they’re meant not just to provide mobility but also to encourage redevelopment. St. Louis Park’s Excelsior Boulevard offers perhaps the best local example. Once a forlorn thoroughfare lined with threadbare strip malls, it’s now a beautifully landscaped and lighted street that draws impressive investment. Washington Avenue could do as well if commissioners give it the green light.