For decades, the hourglass-shaped intersection of Lyndale and Hennepin avenues has been known as the Bottleneck, a crowded junction where cars, bicycles, pedestrians and, once upon a time, streetcars all merged in seemingly endless traffic jams.
A recently completed reconstruction project on the northern end of the Bottleneck (between Vineland Place and Douglas Avenue) has resulted in improved turn lanes, additional green space, new pedestrian-scale lighting and attractive bands of pavers. When the landscaping is completed in the spring, the additional green space and better bicycle and pedestrian crossings will be even more evident.
The $9 million, two-year project clearly made the revamped intersection more attractive and functional. And pedestrians no longer need to run to make the lights anymore. But the project didn’t include the biggest challenge for the Bottleneck: rethinking the massive and pedestrian-unfriendly “spaghetti junction” to the south (between Douglas and Franklin) and restoring what was once a landmark setting.
The city has yet to address how future planning for the entire Bottleneck can help to reintegrate the city after a generation of evisceration by freeways.
The Bottleneck, now more than a century old, is a living example of the evolution of urban planning, or lack thereof. In 1883, landscape architect H.W.S. Cleveland developed a visionary plan for Minneapolis’ parks that designated Hennepin and Lyndale as parkways — verdant, wide avenues suitable for strolling or carriage rides. But with a growing population and an increase in streetcars, Hennepin and Lyndale soon became commercial thoroughfares south to Lake Street.
Around 1900, the junction of these two avenues and nearby Loring Park became the cultural heart of the city. Here, at the foot of Lowry Hill, the archdiocese built the Basilica of St. Mary, Episcopalians constructed St. Mark’s on Loring Park and just to the south, the majestic Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church rose.
In 1927, the Walker Art Gallery opened on Vineland Place. These institutions, along with 510 Groveland and the Armory Gardens (now the site of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden), created a cultural district that evoked the civility of European cities.
But by the late 1940s, the Bottleneck had turned into a cacophony of streetcars, pedestrians, trucks and a rising tide of cars. Traffic and honored cultural institutions grew up as neighbors side by side.
And then came the freeway.
Looking back, many wonder why city leaders, planners and traffic engineers in the 1960s routed Interstate 94 through this crowded junction, which had already acquired its Bottleneck moniker. Through a tangle of underpasses, elevated flyovers and a daunting merge point, they bluntly layered freeway speeds and scale onto old city streets. Several blocks of commercial and residential buildings were demolished to create what urbanist Jane Jacobs called a “border vacuum.”
Ever since then, this pivotal city space has looked less like a cultural hub and more like a freeway on-ramp.
Room for new thinking
In 1956, the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act funded freeways to connect cities, but not to slice through them. Yet soon, nearly every U.S. city began to build freeways straight into their downtowns, and often in a tight loop around them.
That’s how downtown Minneapolis came to be surrounded by a sunken trench of freeways and the Mississippi River. The old graceful transitions between neighborhoods, like Whittier and Phillips, and downtown vanished. And downtown itself became an island.
It’s time to build a new kind of bridge — a civic bridge. Given its great architecture and central location, the Bottleneck is one the best locations to start.
Today, planners and transportation advocates nationwide are reconsidering historic precedents long dismissed as impractical, such a return to two-way streets, traffic circles and smaller blocks. They are challenging the conventional wisdom and creating data-driven alternatives for how to update freeways, reconnect historic districts and provide a range of transportation options.
For areas like the Bottleneck and other “border vacuums” across the Twin Cities, here are four urban design strategies we should consider:
Re-create the grid: One of the best ways to mitigate the impact of urban freeways is to rebuild the city grid around them. At the Bottleneck, rather than long exit ramps and merge lanes onto city streets, traffic exiting the freeway should be slowed as quickly as possible, preferably coming up to traffic lights. There, drivers can opt to turn left or right or go forward as in traditional grid intersections. Returning to the grid creates clearly defined crosswalks for pedestrians and slows traffic entering local streets.
Frame the streets: As the grid is rebuilt, the footprints of old freeway ramps and right-of-ways can be filled in with new taxpaying development. Streets such as Hennepin and Lyndale can become distinct public spaces again, linear outdoor rooms framed by building facades that come up to the sidewalk, with trees to blunt the sun and noise from the traffic.
Develop a seamless pedestrian experience: Unobstructed vistas down the streets framed by buildings can help to create a sense of connection for several blocks. Currently, in many locations, freeways create a visual gap or obstruction that severs neighborhoods.
Create mixed uses along the way: Once it’s easier to walk along Hennepin and Lyndale avenues, and from Loring Park to the Walker Art Center, small-scale businesses and attractions such as coffee shops and pocket dog parks can spring up. They help create a sense of variety and engagement.
These strategies are now being tested as cities such as Boston and San Francisco try to redress their freeway-centric pasts. Can Minneapolis embrace such new thinking?
Frank Edgerton Martin is a Minneapolis-based writer and landscape historian.