Facing up to the lost-in-Eden Prairie problem, the city's Chamber of Commerce is calling for more than 100 new road signs to direct drivers to and from the Eden Prairie Center shopping mall and the surrounding business district.
City officials are sizing up the feasibility and cost of the proposal to see where it may fit in a tight 2008 budget, which now tentatively includes $1.7 million for streetscaping and signs. Before Thanksgiving, Eden Prairie Center plans to put up 18 signs at its own expense at all six of its exits to guide shoppers back to major highways on their trip home.
"I have never worked in a community where there were so many challenges in terms of the road layout," said Nancy Litwin, general manager of the mall.
The new signs "should be a very positive thing for motorists, shoppers, visitors -- anyone coming into and out of the area."
Eden Prairie's winding streets have confused motorists since the 1980s but have become a bigger problem in recent years as new shops, restaurants and theaters have drawn more people. The shopping mall, City Hall and the chamber regularly field calls from people who can't find their way in or out of town.
How did an otherwise well-planned community wind up with such a tangled street system? Longtime Public Works Director Eugene Dietz said it wasn't for lack of effort.
Several consulting engineering firms were called in the early 1980s to help Eden Prairie figure out how to fit a road system among lakes, wetlands and the convergence of several freeways, Dietz said. "We had [the best minds] in the metropolitan area working on a solution for this. This wasn't just the independent thought of local people."
A big problem was that there wasn't space for a standard interchange on Interstate 494 that would have routed drivers right to the mall.
"That is the one piece that has been missing," said David Lindahl, the city's economic development manager. "Usually when you are driving down a freeway and you see a major mall, you get off at an exit on a road that takes you right there."
Precisely, Dietz said: "If people could come to one interchange, and then go back to the same interchange and go home, this wouldn't be a problem."
Instead drivers must find their way into the city from several freeway exits. Once off the freeway they must take a loop -- formed by Prairie Center Drive and Valley View Road -- through the commercial district. The circle often leaves drivers clueless about what direction they are going.
Dietz admits that the ring "is a crummy solution." But, he said, the city's topography left no room for an easily navigated grid with square intersections.
To remedy the problem, the Eden Prairie Chamber of Commerce recommends that the city paste the area with new signs to direct motorists to major highways. It has prescribed nearly 60 "Eden Prairie Ring Road" signs for the Prairie Center Drive and Valley View Road circle to let drivers know they're on a loop.
The chamber's concern is that the city not lose business because it's hard to get around, said chamber President Pat MulQueeny. The mall alone has 14 million visitors a year, he said. "Our goal is to help them find their way to and from their destination."
Lindahl supports the new signage but said he likes to think the quirky road layout adds charm. There's no evidence that Eden Prairie is losing business because of driving hassles, he said. "If you look at the success of the Eden Prairie Center and a lot of the other retailers -- people are finding their way even through there might be a little frustration."
Laurie Blake 612-673-1711