To planners, street furniture isn't the source of a college student's next sofa.

Instead, it's the bus shelters and benches, newspaper boxes, kiosks, signposts, litter bins and other structures that populate a sidewalk.

Minneapolis is out for a more coordinated look. The city is holding an open house on Wednesday to gather public comment on three competing proposals before deciding which private firm will get a contract to supply new street furniture.

The city wants its new furniture to be coordinated -- but not identical -- so it's recognizable no matter where it's placed in the city.

Besides that coordination, the city's goal is to place sidewalk items to avoid blocking pedestrians and bus-boarders, as well as to have better-maintained furniture and make some money from ads the winning proposer sells on the furniture.

Another goal is cutting clutter on the streets. But not everyone thinks clutter is bad for a streetscape.

"Clutter is actually good for cities," said Larry Millett, an author on local architectural history. That's what he told an audience last week at Mill City Museum, where he spoke on the city's downtown architecture before urban renewal.

The sidewalks of Minneapolis once presented a visual mosaic ranging from more haphazardly placed hydrants and street signs to the clocks that stood as advertisements in front of jewelry stores, Millett said in an interview.

"It actually adds to the texture or granularity of the city," he said of such clutter. In stressing coordination of street furnishings, he said, "You have to really be careful that you don't create an antiseptic environment."

He said overplanning and over-design can turn a city's streets into the equivalent of the houses that appear in architectural magazines that look as though no one lives there. "Let the city breathe a little bit," he said.

The city's current contract for bus benches and shelters expires next year. Its request for proposals has drawn responses from three companies. Public works officials hope to begin installing the new street furniture late next year under a 20-year contract.

Larger cities such as Boston or Vancouver have reaped as much as $1.6 million annually from their cut of money from ad sales on street furniture. Minneapolis plans to require that some of the ad space be available to nonprofit, arts and social service groups.

The winner is expected to provide and maintain the new furniture, so there's no cost to the city.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438