Most of Penn Avenue N. is a means to an end -- a road used to get somewhere else, not a place where drivers are likely to make a stop along the way.
The broad avenue provides a reliable north-south link within the city and connects to east-west thoroughfares headed to the suburbs, but Minneapolis and Hennepin County have a vision to make it more: a magnet for housing, small business and transit connections.
"We want the county roads to be amenities, not simply raceways," said Hennepin County Board Chairman Mike Opat. "We're going to try to make it easier for pedestrians, more conducive to business and just try to increase the energy, activity and property values."
Penn Avenue N. takes drivers from Interstate 394 to 44th Avenue N., passing through the Bryn Mawr neighborhood's downtown hub, with a coffee shop and other boutiques, past stretches of humble to dilapidated single-family homes, and across tornado-stricken W. Broadway to south of Victory Memorial Drive.
Patrick Connoy, senior administrative manager for the county's Penn Avenue Community Works Project and a North Side native, will steer the effort, focusing on livability, small-business job creation, beautification and economic recovery. In the coming month, he expects to have at least the outlines of a plan -- with a lot of citizen input. "What we're trying to do is a thoughtful, thorough, open, collaborative process," he said.
The roadway was considered as a route for the Bottineau light-rail transit line, but the route now under consideration is farther west through the suburbs. The Penn project would aim to build on that LRT route by carving North Side links to the train, which will travel between downtown Minneapolis and Brooklyn Park.
Minneapolis City Council President Barbara Johnson said a key will be a light-rail station at Golden Valley Road. Her goal: "Getting North Side residents the kind of transit amenities available all over town," Johnson said.
A streetcar down W. Broadway is another possibility she envisions as an adjunct to Penn. The idea for the city-county Penn project is "taking advantage to think long-term about how we put all our resources together along an arterial corridor," Johnson said.
Rejuvenating the avenue will mean structural changes to the roadway as well as investment in the residential bricks and mortar and commercial projects. Flooding and stormwater matters will be addressed along with lighting, bikeways and traffic flow. Opat noted the confusing area at 44th and Penn, where he counted eight different roads and alleys drivers could take. "You could have a very nice commercial corner there and traffic might work better," he said.
Comment from neighborhoods along the roadway will be the first thing the county seeks in the coming year. "A lot of what we want to do is figuring out what we want to do. We don't have any skin on these bones yet," said County Board Member Linda Higgins, who just took over as the board's representative in the area. Her district encompasses many of the neighborhoods that will be asked for ideas, including Bryn Mawr, Harrison, Near North, Willard Hay, Jordan, Folwell, Cleveland, Victory and Shingle Creek.
In addition, nonprofits such as the Pohlad and McKnight foundations already have been in preliminary discussions about possible roles.
The savage tornadoes of 2011 helped focus city and county attention on the area. Last December, the city adopted the broad outlines of a 38-block redevelopment plan for the southern stretch largely in the Jordan and Willard Hay neighborhoods. In May, the county board formally designated its own redevelopment area. The plan is to work together in these high-crime neighborhoods, often mentioned as redevelopment targets that rarely get realized. The Jordan neighborhood, a perennial hot spot for violent crime, also got whacked by the housing foreclosure crisis and the tornado.
The destruction left "lots of vacant lots," Higgins said.
Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747 Twitter: @rochelleolson