Tired of cars whizzing through their neighborhood at the expense of pedestrians and local retailers, residents of the East Hennepin area are pushing to eliminate one-way traffic on two key streets.

The conversion of Hennepin and 1st Avenues from one-way to two-way streets is the top transportation priority of the Nicollet Island - East Bank neighborhood's draft plan for their area -- now under consideration at City Hall. Those plans, drafted by neighborhoods and approved by the City Council, help guide future development and infrastructure decisions.

"If you want to … restore the old East Hennepin commercial district, the fact that you have one-way Hennepin and 1st [Avenues is] really harmful to trying to get that done," said Victor Grambsch, president of the neighborhood association. Not only is it harder to woo customers traveling a high speeds, Grambsch said, but one-way streets make navigation of a commercial area more cumbersome.

Vehicles now enjoy three lanes of one-way traffic between downtown and 7th Street NE on Hennepin and 1st Avenues, a corridor that passes local landmarks like Nye's Polonaise and Surdyk's. In 2009, the two avenues were converted to two-way streets in the downtown core.

The neighborhood is already facing resistance from Hennepin County, which owns the road.

J. Michael Noonan, administrator of the county's office of strategic planning, wrote in draft comments that, "Impacts of one-way to two-way roadway conversions affect traffic operations and safety by increasing conflicts and the potential for crashes....Hennepin County does not currently support this proposed change."

Another major difficulty will be determining how the new two-way streets would flow onto the Hennepin Avenue bridge, which is comprised of two one-way corridors. Grambsch said a specialized intersection would be required.

Grambsch said the neighborhood will likely compromise on some of the language, but added that local leaders need to view streets as being home to more than just cars.

"There’s this famous line from George Clemenceau about 'War is too important to leave to the generals,' Grambsch said. "And I think that we want to go with: 'Use of the street is too important to leave to traffic engineers.' There is just simply many more uses of the street than moving cars.” 

These segments of Hennepin and 1st Avenues carry 15,300 and 10,300 cars per day, respectively, the county said. Grambsch observed only during rush hour do the streets fill up, however.

“You really have to separate rush hour, say 4 until 5:30 business day, from all other times," Grambsch said. "Because at other times, one lane of traffic in either direction on Hennepin is completely adequate for the traffic."

Following the conversion of Hennepin and 1st Avenues downtown, the city discovered that the volume of traffic accidents actually decreased.

Specifically, the neighborhood's plan would convert three 12-foot, one-way drive lanes into two 11-foot drive lanes and one turn lane. That would allow room for a tree-lined boulevard, which is known to calm traffic. See the diagram below.

Another factor in the potential conversion of the streets across the river are plans to run a streetcar into the area. Plans drawn up by the neighborhood envision it traveling in mixed traffic along one of the drive lanes on Hennepin Avenue, possibly beside a new protected bike lane.

“You have to interpret the street as not just cars both moving and parked, but also pedestrians and business and all the other users of the street," Grambsch said.

Council Member Jacob Frey, who represents the area, noted that proposals for a high-rise building on the Washburn-McReavy site and a to-be-determined high-rise building at the Superior Plating site are illustrative of a vibrant and rapidly evolving neighborhood.

“It’s still very much so an on-ramp and an off-ramp for large segments of the day,” Frey said of the street. “This measure would be designed to move away from that.”

The draft neighborhood plan will be discussed by the planning commission's committee of the whole on August 28. It must then be approved by the City Council.

Above Right Photo: The opening of the East Hennepin Bridge in 1974.