New housing is finally rising around the metro area’s fifth-busiest transit hub at Lake Street and Hiawatha Avenue S. Whether those residents will want to walk to the nearby grocery stores is another matter.
The intersection remains one of Minneapolis’ most confusing and uninviting spaces for people on foot, despite the number of people — about 1,000 — who walk through it every day, heading to and from Target, Cub, South High School, the light rail station and Hi-Lake shopping center. It is dominated by a highway bridge installed just 20 years ago, hardly a relic of the ’60s freeway-building era.
Eight sloping curves at Lake Street deliver vehicles at high speed to and from Hwy. 55, as pedestrians are forced to maneuver four zigzagging crosswalks beneath the bridge. Buttons can take several minutes to summon walk signals. Signs at Lake Street warning pedestrians “No Trespassing – State Law” have even become fodder for ironic neighborhood photo opps.
“I’m always worried that somebody’s not going to see me when I go across, and hit me, because my wheelchair is down low,” said Paula Gleisberg, after crossing the intersection on a recent afternoon.
“You’ve got to be on your toes,” said another walker, Charlie Rogers. “I’ve seen people almost get run over here.”
Neighbors are taking the issue head-on, launching a “Humanize Hi-Lake” campaign to reclaim the intersection from vehicle-dominated design. If their effort pays off — they’ve already grabbed the attention of local officials — it could offer lessons for other neighborhoods facing similar challenges.
“If you think of great cities of the world, where two major roads cross, that’s where stuff is happening,” said Phillip Koski, an architect on the board of the Corcoran Neighborhood Organization, amid the bustling traffic one recent afternoon. “And this is the opposite. This is like cratered-out opportunity.”
Ideas include simplifying crosswalks, eliminating sweeping vehicle curves, finding uses for large empty spaces, reconfiguring or nixing highway ramps, adding bike lanes, barring right turns on red, improving lighting and tweaking signal timing. Improvements have been attempted before, such as in 2007 when the addition of pedestrian islands (known as pork chops, because of their shape) shortened crossing lengths but doubled the number of crosswalks.
City and county officials have been meeting with neighborhood representatives about how to improve the intersection and a consultant has been drafted to aid in decisionmaking. The Minnesota Department of Transportation, which owns the bridge and the highway, has been a part of the discussions.
“We really want to wrap our arms around the concerns there, and the opportunities to potentially address them,” said Jenifer Hager, the city’s director of transportation planning and programming. One option being studied is swapping the current design, featuring one set of centralized traffic signals and long vehicle turns, for one resembling two traditional intersections.
Handling Hiawatha Avenue traffic long has been controversial, dating to the 1970s backlash against the state’s ill-fated attempt to convert the roadway into a full-blown freeway. Hiawatha Avenue met Lake Street at street level until the 1990s, when the bridge was constructed to alleviate congestion. It opened to traffic in 1999.
The overpass was divisive enough that the City Council had to override a mayoral veto to approve it in 1992. Mayor Don Fraser wanted more study of a plan to widen Hiawatha at street level to 12 lanes, with a bridge for pedestrians.
The lone dissenting council vote, Jim Niland, disagreed with the overpass’ purpose of accommodating more vehicle traffic. “You cannot just keep building to let more and more cars pass through,” he said at the time.
Plans for the bridge in 1993 show that some design elements were ultimately included for pedestrians. The walls were divided in a manner emulating “traditional Lake Street storefronts.” Blue bath tile was added for “visual interest.”
“The bulk of the discussion was about traffic flow,” recalled Jeff Spartz, a former county commissioner who chaired the construction review committee. “I think we acknowledged the need for pedestrians to get through there, but we did not go into that in depth.”
Between bus and light-rail traffic, the intersection is now the fifth-busiest transit hub in the metro area, according to Metro Transit. About 1,000 pedestrians pass through every day, based on traffic counts. Yet development there has remained largely stagnant until now.
Sixty-four new affordable senior apartments have opened on the northwest corner. Another affordable housing project with 135 units is planned just south of the light rail station. Most significantly, however, Hennepin County plans to break ground this fall on the 115-unit first phase of a development that will transform the southwestern corner into a major center of housing, retail and government services.
That’s bringing more attention — and more people — to the area. Eric Gustafson, executive director of the Corcoran neighborhood, pointed to the new senior apartments during a recent tour. “If your grandma lived there, would you send her across the street to pick up a prescription at Target pharmacy?”