Big dreams for the reconstruction of the Hennepin-Lyndale bottleneck are giving way to lowered expectations.
The preliminary designs unveiled at a public open house last month provoked some residents and transit advocates to protest that the new intersection will not be much better than the current one.
Now community members are scaling back their vision of the area as the gem of the city.
“It should be a stately, beautiful boulevard,” said Craig Wilson, a Minneapolis sustainability consultant and former president of the Lowry Hill Neighborhood Association. “It should be our Champs-Élysées, and it’s anything but that.”
The $9.1 million project, funded largely by a $7.3 million federal grant, would reconstruct pavement, curbs, gutters, pedestrian ramps, striping, lighting and storm sewers, update pedestrian and bicycle crossways and rebuild traffic signals. Construction will likely begin next year.
City officials say the reconstruction is an opportunity to revamp the intersection based on what stakeholders want, but some community members say their voices haven’t been heard.
More than 150 people attended the first of three community meetings on the project March 25.
“I went to the open house, and I didn’t really feel like they were making an effort to reach out to people or gather input before that meeting, or even after,” said Anton Schieffer, who blogs for the transit website Streets.mn.
The 11-lane intersection is a headache for pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists alike. For years, transit activists have dreamed up alternative designs, including changes as dramatic as building a roundabout or eliminating through traffic.
‘Distinct project limits’
Little drama was visible in the plan unveiled last month. Project engineer Ole Mersinger said the reconstruction is still in early planning stages, but federal grant guidelines will constrain its ambition. While elements such as landscaping and crosswalk design may change, the bottleneck’s basic layout won’t.
“We do have pretty distinct project limits that the federal funding applies to,” he said.
Even before the city applied for the grant, there wasn’t much opportunity for community input.
“Did we do any formal community engagement at that point? No, and that is not unusual,” said Minneapolis principal professional engineer Jenifer Hager.
In 2011, city officials talked to the Pedestrian Advisory Committee and Bicycle Advisory Committee about proposed improvements in the grant application. Pedestrian committee member Scott Engel said it seemed that, with the application deadline approaching, city officials weren’t looking for much feedback.
Hager said preliminary plans were designed to meet grant criteria such as easing congestion, improving safety and air quality, moving cars more efficiently and improving the area for pedestrians and bicyclists.
A more dramatic redesign could potentially have met those criteria, she said, but lack of space in the area limited the possibilities.
Ethan Fawley, executive director of the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition, said these types of projects often favor motorists, but he was still struck by the reconstruction’s car-centered approach.
“This is a fairly startling version because it’s such a high-profile project,” he said.
Big ideas go way back
Bigger ideas have been kicked around for years. In 2008, about 100 community members, local designers and architects met at the Walker Art Center to brainstorm redesigns for the bottleneck.
John Van Heel, a Loring Park neighborhood organization board member and the group’s former president, said the participants split into two factions: those pursuing ambitious ideas and those interested in working within the corridor’s existing configuration.
When the recession hit, reconstruction was delayed and ideas developed at the meeting never came to fruition.
“With what is happening now,” he said, “I think it is in line with the more conservative approach of seeing the corridor basically as it is.”
A few years later, a neighborhood-endorsed plan to revamp a large median near the Walker Art Center was put on hold. Wilson said the fully funded project was ready to start, but the city suggested waiting until the reconstruction project.
Some ideas took root
Still, some suggestions have already made it into the reconstruction — including improvements area residents have asked for, such as pedestrian access.
City engineers presented revised plans to the Pedestrian Advisory Committee on Thursday, and two more open houses are planned.
The Pedestrian Advisory Committee will likely suggest improvements in May, Engel said. Additionally, Van Heel said a committee is being organized by the Lowry Hill and Loring Park neighborhood organizations to pursue other improvements like narrowing traffic lanes to make more space for pedestrians and bicyclists.
City officials have expressed support for those ideas, Wilson said.
“I entirely expect we’re going to see changes to [the initial] plan as we gather input from the different stakeholders of the project,” Mersinger said.
Emma Nelson is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.