Hennepin Avenue in Uptown is a dusty, muddied, ripped-up, detour-ridden mess, thanks to a $34 million major reconstruction of the Minneapolis thoroughfare that's challenging motorists, pedestrians and businesses.

And it won't be over any time soon; the current closure — between Lake Street and W. 26th Street — is slated to be done by Thanksgiving. Then next year, Phase 2: from 26th to Douglas Avenue, north of Franklin.

City leaders and engineers say the work is sorely needed, but they know it's painful.

"It looks a little tough out there," said Adam Hayow, project manager for the city. Crosswalks are dirt, sidewalks are detoured, and drivers are forced to navigate a series of cones and barricades that can challenge their patience.

The construction prompted the Uptown Art Fair to cancel what would have been its 60th annual festival. Instead, Bachman's in far southwest Minneapolis will host an arts event.

Every Uptown business is still open and accessible, technically.

"It's bad, I'm not gonna lie, said Phonsuda Chanthavisouk, co-owner of Tii Cup, a bubble tea, Thai street food and cocktail lounge that opened just north of 27th Street in April — just before city contractors closed the street and began tearing apart everything.

And by everything, we mean everything: the sidewalk; the street; the brick, iron and wooden ties of streetcar lines beneath the street; the substrate beneath that; the storm sewers and sanitary sewers beneath that. Lead water lines, aged natural-gas lines and any manner of dirt, buried litter and archaeological detritus has been unearthed in what engineers call a "full reconstruction."

"Building face to building face," Hayow said.

What's being done

In addition to all that infrastructure being replaced, as well as Xcel Energy burying electric cables that are currently overhead, Hennepin will get a full makeover with the features typical of many new Minneapolis streets.

Among the changes:

  • Sidewalks will be easier to use, with consistent widths and a strip of vegetation planted next to the curb.
  • A two-way protected bike lane will run along the east side of the street.
  • Outside lanes on the two-way, four-lane street will become "transit priority" during rush hours, when only buses will be allowed in those lanes and parking will be banned for all but a few loading areas.
  • New signals, crosswalks and intersection designs, such as bump-out corners, are intended to improve safety.

In addition, Metro Transit is using the moment to prepare Lake Street and Lagoon Avenue for its bus rapid transit project, the B Line, which involves elevated bus stations and changes to the streets themselves. So Lake and Lagoon, while open to traffic, are partly ripped up, too.

"We're ripping the Band-Aid off," said City Council Vice President Aisha Chughtai, who represents the east side of Hennepin. "We could hypothesize about the best time to do it, but I think it's a good thing that this lines up with Lake Street B Line."

Why it's needed

The last time the 1.4-mile stretch of Hennepin Avenue S. was reconstructed was more than 65 years ago. Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, and the only pro sports team in town was the Minneapolis Lakers.

"It's in really poor condition," Hayow said of the infrastructure.

Council Member Katie Cashman, who represents the west side of Hennepin Avenue S., said the "catastrophic" risk of a ruptured sewer line or water main is well-known. "Remember the sinkhole at 27th and Girard last summer?" she said in an email to a reporter, recalling a crater created by a 120-year-old ruptured sewer line.

Why now?

Planning for the project began before 2018. The timeline fell into place after federal funding was secured before the pandemic, and work was slated to start in 2023.

But with Uptown reeling from the pandemic and property damage following the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the killing of Winston Smith in 2021, the city asked the federal government for more time. Federal transportation officials granted the city one more year. In other words, the work had to happen now, or tens of millions of dollars in federal funds would be withheld, several officials said.

Both Cashman and Chughtai said the project will be worth it in the long run, with Chughtai calling it a "generational investment." However, she noted, "What we do right now to get through the work, that's the hardest part."

Both council members are hoping to allocate new funds to help local businesses make it through the construction.

Business owners like Tii Cup's Chanthavisouk, who said she's optimistic for Uptown's future, are looking forward to the fall when Hennepin reopens. "I have faith," she said.

A few blocks away, Chela Lazo looked out over the dirt mounds from her newly opened barber shop on a recent afternoon. "It makes me sad, but maybe little by little, customers will come, and then they'll tell their friends, and more will come, and then the construction will be done, and people will walk by and see a busy barber shop," she said.