Long cut off from downtown Minneapolis and much of the city by a crisscross of highways, the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood is on the verge of a transformation that will open its sweeping views of downtown and make it easier for bikers and pedestrians to get around.

On the heels of a $100 million-plus update of the colorful Riverside Plaza apartment towers, changes to the neighborhood include adding a second light-rail stop, widening busy Cedar Avenue S. and redirecting 5th Street as a link to downtown.

“Our hope is to get something done in that area as soon as feasible,” said Debra Brisk, assistant Hennepin County administrator for public works.

A drive along Cedar now means dodging jaywalkers or braking for an unexpected light that exists solely for pedestrians crossing in front of Nomad World Pub and Palmer’s Bar.

Brisk noted that the urban area is one of Hennepin County’s most heavily traveled by pedestrians. The neighborhood is home to more than 8,000 people, and thousands more students from the University of Minnesota and Augsburg College pass through it on a daily basis.

Lined with edgy bars, scruffy grocery stores, a landmark outdoor outfitter as well as coffeehouses, bike shops and other businesses, Cedar also serves as a swift passageway for commuters into and out of downtown Minneapolis who catch a quick glimpse of the primary-colored panels of Riverside Plaza.

For four decades, the distinctive buildings, placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2010, have served as the first home of immigrants in the neighborhood at the nexus of Interstates 94 and 35W.

On Thursday, Minneapolis learned it had won a state grant of $6.8 million to redirect the S. 5th Street exit off westbound 94 and create a new exit on S. 7th Street. The project isn’t expected to start until 2015, but the city hopes to use 5th Street to connect Cedar-Riverside to downtown.

“The whole idea behind that project and what we’re trying to do all over the city is to be multimodal,” said Steven Hay, Minneapolis transportation planner.

New streetscape

Even before that announcement, Minneapolis and Hennepin County were planning changes to the Cedar Avenue streetscape. Each invested $300,000 to study how to make the passage more pedestrian-friendly.

The preliminary plan for Cedar Avenue is to narrow the street from four lanes to three with one in each direction and a center turn lane. The sidewalks will be widened to meet federal access standards for the disabled. Design plans get tricky because the county wants to preserve trees lining the roadway. “If you start knocking down the trees, you lose your whole idea of what that area is,” Brisk said.

The overall overhaul is already underway.

The towers underwent a public and privately funded refurbishment of more than $100 million that included improvements in ventilation and soundproofing as well as the prominent repainting of the red, yellow and blue panels. Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin noted that upgrade as a reason to continue to invest in the area.

Second light-rail stop

Perhaps the biggest change coming: a second light-rail stop. Area residents already use the Hiawatha light-rail stop on the southern end of the neighborhood. Next year, the West Bank stop of the Central Corridor is to open.

At the turn of the past century, Cedar-Riverside, named for the two main avenues, was called the “Snoose Neighborhood” for the large population of Scandinavian immigrants. At mid-century it became a haven for hippies, artists and intellectuals. In recent years, it’s been a landing pad for east Africans.

Cedar-Riverside hasn’t always had the best reputation. The residential towers have been called the “Crack Stacks” and the busy bars have at times been the site of crimes and frequent complaints. The neighborhood now is home to many residents of Somali heritage, including Ali Jama, whose parents emigrated to the United States. He has lived in the towers for several years and was walking in the area this week. He welcomes transit improvements and traffic-calming measures, saying the street can be dicey to cross because of the heavy and swift traffic. “It’s a hassle,” he said, adding that he approves of enhancing the streetscapes and sidewalks. “It would be more accessible and people won’t be using cars as much.”

He noted that the neighborhood embraces the streets and transit already — especially in the evenings. “Everybody’s just outside,” he said.

Jama said he owns a car, but takes light rail to his job with Delta Air Lines at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

Design, cost questions

That section of Cedar is a county road, so the county will lead the project, but Minneapolis also has plans for surrounding areas, including the reconstruction of 15th Av. S. and S. 4th St. Those roads run behind the Riverside Plaza past Currie Park, the neighborhood’s playground and green space with a sweeping view of downtown and the soon-to-be-replaced Metrodome.

Some of the big design and cost questions remain to be answered.

Kamaro Ali, who owns Wadajir Grocery on Cedar, said she’s attended many meetings about the planned changes, but remains unclear about what will happen. “We don’t know,” she said. “We’re scared about big change.”

Her small shop, lined with bags of beans and spices, flatbreads, canned goods and off-brand soaps, is sensitive to minor changes. Already, she’s not happy with the newer parking meters that require her customers to walk half a block to a pay station rather than drop quarters into a meter. Asked whether increased pedestrian traffic might help business, Ali said, “Yes. Maybe that change is going to be good for me. … We don’t know. God knows.”