If residents of a block in the Longfellow community of south Minneapolis have their way, some day they’ll be urging their kids to go play in the street.
That’s because neighbors are working to convert the 2900 block of 45th Avenue into an extension of their front yards — no cars allowed. It would be a place of gardens or orchards, maybe with a gazebo where neighbors could meet for coffee, with space for games, or paths for strolling and biking.
Their idea, which residents call the Urban Paradise project, may seem utopian. It will test whether City Hall can think outside the grid, the dominant pattern for Minneapolis streets. But organizers hope that people attending Open Streets East Lake Street on Sunday will stop by to see a temporary mock-up of what the street could look like and contribute more ideas.
“What it actually looks like should be up to the neighbors,” said Eileen Kerr, a 15-year resident of the block who came up with the idea and recruited other residents. “We’re just making peace and quiet more important than asphalt.”
The closing of streets to traffic is a rarity in Minneapolis. The best-known example is the pedestrian mall created on Milwaukee Avenue south of E. Franklin Avenue in the 1970s, when residents opposed a city urban renewal plan to clear aging homes in the area.
Bob Roscoe, one of the leaders in that fight and a designer, now advises the 45th Avenue residents on their project. “Making cities more livable is something that should be one of the foremost aims of city planning,” he said.
If nothing else, Kerr’s work to organize residents over the street-closing proposal has brought neighbors together. There’s now a block club, and residents gather for National Night Out. Urban Paradise just became a registered nonprofit.
“We haven’t really known our neighbors until we started doing this,” said Kira Obolensky, a supporter who attended a recent block gathering to plan for the Open Streets event and share pizza baked in Kerr’s backyard oven.
Obolensky and her husband, Irve Dell, have the only household on the block without the alley access that other neighbors would have if the street closes. But he said they don’t want that to hold up a street-closing design that could improve the whole block.
“I’m willing to figure it out,” he said.
Maintaining access for residents is just one of the practical issues that residents need to work out. The current design calls for small parking areas at each end of the street and accommodates the parking needs of an elderly resident. They’ll also need some form of access to the block for emergency vehicles.
But their biggest hurdle may be City Hall.
“We are talking about what they are looking at,” said Jenifer Hager, a Department of Public Works manager. “We have a number of policies that require the city street grid to be maintained.”
But not always. The city itself has created greenways where streets have been closed to motorized traffic or designated for shared use with more emphasis on walking and biking, including routes along 37th Avenue N. and Irving Avenue N. Later this year, the city will convert two blocks of W. 29th Street in Lyn-Lake to a more shared-use street, although cars will still be permitted.
‘An exciting vision’
The evaluation of those projects and discussions about the city’s comprehensive plan will factor into whether the city modifies its pro-grid policy, Hager said.
“It’s an exciting vision,” said City Council Member Cam Gordon, who represents the area including the 45th Avenue project. He noted there’s no clear city process to establish a car-free street. The city’s new complete streets policy, which gives priority to walkers and cyclists over drivers, mentions car-free streets but only in passing.
“It’s going to take all of the neighbors to support it, and maybe pay for part of it,” Gordon said.
The block has also presented its concept to a Longfellow community group committee.
“It seems like something that we absolutely would support, as long as everyone is taken care of,” said Joe Sturm, a neighborhood staff member.
The concept will be demonstrated on 45th Street — three blocks east of the Open Streets East Lake Street event — on Saturday.
Even some new residents are impressed with the idea. Brigid Goss moved to the block in May.
“It says something about the neighborhood that people were working together to do this,” she said.