Few places in the Twin Cities have changed as dramatically as the northern edge of Minneapolis’ Midtown Greenway, where during the past decade, developers have invested more than $200 million and constructed more than 1,200 apartment units in mostly six-story buildings that extend from Hennepin to Lyndale avenues.
Whatever you might think about the design of individual structures or the rental rates of many units, the sheer size, scale and speed of the development remains impressive, with buildings sometimes as colorful as some of the cyclists on the adjacent bike path.
That bike path, stretching 5½ miles along a former below-grade rail line, helped attract these apartment buildings, as well as others farther to the west and a few to the east. The corridor amply deserves its recent receipt of a 2014 “Great Places Award” from the Sensible Land Use Coalition, which recognized the years of work by the Midtown Greenway Coalition to make this one of the nation’s best urban bike trails. People increasingly want to live by such amenities, and the transformation of the former industrial area into one of the city’s hottest housing locations, in such a short time, testifies to the power of a place like this.
For all the appeal of what the development community has created, however, the Midtown Greenway still needs improvement. Half of the greenway itself remains undeveloped: a fenced-off, former railroad track that, if the coalition and the city have their way, will become a streetcar line. But the possible improvements to W. 29th Street, which runs along the upper edge of the Greenway, may have broader relevance to the city — and the whole region.
To explore the possibilities of that southern half of the Greenway, the city of Minneapolis and the College of Design at the University of Minnesota recently brought in one of the world’s leading urban designers, Carl Steinitz, for a one-day workshop. Well known for his ability to engage diverse communities in imagining their future, Steinitz generated ideas from everyone in the workshop and then sifted through them in search of those that had the greatest benefit and likelihood of success.
The workshop’s consensus envisioned W. 29th, now a potholed street of parked cars, as a new kind of public right of way, accommodating people as much as vehicles, with pop-up pedestrian-oriented events on weekends and space for deliveries and drop-offs during the week. It would complement the sidewalk that extends along the Greenway’s northern rim, serving not only as a place to walk, but also as one in which to saunter and browse.
At the same time, workshop participants recognized that the development along the southern edge of the Greenway needed to have more “eyes” on the street. Most of the buildings along its northern side, while providing access to the sidewalk and bike path, largely present pedestrians and cyclists with blank walls, high fences and solid doors. Future development along the southern side needs to avoid that facelessness by opening out to the street and offering passers-by the sense of safety and security that comes from seeing and being seen by other people.
Unique conditions along the Greenway may make it seem irrelevant to other neighborhoods in the city or other municipalities in the region — but not so. What has happened along the Greenway shows how the development community and the public and nonprofit sectors can partner in ways that meet the revenue needs of everyone involved. To see this, look at Hennepin County’s interactive property map (http://gis.hennepin.us/Property/Map/default.aspx).
Over the past 70 years, American cities have faced pressures to suburbanize, replacing the higher-density land uses before the Great Depression with lower-density, large-lot development, which led to lower tax revenues, even as aging urban infrastructure required higher maintenance and repair costs. Although caught between that rock and a hard place, cities have often continued to pursue suburban projects, however self-defeating the result. The development along the Greenway shows another way.
Per acre, the apartment buildings along the Greenway generate more than six times the tax revenue of big-box developments nearby. And according to a recent analysis of different kinds of roadways in Portland, Ore., the typical urban street costs about 300 times per mile as that of a dedicated bikeway. That combination of extremely efficient land use and extremely low-cost infrastructure represents the fiscal survival of our cities.
So while not every city can attract the same level and intensity of development that has occurred along the Greenway, every city should be looking at how to replicate some version of it if the municipality wants to have an economically viable future. The Greenway offers not only a “green” solution, in terms of its environmental and public health benefits, but also a “greenback” solution in terms of the social and economic capital it has generated. What’s not to like about that?
Thomas Fisher, the outgoing dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota, will be the new director of the Metropolitan Design Center, whose work focuses on the 21st-century city.