Since Pearl Flegel moved into her home in 1956, she's watched Richfield transform from a sleepy suburb on the edge of nowhere to a bustling city in the heart of a metropolitan area.
The woods across the street, where deer roamed, were replaced by Interstate 35W. The dirt road past her corner lot, W. 66th Street, grew into a key transportation artery that carries 20,000 vehicles a day.
And now Flegel, 78, is in the way of progress. Next month, the Richfield City Council will vote on a plan to demolish her home and 17 others that border the south side of W. 66th Street between I-35W and Penn Avenue S. The homes will make way for a rebuilt 66th Street that city officials say will be safer, prettier and friendlier to pedestrians and cyclists.
The displaced homeowners would get the full replacement value of their properties, plus expenses. But Flegel, who lives on Social Security and a part-time job at a Hallmark card store, isn't happy.
"I don't want to move," she said. "None of us want to. I just bought a furnace and a water heater. They said I can't take it with me. And I said, 'You're gonna have to pay for the whole damn thing, because I have two years left to pay on it.' "
The $37 million road project, set to break ground in 2016, is the culmination of a multiyear collaboration between the city, county and federal government, as well as a citizen transportation commission. Officials say it's an urgently needed correction to the mistakes made by transportation planners of a bygone era, who couldn't possibly envision the growth that would take place in the cornfields outside Minneapolis.
"In my 35 years, this is the most difficult issue we've faced," said Mike Eastling, the city's public works director. Richfield's major arteries "are structurally and functionally obsolete," he said. "They platted these narrow right of ways in the 1940s. And nobody could have envisioned the density you'd get."
In the decades since 66th Street was built, it's grown to carry traffic volumes it was never designed to handle. Because of its narrow width, there's no room to add designated turn lanes. The sidewalks are right next to the road, forcing pedestrians to walk "with their elbows in the traffic," in Eastling's words. And bike lanes? Forget it.
The citizen transportation commission and city staff are recommending that Richfield use eminent domain to condemn the 18 homes for the project, which will rebuild more than 3 miles of the street from near the airport all the way to Southdale. The rebuild will add designated turn lanes and bike lanes, as well as wide sidewalks set off from the street by boulevards.
A 100-year decision
Ted Weidenbach knows well the drawbacks of W. 66th Street. A member of the citizen transportation commission, he lives just a few blocks from the street.
"You can see that it was clearly designed for cars. It was not designed for pedestrians, and clearly not for bicycles," he said. "I would walk to the bus stop at 35W, and I was terrified for my safety. I went to work in a suit, and I can't tell you how many times I was splashed by cars."
As Richfield's unofficial Main Street, city leaders say, it's important for W. 66th Street to present a welcoming face to the public. That's key as the suburb reinvents itself as a lively, convenient — even hip — place to live. Once at the very fringe of the metro area, it's now at the core, offering easy access to downtown Minneapolis and relatively low-cost housing for families and young professionals.
"Richfield is really a jewel of a city," Weidenbach said. "I work in downtown Minneapolis, and I can go door to desk in 15 minutes."
Eastling said the rebuilt road is "a 50- or 100-year decision. If you watch home improvement shows, you reach the point where you have to decide, are we going to redo the plumbing? Are we going to take out that wall? And that's what we're doing with our county roads."
'Moving to a foreign country'
Maxine Jeffris has lived for 45 years in her neat Cape Cod home at the corner of W. 66th and Knox Avenue S. She's not happy at the prospect of moving, but understands the larger issues involved.
"I have mixed feelings," she said. "I understand it's a long-term fix, for the next generation. But the residents look at it differently." The fast-moving traffic on 66th is no more than 6 to 8 feet from her house, which can be unnerving.
"It's scary," she said. "You can be working on your lawn and something whooshes by, and you can practically reach out and touch it."
Jeffris has started looking at homes for sale nearby, but she hasn't quite adjusted to the idea of leaving the house where she raised her children.
"I come home and I think, 'I want this house,' " she said. "This is my home turf. Even just to move a couple blocks away feels like moving to a foreign country."