Most Twin Citians know the Midtown Greenway as a treasured bike and pedestrian trail in south Minneapolis.
But a study released Saturday deems the nationally known thoroughfare as something much more — a powerful economic engine poised to expand to St. Paul, the University of Minnesota and deeper into Minneapolis' South Side.
"With the extension, the Greenway could be the best bicycle highway in the nation," said Soren Jensen, executive director of the Midtown Greenway Coalition, a nonprofit organization that supports the 5.7-mile trail.
The coalition, which commissioned the study, hopes it will spur government entities, elected officials and the public to make the Greenway expansion a reality.
"We benchmark how smart investment in green infrastructure can lead to economic return for the region," Jensen said.
Since opening in a former railroad trench 21 years ago, the Greenway has become a critical link in the metro area's transportation infrastructure. Each day, some 5,000 people take to the trail, which connects Bde Maka Ska to the Mississippi River.
As the study notes, the Greenway has "led to an explosion of residential and commercial development adjacent to the corridor," illustrating how bicycle trails can draw attention to areas with underused or forgotten real estate.
The study concedes "not all new development can be directly tied to the Greenway," but notes property values within 500 feet of the trail increased by $1.8 billion, adjusted for inflation, over the past two decades. In addition, $30 million in property taxes was collected in the Greenway area last year alone.
At least 2,500 new housing units have been added close to the Greenway, the study states, suggesting its proximity "is viewed as a desirable amenity by both developers and residents."
A recent National Association of Realtors survey of 5,000 real estate professionals found that community features such as bike paths and green space were "very" or "somewhat" important to 30% of potential home buyers.
"The Greenway is a great example how you can make something of undesirable surface parking lots and underutilized land," Jensen said. "There are similar parcels on the other side of the river" in St. Paul.
The study's Twin Cities-based authors, Damon Farber Landscape Architects and Visible City, estimate that property values near an expanded Greenway could increase by $2.8 billion, with improvements generating an additional $37 million in annual tax revenue.
Greg Lindsey, a professor at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs, said most urban trails are associated with modest increases in home prices in adjacent neighborhoods of 3 to 5%.
But he said some higher-profile trails across the country have led to larger increases in property values and gentrification, the displacement of residents who can no longer afford to live in their own neighborhood.
Jensen said cities and counties need to prioritize affordable housing in the Greenway's wake. Just last week, the St. Louis Park-based developer Reuter Walton unveiled plans for 86 affordable apartments along the Greenway near the Midtown Global Market in Minneapolis, according to the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal.
The study calls for the proposed St. Paul Greenway to link the Mississippi River to the new Ayd Mill Trail in the capital city. In Minneapolis, a portion called the Min Hi Line would connect the existing trail to Minnehaha Park, and the Prospect Park spur would annex the St. Paul Greenway to the Grand Rounds Scenic Byway System near the University of Minnesota.
The extension would be on railroad property owned by Canadian Pacific. It's unclear how much it would cost to develop the greenway expansion — easements would be required to build on railroad land.
The Canadian-based rail giant also owns the lightly used Short Line Railroad Bridge spanning the Mississippi River, a critical cog to expanding the Greenway network.
Now, cyclists traveling east on the Greenway must abruptly exit the path at W. River Road near the Mississippi River and use the Lake Street/Marshall Avenue Bridge to get to St. Paul.
For years, the Greenway Coalition has advocated for extending the path over the nearby Short Line bridge, a proposal it says would cost between $7.4 million and $27.5 million.
In a statement, Canadian Pacific spokesman Andy Cummings said the company is "not in a position to comment, as no formal proposal exists for adding trail access to the Short Line bridge."
Furthermore, the railroad has "serious safety concerns with placing recreational trails in close proximity to active rail corridors," Cummings said.
But Jensen is undeterred: "The railroad has said all along it wants to see a proposal. Now we need a government entity to step up and take this on."