"If you build it, they will come" is a confident statement, an old movie line oft-repurposed to promote urban developments: stadiums, light-rail lines, downtown shopping blocks. Sometimes — not always — the prophecy holds true. Today, though, we invite readers to consider a different configuration:
If you rebuild it like that, won't they stay away?
In this variation, the "it" is Hennepin Avenue roughly between the Walker Art Center and Lake Street in southwest Minneapolis; "like that" is with less room for cars and little for parking, and "they" are the shoppers, clients, drinkers and diners who keep more than 150 local establishments along that stretch in business.
The corridor is up for refreshment, and in a socially aspirational city like Minneapolis, that doesn't mean keeping it as the thoroughfare it is. Instead, it means a road with a combination of wide sidewalks, pedestrian-friendly crossings, dedicated bus and bike lanes, restricted auto traffic and greenery. For much of the way, there'd be just one lane for cars in each direction. The number of parking spots would be reduced by 90%. One of two surviving options snuggles a bikeway along the east side of the road; the other ditches that in favor of more "greening." A limited-stop bus route, the E Line, is to run through the space eventually.
Although a recent comment period has ended, drawings are available at tinyurl.com/hennepin-options. Construction wouldn't begin until 2024, but final plans are expected to reach the City Council this August.
The proposals are controversial. A Star Tribune news article reported April 5 that hundreds have signed a petition by the Uptown Association urging the city to more carefully consider how the changes would affect businesses and residents. (Read the petition at tinyurl.com/hennepin-campaign.)
Businesses, naturally, fear that customers who need a parking spot won't come if they can't expect to easily find one. The proprietors don't think those who arrive on buses and bikes will cover the gap.
Meanwhile, people who live in the neighborhood face the prospect of traffic spillover. And they, too — especially those in multifamily housing — have reason to worry about parking. They do even without the changes.
Those aren't the only concerns. People who rely on cars to commute would be right to worry about chokepoints along one of the few diagonal routes in a city of right angles. They might also wonder if it will still be practical to stop off at a local business while passing through. And those from around the region for whom Hennepin Avenue and Uptown are destinations — but who aren't a bus hop, sidewalk skip or pedal pump away — might ask if they're still welcomed.
None of them, though, could say the current Hennepin doesn't need a makeover. It can be risky for anyone not in a motor vehicle and hair-raising even for those who are. (Can a road with lanes and traffic lights be called unstructured? Drive it and experience the ambiguities.)
We realize that the Hennepin Avenue plans are part of a broader, long-term vision for how people get around in Minneapolis. We know that street improvements can spark economic vitality, as a recent Opinion Exchange contributor argued. But we also see benefits to supporting the eclectic mix of businesses that line the avenue now.
Finally, we're mindful of the anguish of the city's most paradigm-shifting progressives, like the writer of an article at streets.mn whose objection to the redesign options was that "they accommodate cars throughout." Can't prioritize people that way, he argued. We suspect, though, that a greater proportion of Minneapolitans, while appreciating improvements to the biking, walking and transit systems and making use of all of them, still want the option of smooth travel in their cars when that's more practical. We also suspect that they continue to be people even during such dark moments.
The city should give due diligence to the parking and commuter concerns and adjust the balance as needed. Relevant to this point are its plans to add back spaces on Hennepin just south of Lake after proceeding with a similar reconstruction a few years ago over similar objections and getting imperfect results. Utopia isn't upon us yet, and it has a way of confounding attempts to conjure it into existence.