"I'm looking for the woonerf."

A large man laying sod paused and removed his headphones.

"Woonerf," I said.

Sensing that we spoke different languages, and perhaps even existed in parallel universes, I moved on.

Down the block, a woman was putting up a sign for a Grand Opening.


She jerked her thumb toward a spanking new building on Second Avenue, just up from the river. There was a sign on the building that advertised its amenities: Gym. Cyber cafe. Woonerf.

The sign explained that "woonerf" was a Dutch term for a shared space for pedestrians, bikes and cars where, in theory, transportation will flow calmly and politely in Utopian splendor, as it does in Europe.

However, this is America, dammit, so the woonerf could also be the scene of slow-motion mayhem, where audacious cars are flipped and set afire by morally superior walkers. We'll see.

Inside, people in suits were admiring the new Mill City Quarter apartments, "the first high-tech affordable housing community in downtown Minneapolis."

It was lovely. Cement floors, flat-screen televisions in the lobby and decor that screamed, "I'm hip and urban and a little short on dough."

The politicians and developers have worked their tails off for this and they were rightfully giddy to open a project that tells voters that regular Joes and Janes can now afford a coveted place downtown. In fact, I think they've even changed the city motto to: "Minneapolis, it's not for rich people anymore."

There were speeches thanking public officials who haven't been in office for decades, which is how long it has taken to develop this area, once a sprawl of parking lots. Cookies were passed.

I watched a banker and a developer hug, and a singular tear welled up in my eye.

Council Member Jacob Frey spoke. He praised everyone, praised the new affordable housing and, of course, "the city's first woonerf." I hoped he would describe the woonerf as "sexy," or say that it would be a nice place to make out, like he did when the Downtown East Commons was unveiled.

Sadly, no. He was recently married, so maybe that explains it.

Frey has also called the Commons "the city's kitchen table," so I ambushed him for some tough questions. If the Commons is the kitchen table, what is the woonerf?

"Oh, gosh," he said. "It would have to be … the front stoop? Connected to our birthplace [the Mississippi]. No, no, I'm mixing my clichés."

I went outside to see the woonerf and was nearly run over by a Bobcat. Because of construction, the woonerf is not completed and still looks pretty much like a parking lot/alley. I'm sure it will be cool when it's done, with tables and planters and maybe even places to make out, if you go for that sort of thing.

Traffic-calming tricks like the woonerfs were pioneered by the legendary Hans Monderman, who envisioned sign-free and boundary-absent areas where people used common sense and decency to get around. His maxim: "When you treat people like idiots, they'll behave like idiots."

It is unclear whether he has ever set foot in America.

I experienced the woonerf as a young man in Amsterdam. Geez, a person could hardly get from the hash den to the red light district without getting run over. Or so I'm told.

When the town of Bohmte, Germany, removed sidewalks, curbs and other auto-dependent barriers, "villagers enjoyed the atmosphere more and the chief of police said people communicated more than they did before."

In Seattle, a similar traffic-calming effort was called a "grand experiment" by one columnist, while another said it "is closer to what the British call a 'dog's breakfast [a complete mess].' "

The term woonerf first appeared in this newspaper in 1996, in a story by intrepid reporter Steve Brandt. His story talked about the public skepticism over early efforts at traffic calming.

"A traffic planner recalls one motorcyclist who, each time he rode down E. Franklin Avenue, extended his boot to knock over a traffic barrel marking a narrowed section intended to slow drivers," Brandt wrote.

That's how we roll in 'Merica.

I'm excited about the woonerf, just as I am by the East Commons, which I believe is also Dutch, for "place where Packer fans weep inconsolably after a soul-crushing defeat."

If you are one of the suburbanites who write to me regularly to declare Minneapolis as "the next Detroit" (I'm talking about you, Mr. Monticello), you need to come down here and see the splendor that billions can buy.

If you are here for the big game Sunday, you might even reach out to a group of large, inebriated Packer fans and offer to show them our woonerf. I'm interested to see how that turns out.

Even if you are not impressed by all the chest-thumping majesty, you could at least be grateful that city leaders did not adopt the German term for traffic calming.

They call it "verkehrsberuhigung."

Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin