Lessons from the snow

We are getting close to record snowfall in 2011, and it’s taking its toll on us, physically and mentally.  But we’d better get used to it; heavier snowfall is believed to be an effect of global warming.

This winter is taking a toll on our streets, too, and not just in the traditional pothole way.  This winter a lot of streets are on a temporary, involuntary road diet.

27th Ave S, just south of Franklin Ave, has been bestowed by the snow with the traffic calming technique with maybe the most risque name, the choker.  Normally a two-lane street with parking lanes on either side, there is no longer room for two cars to pass each other in between the parked cars.  Instead motorists wait for their turn to pass these straights, presumably deferring to the first arrival.

To those who spend their time advocating for traffic-calming measures of this sort, it’s a strange feeling of victory to see them fall from the sky at random.  It would be absurd to call for ice-chicanes to be frozen in place, but there may be something to learn from them, like the test median on Jefferson, less expensive but with just as much rancor.

So here are some questions I have about the effects of this winter:

  1. How many streets have effectively lost one or more lanes?
  2. How many streets are down to one lane due to the snow?
  3. How many streets have lost parking due to the snow?
  4. Have accidents increased or decreased in the identified locations?
  5. Have average speeds increased or decreased in the identified locations?
  6. Have top speeds increased or decreased in the identified locations?
  7. For those streets that lost parking, how has parking on neighboring streets been affected.

I understand that it is all very well for me to ask these questions in February; to really study them systematically these questions should have been asked in December when the first flakes fell (or November, who can remember now exactly?).

But then I’m not a scientist, or a traffic engineer, I’m just a guy who loves walking down the street and often has a hard time doing it in his hometown.  What disappoints me is that Minneapolis Public Works seems to be similarly uninterested in these questions.  At a meeting last summer about the upcoming reconstruction of Nicollet Ave between 31st and 40th (now possibly moribund), I asked whether they would look at accident data before deciding on a design.  Their reply is that every quarter or so they have a meeting and talk about problem areas, and they couldn’t recall that this stretch of Nicollet had come up.

If Public Works doesn’t have time to learn about how people use their streets, I’m not sure who will.  I’m not even sure if I’ll remember these questions come next winter; people are like potholes: with each freeze-thaw cycle, the hole gets deeper and deeper.

 

 

Planning Blunder #9: Over the highway and through the lake

Bill Lindeke, proprieter of the nation’s best sidewalk blog, twin cities sidewalks, has bestowed upon me the honor of writing half the entries in his bile-fest of Twin Cities planning blundersNumber 10 went to the low-density industrial redevelopments of the St Paul Port Authority, and I will attempt to live up to Bill’s word-wizardry with the following:

What's in that water, friend? (Nokomis Bathhouse in the 20s)

Ahhh…. the classic Minnesota summer at the lake….  basking in the brief pleasure of sunlight hitting your winter-pasty skin….  splashing and being splashed as your feet dance in the sandy bottoms and mystery slippery sea monsters graze your shins…  goosebump eruptions on your arms as you momentarily return to dry land to consume a scorched tube of ostensible meat….  the sharp bursts of honking and the screech of brakes from the uncomfortably proximate highway–hey!  What the hell is a highway doing in the middle of this tranquil lake?

The answer is Planning Blunder #9:

The Cedar Avenue bridge over Lake Nokomis!

Thank you Santa for bringing us progress

Who would hate Minnesota so much that they would literally pave over the quintessential Minnesotan experience?  To find out, you would have to look up the payroll of the Minnesota Department of Highways between 1920 and 1926, when someone had the brilliant idea to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a bridge over smallish Lake Nokomis  instead of curving Cedar Ave slightly to the west.

The Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board, in its “veritable encyclopedia of Peculiar Park Particulars,” claims credit for trying to avert this blunder, but was foiled by Richfield, whose borders hadn’t yet been turned back from the south end of the lake.  To some degree, it makes sense that Richfielders would be in such a hurry to get to points north that they would pay the price of a lake’s spoilation to shed a minute or so of travel time.  Contemporary judges should remember, also, that at the time Lake Nokomis still had the Minnesota swampy shoreline and may have felt more like an enormous morass than a resort paradise.  But from a statewide perspective it is difficult to understand why this route was so important that it would have been ruined by a small curve to the west – according to Steve Riner, the highway (36) of which the bridge was a segment ran south only a few miles to MN-5 (about where I-494 is today), and only crossed the Minnesota River in the 1950s.

Using this helmet underwater is the only way to cut out the highway noise

My Take on the Lake

Despite noise pollution from the airport and water pollution from Cedar Ave, Nokomis Beach remains a pretty hot summer spot.  I remember an awkward work party there several years ago, where we munched on samosas and sipped 3.2 while screaming gremlins ran around us and middle-aged men showed the world exactly how little exercise they get.  In other words, a classic beach scene.

So even though the lake is still brings aquatic pleasures, it is the principle of the thing that gives me a queasy feeling when I go over the bridge.  Lakes should be for lake-like things, for example fish or ducks or inner-tubes.  If you must use a motor on a lake, please let it be driving a boat.  But part of this principled revolt comes from the fact that they seem to have built the bridge just because they could; for reasons detailed above, Cedar Ave easily could have been routed west around the lake.

Apparently I’m not the only one who is made queasy by this particular bridge.  A facebook group dedicated to removing the bridge started last summer, and while it has relatively few members, it counts several local policymakers in its ranks.  However, in a political environment where it is difficult to convince a certain party to spend money to construct something, it will  be even tougher to persuade anyone to destruct something.  This particular bridge seems to have been rebuilt recently, too, so it will be a while before it attains functional obsolescence.

Winter Blunderland (by Tim Kiser, who is a good photographer and I hope is not a lawyer)

Minnesota likes to trumpet its lake-iness, but has no qualms about destroying its liquid jewels.  Other metro-area impaled lakes include Twin Lake in Robbinsdale and Anderson Lake(s) in Bloomington, although Lake Nokomis is more gratuitous than those two.  Every time I cross it, I see that tiny amputated remnant and I’m reminded that anywhere I go, roads will follow me.  Although there is no doubt that millions of dollars have been wasted to bridge this lake, maybe it is not a blunder.  Maybe it is something more devious.  Maybe it is there to remind us that in the USA our way is the highway, and the road to the open just leads to another road.

Sane Streets for the West Bank

To lively up this blog, I probably should present my plans for the West Bank as a late-nite infomercial pitch – “Are you tired of stubborn traffic jams ruining your neighborhood’s intrinsic pedestrian orientation?  Now!  Try our new and improved street network!  Buy now and we’ll throw in this woonerf absolutely free!” – but I feel compelled by the illogic of the American disposition towards transportation, distorted by decades of auto-dependence, to carefully and lengthily exposit a plan for the public spaces of a neighborhood that has been forced to endure almost a century of marriage to a mode that fits it so poorly.  I hope the post is more engaging than boring.

The Problem

The West Bank is a hub of pedestrian activity, thanks to some of the densest housing in Minneapolis, as well as some very dense employment centers (the U of M, Augsburg). Unfortunately, sometime in the 1920s, someone in the Minnesota Highway Department decided that there should be a commuter (or maybe a trucking) highway running down Cedar Avenue to Bloomington. Originally this route crossed the river at what is now called the 10th Ave bridge, but sometime in the 60s it was detoured west to head downtown, because that’s where the commuters (and trucks) were heading.

Obviously this route is redundant today, with I-35W handling the bulk of the commuter and truck traffic to the south of Minneapolis, and Hiawatha Ave having tons of room for anyone who feels like a change of scenery. Unfortunately we live in a world where the car is king, even in situations like Cedar where any logical analysis would see that pedestrians and even transit have a much greater claim to street space than automobiles.  This has led to a situation on the West Bank where most of the street is devoted to traffic lanes, attracting some 12,000 cars a day to what is otherwise a pedestrian paradise.

The Solution

Any attempt to pedestrianize a street is met with shrill protests by motorists.  But the grid in which Minneapolis is laid out offers an advantage – there is almost always a parallel street nearby that can handle the capacity as a substitute.  For that reason it is possible to both accommodate the existing (ample) automotive capacity of the West Bank and to pedestrianize the main streets, leading to greater safety and a more pleasant environment.

In addition, offering a less direct route through the neighborhood may have the effect of discouraging car traffic through this neighborhood.  As you’ll see, while my proposal includes the same amount of auto capacity as currently exists, it requires a circuitous path for cars.  In Minnesota, we are used to driving in a straight line.  I suspect that this change will make people think it’s too hard to drive through the West Bank, even if it is still the shortest route for them.

My plan, put simply, is to pedestrianize several main streets, create a woonerf network, and alter the configuration of other streets to create a new route for vehicular access to the neighborhood.

Bring it together

The plan below uses the new configuration of vehicular access that will be constructed along with Central LRT.  The biggest difference is the removal of one of the ramps in the existing diamond interchange.  I’ve also considered some of the ideas presented in the West Bank Development Plan, which may or may not be sanctioned by the city but definitely was funded by the Central Corridor Funders’ Collaborative. 




1  Pedestrian Streets

By limiting automobile access, this plan will increase pedestrian space on Cedar from about 25 feet to at least 60 feet.  A similar increase should be achieved on Riverside.  The gains for pedestrians would be even higher if a curbless design is used – since buses run at frequencies of no more than every 5 minutes, without curbs pedestrians will feel comfortable using the entirety of the street.  Do not think Nicollet Mall; because so many fewer buses run through this area, it will be much more of a pedestrian space, more comparable to Milwaukee Ave.

2 Two-lane Roundabout

The profligate land consumption habits of the interstate era should provide enough land for a two-lane roundabout to handle through traffic, diverted from Washington Ave.  I haven’t been able to find a comparable existing roundabout, but five-leg two-lane roundabouts are currently operating on smaller footprints – 200-300′ compared to a possible 400′ here – in those hotbeds of progressive engineering, Cheyenne, WY and Dallas, TX.  That said, the roundabout isn’t integral to my plan – Hennepin County can choose to waste money, space, time and fuel by continuing their plans to build a 2nd ramp to 35W here in addition to the existing ramp a block and a half to the north.  Or they could put in a signal now and upgrade to a roundabout when the flyover ramps are dangerously decrepit.

3 35W Ramps

Speaking of 35W’s ramps, some of them could be torn down if my plan were carried out.  Not only would that save the tens of millions of dollars needed to reconstruct flyover ramps every 50 years or so, but it would allow the ramp from CR-122 wb to 35W sb to be replaced with buildings that might actually add to the treasury instead of subtract from it.  With the deletion of these ramps, capacity would again be called into question, but it could be mitigated by adding a third westbound lane to CR-122 west of the proposed roundabout.

4 Washington Ave

The crux of the proposal, automotive-wise, is the rerouting of Washington-Cedar through-traffic to two routes that run in opposite directions.  The southbound traffic would turn south at an additional two lanes that would be conjoined to the existing two lanes that currently make up the ramp from 35W.  They would proceed at a bit more than three-quarters through the traffic circle to proceed on the ramp from Cedar to CR-122 that will be constructed as part of the Central Corridor project, which would be two lanes one-way towards Cedar.  Cars would turn right to cross the existing Cedar overpass, then left onto a realigned 3rd St one-way towards 19th Ave.  Cars will zig onto 19th and then zag onto Riverside, where they can continue or turn right again at 20th and head towards South Cedar.

Northbound autos have a less tortured route:  coming from Riverside or 20th, they can go up 19th and take a left at the curvy little tendril of Washington that until recently was home to Grandma’s.  My proposal would turn this one-block segment into a westbound two-lane one-way.  West of this segment, westbound traffic would be allowed on Washington Ave proper.  It’s disappointing to not fully pedestrianize Seven Corners, but the only other alternative for westbound vehicular traffic here would be 2nd St, which would require a bridge over 35W.  Since the spirit of this proposal is to minimize infrastructure and inherent costs (by replacing flyover ramps with a roundabout and replacing auto streets with low-maintenance pedestrian malls) I rejected that option, but if someone more extravagant were to propose it, I would be fully supportive.

5 20th Ave S

About 12,700 cars travel this section of Cedar on an average day (as of 2005).  That’s a lot of cars, but not more than a 3-lane street can accommodate.  When added to the 4,700 daily cars on 20th Ave south of Riverside (2005 again), the upper limits of the 3-lane’s capacity are reached, though likely the traffic level would be less than that as some cars choose Riverside and some find other neighborhoods to drive through.  For that reason I think it is safe to use a similar configuration as exists today on 20th Ave after last year’s road diet, only moving the parking lane to the center to act as a continuous center turn lane.  When the road again needs reconstruction (likely a couple decades out as this stretch was last rebuilt in 1966), I’d recommend sacrificing the bike lanes to extend the boulevards as a buffer against the heavier vehicular traffic.  The Cedar pedestrian mall and the woonerf network should provide ample and safer space for cyclists in this area.

6 Woonerven

Another crucial pedestrian amenity in this plan, woonerven would allow access for cars to neighborhood homes and businesses, but would be constructed in a way that discourages fast or reckless driving.  Like the Pedestrian Streets, each woonerf would be curbless, and would have trees placed in chicane islands sporadically to slow car traffic. State law should be changed to remove the floor on speed limits so these streets could post a 10 mph speed limit.

7 Parking Ramps

One thing that people will whine about is loss of parking, but I haven’t addressed it in this plan because a) you can complain about parking when the government provides me with slippers wherever I go and b) street parking is only 12% of the total parking supply in the area.  Furthermore, the West Bank Development Plan calls for another large ramp, likely making up for all of the street spaces.  Yes, I would eliminate all the street parking in my plan; because of the danger posed by backing into a space and because cruising for on-street parking can account for a large percentage of cars on a given street, parking does not have a place on woonerven or on pedestrian malls.  Parking could remain on Riverside, but maybe not west of 20th, where space may be needed for cars driving through to the south.

However, there are opportunity for parking structures to replace the existing street parking in the neighborhood.  I’ve included the ramp shown in the West Bank Development Plan, and added one in the large lawn in front of the Cedars housing complex.  The latter, fronting Cedar Ave, should include ground-level retail and also would be an opportunity for housing above the parking levels, sort of like Centre Village (although hopefully less ugly).  I think there would be enough space to build the structure along Cedar and still leave a large green courtyard between it and the Cedars.

Implementation

The ideal time to implement this proposal is with the construction of the Central LRT, and the work on surrounding streets that has already begun.  The plan mostly only requires reconstruction of the streets proposed for pedestrianization; the streets that retain vehicular access only need re-striping and the woonerven would likely just need spot reconstruction, to add chokers and chicane islands in places.

Because of our snails-pace democracy, it is almost certainly too late to get construction started along with Central LRT.  The plan could be done in phases at a later time, though.  The woonerf network should be built first, to discourage cutting through as other streets are worked on.  Next could be the ramp work needed to re-route vehicular through traffic.  Finally, the pedestrian streets could be built, restoring the pedestrian primacy that the West Bank’s form cries out for, and which has been so long denied to the people of the area.

 

 

The Core / Gateway

Overview

The Core is what most people think of when they hear the word Downtown:  you have to make a right angle with your neck to see the top of buildings that perpetually shadow concrete strips jammed with cars.  The Gateway is also very high-rise, but as a creature of renewal there are vast parking lots and empty grass lawns dividing the towers.  In my study of density in multifamily buildings in Minneapolis, the 11 buildings I found in these neighborhoods had an average density of 222 units per acre.  Only one building, 6 Quebec, had a double-digit density (50 units per acre – the units are bigger than most single-family homes in Minneapolis), and more than half had densities greater than 200 units per acre.  Symphony Place was the second-densest of the nearly 400 buildings in my study at 403 units per acre.  Even the Atrium, an MPHA high-rise with a large surface parking lot, runs with the big dogs at 249 units per acre.

So it is a dense neighborhood, and density generates the vitality that truly defines the neighborhood.  In my experience, Nicollet Mall is the only street in this city where you can count on pedestrian activity any time of day or year.  While Downtown certainly isn’t the retail powerhouse it used to be, it still has a lot of shops and restaurants to serve the immense numbers of people that come to this area.  So it follows that immense numbers of people might want to live in this area.  But is there room for them?

The Map

The Details

  • In a neighborhood full of prominent sites, one that sticks out even here is the empty lawn that fronts on West River Parkway, in the shadow of the Post Office and the Hennepin Bridge.  While I and many others might prefer that it become a park, it is owned by the Post Office, which financially is more in a position to make a quick buck on land than to bestow assets for the future enjoyment of citizens.  And think of the views, although hopefully one view would be of a perpetual protest against the aesthetic crime of placing a high-rise so close to the towering pillars of the bridge.  More generally pleasing, I think, would be to build condos above the stumpy single story that that juts out of the Post Office parking ramp at the corner of 1st & Hennepin.  While this is also a phenomenal site, there is probably a law against combining living space with post office, so I colored this orange.
  • This neighborhood has many large parking ramps, a few of which have retail or the appearance of retail at the ground floor but are otherwise single-use.  I personally view that as a waste of space, but I’m guessing the owners would say otherwise, if their mouths weren’t stuffed with caviar that they bought with the piles of cash they make off the ramps.  Even though this series is attempting to tell the future, none of us can tell the future, and therefore I can’t know for sure that gas will only get more expensive and no electric or hydrogen car will ever be viable, dooming these hulking ramps to obsolescence.  For that reason, I left them off the map, even though I think they should be redeveloped into something that isn’t just a place to dump your car and leave, and I think that they will be in the next 30-40 years.
  • I’ve noticed a pattern in the more built-up neighborhoods (Harmon Place, Warehouse District):  most of the parcels are designated as High Potential for Redevelopment.  That’s true here too, and it’s true because most of the buildings are already pretty dense.
    • There are a few exceptions on this map:  on the block between 11th, 12th, 2nd and 3rd, I gave that old office building Medium Potential due to its age and the ridiculous degree to which the Ivy towers over it.  On that same block, the Church of Christ, Scientist gets Low Potential because it seems likely that most downtown institutions will continue to draw enough parishioners to sustain themselves, but this one has a really good site relative to the Convention Center that will draw more interest from developers than, say, St Olaf’s.
    • Anyway, most of the High Potential parcels are parking lots, but there are a couple notable exceptions on this map:  the cluster of buildings at Nicollet and 10th that were planned to become a condo tower, and the Normandy Hotel, which due to its age and poor site utilization I believe will suffer the fate of the old Ramada on Hawthorne.
    • A final note along these lines:  the corner of Marquette & 2nd has four developable lots flanking it, two High and two Medium Potential.  Two of the lots are currently used for surface parking, which is easy to cash in for a building and therefore labeled High Potential.  The other two are being used as amenity areas for their buildings; a pool for the apartment building and an awkward plaza/picnic area for the office building.  I thought that because they are adding value to their buildings, they may be less likely to be developed, although obviously both would be just as useful on the roof of a building as at ground level.

The Numbers

Potential Low Density Med Density High Density
High 2292 3152 4012
Low 77 105 134
Medium 298 410 521
Total 2667 3667 4667

Prognosis

The interest in development in this area will be high, but residential will have to compete with office interests.  Despite the bad market for office space, there are rumors of at least one new office building planned for Downtown.  It seems to me that there are enough office towers downtown, and it’s time to start working on concentrating jobs in clusters along radial transit lines, but obviously there has rarely been political will for that kind of planning in the metro.

The best bet for new residential is in the Gateway, which has seen this type of development in the past and could use more.  Because the buildings will likely be built at much higher density than the 140 units per acre that I used for the High Density column, I don’t think it’s unrealistic to expect an additional 4,000 residents in this neighborhood by 2040.  My hope is it will be more than 8,000.