Planning Blunder #7: Redevelopment of Lake and Nicollet

Submitted for your approval: #7 in the official list of the Twin Cities’ Top Ten Planning Blunders.  Check out numbers 8, 9 and 10, and stay tuned here and at twin city sidewalks for the rest (although at the rate we’re putting them out, there will be more contenders by the time we’re done).

Target Field opened last year to wide acclaim; finally baseball fans had a facility that was connected to the city around it, most obviously due to the cluster of skyscrapers rising like an Emerald City from just beyond the outfield wall.  But Target Field is not the first stadium in the Twin Cities to have a skyline view; until the 1950s fans at Nicollet Ballpark could look beyond the Millers to the town whose name barely fit on their jersey.

Oh say what can you see?

Ok, so the word skyline might be giving these buildings too much credit, but the brick boxes of the streetcar node at Lake & Nicollet connected the stadium to the city in a very immediate way.  Sometimes window-shatteringly immediate.

In 1955, the Millers moved to the suburbs and Nicollet Ballpark followed them into oblivion, replaced in small part by a bank and in large part by a parking lot.  The mold was set for the redevelopment of the rest of the Lake & Nicollet area.

Why it’s dumb

In August 1949 photographers Norton & Peel documented the four corners of the intersection,  and when contrasted with Google StreetView they provide a much better description of why it’s bad than I can type out.

Southwest corner

Not so bad...

Southeast corner

Getting worse...

Northeast corner

Good God! What happened here?

Northwest corner

They blew it up!

I should point out that many people consider the redevelopment of Lake & Nicollet a blunder for another reason.  The city, for example, has produced an avalanche of plans that touch on the intersection, and most of their recommendations focus on “re-opening” Nicollet.  Take the Midtown Minneapolis Land Use and Development Plan of 2005, which under the heading Automobile Transportation recommends “open[ing] the intersection at Nicollet Ave and Lake Street to reconnect the street grid.”  Or the Nicollet Avenue report of 2000, which is surprisingly non-specific about the intersection area despite emphasizing that “reopening Nicollet at Lake is the single most important element in revitalizing Nicollet Avenue.”

While most calls for “reopening” connect the idea with redevelopment and streetscape improvement, it is usually clear that the impetus is automotive convenience.  It takes an extra minute or two to drive through the area - unacceptable!  In addition, many believe that the reduced traffic on the remaining segments of Nicollet played a part in reducing economic activity, although left unexplained is why the more successful segment (Eat Street) is also the least connected.  The reopeners may soon get back the minute of their life lost to the redevelopment of Lake and Nicollet – keep reading for details.

What they were thinking

Far out man

It didn’t take long after the Northwestern Bank for the corner of Nicollet and Lake to descend into a hellish cauldron of billiards, book stores* and Scientology.  Our benevolent City Fathers knew something had to be done, and when the legislature in 1971 added tax increment financing to cities’ redevelopment crayon box, they jumped into action by directing planning staff to begin to study options for implementing a market potential study exploring the conceivability of utilizing development tools under the direction of a district plan.

The November 1972 Lake-Nicollet Development District Plan is probably the grooviest city document ever.  Being familiar with the area in its present state, I was expecting to open it up and see a drawing of a giant parking lot full of cars, with maybe a speculative sketch of a drug addict mugging a clown.  Instead the first page threw this foxy lady in my face:

While the acid-bedraggled hippie who supplied the illustrations for the plan did his or her best to spruce up the concept, their goal was pretty modest.  It was less about waving their TIF wand to transform a toad-like streetcar node into a beautiful shopping mall princess, and more about an episode of the hit show Extreme Makeover: Node Edition on the TIF network.  You can see the schemes here and here and here.

Many of the existing buildings would remain, although curiously the signature corner buildings would have to go.  A glass roof would cover the spaces between buildings, rendering them nearly as pleasantly sterile as suburban shopping malls.  And a new bowling alley and theater would be a compelling substitute for the Dales, when implemented with at least two parking structures.  Here is another scribbly rendering of the 70s bliss-scape:

That 70s mall

Somehow the utopian dream did not come true.  By 1978 nothing had been re-done at Lake & Nicollet, and City Fathers were getting angry.  Enter Kmart, all mustache and lecherous sneer, and… fade to black.

My Take

The number of retail businesses in the Lake & Nicollet area continues to shrivel, from 54 in 1964 to 41 in 1972 to 21 today (the historic figures are from the Development District Plan, today’s numbers are according to google, the cracks of which some businesses certainly slip through).  Considering most of them offered wares that can be found at Kmart, often for less money, it is possible the Kmart drove them right out of business.

With the possible exception of traffic calming on Eat Street, the only good thing about Lake & Nicollet today is that its asphalt-covered form will make it that much easier to re-redevelop.  Apparently it wasn’t easy enough in the first half of the 00s, though, when George Sherman proposed an ambitious project for the superblock north of Lake, including 400 housing units, retail along Lake and a “reopened” Nicollet, and “small merchant stalls built into the sides of a new Nicollet Avenue bridge over the greenway [that] would echo the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy.”  (If you have a rendering of the proposal, I’d love to see it – long hours on google resulted in nothing.)  Death came swiftly, in 2003, when the city couldn’t find the money for it.

Change will likely be coming relatively soon, assuming the city’s plan for a streetcar line on Nicollet is realized.  The plan would “reopen” Nicollet, necessitating Kmart’s destruction, and presumably someone would give in to the temptation to redevelop presented by two empty blocks.  Kmart, which owns the lots, could go ahead and build another Kmart, but it seems more likely that the city would take the entire block(s) and sell only to those who will redevelop more densely.

Option A

“Reopening” Nicollet would most likely allow vehicular traffic on the new street to drive through to Whittier – the City is always looking for an opportunity to make driving even slightly easier.  That would be a mistake, and not just because it would lead to increased traffic on Eat Street.  The heavy traffic would also delay the streetcar, just as heavy traffic delays the 18 bus in this area today.  But maybe most importantly, allowing cars would destroy the potential for a truly pedestrian-friendly business district, existing local examples of which can be counted on one hand.

Option B

Another wild card in the area is the 35W Access Project, which in its latest iteration has the word “transit” thrown in the middle.  This project has the potential to alter the area streetscape drastically, considering that some tentacles of this cephalopodic project involve widening Lake St to 131 feet (it’s 80 feet wide today).  Personally, I’m fine with that, since most of the girth is in wider sidewalks and a planted median.  But if they’re serious, why not take the 50 feet of the Kmart block that lines Lake Street ASAP and build a transit station?  When the Lake St widening was proposed (in 2002), the opposition of neighbors (and the price tag of the entire Access Project) effectively killed it.  But who would be opposed if an unused strip of parking lot was transformed into a transit station?  Even if the cheapest of shelters were thrown up, it would at least consolidate a confusing and often frenzied transfer into an easy one, making things easier for the 2500 people who board at the intersection on an average weekday.

That’s the amazing thing about Lake & Nicollet – planners and corporations connived to kill the area, removing most of the buildings and leaving us the choice of an empty asphalt desert or a narrow strip of salt-choked sidewalks, but still we come to this corner, drawn by its centrality or maybe by the certainty that our fellow Minneapolitans will be here in all their diverse tongues, activities and garb.  Ok, and we’re drawn by the cheap pizza, too.  It makes me certain that despite the mangled state of Lake & Nicollet today, change will come and bring a better corner, hopefully retiring blunder #7 and making room on the list for another challenger.

*In a retail clustering unimaginable in the 21st century, there were four book stores in the Nicollet/Lake area in the summer of 72.  The L-N Development District Plan has a listing of every area business, and while it does not distinguish between porn and non-porn book stores, it’s safe to make assumptions about the inventory in the “Risque Book Store.”

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.