A Lesson from Minnesota’s Small Towns: Commercial Density > Residential Density.

While Minneapolis does have a number of major downtown streets that have a bit of hustle and bustle there are still many more that have few people out and about which gives off that “cowtown” vibe which tends to plague Midwestern cities and re-enforce coastal stereotypes about our inland cities. There are bare streets in our downtown for the simple reason that there’s little reason to visit them: a block given over to offices and parking lots tends to do that. Even so, people seem to be baffled that we’re very close to breaking the 30,000 mark for downtown residents, yet we don’t have more people and places all over our downtown streets instead of a select handful. Typically, the analysis I see is that clearly this must mean we don’t have enough people Downtown: we need lots more apartment mid-rises and towers before we can even think about Minneapolis having a bustling 24/7 downtown.

The truth of the matter is that we’re wayyy to hung up on residential density. It’s important, but only up to a certain point. You could cover every single last remaining parking lot with an apartment tower and that still wouldn’t guarantee a vibrant downtown: not one bit. The reason being that a vibrant downtown requires a myriad of draws for residents and tourists, in other words, a “critical mass” of commercial density, to steal a term commonly used almost exclusively for the needed number of downtown residents to magically results in streets full of people every hour of every day and night: just like in a real city. We can look in our own backyard for the answer to why large chunks of Downtown are dead even today in the face of a large downtown population that dwarfs even those of other larger American cities like Portland and Boston.

Just take a look at Bemidji: or Northfield, or Winona and the list goes on. Notice a common theme in these downtowns? There are numerous blocks which hold around a dozen businesses each: nowhere even on our signature Downtown showpiece of Nicollet Mall do you find any block approaching that kind of commercial density: you’re lucky to reach half that.   Hennepin can’t compare either, nor can the denser blocks of 1st Ave. Cities only a small fraction the size of Minneapolis not only offer a short block full of a dozen storefronts or so, but several while Downtown Minneapolis can’t even offer one. That is not only pathetic, but that should be a huge embarrassment to all Minneapolitans, especially city leaders that small towns only 1/27th our size (in the case of Bemidji which was the smallest one cited) dwarf us by far in commercial density. This is why our downtown is lacking in 24/7 vibrancy despite being the largest city by far in the state and with the highest number of visitors and tourists.

Addressing this grand canyon-esque gap between us and them is 100% necessary for any chance to be a real city in every sense of the term. By not offering blocks chock full of small businesses we have effectively opted out of utilizing the big city ambitions of urban entrepreneurs in dense blocks full of varied businesses right Downtown in ways that you would almost never see in our small towns. However, local entrepreneurs aren’t able to pursue such dreams Downtown due to there being nowhere for such a synergy to occur, let alone be able to afford existing retail spaces that command high prices due to encompassing what could easily hold 3-4 smaller businesses in the same space.

So I’m left wondering why, if small town Minnesota can do it and do it over and over and over again for several blocks in many instances (even with on-street bike parking, which is unheard of in our downtown), then why can’t we even manage one such complete block?

Taking Our Bikeways to a Whole Other Level: Way Up.

Minneapolis is covered in many areas with lots of bike lanes and trails, but ironically the places with the highest concentration  of destinations themselves are surprisingly devoid of any bike infrastructure: not  even a “share the road” sign or the lowly “sharrow”: Hennepin, Lyndale, and Lake are just a few examples. They’re chock full of destinations, yet they’re only easy in parts to bike to, not on. Not everyone is a vehicular cyclist like me who has no issue biking a few blocks on Hennepin taking the right lane and traveling fast enough to keep up with traffic slowed by the cars in front of me. The other 99% aren’t biking on these streets and there’s no amount of paint that would persuade them to do so otherwise. Cycle tracks are another option and would increase the number quite a bit more, but limited space, and even less willingness to sacrifice parking/travel lanes for motorists, even temporarily, means lots of opposition, so we should consider an alternative we can all agree on: put cyclists up in the sky.

If you’ve ever been to Chicago and ridden the L’s Red Line then you know there are some kick-ass views of the city from up there: why don’t we want to experience Minneapolis in a similar light without the hassle and cost of building a subway system, elevated at that, around Downtown and the Uptown/Lyn-Lake area? The answer: the elevated bike-lane. London is planning the 1st of ten such routes which will take a total of 20 years once it breaks ground who knows when and will cost around $300 million for 3.75 miles. It’s predicted to cut commute times by 50%: you gonna sit in traffic for 45 minutes getting from Uptown to Downtown or are you going to ride your bike over them belting out a hearty Nelson-like “Ha! Ha!” at all the people sitting in their cars crawling at walking speed below?

Where would our starter elevated bike lane make the most sense? Downtown is a contender: just think of  all the awesome photos you could take and the huge surge of instagrams of people riding by the rooftop bars on Hennepin (Union, Solera, Seven, Crave) and Nicollet (Brit’s Pub) with the requisite angled views of the streets and skyscrapers in the background. It could connect to the Cedar Lake Trail and Stone Arch Bridge to the north and .And yes, this will bring tourists: lots of ‘em…and get us a good chunk of those 100,000 new residents we’re clamoring for. Which of these scenarios is realistic? “I’m moving to Mpls because they’re building a new LRT line to burbs and a streetcar line in the city.”  vs. “I’m moving to Mpls because they’re building a bike highway in the motherfuckin’ sky.” And just think of how well this would compliment our downtown skyways: we’ll look like a proper 22nd century city with all those levels of walkways and bikeways crisscrossing the skies above us.  Not even NYC could compete with that.

The other option is a Hennepin-Lake-Lyndale route which is obvious not only for its favorable rooftop patio ratio along its length, but because it would directly connect to our existing and successful below street-level bike highway via the Chain of Lakes trails and the Loring Greenway to the north. Here’s a very rough draft of what we’d have if we go this route and spend almost as much as London (if the actual cost in addressing everything to get this built actually translates smoothly).

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Note that when I tried to make this with the cycling option on Google Maps it wouldn’t let me go down Hennepin no matter how much I tried, hence the need to switch to pedestrian mode: getting the hint there City of Minneapolis?

We’re currently looking at sinking $200 million on a Nicollet-Central Ave streetcar and in the process pissing off a lot existing businesses, customers, motorists, transit riders and even cyclists who will have to make a detour due to tearing up these streets for several months and removing *gasp* lots of parking spaces and a travel lane. I thought the whole reason the city is so reluctant to put bike lanes on its densest commercial corridors (hello Lake Steet) is because of the opposition from motorists and business demanding they always maintain access to more than one travel lane and on-street parking, so color me confused that they’re poised to ignore them for a streetcar, but not for bikes. Now if instead that $200 million were allocated to an elevated bike highway there would be not a single parking space or travel lane lost and the other 99% of people who won’t bike up and down Hennepin would now have a bikeway just like the Midtown Greenway except it’s above the street and directly connects to the rest of Hennepin, Lake, and Lyndale. It would likewise have much higher ridership than on-street infrastructure: maybe even higher than the Midtown Greenway due to entirely serving dense clusters of destinations. It would be superior to bike lanes, bike boulevards, or even a cycle-track since it completely removes intersection conflicts between motorists and cyclists rather than merely minimizing the risk: again just like much of the Midtown Greenway does.

If we were to go even further they could instead be elevated Multi-Use Trails: think the “Uptown Greenway” and “Downtown Greenway”. So that’s my “big plan” to kill two birds with one stone: give residents the chance to see this city like never before and actually get lots people out of their cars on onto their bikes, not this chump change 5% of Mpls residents who now bike as their main form of transportation. Cyclists would clearly be for this. Motorists would be more than for this to keep their parking spaces and plentiful lanes intact. Businesses not wanting to risk experimenting to see if lack of on-street parking and detours kill them would be for this. We’ve already proven a bike highway is successful with the Midtown Greenway: what difference would make that it’s above the street rather than below?  And why are we not at the ribbon cutting ceremony already?

The one thing you can do today to sort of experience an elevated bikeway/greenway over Lyndale is to cross the Loring Bikeway Bridge over Lyndale and think just how cool it would be if you could take an exit and there another the path continued down south. That would be pretty damn great, wouldn’t it?

Gateways For Districts and Neighborhoods: Where Are They?

Minneapolis has several destination filled neighborhoods and districts, but for newbies or locals who haven’t done a lot of exploring outside of their corner of the city there really isn’t much to persuade them when passing by. In some cases like 13th Ave NE if you’re busing or driving along University or 2nd you’ll pass by with only a hint of what’s there at the intersection. Seward welcomes its eastbound visitors with a Taco Bell, because nothing says, “Welcome to Seward!” like a Taco Bell.

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Central Ave welcomes you with a plain railroad bridge.

ImageMeanwhile here’s what The Grove district in St Louis has done:

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Now imagine if that sign wasn’t there: that gas station would be a much more glaring eyesore.

In my hometown of Columbus they have made some progress in bringing back “The Arch City” nickname by re-building arches at the entrances of districts or neighborhoods with names prominently displayed.

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Many people used to refer to the area north of OSU as “North Campus” instead of the actual neighborhood name of “Old North Columbus” or “Old North”, but with these arches overlooking High St where tens of thousands of vehicles pass under them it’s now impossible not to know the name of the neighborhood since you can’t help but notice.

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Now in some instances this is a tricky affair. Take “Uptown” for example. It technically only goes on a few blocks or so from Lake & Hennepin, but some people refer to spots as far north as Franklin Ave as being “Uptown” or even include Whittier in its definition, not to mention that establishments associated with Uptown currently, like expensive.restaurants/bars, have started to pop up well outside of current boundaries (think Burch and Eat Street Social) which could result in official Uptown boundaries going well outside of where any gateway would make sense for the time being.

Hell, even Nicollet Mall, which the city claims is so important it needs $50 million to spruce it up, doesn’t have a gateway treatment to tell the casual visitor where it begins or ends. Well, that is unless they’re driving and reach the little “Buses & Taxis Only” sign letting them know they can’t drive on the “Mall”. Of course, everyone ends up Downtown, so this kind of treatment isn’t so necessary here: the skyscrapers pretty much tell you where you are. Neighborhoods further removed from the core of the city, however, would be markedly improved as seen in the contrast between Seward and The Grove if they were to receive some major gateway treatments. I’m sure if neighborhood groups, businesses, and residents worked with the city they could come up with some eye-catching and unique gateways for a number of neighborhoods. Minneapolis easily has the highest number of destination packed neighborhoods out of any Midwestern city save Chicago. Why not show off our best assets to everyone?

Luxury Apartments: They’ll Grow Us to 500,000 Residents, But Will They Grow Local Culture to Match?

Yes, it’s been a long impromptu hiatus, but I’ll see if I can keep the momentum going for the meantime

Minneapolis’ new mayor Betsy Hodges has boldly set a goal of growing to 500,000 (or more) residents by 2025. Many are talking about whether that’s too fast to be sustainable or if it’s even realistic, but no one is bringing up point about whether Minneapolis is going to sell its local soul for a big number. What kind of people are we bringing in, over 100,000 of them too, to reach this goal? Are they going to be the bike-loving co-op shopping, local band listening, theatre going, GLBTQ accepting lot that we have now, or will we see that become diluted?

We already have a sneak peak of what kind of residents this yet-to-be 1/5th of the population is like.

1. They love their cars.

Notice the multi-story garages that have been coming part and parcel with some luxury apartment developments in Downtown and Uptown? There are so many that I don’t need to cite an example. New developments like these are not attractive to residents like myself who don’t even ask about parking because we’re happy to ride our bikes or the bus. A parking space for what? We live in the city because we don’t need or want a car: we want to live an urban lifestyle. Currently, the city is catering to a suburban lifestyle which just so happens to be based in Minneapolis boundaries. Take the proposed Eclipse where the developer is seeking a variance for extra parking spaces.

2. They’re not into the local culture.

The Whole Foods in the 220 Hennepin apartment building is quite symbolic about the taste of the 100,000+ people the city is wooing to its densest neighborhoods: chains. Uptown, the other fastest growing area in the city, has seen a surge in chain establishments. You’re not going to find Electric Fetus’ new cousin in any of these new luxury builds. Nor will you find many interesting affordable restaurants (World Street Kitchen is the only one coming to mind) or quirky standbys the likes of Galactic Pizza which delivers your pie via superheroes or Ecopolitan with its focus on the utmost ethical eats (vegan, in this case raw). Bars? I can’t think of one that sits on the first floor on one of these, let alone one worth frequenting. And you can forget about any live music venue like 331 or Triple Rock ever surfacing: any remote possibility will have a genre starting with the word “smooth” or “soft”. While tons of new residents are being added they are at the same time adding just as little to improve the local culture.

3. They stay in their upper-class clique.

In a co-op, neighborhood bar, or local cheap ethnic restaurant, the luxury apartment dweller is sighted about as often as a wolverine in Michigan (virtually never). They stick to chains (malls for weekend shopping when they want diversity), yuppie lounges where drinks are typically $10 and up and hopefully of the “ultra” variety, and if they want to dabble in the authentic Vietnamese fare which abounds in Minneapolis thanks to its unusually large Vietnamese and Hmong population they will only dabble in a watered-down fusion version in a sleek setting devoid of Vietnamese and/or Hmong clientele. And when they’re looking for Mexican fare, instead of a quality local Mexican-run restaurants on Lake Street or Central Avenue they’ll pay $14 for guacamole (with lime omitted!!! Who in their right mind makes guac w/o a healthy dose lime and salt!!!). It’ll be in a similar setting with accompanying high prices that only a very small percentage of Mexican-Americans can afford and to add insult to injury you’re paying money to a place that’s brazenly butchering your language in the name of the restaurant itself.

OK, so before point #4 turns into an exponentially longer rant, I think you can see my point; growing our population to and above our 1950s peak level is a worthy goal, but only if it doesn’t result in watering down our liberal local culture that embraces the “other” and worthy virtues like minimizing harmful lifestyle choices that harm the environment, consciously supporting local businesses, and being accepting of GLBTQ individuals and whole-heartedly welcoming cyclists on our streets instead of honking at them (there’s a reason Mpls is ranked way higher for bike-friendliness than NYC). Well-monied upper-class types, whether from the Twin Cities metro or even Manhattan don’t typically embody such an ethos and opening the floodgates to let that demographic get us to this goal will have a predictably negative impact on our culture.

Does Washington Ave Downtown Need Protected Bike Lanes, aka a Cycletrack?

Washington Ave is due to be reconstructed in coming months and locals are pushing for a cycletrack parallel to the street.

Over 500 Hand-Written Letters Ask for Protected Bike Lanes on Washington Ave

Posted on August 9, 2012 by

Last week, we had the honor of delivering over 500 hand-written letters to Minneapolis Councilmember Lisa Goodman, Mayor RT Rybak and County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin.  All of the letters – written by downtown Minneapolis residents, workers and visitors – request that the City and Hennepin County install protected bicycle lanes on Washington Ave S as part of the upcoming reconstruction project.
 

Washington Avenue today has seven lanes of traffic

Washington Avenue today has seven lanes of traffic. Despite the difficult conditions, hundreds of people bicycle on Washington Avenue S, in numbers equal to those on the much more comfortable S 2nd Street one block north

About a dozen dedicated volunteers from the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition gathered the letters from pedestrians and cyclists traveling within two blocks of downtown’s Washington Ave S. The support from people passing by was overwhelming. After seeing a photo of Washington Ave S today and a rough idea of what it could look like with protected bike lanes, hundreds of people put down their groceries, pulled over in the middle of a bicycle ride, handed their baby to a friend or otherwise stopped what they were doing to write a letter.

The letters tell the personal stories of why protected bike lanes would make a big impact on downtown. They demonstrate the diversity of the people who want to see protected bicycle lanes on Washington Avenue S become reality.

Full Post: http://mplsbike.org/blog/?p=2457

Of course, like 1st Ave you’ll have cyclists less visible being to the right of motorists’ visual focus centered on their lane and in the path of right-turning vehicles, but at least with the rough draft being presented no parked cars would additionally block motorists’ visibility of cyclists.

However, I have to wonder how all those businesses on Washington would feel about losing all on-street parking? With a current seven lanes and a median on top of that I’d think there would be room for two travel lanes, spacious bike lanes to avoid any door zone issues, and parking while also keeping cyclists more visible:no need to sacrifice parking for customers. Even in its current state the parking lanes are wide enough that enough cyclists feel safe enough to ride in the unofficial existing bike lanes and in comparable numbers to slower more bike-friendly streets nearby. If we do away with all on-street parking we’ll also be killing any chance of on-street bike parking which could dot this stretch and maximize accessibility, real and perceived, to customers on two and four wheels.

Personally, I have no qualms as a cyclist who has biked here numerous times about taking the lane along stretches of Washington where cars are not parked: motorists have two whole extra lanes to themselves at any given time. I think addressing this factor, where taking a lane is uncomfortable for less experienced cyclists/visitors, would be all that really needs to be done. Make that wide unofficial bike lane official, time up traffic signals for slower speeds like 25 MPH, and you’ll also have an easier ride that attracts more novice riders without having to stop at every intersection for turning traffic, because when it’s all said and done cyclists of all stripes are going to prefer (whether they admit it or not) the fastest bike ride from A to B with the least amount of stops. And like the little “stop” signs where the separated Midtown Greenway intersects side streets with motor traffic we know that the vast majority of cyclists are going to treat such signs were they to appear on Washington in the same manner: as yield signs. Might as well have infrastructure that reflects the reality of how cyclists will use it vs. how we’d like them to.

On-Street Bike Corrals: a Chance to Hand PDX’s Ass to Them on a Silver Platter. Again.

So, Walkscore quantitatively ranked Mpls #1 in bikeablity a while back. I also learned that in Cbus, my hometown, that $300,000 was spent on ten bike shelters before debuting the city’s first on-street bike corral. It didn’t take much research to find that other cities like Cincinnati had spent as little as $1000 for a bike corral. If Columbus had spent that same amount of money on bike corrals in lieu of ten fancy covered bike shelters now on the sidewalks, it would be receiving national recognition for having more than three times as much on-street bike parking than Portland, which has a current total of 85 locations. Needless to say, Mpls would likewise have been left in the dust: we maybe have a few? I’m familiar with one next to Birchwood Cafe and I hear there’s another one off the Cedar Lake Trail in that weird area of Downtown in the vicinity of Lee’s Liquor Lounge (gets my stamp of approval, but you might want to drink a couple elsewhere before paying $4 per tallboy, just FYI), but is there even a third?

Anyway, here’s my point: on-street bike corrals are dirt cheap and at the same time communicate a highly valuable message, especially on roads without bike facilities, that bikes are road vehicles.  By addressing the social acceptability factor with such clear visuals this will cause the average motorist to associate bikes with roads, instead of bikes with sidewalks. When you think about it, where do you see virtually all bikes parked? On sidewalks, which certainly affects a motorist’s perception of where bikes belong. After all, they’re all parked on sidewalks and it doesn’t take much of a stretch to see why motorists approach cyclists on some streets with the understanding that there’s a preference for them since cars are valued highly enough to warrant on-street parking. Bikes? Not so much.

In addition to the powerful visual they provide there are numerous reasons for business districts and nodes to support the removal of one car space for a bike corral that can accommodate many times more customers per spot. Minneapolis could, for a rather small price tag catch up with PDX, but why settle there when for $300,000, the amount a city in the middle of Ohio was willing to spend on bike parking in one year, we can spend the same much more wisely and shoot way ahead of the competition and be the first to see how much of a positive impact a critical mass of on-street bike parking will have on the city. Sounds perfectly doable to me.

Open Streets 2012

20 blocks of Lyndale closed off to motorized traffic: great stuff.

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Short video here.

Why Minneapolis Part 2. Bikeability: #1 in the USA

Digging deeper, it becomes more apparent that Minneapolis shares more with cities on the coasts like Portland, which has a similar number of highly walkable neighborhoods and until recently was repeatedly ranked as the #1 bike-friendly city in the USA by Bicycling Magazine. Coming from another Midwestern city that only has a tiny fraction of the cycling infrastructure that is found here, imagine how pleased I was that two new bike boulevards (low traffic, calmed streets which are shared with cars but geared towards bikes) were  being finished near my new apartment in NE. As a cyclist who had braved winter cycling for a few years it was extra nice to be able to ride as much as I have without lots of snow and ice to dissuade me for my first Minnesota “winter”.

Other large Midwestern cities fail hard in this department save for  Chicago (10th).  Appearances on the list ranged from so-so to shameful: Milwaukee (26th),  Kansas City (33rd), Columbus (34th), St. Louis (38th), Cleveland (39), Omaha (42nd),  Indianapolis (45th), and Cincinnati which somehow didn’t even place.

While Minneapolis is comparable to cities on the coast as far as walkability, it excels over most including NYC where cyclists get ticketed if they choose to not use a bike lane where they are available  (I’m sure everyone has seen that Youtube video)  and Chicago which is lagging behind and whose residents would like see the city emulate Minneapolis. Other Midwestern cities, *sigh*, they’re once again fitting the stereotype of being behind the times when it comes to delivering amenities for  quality, everyday urban living. Minneapolis currently offers a wide variety of biking infrastructure that covers a lot of ground and will hopefully work hard to stay at the forefront of making it easy to get everywhere you need to go by bike and increase the number of riders out there.

Why Minneapolis Part 1. Walkability: Minneapolis vs. The Midwest

Chicago has long been thought of as the only ¨real¨city in the Midwest: that sprawling region between the western frontier of Denver and the east coast outpost of Pittsburgh. Walkscore has its problems to be sure, but its current methods do rank NYC, San Francisco, & Chicago in the top five most walkable American cities, with Minneapolis in 9th place out of the top ten. The average urbanite probably didn’t expect any other city outside of Chicago to come close and for the most part they’d be right (Chicago alone has over 100 neighborhoods that rank as “very walkable”). After Minneapolis the next highest ranking Midwestern city is Milwaukee which trails at 15th place.

While Walkscore isn’t perfect, you can add up the number of “very walkable” urban neighborhoods (ranked anywhere from 70-100). After all, isn’t the number of walkable urban neighborhoods what people are looking for if they’re looking for urban living? From the ones listed I subtracted “city” neighborhoods that depend on dense suburban developments for a high score, particularly in cities that have annexed like crazy (see Columbus, Indianapolis, and Kansas City). Then on top of that I subtracted realtor-oriented labels which divide a single neighborhood (see Old North Columbus in Columbus, OH for a good example) into many subdivided ones which only give the illusion of more walkable neighborhoods than there actually are (in Old North Columbus’ case one walkable neighborhood’s boundaries were divided into five: Old North Columbus, North Campus, Indiana Forest,  Glen Echo, and Iuka Ravine). For some cities you have to dig up the walkability of neighborhoods since some cities themselves don’t value their neighborhoods enough to define them: Indianapolis and Omaha are the worst offenders where Walkscore had to resort to zip code boundaries and others like Columbus allow realtors to over-zealously subdivide and name areas ad nauseum, so here are total approximate numbers of walkable neighborhoods  in other similarly sized Midwestern cities with a population of at least 300,000 or higher:

  • Minneapolis – 36
  • Milwaukee – 25
  • St. Louis – 18
  • Kansas City – 18
  • Columbus – 15
  • Cincinnati – 11
  • Cleveland – 7
  • Detroit – 8
  • Omaha – 5
  • Indianapolis – 5

As you can see, Minneapolis is in a league of its own with Milwaukee coming in at a pretty distant, but respectable 2nd and from there you get around half the neighborhoods that offer the walkable urban amenities that Minneapolis does: if you’re lucky. It’s rather surprising that other Midwestern cities are looking to cities outside of the region, from Portland to Austin to Charlotte, when there’s a very successful model to follow right in their backyard. When one city has well over a dozen as many walkable neighborhoods than all of the others in the Midwest, and isn’t Chicago, there might be some lessons that can and should be learned in other Midwestern cities.

Branding Neighborhoods With Bike Racks

I’ve come to notice at least a couple of neighborhood/district-centric bike racks around the city.  Above is one kind found throughout Eat Street in South Minneapolis to accompany the several banners lining the lamp posts. I’ve also seen some Standish-Ericsson ones, which are useful since some neighborhood names like that one don’t exactly roll off the tongue. I’d like to see these become more common practice to help better define “place” in our many, varied neighborhoods and business districts.