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Temporary greenway tests out a possible future for north Minneapolis

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
Spending time along the test greenway is an almost eerie experience, like being in an alternate universe.

“Why can’t we have nice things?” is a common refrain in north Minneapolis, where people look down at the parks, homes, and leafy quiet of south Minneapolis’ tonier neighborhoods and rightly demand equality. Take the Midtown Greenway, the crown jewel of Minneapolis’ vaunted bicycle infrastructure. The wide bike/walk path runs along 29th Street, connecting the Chain of Lakes with the Mississippi River. It’s a world-famous amenity that has fueled an urban development boom, but like most Minneapolis trends, it sits in the city’s better-off southern half.

A few weeks ago, after years of community work, a “test greenway” was installed along a half-mile of Irving Avenue North, connecting two parks through the middle of north Minneapolis’ Jordan and Folwell neighborhoods. In today’s car-saturated city, the odd mix of traffic-calming elements seems an almost impossible feat of political experimentation. The temporary project presents its north Minneapolis neighbors with a riveting question: What kind of street do you want? What happens over the next year will offer a telling reply. 

Years in the making

There are only so many disused urban railroad trenches to be found, and infrastructure like the Midtown Greenway is the kind of project that can only rarely be recreated. But if the Midtown Greenway is one inspiration for the test, Seward neighborhood’s Milwaukee Avenue is another.

“I like to think of it as just a lovely stretch of street that’s closed to cars, and open to pedestrians,” northside resident Dacia Durham told me three years ago, when the greenway was just a plan on paper. “You can turn it into park space, and the hope is that it will bring neighborhoods together, especially over north. That people will make an effort to get to know their neighbors more, that’s the way I think of it.”

In 2013, Durham was working with an organization called Twin Cities Greenways, trying to get greenway-style pedestrian streets built in different neighborhoods of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Back in 2008, the group looked at a few potential choices and identified this part of north Minneapolis as an ideal place for the region's first on-street greenway.

“It’ll be like Milwaukee Avenue, but Milwaukee is very narrow,” Matthew Hendricks, one of the group’s founders, explained at the time. “A greenway in north Minneapolis would have a much wider feel and have a little more green space.”

After years of community meetings, city permits, and funding applications, the seemingly far-fetched greenway idea got a key grant from Blue Cross/Blue Shield. Along with city, state, and federal money, today the the pipe dream has become reality.

The big test arrives

At first glance the street looks like a jumble, but that is by design. Traveling north along the six blocks of Irving Avenue North that form the “test greenway,” you encounter a tasting menu of traffic-calming treatments.

The first is the “half-and-half,” where concrete barriers have been installed to form a one-way walkable space. Sturdy plastic picnic tables sit in the new spaces along the block, and cars slow to a fast crawl.

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
The first section is the “half-and-half,” where concrete barriers have been installed along parts of the street to form a one-way walkable space.

“I hate it because of the parking,” Reggie Myles told me, getting into his car on his way to his job at the Embassy Suites. “Come wintertime, how are you going to park here? Who’s going to plow the alleys? This is north side, they don’t plow here.”

Myles lives on a stretch of the greenway south of Lowry Avenue, which means he can drive in only one direction down the block. But in the next breath, Myles admitted that there was an upside. 

“As far as what’s good about it, this block we have a lot of kids here, kids playing in the street. So that’s good,” he said. 

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
Large metal planters demarcate car-free zones alternating down the east and west sides of the street.

The next four blocks are the least invasive, an impromptu bicycle boulevard. Large metal planters demarcate car-free zones alternating down the east and west sides of the street. It’s what street designers refer to as a chicane, a term common in auto racing. As a result, cars slow down, and the brightly painted pavement — yellow, pink, and green — transforms Irving Avenue’s sloping hill into a surprisingly festive sight.

Another key factor of the greenway design is temporary bollard pedestrian crossings at the two of the busiest intersections, Lowry Avenue and North 33rd Street.

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
Not everyone seems to be happy with the changes to the street.

 

“Do you like the colors?” Nate Pentz, a northside resident and secretary for the Northside Greenway Council, asked me earnestly. “We were going to paint it green, but then went for more color.”

(For the record, I do.)

As someone who has spent hours attending public meetings about on-street parking, the final stretch of the street is the most astonishing. It’s the “full greenway” treatment, a block of the street closed off to cars. A bike lane has been painted along the asphalt, weaving back and forth between the curbs. Residents needing access park around the corner or use their alleys (most homes in this part of town have always relied on alleys), though it remains possible to drive over the plastic bollards in an emergency. 

Just like Milwaukee Avenue, the street itself has become a public space where people can walk, play, bike, or just hang out.

“It’s not nothing, it’s something,” one resident told me, walking her black-and-white dog up the pedestrianized block. “Some people are against, and I see where people are coming from. I like the crosswalks, especially on 33rd, because it’s a busy street and people speed.” 

The conversation begins 

Because it’s a temporary test — like the recent artistic crosswalk in St. Paul, part of a trend of “pop-up” urbanism — the actual on-the-ground treatments are flexible. Pentz says that the City Council is willing to change some street details, moving bollards, a picnic table, or traffic diverters.

“If anything ever does end up taking place, there’s still a lot of process time for it to be changed, adjusted block by block,” Nate Pentz told me, making sure to describe the project as temporary. “It’s for neighbors to decide what they want.  Do they want to do a bike boulevard, a half-and-half, or a full linear greenway? There’s ability for neighbors to lead the discussion of where this goes … if it happens.”

So far, the jury is out. As with most things, some folks love it, others hate it, and most are somewhere in the middle.

“I have children, and I remember growing up in this neighborhood,” said Will Lumpkins, a local bike advocate. “I remember traversing the neighborhood and how big a deal it was having to cross a major intersection, having to worry about getting hit by a car. This kind of creates something where I can envision my son being able to have a linear pathway where he can safely traverse the north side.”

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
A key factor of the greenway design is temporary bollard pedestrian crossings at the two of the busiest intersections, Lowry Avenue and North 33rd Street.

The city has placed a large message board in the streets with comment cards for neighbors to fill out. The next few months — or for however long the test greenway stays operational — will offer a flurry of community feedback. So far, neighbors are concerned about parking, access for Metro Mobility, alley and street safety, and a few other technical details.

As the project launches, the organizers are promising to work out the kinks. Yet to me, given the radical change to the street, it’s amazing that the change seems so smooth.

“It’s an opportunity for north Minneapolis to reimagine a new amenity they’d like to see for themselves,” explained Alexis Pennie, who is coordinating outreach for the Northside Greenway Council. “We’re going to get a really great investment here in the middle of north Minneapolis that helps produce a quality of life and connectivity that we don’t currently have.”

Pennie is hosting a meeting at his house on Friday for people who’d like to help with outreach. His current plans include signs, buttons, and door knocking to start conversations. (I imagine that, without the noise of speeding cars, conversations will be improved in volume, if not in tenor. And now there are picnic tables where people can sit and complain about parking in relative comfort.)

The official greenway kickoff is [update] this Sunday, an all-day event with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 5 p.m.

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
“It’s more intimate because it links our parks and our schools,” said Will Lumpkins, comparing the north and midtown greenways.

 

A big chance for change

Spending time along the test greenway is an almost eerie experience, like being in an alternate universe. The one constant seems to be the kids, emerging from front doors like clockwork to run around in the newly liberated open spaces. 

“My biggest takeaway is that I love the experience of walking and biking on it,” Nate Pentz agreed.  “Three or four residents who live on the greenway route temporary installation told me that they really like that kids could have places, playing in the streets and more out in the yards in general because traffic doesn’t go as fast.”

Heading down the new Irving Avenue, I was surprised to look up and see a friend’s old house on the corner. Years ago I had spent an entire day cleaning up his yard after a destructive tornado had swept through the neighborhood, knocking down trees like dominoes. Five years later, the replacement maples still look scrawny, though the sidewalks have been repaired.

Pausing at the corner, I watched a school bus negotiate the painted chicanes, stopping to let off a young man in a white T-shirt. Further down the street, a couple sat in the shade on their stoop as two kids popped out from a house to kick a soccer ball back and forth between the flower planters. A block away, a police car idled, an officer gazing off into the distance at something ineffable. In the next block, a pickup basketball game had broken out in the very place where I’d almost seen a fistfight a half-hour earlier.

If it works, the new greenway will change the neighborhood even more than the tornado did, dramatically shifting how the street functions for people living here. Today’s Irving Avenue has been quieted down and opened up to let a hundred new activities flourish. The greenway won’t solve the neighborhood’s problems by itself, but watching kids playing in the street, it’s almost impossible not to fill with hope for the future.

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Comments (9)

If they don't want it...

...then I'll take a greenway on my southside street, please. It would be nice to not see drivers speeding past while kids are playing on the sidewalk and in front yards.

You're welcome to it. . .

Although it seems that it is only going to go where it isn't wanted.

i think that the green way is

i think that the green way is such a good idea and that all of these peoples problems could easily be fixed if they make it a full thing.

Really?

Posting this just to make sure people know there IS strong opposition, since it seems to be assumed whenever we don't want to join sites that have horrible journalism that there's no opposition.

This is the most one sided reporting I've ever seen and its just pathetic. Yes, it's the COLORS we don't like. It has nothing to do with the fact that residents will be losing access to transport (there are several disabled and elderly people on this route and those that realize that they may need to access special transportation one day because they're in touch with reality), will be forced to enter and exit their homes through the unsafe (very little line of site, can't be picked up or see when things like metro mobility have arrived at the house) and unmaintained alleys (who is going to pay to widen them and I'm highly doubtful the city would make plowing of an alley a high priority), or that they've repeatedly not been given answers to questions about who will maintain the greenway space, what will be done when they can't call police on suspicious strangers entering their yards because "they have every right to be on public property" (we already get that response when drug deals happen in the street) or what will happen regarding the sewers, water drainage, or where guests are supposed to park (I'm sorry but "you can park at the end of the block" is not a suitable answer for an area of the city that barely has enough parking space as it is), or how condoning children to play right next to a road (I hate to tell you but people still speed even when roads look like a Mario Kart track, they speed on my street that's full of speed bumps, in fact it's almost a challenge to speeders) is going to help their safety in any way, OR what's going to be done when these loafers start crapping all over peoples yards (yes, it's a problem already, which you'd know if you knew anything about the area).

People initially loved this idea but through underhanded tactics (cancellations of meetings right before "test runs" were put up "out of respect for peoples schedules" for example) and the extremely juvenile responses of many supporters (for example the meeting notes being recorded as "Community Concerns: Rapists! Highly Hypothetical Situation!" followed by little anime drawings of a guy in a hoodie holding a knife) and even those on the board this project has become a bane to most of the residence on the proposed Greenway. If you ACTUALLY did some real reporting and actually went and talked to residents yourself you'd find, as the person who handed out those signs that are now everywhere and growing did, that an overwhelming majority of people AGGRESSIVELY hate this Greenway was it is proposed.

It's going to take a LOT of backpedaling (see my pun?) and actually working for the community this time to make this Greenway go through without lawsuits happening (hear of the ADA? You BET it applies, especially once this becomes a "public space"), and so far that hasn't happened.

Nomi Greenway

Meta great write and I would like to add there is no comparison to the Midway Greenway and Milwaukee Ave in South Mpls. The Midtown Greenway does not involve people's front yards and very needed parking spots nor have the crime that North Mpls has. Milwaukee Ave is not a mile long and does not have renters in the same numbers North Mpls does. These are huge differences and the fact that many of the people living a long the proposed North Greenway do not want it. Ummm 10 people on the commission do not represent the hundreds of people affected.

A Few Thoughts from a Folwell Resident

1) Everyone living on this stretch can already get to a park without crossing a busy street.
2) Not everyone has a driveway or a sidewalk to the alley.
3) Teaching kids to play in the street is cruel and borders on attempted homicide.
4) They didn't go door-to-door through the neighborhoods ~ whoever told the author that is lying.
5) We already have lovely parks in North Minneapolis ~ why not use this money to have some activities in the parks we already have? This is like putting an addition on a house full of broken windows, rather than fixing the windows.
6) For all practical purposes, residents along the greenway are no longer allowed visitors, as there is no place to park.
7) Home improvements (particularly roofs) become a nightmare since there no place for a dumpster.
8) A greenway is not bulletproof.

The effing"Have Greenaway"

This is a fiasco being forced upon residents by people who do not live near it and are being paid to be supporters of it. It is not being welcomed by residents of the immediate area and a remarkable level of non-profit planning has been demonstrated. The fire station that provides services to the area was not informed of the project and the layout of the street did not accommodate emergency vehicles!

In short this is a danger to the community and needs to go away!

Bill

"...where concrete barriers have been installed to form a one-way walkable space."

What is the currently correct term for those "sidewalks" I see here?

Residents Rejecting Greenway

I live directly on the Greenway and more and more "Say No To The Greenway" signs are popping up in the front yards of frustrated homeowners on the Greenway route.

We are forcefully being denied our fair and rightful access to our front doors, to ample, appropriate and safe parking, to delivery vehicles, to police/fire department vehicles.

If you don't live on Irving Ave directly on the Greenway I don't think you should be able to have an opinion/vote on whether our street is taken away from us in this most inconvenient and unattractive way.

I suggest the Northside Greenway Council finds a stretch of street where the overwhelming majority of residents are excited to lose personal and public access to their homes and to appropriate parking as well - and then put a Greenway there. But good luck. What community would be comfortable losing basic rights and access just so non-local bicyclists can roll through our messily-painted "greenway" streets?