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Hiawatha struggles to become a destination, not a corridor

Hiawatha Avenue: cars, concrete, and nary a pedestrian in sight.

The sun is coming out, and the sky is bluing up. My stomach is comfortably packed with a big breakfast and my brain in receipt of its daily dose of mood-mellowing medication. So why do I feel dejected?

Oh right. I’m driving on Hiawatha Avenue.

This six-lane stretch of roadway between downtown Minneapolis and the Federal Building in Bloomington — about 15 miles — seems as barren as a desert. There’s some industrial stuff, rail yards, a Walgreens and a gas station, but little else that would make you want to look twice, much less park and walk. Visual relief only comes at the southern end, around Fort Snelling, where stonewalls are draped with enough decorative vegetation to make me stop humming “Suicide is Painless.”

Yes, I know it’s a state highway and not supposed to be lovely, but in some ways, Hiawatha is bleaker than an Interstate. On a freeway, you can go 60 or 70 miles an hour, making a dreary landscape speed by quickly. On Hiawatha, it’s pretty much stop-and-go with lights lasting as long as a minute, forcing you to take in every drab detail. And pity the light rail passengers who disembark at, say, 38th Street or 46th Street. The road is so wide and the distances between one forlorn block and another so ostensibly vast that the place seems to swallow people whole, both body and spirit.

Hiawatha congestionMinnPost photo by Marlys HarrisOn Hiawatha, it’s pretty much stop-and-go.

One of the arguments for light rail along the so-called Hiawatha corridor was that it would bring development to the areas around it. And Hiawatha does look better, or more sanitized, than it did back in the ancient days of my childhood when it was lined with auto parts shops and junkyards. There are trees, albeit stubby short ones that I can’t identify. But where are people? Where are the stores? Where is the housing? If this is what development looks like, what’s going to happen on University Avenue, where the central corridor light rail is now under construction? Will we be faced with another desert of nothingness that propels people from one stop to another without doing anything about what’s in-between?

‘Powerful catalyst’

Well, according to the Metropolitan Council website, the avenue has already arrived. “The Hiawatha line has proven to be a powerful catalyst for development in a corridor that once had large tracts of vacant and underutilized land,” it proclaims.

Seriously? I don’t see it.

The reason for that, says David Frank, director of transportation development for the Minneapolis Department of Community Planning and Economic Development, is that you can’t see it. “It’s not visible from the road, but it is there,” he insists. Since the light rail launched in 2004, some 8,000 housing units have gone up, most of them downtown, but there are 2,000 along Hiawatha from Cedar-Riverside on the north to the Veterans Hospital on the south.

That’s actually pretty good, says Karen Lyons, a transportation planner with the Metropolitan Council. The initial design projected an addition of 2,000 apartments by the year 2020. “We surpassed that in 2010,” she says, “and more are popping out of the ground all the time.”

And if you slow down your car or, heaven forfend, get out of it, you can glimpse the new buildings. Station 38 Apartments (on 38th) and Hiawatha Flats (off 46th near Walgreens) are two new ones that I discovered. All these developments, however, lie a few blocks off Hiawatha; they do nothing to make the avenue itself more inviting, user friendly or even plain old useful. There’s still nothing to look at and nothing to buy unless you need a tank of gas or an Alka Seltzer.

That will change a bit in the fall of 2013 when Longfellow Station, a 180-unit housing complex, rises right on Hiawatha itself, at 38th. According to Paul Keenan, project manager at Sherman Associates, the developer, planters and shrubbery will separate the building from the road to cut down on noise. More encouragingly, the building will add 10,000 square feet of retail space for small stores, maybe a sandwich shop, coffee house (we can never get enough of them apparently), dry cleaners and/or superette. Sherman would like to lease to, say, Starbucks or CVS, says Keenan, “but they all want drive-throughs, and the zoning laws prohibit them.”

Builders express interest

Development would have come faster were it not for the recession. Now that the worst is over, builders are expressing interest in properties both on Hiawatha and on University, says Lyons. “It’s occurring on small lots as in-fill, so the growth isn’t obvious,” she adds. Even so, there are no plans to turn Hiawatha into a major shopping street, or even a minor one. The vision instead is to develop commercial and housing nodes on the side streets around light-rail stations. Hiawatha would continue to be Hiawatha, shunting commuters into and out of downtown.

I would hope that we could do better than that. Even with the creation of village-like centers around stations, Hiawatha would continue to be a divider, not a uniter.  Crossing the road, especially on corners where there are no lights, takes the boldness of Evel Knievel and the speed of Randy Moss. Some residents might find it easier after they get off the train, to go home and drive to the nearest Target or Rainbow to pick up a loaf of bread rather than to put their lives on the line to get to a store on the other side.

Moreover, if the two neighborhoods — Powderhorn on the west and Longfellow on the East — aren’t somehow joined, the commercial enterprises in the nodes won’t draw enough customers to survive and flourish. Hiawatha itself needs to be a boulevard lined with housing, shops, restaurants, parks and, yes, parking, because Twin Citizens are not likely to give up their cars until gas costs $15 a gallon.

What would such a transformation take? Time, obviously. A lively street doesn’t happen overnight, and, says David Frank, “a train by itself is not sufficient” to create development. “The market has to be ready,” he adds. Increased usage of the train line — it now carries nearly 30,000 passengers a day — developers’ heightened interest in the area, not to mention soaring fuel costs and the greater inconvenience of long-distance commuting, suggest that the market is coming along. 

Perhaps what we need most is a change in perspective. For years we’ve termed Hiawatha a corridor. A corridor is something you pass through, not something you go to. It’s unlikely that Hiawatha will ever become the Champs Elysée or Avenida 9 de Julio in Buenos Aires, two city roadways that carry loads of traffic but also draw hordes of pedestrians and support hundreds of appealing businesses. But if we start to think of Hiawatha as a destination, we will be able to figure out what we want there and then build it.

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Comments (23)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 05/03/2012 - 09:06 am.

    It is very hard to have a major transit line, a major car route AND a vibrant street life.

    The west side of the road is cut off by fences and walls with openings at only a few places. The east side of the road has railroads and old industrial several blocks deep, separating it from the residential areas at and east of Minnehaha. There is no natural constituency for a vibrant street life on Hiawatha so it will all depend on new housing and retail filling in as the old uses are booted out and perhaps open more pedestrian inlets from the west side of the road. And, of course, there needs to be parking.

    By the way, how will it work along University–can pedestrians cross wherever and whenever they want–unlike Hiawatha?

    And, has anyone investigated how many new retail/housing developments that are out there where the ground floor retail sits empty? It seems that a large portion of the footage is empty. Has anyone considered that individual, unique businesses operate with such low profit margins that the cannot afford the space in the new buildings? That they are pushed into fewer and fewer low-cost old spaces, still leaving all that new space empty. It does no good to have a new building with empty space at the street level in promoting a vibrant street life.

  2. Submitted by Ralf Wyman on 05/03/2012 - 09:53 am.

    Hiawatha challengs

    As someone who was very active in the Longfellow Council’s neighborhood development committee, I appreciate the desire to check out the impact of LRT on a challenging corridor. I wish you had taken the time to talk with someone from LCC! I moved out of the neighborhood a year ago but still like to keep tabs (and go to Patrick’s Cabaret and some of the Longfellow restaurants).
    But there are folks there who could have contributed plenty to your reporting. I guess you wanted to write more of a thought/reaction piece, but it feels like you kinda diss how hard it is to transform a roadway that neighborhoods have very little influence on.
    MnDOT controls Hiawatha. It may be called an avenue, but (as you do note) it is a highway. The stubby trees are because of an arcane MnDOT rule. The huge shoulders that make the road so not-human in scale are a MnDOT (or possibly even federal?) rule. These are not institutions that are nimble or react easily to neighborhood input.
    I also ask that you drive down Hiawatha again. Look just past the fences, what do you see? A project under construction right now on the west side near 38th. There’s a senior community that went up several years ago, also on the west side, a little south of 32nd.
    Claire Housing’s new building near Lake is an LRT-related project, as is the condo project above Aldi. Hiawatha Flats was indeed an LRT induced project. We on LCC’s NDC worried that it was at the edge of walkability, and indeed some people take risky dashes across Hiawatha. Better pedestrian connectes are needed. Until we can get policy changes at MnDOT – dont hold your breath! – I think the work going on is amazing given the obstacles.
    Longfellow Station shows just how hard, in the economy of the past several years, it is to get development done. But it’s finally moving.
    And can I just say: thank heavens for the no-drivethru rule! If we want walkable communities, a drivethru at 38th and Hiawatha would not help. Yes it makes landing a tenant harder for Sherman. But it helps move us toward rehabbing Hiawatha as a human-scale place. Baby steps, but real.

  3. Submitted by Curtis Griesel on 05/03/2012 - 10:31 am.

    History of Hiawatha Ave.

    When I drive down Hiawatha Ave, I do like to slow down and look out the windows, because it makes me wonder about the industrial history of that area. Driving by the huge grain operations, which still seem to be in operation, my mind takes me to thoughts about rural Minnesota, the huge importance of the agriculture industry in Minnesota, and the role that Minneapolis and Hiawatha Ave play in that important industry. I’ve been to the Mill City museum, and I think Hiawatha Ave would benefit from a similar, perhaps less ambitious, interpretive center to help visitors and passers-by understand and appreciate the history of that corridor. Maybe people would be more inclined to stop and look around if they knew more about the history of that vital corridor.

  4. Submitted by Brian Simon on 05/03/2012 - 10:45 am.

    overlooked challenges

    As it happens, I just read a few pieces on on this very subject this AM. Both there & here an additional challenge is overlooked: the ongoing industrial nature of the corridor. There is still an operating grain mill on the corner of 38th & Hiawatha, which is served by heavy rail lines parallel to and only a half block from Hiawatha Avenue. Much of the rest of the property is commercial warehouse space, which traffic calming & boulevardization of Hiawatha would not change.

  5. Submitted by Dimitri Drekonja on 05/03/2012 - 10:48 am.

    Huh? If you want to write about a depressing corridor, go scout out 394– both are basically highways that funnel suburbanites into the downtown area, one with stoplights and a train, one with freeway speeds (and congestion) and buses.

    394 has every chain restaurant known to man visible from the road- car drivers can go there (if they can figure out which exit), but bus-riders are at a disadvantage. Hiawatha has multiple unique locally-owned places within steps of the light rail– Caps, Sea Salt, the Cardinal, the Chatterbox, True Thai (longer walk), and others. Yes, it’s not the river road. But for a major highway link into downtown, it’s pretty good, and getting better.

  6. Submitted by Steve Elkins on 05/03/2012 - 11:05 am.

    Does the Hiawatha LRT Line end at the Minneapolis City Limits?

    … I was pretty sure that it continued through to the Bloomington Central Station development in Bloomington and, from there, to MOA. Marlys, I certainly hope that your perspective extends beyond the City of Minneapolis in future stories!


  7. Submitted by David Frenkel on 05/03/2012 - 11:07 am.

    Long History of Hiawathia Ave

    More than anything Hiawathia Ave has always been viewed by the city and MN DOT as a transportation corridor which is its biggest problem. My mother was on some of the early neighborhood committes that stopped MN DOT from making Hiathwathia Ave a freeway. Jumping ahead 40 years MN DOT and the city built a short tunnel through Minnehaha Falls to expedite traffic through the area which also cut off numerous parts of the community. The reason light rail was built was becuase MN DOT had cleared the corridor for a freeway that was never built and left land available for light rail. I still remember the Minneapolis bridge to no where on 46th Street that was built as an over pass for the proposed freeway that was torn down for the light rail. The development of Hiawathia Ave has been a series of missteps by the city and lack of planning for its revitalization. The Hiawathia corridor compromises more than just Longfellow and Powderhorn neighborhoods, it is swath through the whole southern half of the city. I know of no other light rail line in the US that has had so little redeveloment as the Hiawathia corridor and the blame has to go squarely with the city that has put very few resources into the area.

  8. Submitted by Pat Borzi on 05/03/2012 - 11:08 am.

    Something is under construction…

    …next to the 46th Street station. I haven’t been over there in awhile so I’m not sure what it’s going to be.

  9. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 05/03/2012 - 11:11 am.

    How to make a community out of a corridor?

    A bridge of ties, not sighs….

    Maybe bridges over the traffic corridor;wise enough to recognize diverse people preferences like walking, biking, jogging; wide enough to accommodate all three without crowding?

    A covered bridge – a few of them – well designed; could add, not subtract from the attendant neighborhoods and encourage development?

    A bridge design contest to encourage aesthetic appeal rather than just pragmatic ‘utility?

  10. Submitted by Christopher Moseng on 05/03/2012 - 11:53 am.

    more depth

    While the aesthetic observations are accurate, the article seems to lack the perspective of the neighborhoods at issue. Surely, the neighborhood organizations along the route have some insight into the recent pace and nature of development, but I guess since none of them are headquartered right on Hiawatha, it doesn’t occur to contact them for their view. I know as someone living in a Hiawatha-adjacent hood (who has spent a fair share of his life sitting at its stoplights–to cross it as well as to travel it) there has been a notable amount of development in recent years, even in the midst of a massive building bust, that would not have occurred but for the train line.

    The blame for the slow pace of improvement can be more accurately placed on the macroeconomic climate than weak-willed neighborhoods or even the city. But, of course, those looking to confirm their belief that the train is a flop need only load up this article for the next 10 years. Its fair to say that Hiawatha isn’t there yet, but no fair assessment can be made of the progress without actually talking to the players and regarding honestly the historical and economic context in which this is all playing out.

  11. Submitted by Cynthia Frost on 05/03/2012 - 05:02 pm.

    Power lines

    The overhead powerlines present further impediment. My understanding is that HUD will not fund any housing development in the corridor where the power lines run overhead, and that this has derailed the Longfellow Station plans.

  12. Submitted by Ray Marshall on 05/03/2012 - 07:13 pm.

    Hiawatha Avenue as a neighborhood builder

    1. When the cross streets on Hiawatha are 1,000 or more feet apart from each other (32, 35, 38, 42, 46, 50, etc., that’s not very conducive to pedestrian traffic or retail trade.

    2. Actually, two blocks or so to the east is Minnehaha Avenue, where there are lots of retail at various intersections down as far as 46th street. Those cross streets are highly likely good sites for retail development, or more housing.

    3. The traffic on Minnehaha is probably higher now than it was before Hiawatha was built. The reason for that is probably given in a recent article I read that said that Hiawatha is the second most congested street in the city. I can’t recall the most congested street.

    I generally take Minnehaha if I’m coming south, because I might have to wait through two or three red arrow lights if I want to make a left turn off of Hiawatha. Whoever set up the traffic lights there must have flunked that course in traffic engineer’s school. And whether going north or south, I generally hit most of the red lights.

    It beats me why traffic on the side streets can’t make their left turns at the same time.

    I’ve heard it said that they screwed up the lights so that the trains will always beat a car to the airport or to downtown, thus encouraging ridership. When I’m waiting at an intersection and no cars are moving, N, S, E, or W, I tend to believe that.

    4. In terms of development, much is in the offing. I read that the project on the west side of 46th is a large housing unit with lots of retail on the first floor. On the east side of Hiawatha at 38th, an elevator has been taken down and maybe 500 feet of land is now ready for development. Up by the VA hospital on 54th street, a large multiple dwelling just had its roof timbered and may be done by Winter. A lot of other projects have been done in the past ten years. The state of the national economy probably is holding up more projects.

    5. But as has already been said here, Hiawatha essentially is a highway, designed to move traffic to and from downtown and the airport, the Dome and the Mall of America. The neighborhoods adjacent to Hiawatha contain lots of modestly priced homes. Many retailers aren’t going to put lots of investment into neighborhoods like that.

  13. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/03/2012 - 09:49 pm.

    We told you so.

    Hiawatha as currently designed will never have a street life. Anyone looking at can see why. This is no surprise, many citizen groups fought the construction of this design for decades, culminating in the final battles at the reroute and Coldwater Spring. Amongst other things MNDOTs predictions of a revitalized corridor were always absurd. This design was the final product of a government agency that committed to completing a project that no longer made sense, if it ever had.

    If they’d listened to critics 20 years ago, they could have downsized the design, put the light rail in with a much smaller footprint, and built an avenue that people could actually walk, live, and work on. Instead they shmooshed this 50 year old design with some modifications onto the existing space and lost an opportunity for decades. They destroyed a green space that could have anchored the southern end, and drove a the creek underground.

    This was just one more example of civic vandalism that has played too large a role in the Twin Cities history.

  14. Submitted by O G on 05/04/2012 - 10:16 am.

    comparing lingonberries to lefse

    University Avenue was, from the beginning, a retail corridor with a 120′ right of way, with structures built to the lot line. An oxcart and later streetcar line ensured that it would become one of the major retail corridors of the Twin Cities. Hiawatha, by contrast, was always an industrial area that grew along short line rail spurs that connect to the Midway Industrial Area. The development pattern has never been pedestrian-friendly or retail-oriented.

    Hiawatha was built not to stimulate development throughout the corridor, but because the rail line was in public ownership and a connection between downtown, MOA, and the airport could be sold to taxpayers from Greater Minnesota who were (in part) footing the bill. The Twin Cities needed to demonstrate that light rail was possible, and ridership actually exceeded estimates by over 30%. A success by most measures.

    L&H Station and developments in downtown and Bloomington are positive, but they are only occurring where infill makes sense in the urban fabric (Lake Street, Nicollet Mall, etc.) To assert that University Avenue and the Hiawatha line are similar, and what happened with development along Hiawatha portends the future of the Central Corridor is intellectually dishonest.

    • Submitted by Charlie Quimby on 07/11/2012 - 01:39 pm.

      Not dishonest

      I agree with all your observations except the last one. The author isn’t being intellectually dishonest in comparing the Central Corridor and Hiawatha, but as other comments show, she’s out of her depth.

  15. Submitted by James Shiffer on 05/04/2012 - 02:54 pm.

    Grain elevators and urban grit

    Train tracks on both sides of a divided highway don’t exemplify the new urbanism, but the grain elevator skyline of Hiawatha is something that tells me I’m in Minneapolis, not Eden Prairie. I was disappointed to see one of them demolished recently, one more blow to our sense of place.

  16. Submitted by Sam Newberg on 05/06/2012 - 02:27 pm.

    Hiawatha Should Be and Urban Boulevard

    Kudos to Marlys Harris for suggesting Hiawatha could be an urban boulevard. I propose the following:

    1. Reduce the speed limit to 30 MPH (at least between Minnehaha Creek and 35th Street). Enforce it. Slower traffic makes for a more humane urban environment. Slowing the traffic by 5 or 10 MPH will only marginally increase the time it takes to drive the corridor – a small sacrifice to make a huge improvement to the overall environment.

    2. Allow parking on Hiawatha Avenue. Use the existing shoulder. This will serve three purposes. It will allow people to park near the light rail station, and I guarantee it will be used. It will allow for parking near current and future mixed-use developments near light rail where off-street parking may be at a premium. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it will slow traffic on the street.

    3. Plant trees along the street that will actually one day create a pleasant, leafy canopy. This will increase the property value of development near train stations, create a more inviting pedestrian enironment and will simply look nice.

    4. Build crosswalks a different color than the roadway. Crosswalks of a different color (or different paving material) makes them more prominent and makes crossing the street on foot safer.

    5. Reduce curb radii – make corners sharper to slow turning cars.

    6. Make Walk signals come on automatically, perhaps a second or two before the light turns green. We’ve covered this before at – one need not “apply” to cross the street.

    7. Add crossing gates for sidewalks, not just traffic lanes. It makes a pedestrian feel unimportant. And straighten the sidewalk – there is no reason for the sidewalk to divert around the crossing gate when the traffic lane gets to proceed in a straight line.

    8. Increase walk signal timing so an old lady or family with small child can make it across. (check, Hennepin County plans to do this)

    9. Increase the size of center islands and pork chops, so pedestrians marooned feel a little better sense of safety. Wider pork chops and curb bumpouts also reduce the distance across the street, making it more friendly (check, Hennepin County plans to do this as well)

    Read all about it at

  17. Submitted by Josephine Vaughn on 05/07/2012 - 04:05 pm.

    Hiawatha Avenue Corridor

    I live 1.5 blocks from the 38th St. light rail station and I ride the train every day. I used to live in Chicago and took the train all the time, it was so easy and just part of going to anywhere in Chicago.

    I love that we finally have LRT in Minneapolis. The only suggestion that I have is that overhead pedestrian crossings are needed from the Lake Street Station all the way down to the VA Hospital. Hiawatha is not going to change from being a major traffic corridor nor are the mills going to pick up and move anytime soon. That is why all the new housing units along the corridor are back from the LRT line.

    The person who was going to build the Longfellow Crossing on the Purina Factory site ran out of money. Also living near the Purnia Factory for 20 years, although it was a landmark and I appreciate that, every time the wind blew from the east the neighborhood stunk of animal food and I certainly do not miss that.

    A great many comments from local citizens before the LRT was finished were negative. Example – why should we put it along Hiawatha, we don’t need LRT etc. All I kept saying was wait until the first snowstorm, ridership will increase dramatically. In fact, a couple of weeks ago a rider said that before LRT he was not a fan of the project at all. Now he says, he thinks it is “a pretty good investment and I am glad it is here”.

    As for the University Corridor, the businesses along that line will get a big economic boost once the line opens. University is not a major highway like Hiawatha. I understand how they feel though, I own a business myself. I have a duplex at this location and having LRT here is a great asset especially as gas prices jump up and up. Change is difficult and expensive, however, have MRT can only help the Twin Cities. thanks

  18. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 05/08/2012 - 09:34 am.

    Let one’s imagination do the walking?

    If bridges, sky-walks were designed to look like something other than people conveyor belts but with a pleasing environment of its own; a cultural phenomena that develops wide ‘corridors’ that invite the aesthetic and human traffic to feel welcome and inspired by the walking, jogging bicycling, whatever…make the sky it’s inspiration and see what follows. Who knows as the concept of street culture takes a turn for the better…somebody in the profession should at least be willing to squander their credibility in order to foster a new way of thinking on people movers; streets, mass transit or the stroll across, above the rest.. the sky’s not the limit on this one, it’s the inspiration?

  19. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/08/2012 - 09:44 am.

    You can’t turn a highway into a blvd.

    It’s a great idea, but more trees and larger islands will not transform this highway into a blvd. The fight for an avenue or blvd was lost decades ago, and most of the suggestions offered now where suggested by opponents way back then. MNDOT would produce these charts claiming that they’d considered 144 different “options” for the build but it was all smoke an mirrors to hide a highway design. Hiawatha may be the last vestige of auto-centric planning in the Twin Cities, and it’s existence, and the struggle to stop it, serve as a lesson for us all. Eventually we’ll have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to re-design that dog and build it as it should have been built.

    • Submitted by Sam Newberg on 05/08/2012 - 09:31 pm.

      Now is the Time to Start

      We can begin the process with a few comparatively inexpensive additions – trees, improved crosswalks, etc.

  20. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/09/2012 - 08:02 am.

    Some history

    Back in 2003 I completed an article about the Hiawatha Re-Route struggle that examined the history of the project and how it was implemented. If anyone’s interested you can read that here:

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