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Rethinking Hennepin Avenue with urbanist Charles Landry

MinnPost photo by John Noltner

When I was growing up, Hennepin Avenue was the soul of the city. As far as I was concerned, there was no more exciting, cosmopolitan place to be. The theaters, like Radio City, the Orpheum and the State, where I attended movies and occasionally served as an usher for Broadway shows, were grand, with chandeliers, marble staircases and powder rooms reminiscent of Versailles. My dad regularly took me for lunches at the 620 Club, which I later learned was a mob hangout, the DiNapoli and the nearby Nankin. And, every Saturday, I visited a subterranean Hennepin Avenue beauty school where students teased my hair into glamorous (I thought) Marge Simpson-like towers.

Hennepin broadened my intellectual life too. It was Shinder’s newsstand, where I bought my first copies of The Nation and The Progressive — and encountered what my mom called “not nice people” shopping its stock of porn. Of course, seeing “not nice people” was part of the thrill that drew me to the place.

When I moved back here a year and a half ago and trolled Hennepin, however, not even nostalgia could make me feel good about this being my home town’s main drag. Between isolated clumps of activity — a small theater district, a college, a library, some restaurants — sat vacant storefronts and parking lots. The street looked sad, worn out and empty.

So when I was invited to take a bus tour of the Ave with some local notables and Charles Landry, a British urbanist and author (“The Art of City Making”), I immediately R.S.V.P.-ed. Landry, who, in the extravagant language of his website, aims “to help cities become more resilient, self-sustaining and to future proof themselves” is one of those Big Think people, and I wanted to know what he would recommend for humble Hennepin.

Landry’s visit is one of a series of Talk-It Hennepin events sponsored by Plan-It Hennepin, a consortium of the Hennepin Theatre Trust, the Walker Art Center, Artspace and the city of Minneapolis. It hopes to recreate the street as a “cultural corridor.” The group has already won a $200,000 Our Town grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, which the city will partially match, to create a plan to convert vacant and underutilized spaces along the avenue to (in their words) “inspire an arts-centered community cultural experience and cross-programming for affected entities while fostering economic vitality.” Whatever that means. Anyway, the over-arching vision is to “string together existing pearls” from the Mississippi River to the Walker sculpture garden (a distance of just under two miles) to create a walkable scene, like Fifth Avenue in New York, maybe, or Las Ramblas in Barcelona. Well, OK, those are big reaches obviously, but a place that could be a regional destination and not just a drive-through. 

‘I’m an outsider’

An ebullient guy in his early 60s, Landry seemed content to listen and learn about Plan-It’s plans as our small bus took off for Nicollet Island, looped around the Nordeast on University Avenue and made stops along Hennepin. “I’m an outsider,” he said. “The disadvantage is that I’m ignorant.”

The advantage, of course, is that an outsider brings fresh perspective. Landry drank in the Park Board’s dream plan to create a green belt on Hennepin from the Public Library on Third Street to the river and had nothing much to say about the Federal Reserve building on First Street, which is impressive but not exactly welcoming. (I’ve passed it a zillion times and still can’t quite figure out how one gets inside.)

Charles LandryCourtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust “I’m an outsider,” Landry said. “The disadvantage is that I’m ignorant.”

Hopping on and off the bus to take photos, Landry waxed enthusiastic at the site of the future Whole Foods, “an unbelievable gift from the heavens,” he said later, which could become a drawing point for visitors as well as local residents. The Fifth Street stop of the light rail, a parking lot bordered with looming blank walls on one side (next to the Cowles Center) and a string of bars (Dream Girls and so on) across the street, he proclaimed was a spot ripe for “intervention.” What kind? Not murals, he said.

In a parking lot next to the Pantages Theatre, Landry took in Hennepin’s schizophrenic nature. To the north was a wealth of diverse building types and some density and bustle. It looked like a city. In the other direction lay a bleak patch of parking lots, the point at which pedestrians say to each other, “Nothing here. Let’s turn back.”

But of course, there is stuff beyond: Laurel Village apartments, but with CVS the lone retail tenant; the site of a new Lund’s, Minneapolis Community Technical College, and the Basilica across in front of which sits a batch of now empty buildings. The 394 underpass Landry called a “no” place because presumably no one would want to be or go there (although I recall that a similar spot near the Queensborough Bridge in New York made an excellent stroll for local hookers).

By the time the bus arrived at the Walker, Landry seemed a bit depressed. It was raining, and the museum’s stark, almost landscape-free exterior looked foreboding. The Whitney pedestrian bridge that connects the sculpture garden to Loring isn’t used much, planners admitted, and the Walker was cut off from the rest of Hennepin by the traffic surging.  Downtown Hennepin, Landry declared, is Step One. The Walker is Step Three. “But what’s Step Two?” he asked.

From there, we futzed around Loring Park and wound up at MCTC, where Landry was scheduled to speak at a luncheon for City Council members and officials. He frantically uploaded his photos and made notes while the rest of us uploaded chicken salad and chocolate chip cookies. 

‘In its ugliness, it’s beautiful’

Given that quick-and-dirty assemblage of thoughts, his delivery was stream of consciousness. He praised the library whose parking lot surroundings were to become parks, although what people would do in them beyond sit was not clear to me. He showed a slide of the spiral shopping garage on the southeast corner of Hennepin and Fifth. “In its ugliness, it’s beautiful,” he said. Again he pointed out the parking lot next to the Cowles Center as “an opportunity site.”

The buildings along Hennepin in front of the Basilica could be an incubator for people in the arts. Nice idea, but having covered finance for the last hundred years, I wondered who would pay market rates to landlords to have artists incubate.

When Landry showed his slide of the Walker, he lamented, “Softness has been lost” — by which he meant greenery. (Note to Walker: Get rid of those ugly stairs and that weird sidewalk with grass polka dots and plant some tulips.) As for Loring Park, it was “so near and yet so far.”

What lessons did he draw from all this? Well, the old paradigm of planning, which was to plant one monolithic entity — an anchor store or a corporate headquarters — in a development, is over. What cities really need are lots of little things that kind of work together but in a somewhat messy way. He showed us a picture of Galeria Florida, an almost alley-like development in Sao Paulo, Brazil, that sucks people into its 40 cafes, stores and quirky shops.

To make a place lively instead of dead, you have to give people reasons to be there all the time. “It’s very much about food,” Landry said, showing us slides of outdoor cafes. “And markets.”

Mixing uses, residential and business, and mixing price levels of apartments and offices would stimulate hustle and bustle — and perhaps, more important, put eyes on the street, which more than cops, prevent crime and make people feel secure.

Too much of the architecture here says “no” to the outside, he said. And although I thought to myself, “Hmmph, Landry just doesn’t get 26 below zero weather,” I came to agree after visiting Capella tower later that day. I swooped up to the skyway from the parking garage, went to an office and returned to the parking garage. Even though the weather turned sunny, nothing lured me to the street. Most buildings, with their reflective glass, seem opaque to the pedestrian. Even our vaunted skyways work against street life. They keep pedestrians warm but don’t spew them out. If you’re walking across one and you spot a food truck down below whose yummies you’d like to sample, there’s no easy way to get there.

‘Try something

Cities should try things that are temporary, “that prefigure the future,” Landry said. He showed a slide of a “container city” in New York, a batch of, yes, vari-colored industrial containers stacked on top of one another in a parking lot to create cheap office space and studios. If the thing you try doesn’t work, well, you can take it down. “If you have disgusting spaces, try something,” he urged.

By this time, Landry was practically dancing with enthusiasm. “It’s about creating an environment that holds value in every sense,” he said. I was daunted, however. To transform Hennepin, city planners, developers, do-gooders like Plan-It and politicians would have to do two million difficult things and do them correctly. Fat chance, I thought. Just consider the urban planning disasters of yore: urban renewal that brought down landmarks like the Metropolitan Building and the public library on 12th Street. And how about Block E? Even those skyways, which were thought to be so innovative and smart, aren’t working right.

But as I walked down Hennepin, crazy ideas popped into my head. Maybe that Fifth Street parking lot could be filled with Jumbotrons and light shows like those in Times Square. Advertising where tons of people get on and off the light rail would make sense. Maybe the city could invite craftspeople to sell stuff on the Whitney pedestrian bridge; if people could eat or buy a pair of earrings, they would be lured to visit the Walker and its sculpture garden. Maybe that circular parking garage could be lit at night, turning it into a weird sculpture. Maybe those skyways could have stairs or elevators to the street …

Charles Landry, you did your job. You really got us to start thinking.

Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Alex Bauman on 05/10/2012 - 10:41 am.

    Hennepin’s real problem is the suburbs

    Landry did a decent job for someone asked to do the impossible task of seeing a new place for 15 minutes and coming up with solutions for it. But Hennepin’s biggest problem is metropolitan – from the 50s through the 00s we encouraged untempered fringe sprawl, creating a metropolitan region whose only purpose for a place like Hennepin is to see shows or games, and get drunk after (or before). Hennepin’s real problem is the suburbanites who sit on the board of organizations like Hennepin Theatre Trust, the Walker Art Center, and Artspace – or the McKnight Foundation and the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative, for that matter – who shop and live in the suburbs instead of on Hennepin Ave. They think they can solve Hennepin’s problems by planting flowers or pushing homeless people around when the real solution is to stop shopping at Costco and Home Depot.

  2. Submitted by Ross Williams on 05/10/2012 - 10:59 am.

    Designed for Automobiles

    The problem with Downtown Minneapolis is that it is designed for automobiles. This is not surprising since we have invested huge amounts of money in freeways to get people to drive downtown. Not only do they drive, but they mostly all drive at the same time. So you need very wide streets to handle all that traffic and huge amounts of space dedicated to providing enough places for all them to park.

    There are, of course, people who live downtown. But the economic and social life of downtown Minneapolis is not based on the people who live there. It is based on people who live in the suburbs. They are visitors, there for a purpose whether to work or entertain themselves. You don’t go downtown with nothing in mind and you don’t stay there with nothing in mind. Its not a place to just hang out. Its a place you drive to, do your business and drive home again.

  3. Submitted by Scott Stansbarger on 05/10/2012 - 11:42 am.

    I hope

    someone forwards this to the city!

  4. Submitted by Philip Freyre on 05/10/2012 - 12:28 pm.

    Think Small

    Yes, I like the idea about thinking small, we are done with mega developments for quit a while. Also, why don’t we focus on temporary uses, and filling up empty spaces for now. I think its embarrassing that we have any empty frontages on a major downtown street like Hennepin or Nicollet (I’m primarily taking about the empty former record store on Nicollet & 10th Street, and the abandoned Chevy’s Restaurant on Hennepin & 7th Street). We could at least put up temporary art, or rent the space out for short 1-2 month leases.

    Also, what is the obsession with restaurants? Is that all we can do? Just restaurants, bars, and theaters? What about the book store and gallery on Nicollet next to The Newsroom? I think they are some of the only locally-based examples of retail we have left that’s not focused on food.

    Ultimately, what I think we are missing is a city center square. While I have heard that there are plans for a park next to the Library, I don’t know if this is the right place due to a lack of “eyes on the street.” Anyway, that’s a topic for another discussion.

    Finally, what about a long-term vision that also focuses on 5th Street? Besides being the first corridor that visitors see when taking the train from the airport, it is also currently where thousands of commuters travel and where thousands more will travel once the Central and Southwest Corridors are up and running. It has the closest walking radius of all the downtown train stations and should therefore be part of any “Transit Oriented Development” that occurs downtown.

  5. Submitted by David Peterson on 05/10/2012 - 03:56 pm.

    Walking in downtown

    To add to the previous comments, have you tried walking downtown from a border neighborhood. The freeways are as much of a barrier as the Mississippi river, yet not pretty to look at. With this consideration, Downtown is literally an island surrounded by freeway, viaducts and of course, the mighty Miss.

    Of course, if the core shuns the freeway, the car culture will just continue shifting jobs to some place where you can drive, instead. It’s a very tough situation to plan around. I don’t envy those who do, because it’s hard to please everyone.

    One idea, take a look at the areas in Minneapolis which are growing. Riverfront, U of M. I don’t know if anyone has tried walking from Coffman Union to Downtown Minneapolis, but it is an awful experience. Strengthen the connections, and accessibility of those areas to the core and give them something worth sticking around for, besides the 9-5 + Happy hour. Now that was have CCLRT ROW going through campus, figure out how to get peds and bikers on a parallel path.

    • Submitted by David Greene on 05/10/2012 - 04:40 pm.


      These are very interesting comments. The freeways are definitely a barrier. I’m in The Wedge and the Lowry Tunnel makes it relatively pleasant to get to downtown. I know a lot of people who walk and bike around there. I think that’s probably the only place in the city that has a somewhat reasonable bike/ped connection to downtown. Not coincidentally, the freeway goes through a tunnel there, making a wide swath of land available for use as a multimodal connection.

      I am curious to see what Central Corridor does for the East and West Bank areas. It’s still sunk in a trench and I think 35-W will still be an issue. It will be a better connection but I’m not convinced yet it will be all that much more bike and ped friendly. A better Washington Ave. bridge over 35-W would help. Reconnecting the Cedar-Riverside area to downtown over the 35-W valley would be even better.

  6. Submitted by Jeffrey Klein on 05/10/2012 - 04:28 pm.

    A couple of thoughts

    – The purpose of the parks near the library is not just to “sit”, but to provide connectivity to the river, something downtown is sadly lacking. What is extraordinary is the great old buildings along the river, many of which are empty and BEG to be turned into awesome public spaces, like restaurants/bars with good access to the outdoors. There’s hardly a place in the entire city where you can sit and have a beer in view of the river except perhaps St. Anthony Main, and nothing that overlooks the falls from the west side.

    – I am sympathetic to those who see skyways as an urban evil but I also don’t see them going anywhere. I would like to see them better connected to street level, for example, with outdoor staircases, to make them more public.

    – It’s true that downtown was at one point redesigned to facilitate the whoosh of traffic in and out from the suburbs every day. But some of the street changes in the last couple of years (eg, eliminating some of the one-ways, increasing bike-friendliness) do help to partially restore the focus on residents.

    – The Walker doesn’t need tulips.

  7. Submitted by James Murck on 05/10/2012 - 04:53 pm.

    Just some Brainstorms

    When reading this I couldn’t help but think about all those huge shopping malls that are closing down in the burbs. When we walk into any of these malls, there is a sense of human scale with all those smaller shops interspersed with larger anchors. It’s as if we are wired to gather together and create human scale spaces with lots of variety – the market square. The problem is that you have to drive to get to them and every night they close down and die. I think over time people get tired of this synthetic format.
    In almost any of the European cities I went to as well as New York or San Francisco, I discovered a great sense of alot of human scale spaces packed together with alot of variety and town square feel. The difference was that people don’t have to drive to them and the whole thing doesn’t just close down and die every night like some synthetic theme park. People most often live above the shops and there is office space above the shops as well. The shops cater to the needs of lots of people living in their midst. So life doesn’t just close down altogether in the evening. Seedier elements don’t just take over after dark because there is always people around of every strata to mitigate crime. Many of these cities have been operating within such an urban environment for centuries with minimal economic disruption.
    Hennepin Avenue has lots of potential to be recreated along these lines. One idea is to make covered walkways at street level to miticate inclement winter weather. Design them wide enough to alow for street cafes to have seating along with the walkways.

  8. Submitted by Tom Stenson on 05/15/2012 - 11:19 pm.

    Park by Library

    The article is wonderful and the comments it has elicited are reflective of this. I think green space is crucial, however as has been stated the park by the library must be more than grass. I think it would be wonderful to have small kitchen restaurants/stands serving local food, have local musicians perform music for tips, and have temporary pre-fab structures with artists (like the art shanties on Medicine like) with cycling exhibitions. Having parks and art as bookends of Hennepin from the river to the Walker would be wonderful. In the middle are the theaters. More small local restaurants with brands that are not recognizable to suburban visitors would be great!

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