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9 worst urban planning moves in Twin Cities history

Over the last year, I’ve been asking practically every person I interview for his or her suggestions.

Since I began writing this column last spring, I envisioned two year-end pieces. One would itemize the worst things that planners, bureaucrats, politicians, developers and We the People have done to our Twin Cityscape; the second would list the best. My thought was that both might provide some lessons about what improves the urban environment and what doesn’t — though, such is life that sometimes even the best ideas turn into misbegotten messes — and vice-versa.

Over the last year, I’ve been asking practically every person I interview for his or her suggestions. And, I have added a few I’ve collected since moving back here two years ago. Herewith, the baddies, in no particular order:

No. 1: The destruction of the Gateway District.

Located near the Mississippi, this area stretches south to the library and from Hennepin to Third Avenue S. Once upon a time, it was a park with an elaborate pavilion that welcomed those arriving at the nearby train station. During the Depression, however, it became Minneapolis’ version of the Bowery, complete with flophouses, taprooms and sleazy hotels.

By the 1950s, the city decided it had to do something. The buildings were dilapidated and supposedly impossible to renovate. So Minneapolis won a grant from the Feds and over the next six or seven years razed 200 buildings and leveled 22 blocks, leaving a third of downtown vacant. Among the casualties: the Metropolitan Building, a then 80-year-old landmark whose central atrium was adorned with incredible iron grillwork. Buildings have gone up in the area, but it has never become vital. Much of the acreage is still devoted to surface parking lots.

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“It’s now a dead area between two neighborhoods,” says Sam Newberg, founder of Joe Urban, Inc., a market research company.

The takeaway: I see two lessons here. First, you don’t knock down buildings until you have something compelling to put in their place. Second, large-scale projects are blunt instruments that destroy the good along with the bad. Among the flophouses and taprooms probably existed salvageable small buildings and rooming houses that these days, with an infusion of dough, could be turned into a walkable neighborhood of interesting stores that would give us some relief from chains. When it comes to urban renewal, it’s probably always better to go small and see what happens.

View of the State Capitol in St. Paul, 1974Minnesota Historical Society/Eugene Debs Becker

A view of the State Capitol from I-94, circa 1974.

No. 2: The slicing of downtown St. Paul in two.

The U.S. interstate highway system is considered one of the marvels of the modern age. On its broad lanes drivers can speed without interruption from city to city, almost as though they were in a tunnel. But those same concrete byways can and have blighted cities. Take St. Paul, which has a beautifully compact and navigable downtown. How much better would it be if I94 did not cut off the Capitol and its campus from the rest of the city?

“Separating downtown from the Capitol was obviously a terrible decision,” said Mayor Chris Coleman at a meeting of the Urban Land Institute a couple of months ago. Those lousy decisions, he added, can be with us for 100 years.

The takeaway: Freeways should transport people to cities, not churn through their guts. Highway engineers: Figure out a way to go around downtown, not through.

No. 3: Removal of trees from Penn Avenue N.

When did this occur? About a century ago, when I was in fourth or fifth grade and attended John Hay school at the intersection of Penn and Oak Park. At the time, modest houses and apartment buildings lined Penn, and on the grass strips separating the sidewalk from the street grew huge oak trees that provided a leafy canopy for most of the year.

One day, arriving at school, I discovered huge trucks on Penn cutting down the trees and plucking their roots from the ground. Over the following two weeks or so, bulldozers came and widened the street, eliminating the grass verges and placing the sidewalks right next to the roadway. In perhaps less than a month, the city transformed Penn from a pleasant street to a bleak car corridor. Property values dropped, and I don’t think the street has ever recovered. 

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The takeaway: Uprooting healthy trees from a city street is a sin. Trees are organic furniture; they cover up and soften even the ugliest spots. Seriously, if you can show me one street that looks better without trees, I’ll eat my winter hat.

Mpla streetcar, 1923
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical SocietyMinneapolis streetcar, 1923

No. 4: The disappearance of the streetcar system.

According to the Minnesota Streetcar Museum, at its peak in the 1920s, Twin Cities Rapid Transit operated 524 miles of electric trolley lines, which laced through the two cities and reached deep into the suburbs as far as Anoka and Lake Minnetonka. Even after World War II, with the suburbs growing and car sales booming, some 36 percent of area residents got around by mostly in streetcars. That compares to only about 5 percent now.

In 1949, a group of disgruntled investors staged a hostile takeover of the company, cut back on service and maintenance and switched over to buses. Ridership declined, and eventually the entire system was scrapped.

In recent years, transportation planners have given streetcars another look. They’re cheaper to run than buses and pollute less. And they’re easier for drivers to share the road with, since they stay a track instead of wandering all over the road.

The takeaway: As Joni Mitchell said, or rather, sang: “Don’t it always seem to go/That you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” Some attribute the downfall of streetcars to General Motors, which supposedly did everything it could to replace trolleys with buses (selling them at huge discounts and taking over city systems and putting them out of business). Given the trends in the ‘50s, perhaps there was no way to save the streetcars, but the Twin Cities are now spending billions on light rail to replace what was lost. Also in the works: streetcar lines in Minneapolis for Hennepin, Nicollet and Chicago Avenues.

concrete skyway, Minneapolis
MinnPost photo by Steve Date

No. 5: Skyways with no access to the street.

When the first skyway opened in 1962 connecting the Northstar Building with Northwestern National Bank, it became instantly popular. Before long, practically every new building in the Twin Cities had to have a skyway connecting it to a parking ramp and to every other building. The downtown network in Minneapolis, at eight miles, is now the longest in the world.

The passageways made sense. Instead of freezing your tail out in the street, you could stride above the traffic bathed in central heating. Problem is that now, there are many fewer people out on the streets. Drive down Hennepin or Marquette during the day or on 7th and 8th Streets. They look empty. And according to one academic study, businesses rightly hesitate to locate on ground floors. After all, fewer walkers mean fewer customers.

The takeaway: Too much of a good thing becomes a non-good thing, I guess. But the more important point perhaps is that anything that diminishes street life leaches a city’s of its vitality. People want to experience cities at street level, and if streets aren’t interesting, people won’t visit them. The retrofit — somehow creating access from skyway to sidewalk either with stairs or elevators — won’t be cheap and maybe not even possible.

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Block E
MinnPost photo by John Noltner

No. 6: Block E.

Back in the day, this site between 6th and 7th Streets on Hennepin was a sketchy place with bars, a rifle shooting gallery and Shinders magazine stands on each end (porn available). Under the theory that seediness was a disease, the City Council voted in 1987 to demolish the entire Hennepin side of the block as though the buildings were tainted with the Ebola virus.

In their place appeared — you guessed it — a surface parking lot, a gap in Hennepin’s streetscape that lasted for 14 long years. Finally, an entertainment and shopping complex arose on the site in 2001 — designed to replicate similar offerings in the suburbs. But, as we all know, it’s been a bust. Four businesses still bravely operate there, Kieran’s Bar, The Shout! House dueling piano bar, Starbucks and Jimmy John’s, but otherwise it’s empty of tenants.

The takeaway: Again, don’t tear down stuff until you have something else to put there. Some things are worse than seediness — nothingness, for example. Second: Don’t try to compete with the suburbs. Instead build something people want that they can’t get out there. 

Hiawatha Line
MinnPost photo by Raoul Benavides

No. 7: Running the Hiawatha LRT on the side of the road.

I don’t know why the engineers who planned the LRT decided to place it on the west side of Hiawatha and not down the middle. Maybe a track ran there already. Maybe MNDOT wouldn’t allow transit on a state highway. (Some day, I promise, I’ll get to the bottom of it.)

But here’s the problem: If the trains decant people in the middle of the road, then they are more likely to patronize stores and other businesses alongside. Leaving them on one side of Hiawatha, which is hard for even Olympic sprinters to cross, means that they are likely to stay stranded on that side and never venture further. If they’re not on Hiawatha, businesses will not come. That partly explains why, eight years after the LRT launched, we see so little development.

The takeaway: Somebody must have learned the lesson here — if you want pedestrian development, you have to think like a pedestrian. Because the Central Corridor LRT is running down the middle of University Avenue, already development seems to be perking up. As for Hiawatha, well, it may never be a grand boulevard lined with apartment buildings and stores. But it could be a place for the city to encourage light manufacturing and offices — in other words, centers of employment.

No. 8: Big box stores on University.

And while we’re talking about University, what’s the deal with all those suburban style stores — Target, Walmart and so on?  I don’t object to their presence. City-dwellers should have access to their goods and low-prices just like suburbanites. But why do they have to look like suburban shopping centers? Their vast parking lots fronting on University uglify the street and make it bleak and uninteresting to walk on.

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I’m wondering if passengers disembarking from the LRT will want to shlep the one- or two-block distance from the street to the doors of the big boxes but wouldn’t rather pick up a bottle of milk at a mom-and-pop grocery right off the sidewalk (assuming, of course, that mom-and-pop groceries still exist). Target, Walmart and their big-box neighbors and cousins could have been designed to open to the sidewalk with unsightly parking lots at the rear.The buildings might even have had windows displaying their goods, always a draw to walkers who are enticed to enter and try on that outfit they spotted on a mannequin.

The takeaway: Just because a business hails from the suburbs doesn’t mean that it should take a suburban form. Think Target in downtown Minneapolis; the building fits its environment — though I would add windows.

No. 9: Neighborhood naysaying.

I’m as much a fan of Jane Jacobs (author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”) as the next guy. Had she not galvanized Greenwich Village back in the late ‘50s to oppose Robert Moses’ plan to build a freeway across lower Manhattan, Washington Square Park would now be concrete. But neighborhood sentiment is not always smart. In the 1990s and 2000s, Greenwich Village activists opposed expansion of St. Vincent’s Hospital. Its failure to modernize led to its closing in 2010, infuriating said same activists.

In Minneapolis in particular, neighborhood groups have near total veto power over new development. A small group can easily convince its City Council representative that a new project is a no-no because it might cast a shadow their backyards, disturb the view from their dormer or add a few cars to the street. If the council member states opposition to the development, his or her colleagues on the council follow along and vote it down. In recent years, nabe activists have managed to block a number of worthy projects: a Trader Joe’s store on Lyndale, mixed-use apartment buildings in Linden Hills, a change in zoning from single- to multi-family construction along Hiawatha (another reason for its non-development) and high-rise condos on Lake Street across from Lake Calhoun.

The takeaway: Democracy is fine, but let’s not get carried away. There is such a thing as “the greater good,” and council members should take it into consideration along with neighborhood opposition when casting their votes.

There’s more, of course: the closing of Nicollet Avenue to Lake Street, to construct a Kmart; parking minimums required for buildings (since abandoned) that turned downtown Minneapolis into a parking ramp; the concentration of low-income housing in low-income neighborhoods producing a reghettoization of poor people.

But the holidays are upon us, and we’ve had enough bad tidings in recent days to last for years. So stay tuned for what we’ve done right.