Parkway showdown: Minnehaha vs. Wheelock

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I see a lot of similarities between Minnehaha Parkway in Minneapolis and Wheelock Parkway in Saint Paul. I thought it would be fun to compare the two corridors. Here we go.

Minnehaha Parkway is 5.3 miles stretching from Lake Harriet to Minnehaha Falls through South Minneapolis. Wheelock Parkway is 5.4 miles stretching from Lake Como to Lake Phalen through northern Saint Paul. In both cities, the parkways wind back and forth along the way, mocking the otherwise traditional rectangular street grid. Shorter, straighter routes exist end to end in both cities. Both of these routes were envisioned over a century ago to be something other than just another city street. They are parkways, a designation that holds unique meaning in both cities.

Minnehaha Parkway
Wheelock Parkway

The creek

The first obvious difference between the two is that Minnehaha Parkway follows Minnehaha Creek, while there is no creek along Wheelock. This is a big difference, and sets Minnehaha Parkway at an initial clear advantage over Wheelock Parkway in terms of being park-like. Minnehaha Creek is a bucolic gem winding through the urban neighborhoods in South Minneapolis. It is nearly universally loved, other than when it is flooding everyone’s basements. The creek on it’s own (without any other amenities that exist within the Minnehaha Parkway right-of-way) is enough to attract people to enjoy the creek banks, play in the water, float along in tubes, and do whatever else people like to do near creeks. It attracts birds and critters, which is generally a good thing, though I once saw a deer walking down Portland Avenue near the Parkway, and I didn’t think it was great.

Wheelock Parkway, Saint Paul

The lakes

One of the most obvious similarities between the two is that both parkways are anchored on both ends by substantial lakes and recreation areas. Minnehaha connects Lake Harriet (and the larger chain of lakes) with Minnehaha Falls. Wheelock connects Lake Como with Lake Phalen. Each of these parks and recreation areas attract tons of people and the parkways serve the function of providing recreational corridors connecting the two. In both cases, the parkways were envisioned to be linear parks connecting the larger regional parks, and as a result, both corridors feature extra-wide rights of way, providing plenty of space for trees and green space (and creeks). In Minneapolis, Lake Nokomis is an additional aquatic bonus that Saint Paul doesn’t have. Both parkways feature an adjacent golf course (Hiawatha in Minneapolis, Phalen in Saint Paul).

Minnehaha Parkway, Minneapolis

Traffic

Traffic volumes vary substantially along both Parkways. Minnehaha Parkway carries 2,000-4,000 vehicles per day west of Portland Avenue, about 8,000 vehicles per day near Lake Nokomis, and about 13,000 between Lake Nokomis and Minnehaha Falls. Wheelock Parkway carries 2,500-6,000 vehicles per day west of I-35E, 5,000-6,000 vehicles per day east of I-35E, and about 9,500 vehicles per day east of Arcade Street. In both cities, portions of the parkway serve an important function for motorized traffic, while other portions are decidedly less critical.

Both roadways are a single traffic lane in each direction. Minnehaha Parkway prohibits on-street parking except for where parking bays are intentionally provided. Wheelock isn’t as straight forward. On-street parking is permitted in some places, prohibited in others, and a bit ambiguous in yet other places.

Both parkways have traffic signals every so often (8 signals along Minnehaha, 4 along Wheelock). Minnehaha has an existing roundabout at Minnehaha Avenue, while Wheelock should maybe have a roundabout at Edgerton or Victoria. Since both parkways are pretty curvy, snaking through what is otherwise a typical grid street network, both Parkways end up with some pretty goofy geometry at a few intersections. Both parkways feature generous landscaped medians in places.

Grand Rounds

Both cities have established visions for completing a recreational Grand Rounds around the city, a series of trails and motorways that create a giant loop around each city. Minnehaha and Wheelock play a critical role in the Grand Rounds in each city. The Minneapolis Grand Rounds is pretty well established along Minnehaha Parkway, and includes both roadway and trail alignments. While Minneapolis is struggling to identify a corridor for the Grand Rounds in other parts of the city, the parts that exist already are pretty great. Saint Paul doesn’t have the same problem of identifying an appropriate corridor for the Grand Rounds, but the system is generally less developed than in Minneapolis. In particular, Saint Paul hasn’t yet invested in a similar level of bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure as Minneapolis for the Grand Rounds, including along Wheelock Parkway.

Bike and pedestrian infrastructure

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The sidewalks and trails along Minnehaha Parkway are pretty well established, and wildly popular. Minneapolis estimates that somewhere on the order of 1,000 bikes and 200-500 pedestrians use the trail on an average day, and my hunch is that these counts don’t accurately reflect weekend peak usage. Generally, sidewalks exist in front of homes along both sides of Minnehaha Parkway the full length of the corridor. In addition to the sidewalks, the Parkway generally features both a bicycle path as well as a pedestrian path adjacent to the creek. They aren’t perfect. There are bottlenecks where the bike path narrows and areas where the bike paths and pedestrian paths weave across each other in nonsensical ways, but they’re still phenomenal, and I’m confident many of these kinks will get worked out over time. It’s worth noting that east of Lake Nokomis, Minnehaha Parkway (the roadway) and the bike/ped paths follow separate alignments – the paths meander adjacent to the creek while the roadway and sidewalks make a straight shot east to Minnehaha Falls. There are no on-street bike facilities along Minnehaha Parkway.

Meanwhile, sidewalks along Wheelock Parkway are spotty. There are sidewalks along much of the corridor, though sometimes only on one side of the street, and in some cases there are no sidewalks. Most notably, the gap between Mackubin Street and Rice Street, as well as the gap between Westminster Street and Edgerton Street leave pedestrians walking in the street, or in the grass (or snow). East of Arcade Street, an attractive off-street path exists along Wheelock all the way to Maryland Avenue – separate bike/ped paths in some places, combined paths in others. For in-street bicyclists, signs designate most of Wheelock Parkway as a BIKE ROUTE, though most cyclists and motorists will agree that these signs aren’t particularly meaningful. The shoulders on the roadway east of Arcade Street are not marked as bike lanes, though they more or less serve that function. Essentially, no bicycle facilities exist west of Arcade Street.

City of Saint Paul 1997 Comprehensive Plan – Recommendation for Wheelock Parkway includes development of both on-street bike lanes as well as an off-street path. This recommendation is not included in the current Comprehensive Plan, which identifies Wheelock Parkway as a “Bike Route.”

Regional bikeway connections

Both parkways provide connections to other bike facilities in addition to the Grand Round(s). Minnehaha Parkway connects to the Portland Avenue bike lanes, the Hiawatha Avenue trail, and the Minnehaha Avenue bike lanes in addition to other more local bikeways. In Saint Paul, improved bike facilities along Wheelock Parkway would provide opportunities for connections to the Gateway State Trail, Trout Brook Regional Trail, and the Bruce Vento Regional Trail.

Topography

Minneahaha Parkway is relatively flat. Wheelock Parkway is too, other than the pretty large hill west of Rice Street. For bicyclists and pedestrians, is this hill a deal-breaker?

Wheelock Parkway hill west of Rice Street

Land use

Land use along both parkways is predominantly single-family homes, though this is more true in Minneapolis than in Saint Paul. In both cities, I think the attractiveness of the parkways has historically buoyed property values relative to surrounding neighborhoods, though I suspect this impact is greater in Minneapolis than in Saint Paul.

Both parkways connect with elementary schools (Burroughs Elementary in Minneapolis, Como Park Elementary in Saint Paul). In both cities, the parkways come awfully close to several high schools. Both parkways provide direct access to neighborhood commercial nodes (Cedar Avenue in Minneapolis, Rice Street and Arcade Street in Saint Paul). Wheelock Parkway has a bit more multi-family housing that isn’t as prevalent along Minnehaha Parkway. Most notably, Wheelock Parkway provides a direct connection to theMcDonough Homes development near Jackson Street, which is managed by the Saint Paul Public Housing Agency.

The point

I see a lot of similarities between the two parkways. Both are beautiful corridors. Both have strengths and weaknesses. But the primary difference between the two (other than the creek) is that Minneapolis has invested substantially in the bicycle and pedestrian elements along the corridor, while Saint Paul hasn’t. As a result, Minnehaha Parkway has become a substantial amenity to the surrounding neighborhoods, has become a destination in and of itself, has boosted property values, and has effectively connected two of it’s largest recreational areas with a linear park in ways that Wheelock Parkway hasn’t.

What do you think? What other similarities or differences exist between the two corridors? Do you think Wheelock Parkway has untapped potential, or is it fine the way it is?

This post was written by Reuben Collins and originally published on streets.mn. Follow streets.mn on Twitter: @streetsmn.

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by jody rooney on 07/29/2014 - 10:59 am.

    You missed a little something

    while looking at the roadway. The neighborhoods that the parkway passes through. It is a lot easier to work on investment in upper income areas than in working class neighborhoods.

    • Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 07/29/2014 - 01:02 pm.

      So, you’re saying that we should continue the long cold-shouldering of working-class or “poor” neighborhoods when it comes to parkways? Or, what are you saying?

      It is actually much more expensive to buy land to expand parks and parkways in wealthy areas.

      The parks and parkways in Minneapolis were mostly built where land speculators wanted them built –look closely at who was on the Park Board in the early 20th century. The wealthy homesteaders came much later, and their purchasing residential lots along the parkways made those real estate speculators very, very wealthy. That’s why some of them “gave” park/parkway land to the Park Board.

      What happened in Minneapolis in working-class neighborhoods (east of downtown and north of Lake St. in South; all of Northeast and much of Southeast; and the huge riverfront swath of North) was that the areas were surrounded by industry that was, for the most part, owned by the wealthy residents of south Minneapolis and the SW suburbs. The businesses, including railroads, refused to consider “donating” their land for parkways. These rich folks couldn’t imagine anyone like themselves wanting to live near smokestacks that they owned.

      • Submitted by jody rooney on 07/30/2014 - 03:47 pm.

        What I am saying is that Wheellock Parkway

        is not as aesthetically pleasing as Minnehaha Creek (creek aside and that is a pretty big aside) because there was a lack of public investment in that part of the city, It was for much of the same reason that you noted for the other neighborhoods in Minneapolis.

        Writers here tend to ignore the fact that Minneapolis is more than just Downtown and the Lakes.
        You can’t just glory in those neighborhoods while detaching from the rest of the city.

  2. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 07/29/2014 - 11:03 am.

    Everyone is a winner!

    No matter who you feel the winner is everyone is a winner because of what both parkways offer everyone. The foresight of the politicians and city planners years ago left the people of today and tomorrow with a real gift that can enjoyed by all.

  3. Submitted by Barbara Satin on 07/29/2014 - 04:26 pm.

    What a surprise!

    I have lived in the Twin Cities all of my life – a long time – and never realized how similar the two parkways are. I have driven them both many times but now will do it with much more attention and respect for our cities’ street and park planners. Thanks for the fine story.

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