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Grand plan for Rochester targets wellness, not just illness

Expanding the city’s biking, walking and mass transit opportunities are crucial to the vision, planners say.

Rochester already boasts 100 miles of bike trails, 23 miles of on-street bike lanes and 514 miles of sidewalks.

The $5.5 billion private-public plan to transform Rochester into a global Destination Medical Center (DMC) aims to generate tens of thousands of jobs and billions in tax revenues. But it also aims to become an international attraction for those who are focused on wellness, not just coping with illness.

That includes providing options for improving health and fitness, effectively managing the increase in visitors and residents, increasing the social connections that foster a vibrant community, and attracting highly trained young professionals to keep Rochester at the top in the health-care field. 

Crucial to that vision (shared by Mayo Clinic, the state of Minnesota, the city of Rochester and Olmsted County) will be expanding the city’s walking, biking and transit opportunities, said DMC manager Heidi Mestad in a recent interview.

“People today want more chances to walk and bike and take a bus,” she said. “As we build out DMC, this will give people more modes of transportation to move around than just cars. That’s the urban lifestyle the Millennial Generation and retiring baby boomers want.”

Complete Streets 

Even before plans for DMC were rolled out, Rochester was busy making improvements in biking, walking and transit as part of its Complete Streets strategy – a state policy that the 2010 Legislature passed and Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed.  MnDOT describes Complete Streets as “an integrated transportation approach that includes all modes of transportation (transit, freight, automobile, bicycle and pedestrian)” and “serves everyone, all ages and abilities.”

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Mitzi Baker, interim planning director for Rochester and Olmsted County, noted that Complete Streets “bring more life and sense of community to Rochester. It gives us a strong sense of place, making us somewhere where people really enjoy being.”

“It also allows us to use existing infrastructure in a more efficient way – a conservative concept because it saves public money,” she said.

A greater opportunity for people to travel on foot, bike or transit is essential for downtown Rochester to accommodate the anticipated growth (including 30,000 new jobs), said Jeff Ellerbusch, a planning supervisor at the Rochester-Olmsted Planning Department. Unless steps are taken now to make other modes of transportation safer and more convenient, the increase in visitors and residents could mean that promising development opportunities are crowded out by parking facilities and traffic jams. 

Rochester already boasts 100 miles of bike trails, 23 miles of on-street bike lanes and 514 miles of sidewalks, Ellerbusch said, with plans to expand them all. Proposals are being drafted for a bike sharing system in partnership with the Twin Cities Nice Ride program and for expanding the bus system with better service on evenings and weekends. 

Congeniality and wellness

A new vision for transportation in Rochester is also becoming visible on the streets:

  • Second Street Southwest between downtown and St. Mary’s Hospital has become more pedestrian friendly with better sidewalks, landscaping, disability access and bump-outs at corners, where the curb extends into the intersection to make the crossing distance shorter. The project will eventually extend all the way to Highway 52.
  • First Avenue Southwest now sports wider sidewalks, more trees and a pedestrian link to downtown. A bike lane will be added.
  • Broadway, a major downtown thoroughfare, is also slated for a Complete Streets makeover, which includes a median and curb bump-outs. A short stretch of Third Street South connecting to Broadway has already been made a pedestrian way that links to the extensive network of riverfront trails.  Bike and pedestrian improvements are planned for a number of other streets downtown.

More people walking and biking also boosts Rochester’s business climate, said Dan Nelson, general manager of the Hampton Inn Suites on the city’s north side. “When they’re out on the streets, they are more likely to go into a store and buy something.” 

A congenial pedestrian environment, Nelson said, will also help promote the city’s appeal for “wellness weekend getaways – where people come here to learn more about how to live healthier.”