Hennepin from Lake to 31st: How the 'street of the future' became the debacle of today

What word comes to mind when you contemplate Hennepin Avenue between Lake and 31st Streets? How about "moonscape" – a vast block-long swath of concrete hardscape, largely devoid of trees and flowers and amenities that might entice people to linger, window-shop, and enjoy what could be, and once was, a bustling, lively, thriving urban retail scene.

And the scary thing is that the same people who gave us this urban-planning disaster are poised to repeat all the same failures on a far more massive scale as they push ahead with the total reconstruction of Hennepin Avenue between Douglas Avenue and Lake Street.

Half-year project took a year. Guess who got hurt.

Work began in the summer of 2018 on the six-block, $4 million complete redo of Hennepin between Lake and 36th Streets. For local businesses, the worst started in early August when the city tore up the key retail block between Lake and 31st Street, as Burt Gilyard wrote in Twin Cities Business. The city promised to have the project substantially complete by the holiday shopping season but didn't even come close. Shoppers brave enough to show up had to navigate planks stretched over mud and construction debris. For businesses, sales were dismal.

Construction dragged on into summer of 2019 and, one might say, never did finish. Plans called for a mid-block signalized pedestrian crosswalk which was never installed because, project staff said at the time, the project was too far over budget.

City planners forewarned us that they were going to eliminate all parking between Lake and 31st but, perhaps unsuspecting of the zeal of the city's "war on cars," we were shocked at the reality of a single lane of concrete in each direction that prohibited not just parking but even stopping to pick up or drop off passengers, including the elderly, infirm, and parents with young children, or to dash into a store to pick up or drop off merchandise.

The block's downward spiral has been precipitous. Big retailers like North Face, Columbia Sportswear, and Victoria's Secret have closed, opting not to renew their leases. The Apple store closed temporarily at the beginning of the pandemic but in October announced that the closure would be permanent. A major but underplayed factor: the elimination of parking.

Businesses take big hit, blame city's plan.

Small business owners, however, have not minced words. Comments from the owners of Magers & Quinn on the Uptown Association's Hennepin Avenue Reconstruction webpage are typical:

  • "Magers & Quinn Booksellers has struggled with the recent redesign and subsequent construction on Hennepin Ave. south of Lake St. in Uptown ... The loss of parking, or even a place to pull over, has been particularly painful. This change noticeably affected the way our customers think of us and whether we are a convenient place to shop. There was an immediate rise in complaints over the lack of parking in the neighborhood, as well as much complaining over the loss of a very convenient informal spot to stop near our front door. This pullover location allowed customer to drop books off easily, pop in for a quick pick up, and offered easy wheelchair access to our store when the weather was bad. ... As store vacancies on our street grow in number, and remain year after year, we continue to struggle with the redesign and worry about what the future of Uptown retail business will look like. With all the factors making it difficult for small businesses to do business in this city it is hard to understand why city government would induce another permanent barrier to small business survival."

Doug Huemoeller, president of Kitchen Window, writes:

  • "The elimination of convenient on-street parking has severely impacted customers' willingness to stop by and quickly pick up an item or two. We hear comments repeatedly from callers and the few customers that are willing to park several blocks away ... and walk to our store: 'Where did the parking go?' ... In addition to the problems business face by not having street parking are the horrendous traffic issues that have been created by people illegally parking and stopping their cars. They park on the street blocking the street and not allowing 2 cars to pass side by side. They block the bike lanes and pull their cars onto the sidewalks. ... The response [from the city] continues to be: 'We are working on a solution.' No solution has come. Traffic gets so backed up and congested it can take 3 or 4 lights to travel one city block from 31st Street to Hennepin."

City admits they botched the job.

Actually, the city has responded ... by admitting they botched the job. "That design has not worked well," Becca Hughes, project manager for the Douglas-to-Lake reconstruction project, acknowledged in an April 5 StarTribune article.

"In a lesson learned, Hughes said the Public Works Department this spring plans to restore some on-street parking between Lake and 31st," the Strib's Tim Harlow writes. "The city is also looking at implementing ways for motorists to be able to stop to load and unload, and enacting other traffic calming strategies as part of an interim treatment until the city comes up with a permanent modification."

Guess who's going to get stuck with the bill for this "interim treatment" and "permanent modification." Hint: it won't be the entity that created this fiasco in the first place.

Two years after "completion" the city still hasn't installed any kind of signalization or warning lights for pedestrians and bikers wanting to cross mid-block on the designated crosswalk. Would you take a chance crossing if you were not young and fleet of foot, or naively trusting that all drivers are alert and prepared to stop for you? NOTE: can you spot the winter greenery and benches and splashes of color that might entice you to come and shop?

Will a few tweaks bring retail back on Hennepin between Lake and 31st and restore the block's vibrancy for shopping and just hanging out? Doubtful.

Burl Gilyard wrote about Uptown's retail challenges in a January 2019 Twin Cities Business article that rings even more true today:

  • One veteran retail broker sees ongoing challenges for stores in Uptown. “I want it to do well, but it’s been a challenge for retailers,” said John Johannson, senior vice president with the local office of Toronto-based Colliers International. “We want to be an urban market. We want to be New York or Chicago, but Minnesota consumers constantly remind us that they travel by car.”

We all know the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. So what does it say that our city planners are hell-bent on reconstructing the 11-block Hennepin Avenue retail corridor from Douglas to Lake into another "street of the future," eliminating virtually all parking and funneling all vehicles into one single lane in each direction?

The city is accepting public comment through April 16. The project page is HERE. Scroll down to "Provide Input."

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