Outside the box thinking and moving
The Mill District is home to the state’s first woonerf.
The woonerf — a Dutch term that translates to ‘shared street’ — is open to pedestrians, bikers and cars alike. The unconventional road creates a much-needed connection from downtown to the West River Parkway, said City Council Member Jacob Frey (Ward 3).
“Within a block you’ve got this world-class natural amenity in our Mississippi riverfront, which is largely disconnected from Second Street,” Frey said. “This provides a beautiful sweeping entrance to the river.”
Before the two-block stretch was developed into a woonerf, it was a surface parking lot. Before that, it was train tracks that served the mills.
“In some ways the design was predestined for us because there was this existing rail corridor that cut through the site at the angle you see the woonerf cutting through there now,” said Brady Halvorson, head of landscape architecture at BKV Group, who worked on the project. “It was a no-brainer to re-establish that connection as a way to get people from this site and further points downtown to the riverfront.”
Steve Minn, vice president of Lupe Development and master developer of the three developments on the block — including the woonerf, an affordable housing development and a 55-plus community-living development — said the historical significance will be preserved.
“We’ve got a few granite benches and some railroad artifacts — that’s part of our historic approach,” Minn said. “There will be 10 stainless-steel, etched historic panels spread out through the woonerf that are going to tell the story of the railroad use of the area and the milling use of the area.”
Because of the project’s proximity to the Mississippi and the city’s storm water regulations some storm water management systems were installed.
“Density and urban living should be a net positive for the environment,” Frey said. “You don’t have a net positive impact if water — runoff and pollutants — are streaming directly into the Mississippi River.”
Below the woonerf is a storm water tank that will capture and treat all the runoff from the site. Permeable pavers, pavement that allows water to seep through, were also installed and will be used to water trees planted along each side of the woonerf.
“Environmentally it’s going to be much better than it was previously because we’re treating all the storm water from the site, which had not happened before,” Halvorson said.
Cars are allowed to drive on the woonerf and there is metered parking, but it is meant to be inviting to all commuters.
“Our view is that although the car and the bike and pedestrian are all permitted occupants, the car is viewed as a guest,” Minn said. “It’s primarily supposed to be pedestrian- and bike-dominated space.”
Frey said the city anticipates the woonerf will be a destination location. By the end of the year, the two developments on Second Street are scheduled to be complete. Restaurants and businesses will move into the first floor of both buildings.
In 2019, the woonerf will also be a connection to the city’s Water Works facility — featuring canoe rental, an amphitheater, concessions and educational opportunities — driving even more traffic to the woonerf.
“As of now, we’re trying to move away from the car-centric mentality, but clearly we’re not there yet, and some of the retail would clearly benefit from few parking spaces,” Frey said. “We’re planning for a successful commercial and pedestrian hub, and that includes some parking.”
Matthew Dyrdahl, Minneapolis’ bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, said a “shared-use street” pilot is in the works. The city will begin construction on a shared use street in Uptown on 29th Street this year, Dyrdahl said.
“I think in Minneapolis we’re really trying a lot of different things to make it easier for people to get around the city without necessarily having to use their car, so that means making it safe to easy and convenient for people to bike and walk in the city,” he said. “Woonerfs probably aren’t appropriate everywhere, but I think they are an important tool in our toolbox for making the city as friendly as it can be for people to bike and walk.”
Frey said the placement of the Mill District woonerf is advantageous not only because of the proximity to the river, but also because it runs between affordable housing, senior living and riverfront condos.
“This project represents the diversification of socioeconomic income in the neighborhood,” Frey said. “This is an affordable housing project right next to a fairly high-end condominium building. I believe strongly that having that socioeconomic diversity is the way to create vibrant and safe neighborhoods.”
The senior living development, Eldercare, was meant to allow people older than 55 years old to enjoy the city. The woonerf brings downtown to their back yard.
“It’s cool that [the woonerf] is providing an opportunity for markets that are underserved in this part of town. There aren’t a lot of affordable places to live in these up-and-coming neighborhoods near the river, and there aren’t a lot of senior places to live,” said Halvorson. “It’s really cool urban stuff that’s getting built for people who don’t often have the opportunity to live in places like that.”
Minn said the woonerf is only half done. Landscaping, art and furniture installation and some construction still needs to wrap-up before the bridge between downtown and the river is complete.
“There’s not much to be excited about until the project is done, which will be in about six months,” Minn said. “As much as we want to be able to beat our chests and say that the woonerf is ready, it’s really a multi-phased thing. It starts now: people will look at it and say, ‘What is this? It’s a curved parking lot.’ Give me a little time! When it’s all done, this will be a major destination.”