Imagining 'the changing face of Minneapolis'

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February 4, 2008
By: Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas
Craig Wilson narrated a vision of Minneapolis' future for his neighbors during a town hall meeting at the Walker Art Center Jan. 22, and it went something like this:

The crowd pours out of a game at the new, open-air Twins ballpark and heads toward the light-rail station. A packed train rolls out of Downtown on the Southwest Corridor, passing through Bassett Creek Valley, a neighborhood where office and residential buildings tower over street-level cafés and restaurants.

That neighborhood, the light-rail line, the new stadium — none of it exists yet. But, beginning with completion of the Twins ballpark in 2010, they are just a few of the changes that could transform Minneapolis in coming decades.

While all of those projects have been the subject of much discussion and debate individually, the town hall meeting was an effort to bring them all into the same conversation, said Wilson, president of Lowry Hill Residents Inc. (LHRI).

What the meeting invitation referred to as "The Changing Face of Minneapolis" was series of projects that could rejuvenate the west side of the city, with broad implications for neighborhoods immediately south and west of Downtown, Wilson said.

"We need to have an overall kind of vision or plan here, or at least present all the issues so that people can start to make informed decisions," he said.

Vida Ditter, a former Bryn Mawr neighborhood coordinator, said it was a discussion that hadn't taken place before, at least not with residents of eight Southwest, Downtown and North neighborhoods invited to the table.

"[The projects] are interrelated, and at some point people are going to have to talk to them all in one setting," Ditter said.

Discussion at the meeting touched on the future of the Walker Art Center, the development of Bassett Creek Valley, a proposal for streetcars on Hennepin Avenue and long-range planning for the Lowry Hill Tunnel on Interstate 94.

A few key features of the "changing face" were left out, most notably the controversial reconstruction of Parade Stadium planned by the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. Wilson said the contentious issue probably would get its own meeting in the future.

The Walker Art Center sits at the focal point of much of this development. The museum's new director, Olga Viso, has both a professional and personal stake in the development; her new home is in Lowry Hill.

Viso, who previously served as director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, said that institution was part of an "arts corridor" in downtown Washington, D.C. The corridor helped spur development over the course of a decade.

The reconnection of North and Southwest Minneapolis was a recurring theme of the town hall meeting. That reconnection begins in earnest next year, the city's projected completion date for Van White Memorial Boulevard.

The new north-south street, connecting Dunwoody Boulevard to North Minneapolis, will play a key role in developing Bassett Creek Valley, said Bruce Chamberlain, a planner and landscape architect with Hoisington Koegler Group who worked on the city's master plan for the area.

Chamberlain said redevelopment of the valley could take 20–30 years. Ultimately, the city plans to transform about 230 acres of industrial land just west of Downtown into a "truly new neighborhood," he said.

Lowry Hill resident Michael Farber said after the meeting he was intrigued by Chamberlain's description of a mixed-use development rising just across Highway 394 from his neighborhood. But he also expressed concern about Van White Memorial Boulevard routing extra traffic through Lowry Hill.

Farber said he commuted between Lowry Hill and the western suburbs for work, and so was no stranger to the highway congestion around Downtown.

Tom O'Keefe, Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) Metro Division area manager, said much of that congestion could be traced to the Lowry Hill Tunnel on Interstate 94. The tunnel is a bottleneck for eastbound traffic and has the highest crash rate of any freeway segment in the state, O'Keefe said.

O'Keefe described several options for the tunnel, including expansion from the current three lanes to five lanes in either direction. But construction was "many, many years in the future," he said.

Wilson put the tunnel's reconstruction in the context of a larger project, one that he said could transform the intersection of Lyndale and Hennepin avenues from a concrete "wasteland" into a pedestrian-friendly thoroughfare.

"Most people agree we kind of screwed up that area," he said.

Wilson said there was widespread support in nearby neighborhoods to both beautify the street and incorporate more transit options as a way to cut down on automobile traffic.

"It really is back to the future," he said, emphasizing his point with a 1935 photograph of the intersection showing cars, busses and streetcars mingling in the intersection.

One of those transit options — the streetcar — may someday run again on Hennepin Avenue, said Charlene Zimmer, project manager for the Access Minneapolis transportation study.

Zimmer said the study found several major hurdles to rebuilding the city's streetcar network, including the high capital investment required and the scarcity of state or federal funds for such a project. Still, she added, studies show streetcars attract higher ridership than other transit options and, in some cities, have been effective in spurring development.

Hennepin Avenue was just one of seven streetcar routes considered in Access Minneapolis. While Zimmer was unwilling to speculate on its chances, she said the route with the greatest citizen support was the most likely to be built.

Wilson said the Jan. 22 gathering would not be the last town hall meeting, adding that future meetings might be the place to build support for projects like the streetcar.