Hennepin's new streetscape: common components, uncommon result

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May 19, 2003 // UPDATED 10:50 am - April 30, 2007
By: Robert Gerloff
Robert Gerloff

An easy-to-afford, easy-to-maintain design still boosts Theater District\'s \'wow\' factor

\"The walk along Hennepin Avenue is the first 15 minutes of the theater-going experience,\" argues Nick Koch, head of the design team for the new Hennepin Theatre District streetscape.

After four long years of planning, meetings and analysis, construction is finally under way on the new streetscape along the \"Great White Way\" of the Hennepin Avenue theatre district. Construction started outside the Pantages Theatre and will expand, block by block, from 10th to 5th streets.

But what is a streetscape? And will walking along gritty Hennepin Avenue truly ever \"extend the theater-going experience?\"

A streetscape is the space between the curb and the face of buildings along a street. It isn\'t a feature many of us notice, much less think about. It\'s simply urban background. Yet designing a streetscape involves orchestrating sidewalk paving, plantings, lighting, and such street furniture as newspaper boxes, trash cans, benches, bike racks, banner poles, and planters.

Surprisingly, designing a streetscape is an enormous challenge. The designer has very few tools to work with, and let\'s face it - specifying trash cans and benches is pretty mundane.

Yet Koch\'s firm, HGA, has created what promises to be an exciting design - and yes, one that will truly enhance the theater-going experience.

The key element is lighting. \"Lighting is a theme that will tie the streetscape to the theatre marquees,\" explains Philip Koski, another architect on the design team. Fiber-optic lights beneath the planters will make them look as if they\'re floating at night. Uplights in the planters will illuminate the trees. Both fixtures can be wrapped with theatrical gels to color the light, adding to the drama. There will also be outlets for tivoli lights at Christmas.

For street lighting, the design team specified off-the-shelf \"double-acorn\" light fixtures. \"This is the same fixture that was used here in Minneapolis in the 1920s and \'30s, and it\'s been in continuous production ever since,\" explains Koski.

Not only is it historically appropriate - a relic of Hennepin Avenue\'s glory days - but as a standard catalogue fixture, it\'s inexpensive and easy to replace and repair.

Other street furniture will key off the look of the light fixtures and will be made of black, powder-coated steel with a rod-and-picket design. Those items, too, are standard ones.

Continuing the basic theme, the sidewalk paving will be basic 30-by-30-inch squares of scored concrete with a picture frame, \"meaning it\'s smooth around the edges,\" Koski said.

The concrete will be tinted gray to reduce glare.

The mantra is \"inexpensive and easy to replace and repair\" - a reaction to the Nicollet Mall streetscape, which, while distinctive with its custom-designed street furniture and granite pavers, has been a maintenance nightmare. It costs over $1 million a year to maintain, according to Koski.

Even the 52 trees that will be planted along Hennepin Avenue - a mix of fallgold black ash and shademaster honeylocust - are tried-and-true species with a proven survival record. The trees will soften the otherwise hard streetscape and shade the sidewalk.

The Hennepin Theatre District Streetscape should be a huge success when it\'s completed this fall. It\'s not going to be splashy or glitzy like Block E, or high-design like Nicollet Mall. But it will combine historic charm with contemporary pragmatism in an understated way we\'ve rarely seen here in Minneapolis.

\"It\'s not going to become stylistically dated because it\'s very basic. It\'s easy to maintain. It\'s not themed. It\'s not trying to be New Orleans or New York. It\'s about Minnneapolis,\" summarizes Frank Edgerton Martin, a landscape architect on the team. \"It\'s an authentic urban environment.\"

Robert Gerloff, AIA, is the principal of Robert Gerloff Residential Architects in Minneapolis. He can be reached at rgerloff@residentialarchitects.com.