5th Street: that detour is permanent

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March 26, 2002 // UPDATED 1:17 pm - April 30, 2007
By: Ellen Nigon
Ellen Nigon

Once drivers' main artery through Downtown, 5th Street sports a one-block blockage to handle LRT. Some drivers and businesses are howling, but reopening the road may be next to impossible, and may not be a good idea.

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Amid all the construction and confusion surrounding the upcoming Hiawatha light-rail transit line, some may think 5th Street's closure between 3rd and 4th Avenues South is temporary. It's not.

Maybe.

The one-block stretch between the Hennepin County Government Center and City Hall closed earlier this year for station construction -- never to reopen, according to light-rail planners. The former roadway is scheduled to become a light-rail stop and a public plaza adjoining the two government buildings.

Those most disrupted are drivers coming west into Downtown off I-94. Before, 5th Street was a straight shot off the highway through the Downtown core. Now, west-bound commuters are forced to turn through other busy Downtown streets to get to Washington Avenue, 3rd Street or 7th Street.

Many don't know their hassle could well be permanent. "I didn't know they were closing this part of the street forever," said Judi Williams-Killackey, a Downtown attorney. "It doesn't say that on the construction signs."

She commutes from her home in St. Paul to her office in the 50 South Sixth building, and says that the construction is already costing her an extra 20 minutes in morning transit.

"It just seems to me that there's no consideration for the people who actually have to get to the middle of Downtown," Williams-Killackey said. "It's not like a short little detour."

Businesses said yes, then no

Light-rail track will run along the north side of 5th Street; except for the City Hall/Government Center plaza, one lane of westbound traffic will run on the south side of the tracks.

A July 2000 city report cited two main reasons why 5th Street should be blocked: first, reduced traffic. Keeping one lane open the entire way would only raise drivers' hopes that they could use 5th as a way to cut through Downtown. With the one-block blockage, most won't try, opening up the single lane before and after the plaza for those trying to drive to specific ramps and loading docks.

The second reason for the closing: "To enhance the plaza between Minneapolis City Hall and the Hennepin County Government Center as a public amenity by having a block free of motor vehicle traffic."

Initially, business groups such as the Building Owners and Managers Association okayed the closure. Kent Warden, executive director of BOMA Minneapolis said, "BOMA actually made its endorsement of 5th Street as the Downtown preferred [LRT] route contingent on the fact that it would be closed."

However, Hines -- which manages the Pillsbury Center on 5th Street just west of the proposed plaza -- contracted an independent traffic study. Their study found that keeping one lane of Fifth Street open all the way through would not adversely impact their ramp and loading dock.

Warden said Hines' traffic consultant "came to the conclusion that it was uncertain at best that it would be a problem, and that it would be preferable to open [5th Street]."

Now, he concludes, "If it were possible we would still very much like to see the street reopened."

Driving on top of a parking ramp?

When BOMA retracted their endorsement, the Minneapolis Downtown Council asked for the issue to be re-studied. That brought up the option of a "bump-out lane."

The twin Government Center LRT stations straddle 5th Street. So extending the single south-side driving lane means pushing it even further south around the stations, over 5th Street's curbline and on top of Hennepin County's underground parking garage -- thus a "bump-out lane."

However, Hiawatha LRT employees say they've received no orders to look at a bump-out lane.

"There's not been any consideration of [a bump-out lane] with any conversations that I have had with Hennepin County," said Ed Hunter, Hiawatha LRT project director. "That would take place on the County's property and go across the roof of their underground parking garage. I think for that reason it will probably never come to pass."

And according to John Caroon, Hiawatha LRT design-build project manager, "We've committed ourselves to a design on the LRT that is between 80 and 90 percent done at the present time. To change direction at this point in time would be a costly decision for the project, and it would be going against the original guidance and direction that we got."

Having automobile traffic over a parking ramp is a major problem. Heidi Hamilton, an LRT

project engineer, said that the underground ramp would

probably need significant reinforcement to hold the weight of automobiles.

"It can be done," Hamilton said. "I don't personally know that it makes much sense."

The plaza: an amenity or obstruction?

Structural and engineering issues aside, some feel that the two government entities' yen for an adjoining plaza is no reason to inconvenience drivers.

"[Closing 5th Street] is totally going to disrupt the flow," Williams-Killackey said.

Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin (4th District) supports the creation of a public plaza. "The thinking was this plaza could become a gathering place as well as a light rail stop," McLaughlin said. "For a vibrant Downtown, you want a place where people can gather and eat their lunch outside."

But Mark Oyaas, a Downtown public-policy consultant and plaza critic, said, "City Hall on one side and the Government Center on the other side are not the center of the universe."

Williams-Killackey couldn't agree more. To get around the closure to her 6th & Nicollet office, she often turns right at 11th Avenue South (just before the Metrodome), then left on Washington Avenue South, then left onto 1st Avenue North, then left onto 6th Street.

Williams-Killackey and others also wonder how visitors to Downtown will find their way around. She suspects that most visitors coming from the east are used to traveling to Downtown's center via Fifth Street.

"I can't imagine if you're coming in from out of town and you're not familiar with Downtown Minneapolis," she said. "It's not like you go one block and it's a two-way street. Instead it's a one-way street going the other way and you have to go two blocks," she said.

Katie Maguire lives in Rochester and visits Downtown occasionally, traveling from I-94 to 5th Street and into Downtown. Like a surgeon at Rochester's Mayo Clinic, Maguire compares the city to the human body, and the Downtown core is the heart.

"If you cut off 5th Street, it's like putting a tourniquet on the aorta," Maguire said. "There are different capillaries you can take to get to the heart, but 5th Street is the one we're used to."

But politicians may yet find a way to insert a stent. County Commissioner Mike Opat (1st District) is moving forward on finding ways to keep 5th Street open to traffic between 3rd and 4th Avenues. "BOMA has changed their position," Opat said. "I think we need to be responsive to that and we need to consider how people are going to get around Downtown, because it's a mess."

Stay tuned to see if fixing a mess at this late date creates an even bigger or at least a more expensive one.