The downtown Minneapolis street that was supposed to become a pleasurable green promenade for pedestrians is falling well short of that goal so far.
No, we’re not talking the Nicollet Mall, the street that the big cigars of downtown try to reinvent every 25 years or so at considerable public and private expense. Rather, it’s 3rd Avenue, one of the few downtown streets to bridge both the Interstate 94 freeway chasm and the river.
That made it the preferred choice for those who wanted to route a north-south protected bike lane through downtown. They planned to keep the calming, landscaped medians that marked the street, putting traffic on a road diet.
That plan didn’t fly after the big cigars caught the ears of a scant majority of the City Council. It mandated four through traffic lanes for most of the avenue’s path through downtown, which meant sacrificing the medians and scrapping plans to shield cyclists from traffic with colorful planters.
But the payoff was supposed to be a street that offset those lost medians with flora and other greenery along the sidewalks used by pedestrians, at least shielding them from passing cars.
At the end of the 2017 street work season, that greenery remains a mirage.
The meager greening that’s been added to this redesigned street so far falls short of what’s been taken away.
The city has added a few unspectacular planting beds at top-of-curb level. They total about 2,100 square feet. That’s far short of the size of the wide, raised medians of grasses, flowers and ornamental trees that were subtracted.
The banners, movable planters and the vegetated baskets hanging from light poles mentioned in redesign layout sheets? They’re nowhere in sight. The thousands of square feet of privately planted greenery and flora that were supposed brighten the street? Not much has been added.
Sure, you can find pockets of decorative plants. The Carlyle tower is artfully planted with chartreuse sedum, ornamental kales, hibiscus and prairie grasses that screen the drive-up entrance. Ditto for the splashes of color at the former Milwaukee Depot, with its hotels and event center. But they were there before the city promised a greener street.
Too many blocks remain drab, offering blank concrete walls or unscreened parking lots. The Ameriprise Financial building at 901 3rd Ave. has a delightful water wall with grasses, birches and shrubs near its entrance, but the north half of its block is devoid of landscaping. A parking lot across the street offers more greenery in the form of weeds than from its struggling trees.
Even some park-like settings could be improved. The south half of the Hennepin County Government Center site, with its circular park set within a square block, at least offers shade and a place to eat a food truck lunch. But its three city-installed planting beds offer little floral color. One block to the south at Accenture Tower, groves of trees offer a respite from the urban heat island, but it needs a refreshing of mulch at corners where foot traffic has packed the bare earth.
Some previous efforts at landscaping seem just plan tuckered out. The federal courthouse offers its grassy drumlin-like hummocks, finally looking healthy after years of effort, plus some whimsical sculptural figures. But the few gingko trees at the building’s back corner show signs of stress. One block north, the meager plantings beside the Eastside restaurant appear not to have been tended since they were planted, a few token plants surviving in a sea of mulch. Perhaps the valets the eatery boasts of could water the survivors occasionally.
Nearby, two other recent projects, one public and one private, seem more serious about greening two streets that intersect 3rd Avenue. Hennepin County’s recent reconstruction of five blocks of Washington Avenue offers proof that a public body can integrate concrete with plants that soften a streetscape. The Mill City Quarter complex similarly brightens 2nd Avenue with new greenery.
Don Elwood, the city’s director of transportation engineering and design, said the 3rd Avenue plantings aren’t yet complete. He said that the city and the Downtown Improvement District still are talking about what additional types of greenery will be added in future years. For example, the City Hall corner where 3rd Avenue intersects with 4th Street will likely be expanded for the benefit of pedestrians when the latter street is reconstructed in 2019. The city also hopes to add additional planting beds at the old federal building, the one north of Washington Avenue, sometime in the future.
But the lag in getting these added public and potential private investments nailed down reflects the hurried nature in which the 3rd Avenue project arose. It first emerged as part of the mayor’s 2016 budget, bypassing the normal capital budgeting process. (Disclaimer: I now sit on the capital budgeting revised committee but didn’t join until this year.) The original design caught by surprise some property owners concerned about access to their buildings.
Thus the project looks like a hurried-up, muddled street, rather than the grander boulevard it had the potential to be.
Can someone at least stencil the bike lanes?