Remodeled Lake Street could get as much as 40 feet wider under deal

Lake Street would balloon for several blocks near I-35W -- as much as 103 feet curb-to-curb between Nicollet and 1st avenues compared to its current 62-foot width, under a tentative agreement reached by developers and planners in the area.

Lake Street would taper to its current width by Blaisdell.

Planners, developers and neighbors have tussled over Lake Street's configuration since plans were announced to reopen Nicollet Avenue, build new ramp access to I-35W, and construct a potential new housing/retail development on the current Kmart site.

Planners with the I-35W Access Project want Lake Street wide enough to handle the traffic increase. The Kmart site's developer, Sherman Associates, wanted as little valuable real estate taken as possible.

Meanwhile, some neighbors worry that if Lake Street isn't wide enough, frustrated drivers will detour onto residential street. Others fear that a sprawling Lake Street will make the neighborhood feel very unfriendly to pedestrians.

Tom Johnson, Access Project manager, said his group and Sherman are now on the same page. "The number of lanes is no longer in dispute," he said. "The county and the city are in agreement too. It looks good to everyone."

At its widest, Lake Street would feature seven lanes of traffic and an 18-foot-wide median, according to plans distributed at community meetings.

Planners assume that pedestrians walk 4 feet per second, so it would take 25 seconds to cross Lake Street on the east side of Nicollet, compared to 16 seconds now. Some walkers may have to wait through a cycle of lights on the median.

The neighborhoods and their representatives have not voted on the plan.

The 21-member I-35W Project Advisory Committee, a group of neighborhood, business and nonprofit-organization representatives, is reviewing proposals. It will make recommendations on road widths, the I-35W access ramps locations and other issues this fall. The majority of members live in the nearby neighborhoods.

The committee will hold community meetings on the design in November.

A way station for the elderly

The Lake Street design includes a snaking median that runs between 18 and 27 feet wide, big enough to handle two rows of trees, said Craig Churchward of SEH, a project traffic consultant.

The median would feel like St. Louis Park's Excelsior Boulevard or St. Paul's Lexington Parkway, backers say. It would slow traffic and beautify the street.

As part of the design process, committee members took field trips to look at other metro roadways, Churchward said.

"The committee as a whole had the impression that an urban street should be void of medians, that it is an area for cars," Churchward said. "That was their bias going in."

Then they visited St. Paul's Snelling and University avenues, which have a 6-foot-wide median, he said. Committee members saw a pedestrian who had trouble walking. The person stopped on the narrow median, waiting as cars zipped by in both directions. It made committee members uneasy.

"They were uncomfortable with creating a similar situation because of the type of population in the Lake and Nicollet area," Churchward said. "There is an elderly population, there are children. There appears to be a number of people who don't have a standard gait crossing the road. We want to be able to accommodate that."

Research from the Federal Highway Administration said roads more than 60 feet wide should have a median, Churchward said. University of Minnesota research concluded that medians help slow traffic, meeting a neighborhood traffic-calming goal.

"We settled on 18 feet as something that would give a sufficient break for people, and 16 feet is the critical threshold for two rows of trees," Churchward said.

Some people have criticized the design as looking too suburban, he said, but the current Kmart design has a suburban feel because of the huge parking lot next to the street. Moving the building fronts next to the sidewalk would give the new design an urban feel.

The current plan also would widen sidewalks from 8 feet to 14 feet.

"We want wide sidewalks to encourage pedestrian activity," Churchward said. "We want people to gather, to socialize. We want impromptu street musicians, the opportunity for vendors to be on the street, for sidewalk sales -- the things that only happen in an urban environment."

Too wide?

Lake Street between Nicollet and 1st avenues would be wider than Excelsior Boulevard, which ranges from 72 to 97 feet wide.

Some have criticized the project for turning that stretch of Lake Street into a freeway. Johnson dismisses the criticism, saying the plan only affects a five-block area between Blaisdell and 3rd avenues.

"Other than that, Lake Street will be just as it is now, two in each direction plus parking."

Jeanne Massey, a Kingfield representative to the I-35W Project Advisory Committee, said she hasn't made up her mind on the appropriate width for Lake Street. She supports the wide median, because it makes the area more pedestrian friendly, she said.

She said she remembered "falling prey" to the argument that planners needed to make Lake Street as wide as possible, otherwise cars would go on neighborhood streets.

"It is going to be congested no matter what. It is a very busy area," Massey said. "It is like the freeway. You can't build yourself out of that kind of congestion. You have to live with a certain amount of it."

"For me, the main point is we can never make it wide enough to accommodate all of the cars that are going onto Lake Street. We just have to make it acceptable," she said.

And if it comes time to cut something out of Lake Street's width, she said to take it out of traffic lanes -- not the median.

"We need to create the roads we want and then design how much traffic they can bear, not the other way around," she said.

The PAC will get the final recommendations from staff on Sept. 24.

I-35W Lake Street Access Project Timetable

The I-35W Project Advisory Committee has worked for nearly two years to guide the planning process for adding new ramps at I-35W at Lake Street. It includes neighborhood residents and representatives from various business and non-profit organizations. Here is the committee's timetable to complete its work.

August 27, The 21-member Project Advisory Committee (PAC) will finish its report and review preliminary designs.

September 24, Staff makes final recommendation to the PAC on the environmental assessment work, traffic projections, preliminary design plans and changes needed for traffic mitigation.

October 29, The PAC votes on the staff recommendations.

November 13,14,16, The PAC holds public meetings and open houses to explain the recommendations.

November 26, The PAC either confirms or modifies its earlier recommendations based on public comments.

January 2003, Preliminary plans are presented to the city of Minneapolis, Hennepin County, Met Council, and state Department of Transportation for review and approval.

February 2003, Work starts on final designs and specifications.

March 2004, Request for construction bids issued.

August 2004, Work begins.