Eat Street as a feet street

WHITTIER – A plan to keep Eat Street pedestrian-friendly was presented to a small crowd of Whittier neighborhood residents and business owners June 5.

The meeting was the first time many heard a detailed description of the so-called Nicollet-Franklin Pedestrian Overlay. It also marked the beginning of a 45-day public comment period on the proposed zoning code changes to parts of Nicollet and Franklin avenues.

Another part of the plan would create a "community activity center district" at the intersection of Nicollet Avenue and 26th Street. Nearby land would be rezoned C3A, a designation allowing for expanded nightlife options and even a hotel.

Marian Biehn, executive director of Whittier Alliance, said the plan encourages denser development along the commercial corridor, known as Eat Street for its many restaurants and ethnic grocery stores.

Density, so the theory goes, will keep the avenue visually appealing by squeezing storefronts closer together. The street-level bustle will also promote a feeling of safety for pedestrians, Biehn added.

The pedestrian overlay would prohibit new construction of stores or restaurants with drive-thrus, automobile service shops and transportation services, such as taxi or ambulance companies. It would also limit parking lot size and driveway width.

Cheryl Hauser, a resident of the Arts Quarter Lofts at the corner of Nicollet Avenue and 26th Street, said she liked what she saw at the meeting.

Hauser said she moved into the neighborhood a little over a year ago in part because she could easily walk or bike around the area. She walks down Nicollet Avenue to the Midtown Greenway every morning with two other women and their dogs.

"I feel very positive about (the pedestrian overlay) because I think it will help to retain the sense of community," Hauser said, "and it will keep the neighborhood vital, which is what we want."

Planning ahead

Biehn said Whittier put its name on the list of neighborhoods seeking city approval for a pedestrian overlay about two years ago. She described the process as a natural extension of Whittier’s Neighborhood Revitalization Program Phase I in the early 1990s, which helped brand Nicollet Avenue as Eat Street.

But as Whittier waited for the go-ahead from city officials, developers were eagerly eyeing several vacant properties along Nicollet Avenue, said Erica Christ, a neighborhood board member.

"Last year, we started hearing from a few different developers who wanted to do things on Nicollet [Avenue] we just didn’t want to see," Christ said.

Those projects could have led to large, one-story buildings surrounded by parking lots, just the type of development a pedestrian overlay was meant to discourage, she said.

Seeking to head-off unwanted construction, Whittier officials appealed to the city.

Last August, the neighborhood was granted a one-year development moratorium for parcels bordering Nicollet Avenue between Franklin Avenue and 29th Street. The moratorium expires Sept. 1.

A small group of community members and business owners started work on the pedestrian overlay in June or July of 2006. Christ, whose parents own the Black Forest Inn at 1 E. 26th St., and Biehn both worked on the project.

As they walked up and down Nicollet Avenue, Biehn said, they tried to imagine the thoroughfare 10 years in the future. One event they anticipated is the possible demolition of the Kmart store that currently blocks a direct connection from Nicollet Avenue to Lake Street.

Its removal, Biehn said, would "be opening a floodgate." Neighborhood leaders want a strong plan in place before that day comes. "What the overlay will do is kind of lay the skeleton for good development," Christ said.

Unique elements

Principal City Planner Amanda Arnold said the Nicollet-Franklin Pedestrian Overlay builds on the basic pedestrian overlay plan used in neighborhoods like Dinkytown and Uptown.

As in other pedestrian overlay districts, buildings are kept close to the street, not more than 8 feet from the front property line. The zoning code also is meant to stimulate vertical construction.

"We’re really pushing buildings to be two stories in this area,"

Arnold said.

Buildings in the community activity center district could go as high as four stories, she added.

New buildings are also encouraged to incorporate pedestrian-friendly amenities, such as landscaping, street-side seating and awnings.

Arnold said the plan also includes two unique elements. Storefronts are limited to no more than 120 feet of first-floor façade, a measure meant to keep the street-level view from becoming monotonous. At corners, buildings will be kept at least 2 feet from the property line so that sightlines remain open.

If the City Council approves the pedestrian overlay, several properties will become "nonconforming," meaning their large parking lots or drive-thrus are not allowed under the new code. They generally will be allowed to remain until abandoned or destroyed.

"Nothing is going to change the minute this is passed by the Council," Arnold said.