Redecorating time

City leaders crafting plan to coordinate street furniture

We see them everyday. Benches covered in gum, vandalized information kiosks and newspaper corrals, rusty trashcans, bus shelters oddly placed in the middle of the sidewalk. As city dwellers, street furniture is a part of our daily lives. Among numerous mundane activities, we use it to keep out of the rain, rest our weary feet and store our bicycles. Finally, after many years, Minneapolis’ outdoor fixtures will be getting a complete makeover.

Since 2006, the city’s Public Works Department has been putting together a coordinated street furniture program that involves redesigning all of the city’s benches and transit shelters, and possibly trash and recycling bins, wayfinding structures, newspaper corrals, information kiosks and bike racks.

"We are a city filled with extraordinary buildings, but perfectly mediocre connections between them," said Mayor R.T. Rybak who has been working on the project since its inception. "I’ve been extremely excited about this as one of the ways that we can just improve the basic walk around the city."

How it works

The city currently manages one contract for street furniture and another for bus shelters in conjunction with Metro Transit. When the contracts end in 2009, the city plans to combine their efforts into one coordinated citywide project. Following in the footsteps of other cities like Boston, Vancouver and Chicago, they intend to fund the street furniture program with advertising revenue.

Under a new, 20-year contract, one vendor will design, install and maintain the furniture, which includes cleaning up graffiti and litter. All of the advertising on the fixtures — except for a small amount reserved for nonprofits or public art — will come from the contract holder.

"In many cities that are doing this, the vendor team may be more than one company," said Anna Flintoft, a transportation planner for Public Works. "It’s typically an advertising firm who’s working with a furniture provider as well."

On Oct. 19, the City Council authorized the city to issue a Request For Proposals (RFP), which asks potential sponsors to come forward with their design ideas and revenue projections. For the next six months, Public Works will collect and evaluate RFPs with the help of a design jury made up of architects, landscape architects, and experts in the fields of industrial design and public art.

The jury will provide guidance for the vendor to ensure that the new furniture will define the city’s identity, remain compatible with existing furniture, and abide by pedestrian right-of-way zoning.

Currently, several areas in Southwest are difficult to maneuver due to poorly placed street fixtures. The transit shelter in front of Loon Grocery on 25th Street and Lyndale Avenue, for example, sits in the middle of the sidewalk, forcing pedestrians and bikers to squeeze by on either side. Additionally, a bus shelter and bench on Lagoon Avenue and Knox Avenue rests on a bed of trampled grass — they’re not impeding pedestrian right-of-way, but badly designed nonetheless.

A new look

From modern to historic, city officials don’t have a particular design style in mind, and they’re not ruling anything out.

"We need great ideas to come forward from residents and artists and landscape architects and the incredible creative community of Minneapolis," Rybak said. "When I go to other cities, I usually see a little bit here and a little bit there that I like. I haven’t seen any city that’s mastered it. My goal is that, a few years from now, everybody will be looking to Minneapolis as the state of the art."

Street furniture designs in other metropolises are all over the map. Chicago has classic, stately newspaper corrals and bus shelters painted black with silver trim. Toronto’s furniture looks modern and space age with lots of glass and smooth shades of gray.

According to project documents, other cities have been financially successful in their street furniture programs, generating more than $1 million in advertising revenue. "Often revenues [come] to the city from the vendor that can assist in other elements that the city might be taking care of right now," Flintoft said.

The program is part of the city’s increased emphasis on pedestrians in the Access Minneapolis Transportation Action Plan, a 10-year initiative designed to address options for every mode of transportation.

"Because this is a citywide program and the furniture will be in all different parts of the city, we want that furniture to be very compatible with different identities of different parts of the city," Flintoft said. "Most of the guidance that we’ve gotten is that we want it to be very recognizable as public space, be recognizable as part of the transit system — particularly for the shelters and the benches — and that it be compatible with other elements of neighborhood identity."

City officials hope to execute the new contract in September 2008 and begin installing the new furniture in March 2009.

"We’re a long way from getting there," said Rybak, "but this is a great step for making every walk in Minneapolis a little more pleasant."

Contact Mary O’Regan at m[email protected] or 436-5088.