Businesses, city disagree about plans for Nicollet Avenue reconstruction

Just weeks before a final design needs to be settled upon, city officials and the Nicollet Avenue business community disagree about how Nicollet Avenue from Lake to 40th streets should be reconstructed next spring.

That stretch of Nicollet currently features a 50-foot road width and 6-foot sidewalk with little to no space for boulevards, which are the spaces — often covered with grass — in between curbs and sidewalks.

City officials want to reconstruct that part of Nicollet with a general street width of 44 feet, though the street would be widened along three high-traffic stretches. Sidewalks would remain 6-feet wide and a five-foot-wide boulevard would be added.

But many business owners believe that a 44-foot street width is too narrow. They argue that a narrower street will be less safe, create parking problems and discourage people from driving down Nicollet.

More than three dozen Nicollet Avenue businesses have signed a petition asking the city to approve a Nicollet reconstruction design with a road width no narrower than 46 feet.

One such business owner is Pat Mulroy, owner of Mulroy’s Body Shop at 39th & Nicollet.

Mulroy — who said he expects to pay over $60,000 in assessments for the reconstruction project — said the difference between what the city is proposing and what business owners want “is the difference between businesses succeeding and failing.”

“Nobody wants to drive down something that’s narrow,” he said. “It’s dangerous and somebody is going to get hurt or killed.”

But City Council Member Elizabeth Glidden (8th Ward) counters that a 44-foot-wide roadway with 22 feet for parking “satisfies every state standard that’s out there for lane width and parking lane width.”

State standards call for roadways with characteristics similar to Nicollet to feature 11-foot drive lanes and 10-foot-wide parking spaces.

In a letter addressed to the Kingfield Neighborhood Board, Glidden writes: “Building wider streets than necessary encourages speeding (as documented by numerous studies), creates greater heat island space, increases stormwater concerns, and involves unnecessary cost, among other factors.”

In an interview, Glidden said she believes a boulevard space at least 4.5 feet wide is necessary, though the cost-benefit of a narrower boulevard is still being studied. A narrower boulevard would allow for a wider roadway.

Right now, due to the lack of a boulevard, roadside amenities along Nicollet like streetlights, bus shelters, electrical boxes and other equipment encroach into the sidewalk and make getting down the street difficult, particularly for folks using wheelchairs.

Those amenities will be moved out of the sidewalk and into the boulevard following reconstruction, and Glidden is concerned that a narrow boulevard will prevent curbside trees from growing.

But Matt Perry, president of the Nicollet-East Harriet Business Association (NEHBA), argues the city’s primary concern should be making sure the road is wide enough. He said he has seen no evidence that reducing the boulevard by a foot on either side of the street would result in the space being too narrow to accommodate roadside amenities or healthy trees.

Perry also raised concerns about parking. Citing the example of 38th Street South, he said a 44-foot width is too narrow to accommodate two driving lanes and two parking lanes once snow piles up in the winter. The street was recently reconstructed with a width of 44 feet, but this past winter snow accumulation forced the city to restrict parking to just one side of the street, Perry said.

If parking had to be restricted to just one side of Nicollet in the winter, “that would be a catastrophe for our businesses,” he added.

Glidden said she is still gathering information about how narrow the boulevard can be and about safety concerns raised by business owners like Mulroy. She said she expects a roadway design to come before the City Council for a public hearing later this month.

Though plans may still be tweaked, time is running short. In order for construction to begin next spring, City Council layout approval needs to happen before the end of the summer.