Buried History

History and future buried below Nicollet Avenue 

 

Every day since May, David E Romm has walked a few hundred feet from his condo to watch crews as they dig up and re-build Nicollet Avenue just south of Lake Street. 

 

He takes pictures, talks up the workers and then goes back home to post what he’s found on Facebook. He’s posted over 500 pictures so far. 

 

Romm, a former KFAI radio host, has seen all kinds of good stuff as crews dig way down into the city’s bowels, but something has surprised him more than the old pipes and manholes. Below the asphalt, crews are digging up streetcar rails and cobblestone dating back to 1879.

 

Nicollet Avenue hasn’t been re-built since it was first paved in 1954. Before that, the road was a streetcar line, and one of the busiest in the Twin Cities. But when cars took over, crews didn’t rip up the old tracks. They just paved right over the top of them.  “To me, the mere fact that the cobblestones and the rail were still there [is most interesting],” said Romm, 57. “They didn’t dig it up. They didn’t repave the road. They simply slapped some macadam on top of it. That’s why the road was so awful.”

 

For as much as the reconstruction of Nicollet Avenue provides a history lesson in transit, it also offers a glimpse of the future. The city is again eyeing Nicollet Avenue as a potential streetcar line that would connect the city from Northeast to Southwest via Central Avenue, Nicollet Mall and Nicollet Avenue. 

 

A city-hired consultant in June commenced a study on how a streetcar line might be built on Nicollet Avenue, using a $900,000 federal grant. City Transportation Planner Anna Flintoft said she expects the study to be completed by December 2013. The study is supposed to tell the city how much a streetcar line would cost, how it would be operated and how to plan economic development along the corridor, among other things. 

 

A Nicollet/Central line would get first priority, but the city has also identified South Hennepin, the Greenway, Washington Avenue, West Broadway and University Avenue as potential extensions of a streetcar system.  

 

The project engineer for the Nicollet reconstruction, Beverly Warmka, said the city is being careful to plan the street layout so that it will be “streetcar ready” should officials ever build the line. Of course, the city would also have to move the Kmart that blocks Nicollet Avenue at Lake Street.  

 

The new configuration will have one lane in each direction south of Lake Street, with parking on both sides of the street. 

 

Crews will reconstruct the street from Lake to 36th this summer in three phases. Next summer they’ll reconstruct from 36th Street to 40th Street. 

 

In July, crews will be digging from 32nd Street to 35th Street, once again exposing streetcar lines that were first built in 1879. 

 

Streetcars once ran from downtown all the way to 62nd Street on Nicollet Avenue, as part of a well-connected system throughout the city, according to “Twin Cities by Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul,” a book by by John W. Diers and Aaron Isaacs.

 

The Nicollet and Lake Street station was one of the busiest transfer points in town. The line also carried students from Ramsey Junior High and Washburn High School, according to the book. 

 

Unfortunately, the old lines below Nicollet can’t be re-used. Warmka said they’re degraded and rusted, plus the new streetcar rails have to be much heavier. 

 

While the future of streetcars is still undecided, neighbors like Romm and his girlfriend, Carole Vandal, are glad that they’ll finally have smooth asphalt to drive on. Nicollet, in recent years, has gotten a reputation as one of the worst streets in the city. Local ice cream shop Sebastian Joe’s even named a flavor after the street: Nicollet Avenue Pothole.

 

“What I call bus-eating potholes,” Romm said.

 

Vandal moved to Minneapolis a few years ago, and the road has taken a toll on her car. 

 

“I’ve only lived here a few years, and I am certainly glad it’s being paved because I have a car that is very low to the ground,” she said. “So I’m glad that it’s happening.”

 

 

More information

 

To see Romm’s photo documentation of the Nicollet Avenue reconstruction, search for his page “Baron Dave Romm”

To get Nicollet Avenue reconstruction updates, visit minneapolismn.gov/cip/all/cip_nicollet31-40_index