Open Streets are inspiring changes to the streetscape

It’s a tale of high drama. People have been working out at the gym and they are hungry, but the delicious roast beef sandwiches that could satisfy their cravings are located on the other side of a busy highway forcing people to hop from one concrete transit island to the next.

This is the tale of the fictional town of Hoplandia, which was told in the heart of the Hiawatha-Lake Street intersection during the East Lake Open Street event when the Corcoran Neighborhood Organization and Midtown Farmers Market transformed the intersection into a market to demonstrate new possibilities.

Using a gutted TV retrofit with an illustrated scroll, artist Kevin Kirsch told a story that inspired people to reimagine the intersection they were standing inside of and take action. More than 500 people signed postcards in support of redesigning the intersection to make it more people-friendly and many others shared ideas and hopes for the future of this public space.

The first East Lake Open Street turned out to be the “perfect event at the perfect time,” for the Humanize Hi-Lake campaign, said Eric Gustafson, director of the Corcoran Neighborhood Organization. Now it seems these efforts to engage the public are beginning to produce results. This fall, the city announced they are undertaking a traffic study of the intersection.

Imagining changes to the built environment is part of what happens at Open Streets, but there’s something less visible and even more powerful that happens at these events and that is the development of relationships among people, and of course between people and place.

“Every business has a positive story to tell,” said Joni Bonnell, director of the Lowry Corridor Business Association. Lowry Café sold out of both food and beer. Sales were 15 percent higher than at the first Lowry Open Street four years ago at grocery store Solo Foods. Bonnell has seen businesses on Lowry discover the event and embrace the opportunity that comes with having 5,000 people in the streets. She’s working to involve more neighborhood businesses, including those not located directly on Lowry with the idea that “business begets business.”

The feedback she gets from former residents returning for the Lowry Open Street or new visitors is positive, as is the feedback from neighborhood residents who get a chance to discover what’s new. Clearly, the new chef at Lowry Café passes muster. Solo Foods has succeeded in raising its profile and now has steady sales throughout the month, instead of the first of the month peak formerly experienced.

Discover more of what we need and want can be found in our own backyards benefits more than the neighborhood economy. Joshua Houdek, land use and transportation manager of the Sierra Club’s North Star Chapter, pointed out that short car trips are the most polluting per mile but luckily these trips are the easiest to convert to biking or walking. Customers arrived on foot and by bike to Hymie’s Record Store during the East Lake Open Street. Owner Laura Hoenack was concerned about restricting car traffic on a busy weekend shopping day since theirs is a destination business, which most people reach by car. “Sales were about average. We were pleased,” she said.

Another Lake Street business, Gandhi Mahal restaurant is half a block off Lake Street. They used the event to sell appetizers but even more important was the opportunity to share information about their efforts to develop a closed loop food system in collaboration with neighbors and other small businesses. The restaurant raises tilapia and uses the pond water to feed the hydroponic plants in their basement. They’re growing produce in the backyards of neighbors, which the bees on their roof — tended by another small business owner, Kristy Lynn Allen of Beez Kneez — are helping pollinate.

The eight Open Streets events of 2015 helped showcase artists, strengthen local businesses and empower citizens as changemakers and build community support for changes that last more than one day.

Annie Van Cleve is a freelance writer, blogger and volunteer with the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition.