For an even 50 years, much of South Minneapolis has been hoping for a reopening of Nicollet Avenue.
The Kmart site represents suburban development at its autophile worst, a continuing scar on the city’s urban fabric.
But now that it’s pending at last, the reopening of Nicollet may also be a case of being careful what you wish for.
I’m not disputing that the 10-acre acre site is sorely in need of redevelopment. It will yield a far higher tax base with more intensive occupancy than now, with two defunct stores and a vast parking lot that only its flock of gulls embraces.
Moreover, the potential for mixed commercial and housing development offers the opportunity for hundreds of housing units, with an expectation that many will offer affordability to those with lower incomes.
But what do we lose by reopening Nicollet?
One reason that Eat Street has been so successful is the intimacy of its strip of restaurants and bars, its easy on-street parking and the lack of commuter through-traffic bent on getting somewhere else.
South of Lake Street, where I’ve lived since just about when the ill-fated redevelopment happened, Nicollet is a street that’s both drivable and bikeable, unless the adjacent freeway is closed for the weekend. Then Nicollet becomes a thoroughfare that’s chancy to cross from a side street, a road on which traffic can take an extra cycle or two to move through a signalized intersection.
The unanswered question becomes how much traffic Nicollet will get if it is reopened. Enough to spur a redevelopment of the several blocks south of the store, which haven’t enjoyed the prosperity of Eat Street? Enough that more established merchants farther south on Nicollet prosper? Or so much that Nicollet is choked with cars, degrading neighborhood livability and creating a milieu that evokes Yogi Berra’s quip, “Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded”? So much that it provokes the same debates over pedestrian safety that are roiling Lyndale Avenue between Lake and Franklin Avenue?
So here’s a suggestion: Consider the alternative of redevelopment without reopening Nicollet. That approach keeps the benefit of a revived tax base with new housing. It offers 20% more space for that redevelopment, land that would otherwise be consumed by the public right-of-way. It avoids the expense of a new bridge for Nicollet over the Midtown Greenway while more efficiently using the sunk investment in the one-way pair of Blaisdell and 1st avenues.
One plausible argument for reopening Nicollet might be that it would offer a commuter route between Downtown Minneapolis and South Side neighborhoods. But commuter patterns have changed since the Nicollet of 1970. Far fewer people shop downtown. A greater share of South Side residents now work in the suburbs, rather than in the urban core.
We already have those two commuter routes on Blaisdell and 1st that ferry auto and bike traffic between Downtown and the neighborhoods south of Lake Street. Both end as commuter streets at 40th Street. That discourages those who live in the city’s far southern neighborhoods from taking them instead of Park and Portland, which extend as one-ways six blocks farther south. The freeway offers another alternative, including a new southbound exit at Lake that will open in a year or so.
Blaisdell does back up considerably at rush hour north of 36th Street, where a fair amount of volume diverts to west of the Chain of Lakes. Arguably that bottleneck could be corrected either by removing parking from the street’s east side, or by adding a lane of traffic by shrinking the oversized bike lane back to its previous width and adding curbed protection for cyclists. Or maybe reopening the 35th Street exit will relieve the pressure. First Avenue is in rough shape and is especially bone-shaking for cyclists, but it is due for resurfacing this year, and its future configuration is being discussed.
So perhaps we owe it to ourselves to reconsider before plunging blindly ahead at Lake & Nicollet to accommodate motorized traffic. Let’s consider whether reopening Nicollet is less important than redeveloping the site. Let’s create an urbanist model that both respects the area’s historic fabric and adapts to 21st century uses.