Monday, March 11, 2013

It's a cool time to be at the U

If you haven't checked around the Twin Cities campus lately and noted how cool it is how much is being added, you are really missing out.

It has been cited several times that this is the largest University expansion since the West Bank push in the early 1960's. Among public, private, and institutional development, it all seems to resort back to the area east of downtown Minneapolis.

I started attending the U in the Fall of 2010, which happened to be the last sort-of hurrah for calm around campus. Bob Bruininks was still the president, Maturi & Brewster were tenured faces of athletics, and Washington Avenue had vehicles rushing back and forth like the past 90 years. The only new apartment development was the luxurious Sydney Hall, which - trust me - was all the rage for the first year or two. The Central Corridor Light Rail project seemed to be locked in dead heat against political forces and the University's sustained lawsuit against it. The only large project going on was the interior renovation of Folwell Hall (Oh no, we can't gain access to historic interior renovations? What are we ever going to do?), and projects like the 17th Avenue Residence Hall were not only non-existent, but weren't even on the long range plan set up the year before.

Looking back, 2010 was probably the best year to tour the quaint inter-city University as a high school senior.

Fast forward 3 years - everything, and I mean basically everything, has changed around campus.

The Public

The Green Line (Central Corridor) is still slated to open in 2014, and will change the environment of the University forever. It is hard to put into words how important the block between Harvard & Walnut Avenues will be, as no vehicles are allowed, but businesses still front the transit corridor. This will be the second pedestrian mall in the city, after Nicollet downtown.

Other than the light rail, other projects have already impacted the environment of the campus altogether. With buses being re-routed to Pleasant Street, the green-painted bike lanes have given riders a safer, if not less assuring lane to resort to. After the tragic bike accident in 2011, both the City of Minneapolis and the U have heightened awareness for proper biking techniques, and have installed the infrastructure for its success. Although the biking numbers around the city have actually slightly declined since 2010, the number of bikers recorded on 15th Ave SE have gone from 1,935 to 2,012 bikers per day, according to Bike Walk Twin Cities.

The Private

I would like to nominate the phrase "luxury apartments" as the phrase of the first half of the 2010's decade. I mean, seriously, holy crap. The private development around campus in the last two years has been nuts, especially considering that these highly-priced buildings are aimed at relatively low-income students (Thank you, public loans & parents from Wayzata!)

*On a side note, I have nothing against Wayzata. Honestly. I empathize with you guys a little actually.

Since Sydney Hall opened in the fall of 2010, there have been a whopping 5 significant apartment buildings constructed near campus: 412 Lofts, Solhaus & Solhaus Tower, Stadium Village Flats, and The Edge.

There are currently 5 complexes currently under construction: The Elysian, The Knoll, 7West, the controversial UTEC Site Development and The Station on Washington. Also, there is a smaller townhome-like development called The Cluster on 4th Street.

Most importantly, the biggest are yet to come. The Bridges and WaHu are planned and set to go. Both will be 11 stories, but will importantly break that 6-story stick frame limit. This tells me that the other apartments are doing well enough to take larger risks and build nicer buildings with steel & concrete frames. That is fantastic.

To be honest, these developments are not my cup of tea as far as living situation, but I love the fact that a good number of deep-pocketed developers are taking a chance on their city and on their University. I love the fact that Minneapolis is growing to be an actual city, rather than a large suburb with shiny toothpicks sticking out near the Hennepin Bridge. These will contribute to the street life, they will promote living near campus instead of commuting from Brooklyn Park and Eden Prairie, they will eventually help the businesses of Dinkytown and Stadium Village by contributing sidewalk traffic instead of park-and-shop, they will hopefully

P.S... Can I have the job of naming these things? I have some ideas up my sleeve: The Dash, The Pew, The Swag, The Swoop, The Hangover, The Stumblehome, The Backwardsflathatwearingd*****bag. "Hey man, don't forget to check out the party at QX7TL Lofts! It's sicknasty!"


Complain about the University you may, but you can't deny that they aren't building and renovating cool stuff right now. There are hundreds of projects going on at the U and the coordinate campuses right now, ranging from brand new classroom buildings to research lab renovations to re-roofing West Bank buildings.

In 2010, STSS was the star child of the year, with its glitzy perimeter facing the river and modern classroom formats. The campus will see more of it with the arrival of the Physics and Nanotechnology Building when it opens in November. The Rec Center Addition will feature an indoor track and thousands of added workout space, as well as a fireplace and a cafeteria. (Necessary? Not really. Awesome? Yeah.) The 17th Ave Residence Hall will open in the Fall, and will add much needed new dorm space for incoming freshman. I am glad to see that it was built very well, because it will probably take over Territorial Hall's party reputation after the first home football game in September. Nonetheless, the dining hall looks like it is going to be very nice, and the rooms themselves are set up in a more communal, less hallway-corridor-like way.

The Cancer-Cardiovascular Building north of TCF Bank Stadium will open this summer and will offer medical and biology researchers alike new facilities to conduct their work. On top of this, the planned private Research Park to the east of the stadium would provide an academic and economic support system for these researchers and aspiring students.

Finally, the renovations of building close to my heart will finish around the time the Green Line opens. The historic Northrop Auditorium has been gutted and is being reconfigured to host academic space and the U's Honors Program main office. Although the auditorium capacity is reduced, the architecturally-pleasant lobby area will hopefully be salvaged. Also, with Physics & Nano opening soon, a renovation of Tate Lab will hopefully begin soon. Other renovations either planned or currently under way include the St. Anthony Lab near the Pillsbury A-Mill, and Eddy Hall, the oldest building on campus. (Sorry, Old Main. You tried.)

Wrap it up

All in all, the new construction on campus tells me people are ready to invest in this type of work once again. Bike support is constantly growing, the light rail is going in, and apartments are being built at the same rate they are filling up. The University is battling criticism left and right, but still maintaining high standards of construction and facilities maintenance. The consistent growth pattern in the last 2-3 years has been extremely promising, as it not only reflects the individual investments of said parties, but also illustrates the improving economy as a whole.

So, the next time you complain about all the construction on campus, just remember that this place will look great in a year and a half. (Sorry for everyone graduating next May. Don't worry, I'm included in that group too.)

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Why Stadium Village will become the 21st century Dinkytown

It is a local myth that Bob Dylan's 1965 hit "Positively 4th Street" was written about our own little University commercial node. The well-known shopping, eating, and party-spilling area of Dinkytown does indeed have a strong history, starting as its own streetcar node before the University was the true powerhouse it is today and essentially took it for its own. Dylan's implant is seen everywhere around Dinkytown, whether in the Loring Pasta Bar (where Dylan once lived) or the mural around the eyewear store on 13th Avenue. The presence of such a force has epitomized Dinkytown and its conservative, non-changing form. Other than Sydney Hall, the area hasn't expanded its retail in several decades, and the now well-known controversies with the House of Hanson site and the UTEC Building truly epitomize the resistance to the change in that four block area.

This makes way for Dinkytown's kid commercial node, Mr. Stadium Village, to pick up the pieces and run with them. "SV" doesn't have the history or historic aesthetics like Dinkytown does; it doesn't have 4th Street, Al's Breakfast, or the experience of this on a regular basis.

What it does have, though, is a willingness to change, adapt, and grow.

The Conflicts of Interest

Many people think that Dinkytown is fully expanded and no longer needs to grow and adapt, as evidence by sites like Save Dinkytown. Several businesses have expressed serious concerns, and according to interviews, some say that it would drive businesses out of the area. Even though slightly outdated, the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Master Plan, which includes Dinkytown, states that Large scale (large footprint) buildings or buildings taller than four (4) stories in Dinkytown that conflict with the existing character of the area.Although the concerns are warranted, the neighborhood has and is constantly changing. The new developments allow a much more transient student population to live closer to campus, thus inducing more demand for corner grocery stores and restaurants.

Whereas Dinkytown seems to be resisting change, the opposite is the case for Stadium Village. Within the past four years, the development along the Washington Strip has boomed - even with the Green Line Construction at full swing. The businesses along the stretch have done reasonably well, considering the circumstances, thanks to the foot traffic from the growing local student population. As far as a plan for the future, the Stadium Village / University Avenue LRT Station Master Plan desires new density, for not only housing, but for a retail hub and research center. In the new development study areas, 8 land areas are included within the artificial limits of  Stadium Village (arbitrarily chosen as between Harvard Street & the new LRT Station). Among these 8 areas, one has already been developed, one is currently under construction, and two are slated to begin shortly. All of these new developments are at least 6 stories, which add much desired density to the area. Also, according to several records of minutes at Prospect Park / East River Road Improvement Association, a large portion of the permanent population want to see the density occur.

The bottom line: Stadium Village wants to grow, and Dinkytown wants to keep living the Glory Days.

But why is this the case? Why would two similar commercial nodes within a mile of each other have completely separate attitudes to change, even as they both offer the same type of businesses?

1) Bad (nostalgic) habits die hard

In 1970, a locally famous protest occurred right along 4th Street across the Varsity Theater. A fast food joint called Red Barn, which already had a location in Stadium Village, was planning on building a second location in Dinkytown. It escalated so much that a class-action lawsuit was file against the developer and the wrecking crew that was planning on tearing down the old building. Eventually the Red Barn was red & dead, but the mural by Tonys Diner & Camdi relive the memory.

Fast-forward to 2002: After the Gopher Hockey Team won the National Championship for the first time in a quarter-century, celebration riots began in Dinkytown, where a mob of ~1,000 jumped on cars and started fires in trash bins (A fun reverie for your reading pleasure).

The two similarities to these two moments: Both were rooted in Dinkytown, and neither occurred in Stadium Village. Even though you could count the boycott of the Stadium Village Red Barn as inclusion, as well as the formations of mobs in the Wash-Ave area, they did not hold the action in the area. 

Memories do stick around, especially ones possibly filled with a tipsy mindset around a group of your close, young, able-bodied friends. Thousands of students have come and gone through the U, and every single one has created a memory in Dinkytown. Until very recently with the construction of TCF Bank Stadium, the Stadium Village area was considered more or less an after-thought. Changing a major element of Dinkytown is changing a memory for tons of former and current students. Changing a major element of Stadium Village, for many students, is like creating a brand new commercial node altogether.

2) NIMBYism - Student Edition

Take a quick glance at an aerial map of campus and the surrounding areas, and note the neighborhoods bordering the University. The neighborhood outside of the commercial Dinkytown are spotted with large fraternity and sorority houses, along with other architecturally significant mansions built by mill magnates before the U became the powerhouse it is. South of Stadium Village lies what is known as the Motley neighborhood, an area which was stripped of its official neighborhood name decades ago and was eaten up by the University. What was once a fairly large working-class, single-family residential area was slowly replaced by the Superblocks and the Moos Towers of the area. The neighborhood that remains south of Washington Ave is a rag-tag group of derelict sublets and 60s-era apartments, mixed with a couple reinvestments centered toward medical students.

Thanks to the much larger structures of Dinkytown, the University grew south from its origins near the Knoll area off of Pleasant Ave instead of hopping over 4th Street. Washington Avenue became the center arterial rather than Unversity Avenue, and the varying neighborhood characteristics are probably the cause. 

Because of this, Dinkytown and the neighborhood has simply been around longer, thus citing a higher demand to keep the aging. Although the streetcar-era buildings that house staples like the Big 10 Restaurant and Stub & Herbs are well-known, the lack of non-dorm student housing around the area until recently left Stadium Village open for change. The Dinkytown neighborhood has consistently fed the businesses in the commercial area, and unlike Motley, permanent residents do reside in the area. That emotional connection to the "roots" of the commercial core are stronger, and therefore result in more NIMBYism. 

3) Transportation & Development Revolution

When the University officially dropped the lawsuit against Metro Transit to allow the CCLRT to be constructed down Washington, the plans for commercial transformation began in Stadium Village. The four-lane mess that once was will now become a beautiful transit mall, incorporating green spaces between stations and will feature 3 city blocks of non-automobile lanes. The block between Walnut and Harvard will be especially important, as they will be vehicle-less but will still have businesses facing the street. Larger sidewalks and bike lanes have already been endowed upon the Avenue between Church and Huron, thus creating a truly pedestrian-friendly atmosphere.

With this transportation revolution occurring, the call for density in the area has been matched significantly. Even though the Doran-built Sydney Hall was first in the University area when it opened in August 2010, only one other apartment has opened in Dinkytown since (412 Lofts, also by Doran). In a matter of two years, four new apartments have opened in Stadium Village within a radius of a half mile. One is under construction on the former Mercil's site called The Station, and the six-story uniformity across from the McNamara Plaza resembles a miniature Central Park setting. Two significant developments are being planned by CPM - the 11-story WaHu Housing on the former Arby's site, as well as a new 6-story development on the strip where Sally's is. These developments have been met with little resistance from the surrounding neighborhoods thus far, and have only run into trouble with the complicated zoning of the area. The development is also favorable for the new transportation realignments, as the new apartments are being built on parking lots which will not be needed nearly as much as they used to be. The Station and WaHu are both being/will be constructed on lots that had a significant asphalt area.

Moving Northwest, Dinkytown has no current readjustment of transportation on 15th Ave or 4th Street.   The Minneapolis streetcar study calls for a new train eventually running down University or 4th Street, but this will probably not happen for at least another 10 years. 4th is a like a clogged river during evening rush hour and after sporting events, as it is set up with 3 one-way lanes moving West. The businesses in Dinkytown do get good exposure from vehicles, and a street life does exist, but the often fast moving cars are enough to make even the most experienced scholar anxious.

As far as development, Sydney Hall and 412 Lofts initially set the boundary of commercial Dinkytown, but the new House of Hanson site and the UTEC development have been met with large local resistance. These developments are at risk of never happening simply due to the powerful neighborhood and surrounding business resistance. The parking worries are also another thought. Whereas Washington no longer needs the vast asphalt that it already has, Dinkytown still has the large rushes of vehicular traffic on 15th and 4th Street, and does have a warranted worry of losing parking. With the influx of students living near campus, the amount of parking that resembles post-WWII era needs is unnecessary, and Dinkytown should embrace the incoming population of permanent student residents. (Also, large parking lots in urban areas are bad.)

The Future

Dinkytown will always hold a place in every Gopher heart. The great restaurants and shops of the area will be and are constantly appreciated. Students will probably always head there after parties, and parents will probably take their kids to McDonald's after their first football game.

However, the curse of Bob Dylan memories may be the ultimate curse of the area. When Dylan was the talk of the world, the country was engulfed in vehicle-fever, and a modernist efficiency for parking emphasized the suburban sprawl of the Cities. Dinkytown hasn't changed much since then. Although the businesses are mostly new, the two-story mixed-use buildings reminiscent of streetcar days line the streets just like they did 50 years ago.

Stadium Village is another case. With its status as Dinkytown's often forgotten little brother, its window for improvement and growth is much larger and moves much more liberally. Stadium Village, with the new Green Line about to open and the new apartments lining the environmentally-conscious avenue, is quickly becoming a model for Universities nationwide. The transit corridor that it will host will be seen as a top-tier example of how a campus can run an efficient and safe area outside of the academic buildings.

Don't be surprised when the fans spill out of TCF Bank Stadium on a warm September evening and head to Stadium Village, where they can walk around and enjoy the bustling, vehicle-free street life and  observe the frequent light rail vehicles moving east and west. The new apartments hosting the ground-level Bar & Grill, est. 2013, will seem as old and as established as a famous diner in Dinkytown.

Friday, February 1, 2013

University Avenue's Evil Twin: 4th St SE

Gather around, students and colleagues. I am going to tell you a story about a magnificent avenue called University, and its less acknowledged disgruntled twin, 4th Street.

Once upon a time, these two thoroughfares happily ran side by side. 4th Street housed one of Twin City RapidTransit’s most used streetcar lines, and University Avenue SE carried the masters and learners alike by vehicle. Between Oak Street and 15th Ave SE, 4th Street hosted many buildings along its blocks, including several blocks of homes. University Avenue followed suit by holding the architecturally magnificent Fraternity Row homes. Both were equally appreciated and used, from both a vehicle and a pedestrian standpoint.

Quickly, however, the tides turned as Minneapolis evolved and turned a cheek to its past. As the transportation wars of the post-WWII era ensued, streetcar lines were ripped out of 4th Street, and to meet the increasing vehicle demand of the metropolitan area, each of the streets were redesigned to run one way. The two twins, once close partners, were now mortal enemies running counter to one another. Vehicles now had more lanes and more space to accommodate their ever increasing speed, but at the expense of a pedestrian and bicycle-friendly feeling around the U of MN campus.

As part of the declaration, Dinkytown and Fraternity Row were allowed to stay relatively the same, even as the One Way streets were put into effect. In order to make way for the vehicle quantity explosion, many of the houses and buildings along 4th Street SE were razed in favor of parking lots. Due to Fraternity Row’s impressive stature and historic designation, however, much of the land along University Avenue was spared.

And so, for years, 4th Street tried to be like its twin brother. Wide sidewalks and generous bike lanes were created, and bus shelters were placed generously along the eight-block corridor. New hockey arenas named Mariucci and Ridder were even built, as well as a lovely tennis center named Baseline. However, the vast stretches of parking lots, the large slate of tennis courts with a necessary lack of large vegetation sources, and the lack of public plazas as main entries to the venues truly made 4th Street seem barren. The venues were and still are appreciated, but since these buildings are only used on a sporadic timescale, the street life on 4th was artificial.

Which would you rather walk down?

To this day, University Avenue, even with the same amount of traffic lanes as 4th Street, attracts more pedestrians and hosts a much more relaxing feeling for the large amount of walkers. 4th Street does indeed have pedestrians, but is set up like Marquette Avenue downtown, where commuters using busses only have to wait for a short amount of time near good shelters. The barren feeling of 4th Street does not give the commuters or common pedestrians alike good walking vibes. Although it will improve the streetscape when it is complete, the construction of the 17th Ave Residence Hall has put a burden on bikers especially, as the bike lane has been barricaded since May, and only relocated surface parking to the old Klaeber Court site. 

Another building bites the dust to, ironically, make way more surface parking.

Even with the rerouting of bicycles, MNDaily reported that the Dinkytown entry intersection of 15th Ave has been reported as having a large number of bicycling-related accidents over the past decade. According to the report, University had more bicycle-related accidents, but 4th Street, being half as long, had a higher concentration of accidents within its corridor.

So, my friends, what is the ultimate fate of 4th Street? Will it ever become amicable with University once again, and turn its cheek on its tainted past? Hopefully, the good heart of the street will open up to pedestrians and bikes once again. Hopefully, the vast parking lots will eventually be replaced by what the 2009 Campus Master Plan called “future development”, as is currently being illustrated by the new residence hall construction. Hopefully, if there is parking to accommodate stadium traffic, it is built in the form of garages with street-friendly facades (my personal hometown example). Hopefully in the distant future, the Minneapolis Streetcar study will not just be a gleaming idea and enhance the tunnel vision-like avenue it is now. And hopefully, greenery and large trees will sustain in the area, reducing sound and radiation pollution along the asphalt.

If 4th Street SE can change back to its pleasant city-friendly past and move away from its vehicle-oriented present, the two parallel streets can be equivalent on all sides, and they can live happily ever after. 

Friday, July 13, 2012

Improving north-south connectivity around Campus

First of all, you shouldn't be driving around the U's campus. Any half-brained moron who has lived around the area or has attended classes there for more than the first couple weeks of Football Centrism in September should know that having a car on campus is dumb. (And actually, I'm personally guilty, even though I only use it to go to places like this.)

But for those of you who do drive, you probably know how difficult it is to navigate within the campus. With Washington now closed, the two main arteries into the campus are Huron from I-94 and University/4th from I-35W. (Univeristy from MN-280 would be the other, but I think you might want to avoid that for now.) Driving access from these two segments are relatively easy from the freeway, but once on campus, navigation is near impossible nowadays. In reality, this is a great effort by the University to make the area much denser, more multi-modal and more pedestrian and biking-friendly. Still, vehicles take up a large quantity of trips, and should be accounted as such.

Through campus, the mainly East-West routes of University/4th is sufficient enough to handle traffic in those directions. Hennepin Avenue and Como Avenue serve this function on the north end of campus, as well as I-94 and Franklin to the south. Since the reconfiguring of the intersection and the removal of the parking lane, Fulton St/East River Road does a nice job connecting the Huron freeway ramp to the garages near Comstock as well (Even though I hate the new 4-lane feel... Bikers, beware), and Elm/Kasota Avenue does a nice job sneaking though an industrial park to be a vital artery too. A map showing these routes can be seen here.

However, the north-south connectivity is truly lagging, both within campus and near it. MN-280 is too far to the east to make a significant impact. 15th Avenue, probably the main north-south arterial into campus, makes an abrupt end at Como Avenue. I-35W does a sufficient job initially, but curves east toward Roseville north of Hennepin. The only real north-south route that stays true is 10th Ave (19th Ave on the West Bank), and even this weaves awkwardly through I-35W until it turns into Johnson near the Quarry. Harvard is the only vehicluar street through campus, and it truly is a pain - with Washington now out of the picture, it is now a very inefficient street. I'm sure the University Hotel and the Washington Ramp feel the same way.

So, how do we fix it? If I had all the money in the world and doing-power in MNDOT or MPLSDOT of GOPHERDOT or whatever, here are some of my proposals:

1) Make Harvard go somewhere.

Background: If we were able to connect Harvard to University / 4th, cars could be diverted off of 17th / Church and create an even more pedestrian friendly feeling closer to the heart of the Northrop Mall. Still part of the original street grid at Washington, the road was connected back in 2010 when the segment around the new Rec Center was connected to Pillsbury, as the now irrelevant Union Street was closed off. This helped, but it still awkwardly loops around Civil Engineering and the Armory before ending at Church.

From 2009 Update to U of MN Campus Master Plan.

How to build it: The University's most recent Campus Master Plan (caution: large PDF), compiled in 2009, calls for the demolition of several buildings to improve efficiency. One of these buildings is the aging Fieldhouse, where Barack Obama spoke in 2010. If demolished, this would instantly open up the opportunity for Harvard to grow directly north to University, and if properly connected to 18th Avenue, it would also connect to 4th Street. Although on-street parking would be taken off of 18th, this would free up some traffic from Church / 17th, and would allow for a much more pedestrian-friendly feel on Church, and a bike lane or widened sidewalk could be put in place. With more traffic allowed along Harvard, this would relieve frustrated out-of-towners from accessing the University Hotel, East Bank LRT Station, or Stadium Village Businesses. The only problem with this fix would be a feeling of divide between the Rec Center/Alumni Center to the rest of campus, although those rec center athletes can just dodge traffic if need be, right?

Unless the Obama speech automatically puts the Fieldhouse in Historic designation...

2) Connect East River Road with 2nd Street SE over the Dinky Ditch.

Background: This connection has been on the talking table for some time, as it would be the last link of connecting the East River Road segment of the Grand Rounds to Old St Anthony and Historic Main Street (Home of my favorite movie theater). Currently, East River makes an about-face turn near Education Sciences and snakes to connect to 14th Ave just outside Dinkytown. 2nd Avenue SE ends at 11th Street, where it connects to University near Sanford Hall.

How to fix it: Build a bridge from the Education Sciences Building into the Dinky Ditch, and either connect to 2nd Avenue SE or to the frontage road which evenutally becomes the brick-lined Main Street. If somehow connected to I-35W or the 10th Street Bridge, this would allow for more traffic to be diverted away from University Ave and along the riverfront. Most of this traffic would probably be heading to the Art Museum or East River Garages. This connection would also allow the continuation of Horace Cleveland's masterpiece that is the Grand Rounds, and would allow bikers and pedestrians from Main Street to head straight to the campus without walking down busy University Avenue. I think all those Nice Riders would be pleased.

I can't think of a clever caption for this one, I just think it's cool. That's all.
3) Make Oak Street go somewhere: Connect it to 18th Ave / Stinson in Como.

Since Minneapolis seems to be in the mood to build controversial bridges over old rail routes, why not give the University Area a chance too?

Background: The original Minneapolis street grid in this area did not originally have the large train yard north of campus, and in fact had plans to build a larger Como neighborhood. A 1912 Real Estate map of the area shows that Oak was originally supposed to connect with 18th Avenue south of Como Avenue, and continue northward until it turned into Stinson Boulevard. When I realized this, it made complete sense: Oak is perfectly lined up with 18th. Right now, 18th Ave ends anticlimactically at Elm Street, and Oak ends north of Mariucci Arena at 5th Street.

How to build it: Simply garner support for a bridge to connect Oak with 18th Avenue like originally planned. This would solve the terrible ineffiency of north-south routes in Como by forming a direct line from campus to the Quarry. It could also divert traffic from 15th Avenue - This could let 15th Avenue become a sort of transit mall, with wider bike lanes, wider sidewalks, and less frustrating bus movements. The Oak Bridge could help drain traffic after Gopher Games, and could also be built wide enough for transit and biker potential. This bridge would, in reality, finally connect the Grand Rounds too. Several problems arise from this, the biggest one being the homes along 18th south of Como Avenue needing to handle much more traffic disruption. Since most of those tenants are students, however, I think they have handled dirtier and louder situations.

Alternative 3b) Connect Huron / 23rd Ave with 18th Ave in Como. This would connotate the same pros and cons as the Oak Bridge, but Huron's direct connection with I-94 would be great. This version would probably be more vehicle-oriented, though, and would have to allow for a more oddly-built and probably more expensive bridge construction.

Let's put a nice overlook parking area on the bridge too. There would probably be killer views of the skyline.

4) Connect Cedar Avenue with the 10th Ave Bridge.

Background: Probably one of the most famous pre-Interstate roads in Minneapolis, Cedar Avenue starts way the heck down south of Apple Valley, goes past the Mall of America, the Juicy Lucy, the Jucy Lucy, and Riverside Plaza before ending in the Seven Corners area. A block east of Grand Marc lies 19th Avenue, which then moves north to the 10th Avenue Bridge. This area, probably one of my favorite pedestrian areas around campus, still has an awkward pass for all types of traffic, as one moving north along Cedar needs to take a right turn on Washington, go a block, and then turn left on 19th to gain access to the bridge. On the other hand, 19th moving south ends abruptly at Riverside Avenue, where one needs to take a larger-than-90-degree turn onto Riverside to gain access to Cedar.

How to build it: This one is tricky. Without using eminent domain, my first suggestion would be to build another bridge over the Washington Avenue ditch connecting the two, but the West Bank LRT Station shoots a hole in that plan. The new Washington Avenue connects to Cedar by stoplight and then heads under 19th, so that connection is probably not feasible, either. The only way I see this connection happening is tearing down the parking garage by Hanson Hall, or tearing down Grand Marc and connecting it that way. Unfortunately, I don't think this one works. Still though, cars can figure out that I-35W has exits at Washington and Univeristy across the river from each other, and can access places using that route.

Sorry, Grand Marc, but the improving of roads for a few dumb drivers is more important than your housing of hundreds of students.
5) Create a system of making MN-280 more relevant to campus commuting/connectivity.

So, what do you think? Do you have any ideas how to make the north-south movements more efficient? Or maybe, does campus even need more routes to be efficient? Should vehicles be banned completely? (I kinda like the latter... at least inside campus.) Let's hear you!

Friday, June 22, 2012

Busting the Myth of the Light Rail Construction Timeline

After living here for almost a year, I can definitely say that I have seen, lived through and been in the epicenter of the Central Corridor Light Rail construction project. Unless you are a huge construction-watching junkie (guilty), all of this construction has probably been the precursor of the apocalypse for you, especially if you spend a good number around Stadium Village and the Medical Center. And I'm sure the dirt and grime have epitomized the frustration in your mind, too. I think my favorite is night construction, when you have a test at 8:00am the next day and you hear piledriving outside of your window.

Guess it's time to get up for a midnight snack...

And, the biggest hit of all is... Everyone knows that the light rail won't be open till 2014. To which I know you say:


And my reply:

"No, Washington Avenue will be back much sooner. Do not fret, my friend."

It is well versed that the rail won't be operating until 2014, but the myth that the road construction will be going on until then at this intensity is a complete and unfortunate lie. In fact, we are closer to being out of the dust and grime of civil physical construction than you may think.

"As for keeping on schedule for fall, we are still on par", says Jessica Hill, the Minneapolis/U of M community outreach coordinator for the Central Corridor Project. She says that the hard construction will continue on campus throughout the year leading into November. However, after the lines are in place, she says that Washington Avenue will begin to resemble something other than a torn up slab. " Crews will need to keep working into November but roads and sidewalks will most likely be complete (by December)."
What does this mean for us as Golden Gophers? Well, basically, the phyiscal road will be in place by the end of this year, and will resemble something very close to what the actual street will look like when the rail does open in 2014.

After the so-called hard "civil" construction is complete later this year, most of the roadwork will be installing the overhead wires, stations, and platforms from now until mid-2013. The road will still be closed occasionally, but the barriers will be less and will look more like what Washington looks like in front of McNamara between Oak and Walnut. When the entire course of track is placed, then trains will begin testing the line early in 2014, and set for an opening date of late Spring 2014 (The schedule was a little behind schedule back in February, but the mild spring definitely helped speed it up a bit).

So, although we will all still have to live with the torn up Wash Ave for a bit longer, it certainly won't be for 2 more years. Washington will soon be walkable on both sides of the sidewalk. And of course, until it opens, we can all dream of what it will be like when it opens:

Friday, June 8, 2012

The 15th Avenue Mural Project - A modern city beautification effort

Last fall, I was walking back from Van Cleve Park in the Como neighborhood on a nice Friday evening after a great game of tennis with a couple friends (Those concrete courts are entertaining to play on, by the way). The only sidewalk that connects Dinkytown with Como is the underpass on 15th Avenue - every U of M student should know this by the time they finish their freshman year. As I entered the underpass which heavy rail lines pass above, I couldn't help but notice the terribly depleting state that the pass was in. It was actually at that moment when I thought of creating this blog... this thought was the instigation for my passion for a continuing improvement of the urban landscape around the campus area.

Do I hear a train rolling across the bridge? No, that's just the breeze shaking it violently.
Now, all subjective feelings aside, the bridge which flies over 15th Avenue SE is truly in poor shape. The gusset plates which support the bottom are easily seen deteriorating by age and disinvestment. The construction date, 1921, is placed around multiple areas on the bridge, illustrating its true age. The light posts under the tunnel are eerie, as they illuminate the sidewalks barely enough to pass as feasible light posts. In my mind, they look appropriate for an industrial-aged rail bridge overpass... they are basic and do the job. Last but certainly not least, the multiple shades of cream color are painted on the retaining walls on either side of the road, as multiple attempts to paint the eroding concrete are visible. More or less, this small, very pedestrian-traveled stretch of 15th Avenue needs work.

Who needs strong bridge gusset plates, anyways?

The rebar and framed light make me think I'm heading to do my shift in the coal mine.

The current state of the northeast retaining wall on 15th Avenue.
My initial thought was to bring up the topic, rant about not only the appearance but the safety hazards under the bridge, complain about the disinterest of multiple parties, and then call people to action. Thankfully, it looks like a group of like-minded fellow students have done the latter, and plans are on the way to improve the look of the retaining walls on either side of the underpass.

Enter the Gateway Mural Project.

Rendition of the public art - Northeast side of 15th Avenue.

Marie Fisher, an assistant to the coordinator of the Mural Project and member of the Student Liaison Program, stated that community workshops are just beginning.

"The mural is a collaborative project between Carly Schmitt, Sara Udwig (the artists), the Student Neighborhood Liaisons at the University of Minnesota, and the neighborhood residents," Marie stated. "This project involves community members on many levels, in both design and implementation."

According to an old article, public art grants were awarded for this project back in March after many months of organization, although the article has expired since. The Twin Cities Daily Planet ran an article about the movement back in November and can be read here.

Now, this is something (possibly from the lingering funding of the old NRP) that I can completely support. This stretch of 15th Ave is so heavily traveled by pedestrians that it always baffled me why there hadn't been some type of public art, something to ease the long walk between campus and the student housing-centric neighborhood. I truly believe that neighborhoods and communities in general become more tightly-knit by having an amenity like this, and even if it doesn't happen soon, the concept of gathering students, neighborhood organizers and professional artists together creates a positive catalyst for general public involvement in urban landscapes. It will also signal to whoever is in charge of the actual bridge (BNSF, Amtrak, City of MPLS) that the neighborhood is ready for it to be fixed, at least aesthetically if not structurally.

Regardless if the funds were awarded, it is good to see that this project has been up, running, and in the works. If you would like to become involved, please visit and like the facebook page, and keep updated - this is a great opportunity for students to make a real visible impact on a blighted portion of a major street for years to come.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Campus Connector Transitway Troubles

            I love looking at the advertisements for the Jefferson @ Berry apartments up near Prospect Park behind the WCCO Radio station along Washington. The ByMe website (which became extremely popular after their BOGO Cane’s deal back in March) constantly advertises Jefferson @ Berry, offering a money check, free parking, free food, and other assorted gifts for just visiting the complex. Although many of the other luxury apartments around campus advertise such luxuries, J@B’s location to campus is what makes it so different – it really is way out there. It’s tucked between an undeveloped yard and light industrial warehouses, and it is technically in St Paul, too. For any practical student, the walk or bike ride would be something comparable to a location near Como, and with the Central Corridor construction continuing, the desirability of its proximity seems moot. It makes me wonder what the vacancy rate is for a place whose location is right along the Campus Connector…

            Oh wait, that’s right. It’s literally right along the Campus Connector. It’s in the perfect location for anybody who needs to go either the St Paul or Minneapolis campus, right?

            Not so much. The University’s Right-of-Way along the famed exclusive route doesn’t offer any midway stops along the old rail corridor, and probably for good reason. Other than the J@B complex, there isn’t much around there that would be interesting for students. But at the same time, why wouldn’t the Connector offer a stop near J@B? Is it simply due to the express feel of the line and the University’s desire to keep it as speedy as possible, due to city zoning code legal stuff, or is there another underlying reason? The fact that the surrounding area is essentially bare, it stakes claim to potential redevelopment, whether it’s for parking or for a private development high-tech medical park. The Connector Transitway would be a great artery for connecting all elements within the two campuses.

            In my mind, the University is missing a grand opportunity for a commuter expansion in the area. From my observation, any person who commuted to work by car since TCF Stadium’s inclusion has had only but complaints about the congestion and parking around the area, and I don’t blame them. The current location of the Bank Stadium was the main surface lot for many years. From a simple Google Map study, one can see that the Connector route went right through the middle of the lot, and had several stops along the paved desert. (Note: Google Maps updated the old satellite view earlier this week to an image from this year. Those jerks…)

The light rail construction has made it even worse, making it very difficult to drive to the U of M from anywhere. As a big promoter of New Urbanism, I cynically think that it’s great that automobile drivers are being driven crazy (bad pun intended). I love the pedestrian-centric feel the University has been trying to advent in recent years. However, there will always be a market for driving commuters, and not all of them necessarily want to pay for a spot in an expensive ramp.

            With the Connector route already in place, the University’s grand opportunity would be to buy that large undeveloped, create a surface parking area, and create a bus stop right at the entrance of that lot. With the lot being 6.75 acres and calculating 350 square feet per spot, the lot could sport around 660 spots (Just to give an idea, the University Avenue Ramp near the Aquatic Center holds 521 spots). 
Right along the Transitway...

     If the city removes the blockade on Territorial/4th Street near J@B, drivers could exit right off of MN-280 from both directions, drive several blocks west to the lot, and then board the Connector for a short commute to either campus. In my ideal picture of the situation, this would solve many problems, including:
1)    Reducing drivers on University/4th/Huron near campus, making it a safer and quieter environment for the mostly pedestrian-oriented student population
2)    Segregating traffic away from the Central Corridor Light Rail mess which will be at the University-Washington-Huron intersection, possibly improving the traffic light timing for the busy area
3)    Providing driving commuters with a cheaper option of parking near campus, and allowing them to have a less stressful entry from the already underused MN-280
4)    Preventing backlash when the University implements the entire East Gateway District Master Plan and removes the parking lots near the stadium (caution: large file)

     Of course, there is probably a reason why the University hasn’t jumped on that vacant lot, ranging from problems in zoning, the offering price of the land, or some stingy owner not willing to give up the gopher-holed area. There are also some great potential lots near the old industrial mill area that have been abandoned for who knows how long that the U could snatch. The U of M Office for Technological Commercialization is also nearby and holds its own parking lot, so I wonder if that lot could also be better utilized with a Transitway stop. Nonetheless, if the opportunity ever arose, I wouldn’t be surprised if the U jumped on buying that land and opening it up for car drivers (and Jefferson @ Berry tenants too – maybe ByMe could advertise free Connector rides from the apartments for terribly ignorant freshman).