Monday, June 25, 2012

Nicollet, the Greenway, and K-Mart: A Proposal for Change

We’ve all seen it, and by-in-large, we all loathe it: the K-Mart on Lake Street between Blaisdell and 1st Ave S.   You know, that place where Minneapolis’ main street used to come through.  Last spring I had the opportunity to analyze this site in-depth as my landscape architecture and urban planning capstone project.
At this site, there is a lack of connection across the site both to downtown Minneapolis and along Lake Street, as well as a disconnection from the Midtown Greenway.  After identifying these issues I thought to myself, “I can fix that”; easier said than done.  Because of the complicated nature of any urban landscape, there are a thousand ways to “fix that”, and with only 13 weeks to consider them all, I really only scratched the surface.
However, there are three important and obvious interventions that this site desperately needs.
1: Urbanizing K-Mart to address the street and minimize parking lot frontage.
2: Re-opening Nicollet Ave and re-establishing Lake and Nicollet as a vibrant pedestrian-oriented commercial node.
3: Using the void left by K-Mart to open the Greenway and connect to Lake Street.
You wouldn’t know it from the number of cars in their massive parking lot, but this K-Mart does surprisingly well as a business.  This is largely because of its market niche: it’s the only discount retailer for miles.  For parking, the site has 522 available stalls and is rarely, if ever, over 25% occupied.  Why?  Transit.  The Metro stop at this intersection is consistently one of the busiest in the city.

Daily Bus ridership in 2011, as compared to the adjacent intersections.

If most of the people using the store don’t drive, or more likely, don’t own an automobile, then why have a 300’ set-back for parking that is never used?   The obvious answer is to get rid of it, or at least minimize its presence.
So what does it mean to "urbanize" a sprawling 1-story retail store?  Take the downtown Target store as an example: it constitutes about half of the footprint of K-Mart (~92,000 square-feet), has almost the same amount of retail floor space, no surface parking, and serves many more customers.  So if we assume this is a good idea, what happens to the site?  We can move K-Mart so that it addresses the street and the intersection, and all of a sudden we have plenty of space for, say, a new road!
Enter your new, re-connected, pedestrian-friendly, Nicollet Ave.  In the 70’s, K-Mart was put in place as a block from downtown to prevent urban blight from creeping into the neighborhood, and as a disconnecting block it’s been extremely successful.  Unfortunately, this also means that the neighborhood began to atrophy now that it's cut-off from the economic activity enjoyed by the Nicollet corridor north of 29th St.  It isn’t just the N-S connection that is missing; look at the Pedestrian Overlay District map from the City of Minneapolis.  Lake and Nicollet should be one of a contiguous string of commercial nodes along Lake Street, stretching from the Chain of Lakes to Hiawatha.  It would seem that increasing commercial density, and perhaps introducing mixed-use capacity could help mitigate this issue and help reconnect these two axes.  Additionally, the expansion of this pedestrian overlay district would bring a significant reduction in the amount of minimum required parking stalls.

Midtown Minneapolis Pedestrian Overlay Districts (green) with the current K-Mark site on Lake St (red)

Finally, the Midtown Greenway.  Don’t get me wrong, I love the Greenway, but one significant flaw is connection and wayfinding to the rest of the city.  For most new users on this corridor, there is almost no intuitive way of knowing where you are in relation to the rest of the street grid.  It can be a monotonous jag through the heart of Midtown Minneapolis, punctuated by a bike shop, a soccer field, and one or two gardens.  If you need to get up to a smaller non-arterial avenue, good luck deciphering which hellishly steep ramp to mount.
Just like Lake Street, I would love to see a series of true places along this corridor.  For safety’s sake, I’d like to see more eyes on the street, which means mixed-use development with frontage right down on the trail.  I say mixed-use because that would entail activity 24-hours a day: workers and commerce during the day, residents at night.  Furthermore, if we could peel back the topography of the Greenway into the space left by the urbanization of K-Mart, we could, potentially, make a graceful open-space connection between Lake and the Greenway.  This too, would start to form a legible “place” on the Greenway: a spot that would let you know where you are in relation to what’s above and around you.
A vision of what a place on the Greenway could look like: park space, community gardens, plazas, and ADA accessible ramp connection.
This image shows what a graceful connection from Lake St (left) to the Greenway (green line sloping down to the right) could look like.

A view from a pedestrian promenade facing the open space on the Greenway, this shows where Nicollet could come across, with a potential future streetcar stop at the Greenway with vertical circulation connecting the two.

A more technical section of the streetcar stop, this is meant to demonstrate that while there is automobile circulation, there is more space given to pedestrians and transportation.

Admittedly, the challenges to this type of change are many and varied.  Not least of which is the fact that the City of Minneapolis gave up control of the K-Mart parcels with a decades-long lease to an investment firm in New York.  Also, I understand that many of these proposals come with their own set of issues.  This is unavoidable.  While I don’t purport to have all the practical answers, what I can offer are ideas and vision, and I believe my generation of professionals has an obligation to do just that.  Wish me luck.

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