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Seeking new streetscapes in Downtown East

With several major developments underway in Minneapolis’s Downtown East area, the city is looking for property owners, developers and other partners to help add pedestrian, bicycle and other public amenities.

The city is re-envisioning its streets and the “public realm” in the 12-block area in the eastern portion of downtown in response to the new activity including the Minnesota Vikings stadium, Minneapolis-based Ryan Cos. US Inc.’s Downtown East and Wells Fargo headquarters project, and the Commons park.

Draft recommendations for the strategy, presented Tuesday to the City Council’s Transportation and Public Works Committee, show traffic and parking lanes could be reduced in favor of more protected bike lanes, curb bump-outs, sidewalks and other pedestrian areas.

If completed, the lane reductions would be the latest shakeup in the changing traffic patterns in Downtown East, where the city closed Fifth Street last week near the stadium project. Drivers heading into downtown from Interstate 94 find a long line on the Fifth Street exit and a detour. They are encouraged to take the 11th Avenue exit until a new ramp from the highway to Seventh Street is complete next summer.

The Downtown East area, bounded by Washington Avenue to Sixth Street and Fifth Avenue to Chicago Avenue, was studied to see how the city could leverage private investment in the area and make improvements to the public right of way.

Now, the public works department has developed a long-term vision for portions of seven streets in the area to guide how infrastructure is rebuilt. The streets include Fifth Avenue, Portland Avenue, Park Avenue, Chicago Avenue and Third, Fourth and Fifth streets.

Currently, the city and Hennepin County have no plans to rebuild any of the seven streets, said Jon Wertjes, director of traffic and parking services for the city. Changes will occur as projects are completed and property owners make changes to their street frontage, so it’s important that the city have a vision to create consistency, Wertjes said.

The alternative is for the infrastructure network to be a “patchwork” that would be costly for the city to tear up and replace, said Council Member Kevin Reich, who chairs the committee.

“We want to maximize the pedestrian experience in this new part of our city and it truly is a new part when all is said and done,” Reich said.

Input from Ryan and Minneapolis-based Sherman Associates, which is working on the 181-unit, seven-story Thresher Square apartment project on the northwest corner of Third Street South and Chicago Avenue, was used to develop the recommendations, Wertjes said. Since construction is underway on Ryan’s project, and Sherman’s plan is making its way through the city, Minneapolis is working on an aggressive timeline to cement the guidelines.

While implementation strategies haven’t been outlined yet, Council Member Lisa Bender said that partnering with the private sector to finance and develop some of the amenities would help the city’s infrastructure keep pace with its growth.

With a new development project like Sherman’s Thresher Square, the city has an opportunity to coordinate with the developer to incorporate the public elements in the planning and approvals process, Wertjes said. He said the architect for the project has already reached out to better understand what the city is planning for the block.

Feedback from developers working in Downtown East — along with comments from other stakeholders — will be used in the city’s final approach to the area. A final recommendation is expected later this spring.

Future traffic and commute patterns were built into the analysis and the recommendations for the street changes, Wertjes said. The city plans to retain travel lanes where they are most needed during peak periods, but otherwise wants to take advantage of underused space.

In the future, most of the highway traffic headed into downtown from I-35W and I-94 will be destined for Washington Avenue and Seventh Street, not the streets that may see changes in response to the new development.

The city and the Minnesota Department of Transportation will begin construction of a new exit ramp from I-94 to Seventh Street this summer. They plan to convert the existing Fifth Street exit into a connection to the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood.

Until then, temporary arrangements may have commuters feeling Downtown East’s growing pains. There were delays last week in response to the closing of Fifth Street near the stadium, said Tim Drew, with the Minneapolis public works department. The city adjusted the signal timing toward the end of last week to stop backups on the freeway, but drivers are still waiting longer than usual during the morning rush hour, Drew said.

The situation is likely as good as it will get until the new ramp is built, he said.

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