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Hennepin Avenue businesses buckle down for three brutal years of construction

Some business owners are already feeling the burn from operating in a construction zone.

Some business owners are already feeling the burn from operating in a construction zone. Hannah Jones

The interior of VIP Hair and Nails in downtown Minneapolis was bustling on Thursday morning. Clients entered in a steady stream as others sat in salon chairs or among the throw pillows on the waiting room couch. The volume was set at a comfortable, industrial buzz. But that’s only because it was impossible to hear what was happening outside.

Just feet away, Hennepin Avenue was being ripped apart. Heavy machinery rumbled amid workers in yellow vests, and a fine layer of dust filled the air. These are the conditions commuters creeping between Washington Avenue and 12th Street can expect from now until 2022, along with pedestrian detours, bus reroutes, occasional one-lane traffic on cross streets, and a vexing, Zoolanderesque inability to turn left.

All this spells trouble for the businesses on the corridor. But VIP owner Tiffany Blackwell, who has been on Hennepin for 16 years, gets it.

“It’s necessary,” she says. “Even though it’s an inconvenience.”

The last time Hennepin was rebuilt was in 1986, and the pavement is on its last legs. Construction is also a chance for the city to make the busy street less of a warzone for bikers, buses, and pedestrians. Sidewalks and bike lanes will get upgrades—as will a sewer system the city says would fit right in during the second industrial revolution.

Blackwell says the city’s done a great job working with her to make sure her clientele—especially older or disabled customers—have accessible routes to her shop. Business seems good. But she doesn’t take that for granted.

“We’re taking it one day at a time,” she says.

She knows the next few years are going to be tough on everyone—especially bars and eateries. Generally speaking, your nail place is your nail place, but people can always find somewhere else to eat.

Pub owner Brian Mackenzie says traffic has been down between 25 and 30 percent since construction began.

Pub owner Brian Mackenzie says traffic has been down between 25 and 30 percent since construction began. Hannah Jones

That’s what’s on the mind of Brian MacKenzie, owner of MacKenzie Pub. His business just celebrated its 25-year anniversary.

“We understand the need for the work,” he says. “We can’t dispute that.”

But the timeline seems long. He doesn’t tend to ask the city for much, but he can’t help but wonder if there’s a way to make construction go faster. The Hennepin project has effectively cut off the pub from the world, and he estimates traffic has been down 25 to 30 percent since April. 

He expects things won’t go back to normal even assuming the pub holds out until 2022. The final design places a higher premium on bike traffic, and he worries about customers getting to the pub in winter months. The city’s traffic studies say Hennepin sees more than 50,000 car trips a day, but only 730 bicycle trips.

Don Elwood, Minneapolis' director of transportation and planning, says he can understand why construction is "frustrating" for everyone, especially when projects take multiple years to complete. He says the reason this overhaul will take so long is because the bulk of the work is underground, fixing up a pipeline that hasn't been replaced since 1882. 

"We have an area two lanes wide we have to dig into, and 20 feet deep," he says. After that, they'll have to revamp utilities, which, sadly, are not even located in the same trench. 

"What I'm trying to do is try not to disrupt accessibility in front of any particular property for too long," he says. 

The good news is that the work will be split up somewhat. Construction from 12th Street to 7th Street will take place, for the most part, in the first two years. The second phase between 7th Street and Washington Avenue will kick off around 2021.

But that’s cold comfort for the people whose livelihoods depend on an unobstructed Hennepin. It’s one thing to understand change is necessary. It's another to contemplate surviving it.

“I’m happy to see the city thriving,” Blackwell says. All the same, she can’t wait until the work is finally done.