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Maybe Minneapolis shouldn't reopen Nicollet at the Kmart site?

Blocking traffic with this Kmart was a huge mistake... or... was it?

Blocking traffic with this Kmart was a huge mistake... or... was it? Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

A lot of people in Minneapolis hate the Lake Street Kmart with a passion that often comes off a bit weird, like the people in ninth grade who liked to talk about how they hated the word “moist.” Never really got that one.

But luckily for those folks, Sears, the parent company of Kmart, is probably on its last legs. It is generally assumed that the city of Minneapolis, which purchased the land Kmart sits on, will be able to redevelop the site sometime in the near-ish future. There’s some complicated business about leases, but it’s safe to assume the lawyers will work out something agreeable to both the city and whoever inherits the lease.

Google

Google

Once the store is closed and the current building is torn down, we’ll have two whole city blocks to work with, located in a pretty central area with pretty good transit access. It’ll have even better transit access in the near future once the Orange Line opens, providing a quick shot to downtown, and when the planned B Line on Lake Street is funded and built, speeding up crosstown trips.

You could do a lot here—the recently passed Minneapolis 2040 plan has the site designated as “Transit 15,” meaning there’s a 15-story height limit and a four-story height minimum. You could plausibly fit 600 or 700 or more housing units and quite a bit of office and/or retail space. One thing that might be cool in one corner is a new, purpose-built commercial space for East African entrepreneurs.

But what are we going to do about Nicollet Avenue, which currently ends sort of hilariously in the loading dock of the Kmart behind some jersey barriers?

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The mid-1970s decision to close Nicollet Avenue at Lake Street to woo a big-box store that lazily wanted two whole city blocks for a surface parking lot that’s rarely more than a third full is probably one of the dumber things Minneapolis did during the last century.

Or... was it?

In general, the idea of a simple, uninterrupted street grid is good for lots of reasons. It’s resilient (lots of routes), and easy to understand, and it looks nicer on a map. Some of Minneapolis's biggest planning oversights of the past decade are situations where we’ve allowed development on large parcels without reconnecting or making space for establishing the street grid.

In this case, though, I’d ask you to please close your eyes and imagine you’re standing at a street corner. Specifically, say, Nicollet and 26th. It’s June. It’s nice, right? The sidewalks are a good width, there are two driving lanes on both streets, people are biking. The trees provide a nice canopy over much of the street. Not many better streetscape experiences in Minneapolis than that.

Okay, now imagine you’re just seven blocks to the west, at Lyndale and 26th. [STREET ROARS] YEAH, SORRY, HAVE TO YELL. IT’S LOUD AS HELL ON LYNDALE. [TOXICALLY MASCULINE ACCELERATION NOISES] FOUR LANES OF TRAFFIC, LOVE THOSE COUNTY ROADS. [DUCKS] YEAH, WATCH FOR FLYING BUMPERS. OH SHIT LOOK OUT—

 

 

 

 

 

Why are the different streets the way they are? A large part of why Nicollet Avenue became Eat Street and why it’s a nice place to hang out is because there isn’t all the through traffic that turned Lyndale into a dangerous car sewer.

It’s true the Lyndale right-of-way is a bit wider than Nicollet’s, but you can also look to nearby Franklin Avenue, which has a narrower right-of-way than both streets, as another example of a dangerous four-lane road designed to move cars as quickly as possible. If Nicollet had never been closed at Lake Street, it’s easy to imagine a mid-1980s sideburn-heavy Public Works department widening it to funnel Chrysler LeBarons to south Minneapolis and Richfield.

If we reopen Nicollet through the Kmart site, it will start getting more through traffic. I think we can rest assured that we’re not going to fully turn Nicollet into Lyndale—it’s hard to imagine adding two new car lanes in the 21st century, when we’re finally starting to drag lessons about induced demand into our decision-making—but we should think twice about reopening the street fully.

How about a transit mall, like Nicollet Mall 14 blocks to the north? That would speed up the Route 18 bus and create the opportunity for a unique public space in the middle of this important site. Or maybe, at most, a shared street where buses, pedestrians, cyclists, and cars are all treated equally?

It’s not often we get an opportunity like this, with a huge, blank canvas at a prime site, with great transit access, in a growing city. Let’s be creative. 

A version of this post first appeared on Nick Magrino's blog.