A better bus system on Penn Avenue in Minneapolis?


In a nutshell, Hennepin County wants to put Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) on Penn Avenue, now that they “know” light rail will not be going down that path. And they’ve put out a request for proposals for consultants to work with the community on how that will look.

It’s called Penn Avenue Community Works, and covers Penn between Interstate 394 and 49th Avenue N (from 44th to 49th it’s actually Osseo Road). According to the project’s website, the goal is to stimulate economic development, livability and job creation. Hennepin County’s Project Manager Patricia Fitzgerald talked with the Lowry Corridor Business Association at their meeting Sept. 17.

Earlier this summer, working with the City of Minneapolis, one of the county’s partners (Metro Transit is the other), artists Wing Young Huie and Ashley Hanson and their colleagues set up various activities to document current conditions and get people’s thoughts on what they want to see.

Fitzgerald explained that a series of “charrettes” will be held for brainstorming informed by the results of the artists’ work. As is common to these processes, there are two committees, one of government agency staff who gather resources and determine what is actually possible, and a project implementation committee of people who live and work in the area helping to shape the issues and discuss what’s most important to the community.

According to February 2013 Metro Transit literature, Bus Rapid Transit speeds up bus service by 25 percent by making fewer stops (yet 97 percent of riders will be within one stop of potential stations), and having ticket vending machines so there’s no need to line up at the farebox. Low-floor vehicles with wider doors and all-door entry allow for faster boarding. Buses move more easily into traffic because of extended curbs at the stops, and bus drivers will be able to override traffic signals.

Fitzgerald said it has not been determined whether to make any renovations to the Penn Avenue roadway, other than to build the BRT stops. Those stops generally include bike racks, litter receptacles, signage and neighborhood wayfinding information, real-time arrival and departure information, security cameras, emergency telephones, lighting and heating; as well as the ticket vending machines.

Darryl Weivoda of North End Hardware cautioned that they should work to preserve existing businesses. He noted that the widening of Lowry cost the area many business structures that, while blighted at the time, might have been brought back to life under different circumstances.

Lili Johnson of Tooties answered the question “are we missing anything?” with contempt for the idea of paying fares before boarding. No one’s going to want to get their money out before the bus gets there, that makes them easy prey for criminals, she said. And don’t put in heated bus shelters, the ne’er do wells will just set up shop there. “Nothing else can happen until the crime problem is solved.”

There was talk about increasing residential density to increase the possible shopping population and eyes on the street, making the area safer. Shantae Holmes of All Washed Up Laundry suggested that businesses could start by being in close, immediate communication about criminal activity, and to stand up to anyone up to no good.

NorthNews drove Penn Avenue to tally the businesses, multi-family dwellings and street condition. The pavement is in good condition except where Penn approaches 44th Avenue. Much of it was milled and overlaid with new asphalt last summer, a treatment that usually lasts 10 to 15 years. Just north of Dowling, along the cemetery, appears slightly older but without potholes and only small patched cracks. Fitzgerald said community input calls for traffic calming along the cemetery stretch.

The largest commercial nodes are at Lowry, at Broadway, and at 44th, with between one and four commercial or former commercial structures at 34th, 35th, 36th, 37th and Dowling. At Golden Valley Road toward the south end, Wally’s Foods is the only commercial establishment left after the tornado, though a new multi-housing project is anticipated. The intersection of Penn where Laurel and Cedar Lake Road south meet is the healthy commercial core of the north part of Bryn Mawr.

There are churches on and within a couple of blocks of Penn, especially at the northern end but also in the Oak Park and Bryn Mawr areas. Lucy Craft Laney School and Cleveland Park sit at 33rd with a church and two office businesses. Other major institutions include NorthPoint and Urban League at Plymouth, with Estes Funeral Home and Homewood Studios a few blocks west. A new grocery store is seeking environmental cleanup money for the now-vacant lot near UROC. Lincoln School and Spirit of the Lord Church are a bit farther south, toward Oak Park Avenue. The former Ripley hospital is a rental housing complex at Glenwood, with the Penn-Wood market across the street.

Because of the 2011 tornado and other circumstances, there are various vacant lots. Dean Rose has plans for an apartment building with retail including his Broadway Liquor Outlet, at Broadway.

About density: There are several four-unit, and some possibly 11 to 24 unit buildings along the way near commercial nodes, though single family housing is the norm. Houses are of all shapes and sizes, eras of construction, and condition.

The Penn Avenue Community Works committees and people at the charrettes will look at “what’s working well and what isn’t and brainstorm together with help from professionals how a new Penn Avenue North could look.” The analysis is more than the physical environment, it will include looking at job training, business supports, and housing efforts, and how the corridor can support other positive efforts in the vicinity. The next step is figuring out what things might cost and who can pay for them.

As of this writing, October meeting times and places had not been confirmed. Watch the project website at www.hennepin.us/penn.