Northeast Minneapolis residents weigh in on improving Lowry Avenue traffic problems

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Northeast neighbors did a lot of wishing and hoping about improving Lowry Avenue last Thursday. Fast, heavy traffic hit the top of the “weaknesses” list, along with a hazardous one-lane overpass, bad lighting, and inaccessibility for people with handicaps. Residents also identified its positives: many see it as an effective east-west connector and gave kudos to the new bridge.

About 50 people attended the Hennepin County-sponsored brainstorming workshop at Edison High School. It was the first of three public meetings to gather residents’ input. The county and its partners plan to approve, in October, a final plan to rebuild the avenue, from the Mississippi River east to Stinson Boulevard.

Hennepin County Commissioner Linda Higgins said that the county completed the original Lowry Avenue Corridor plan in 2002. It included the entire Minneapolis roadway, from Theodore Wirth Park to Stinson Parkway. Funded by federal and state grants and other money, the project began in North Minneapolis. Rebuilding the Northside portion took three years, 2006 to 2009. The work included reducing travel lanes from two to one, adding trees and bike lanes and removing some buildings.

The Lowry Bridge replacement fell in the middle of the project, ending in 2012. Now that the bridge is open, she said, the county is updating the 2002 plan before starting the Northeast corridor work.

Higgins said that things have changed since 2002. Northeast neighbors have expressed concerns about the old plan, and some do not want to see the roadway widened.

First Ward City Council Member Kevin Reich said, “Lowry Avenue is an important route through Northeast. It is designated as a community corridor, but many of us have asked, ‘Where’s the community?’ It is time to revisit the initial assumptions. The pedestrian component really needs to be looked at. When you think about the places you walk, you should feel good and comfortable. That is where it is most pronounced in its current deficiency.”

The main focus for the planning effort is Lowry Avenue between Marshall Street and Stinson Boulevard and six intersections: Marshall Street, Second Street, University Avenue, Monroe Street, Washington Street and Central Avenue. Also, per residents’ request, planners will study Lowry Avenue and Johnson Street NE traffic patterns.

Consultants John Slack of Stantec and Ciara Schlichting of Toole Design Group, ran the rest of the workshop. Schlichting asked attendees to identify four things: strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, that they see in the Lowry Avenue Corridor. People wrote ideas on post -it notes, then stuck the notes on category-identified large sheets of paper.

Schlichting also invited them to write, on large maps, specific suggestions for the roadway and its intersections.

At the end of the night, the “threat” category included concerns about traffic, lack of cooperation from the railroad, money, high traffic speeds, bike and pedestrian safety, flooding during heavy rains, air pollution affecting trees, and a potential loss of business property in the reconstruction.

Under “opportunities,” participants listed public transportation, development potential, adding turn lanes, slowing down traffic, building larger sidewalks, adding places to sit, and more landscaping. Safety, beauty, and “a sense of place” also made the list.

“Strengths” included the river, the new bridge, good east-west connectivity, livability and a strong existing small business community.

“Weaknesses,” which in many cases were similar to threats, included traffic, bike accessibility, ugly properties, poor lighting, dark bridge areas, no turn lanes on University, Central Avenue stoplight needs arrow for drivers turning onto Lowry, not handicap accessible for people who are blind or use wheelchairs, limited parking.

Carol Anderson, Hennepin County project manager, said she has been working on the Lowry Avenue Corridor project for 15 years. It is a Community Works Corridor project, she said, which is “a unique program to enhance how communities work together.”

According to county information, there are 12 “project partners,” including neighborhood associations in the five affected Northeast neighborhoods: Audubon, Bottineau, Holland, Marshall Terrace and Windom Park. Other partners include Hennepin County Public Works, the City of Minneapolis, Minnesota Department of Transportation, Mississippi Watershed Management Organization, Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board and Metro Transit. Although initially listed as a partner, the Minneapolis Public school board recently opted out, according to Higgins.

Schlichting said they plan community future meetings in the spring and late summer. The consultants will also be meeting with business owners. To submit ideas about the Lowry Avenue project, go to LowryAveCW@hennepin.us or call Carol Anderson, 612-348-2997. The project is on-line at www.hennepin.us/lowry; a newsletter and updates are available.