Northeast’s “forgotten” alleys might finally be due for paving

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You think you’ve seen some bad potholes? Well, check out the alley behind Joe Baron’s place.

“This is the forgotten alley,” says Baron, looking at the cratered strip of dirt and asphalt patch that runs past his driveway.

The alley, north of 36th Avenue and east of Johnson Street, is one of about 80 in Minneapolis that has never been paved. About a quarter of them are located in the First Ward in Northeast.

Unpaved alleys are a bumpy inconvenience to the residents served by them. But they’re also a time-consuming nuisance for the city to maintain and they can cause more pollution to wash into the watershed.

The City Council recently hired an engineering firm to study what it would take to see that all the remaining unpaved alleys are completed.

First Ward City Council Member Paul Ostrow said, “I think it’s important in a built city, in a city that prides itself in having first-rate infrastructure.”

A preliminary report from the engineering firm Short Elliott Hendrickson estimates the paving cost at around $4.5 million. It recommends the city assess about $3 million of that cost to property owners who would benefit.

The City Council received the preliminary report in April and is waiting for more detailed research and estimates before deciding how to proceed. A vote on the issue isn’t expected until early next year.

The city started paving alleys in the 1920s and completed most of them in the 1950s. At that time, most residential streets were still oiled dirt, so Minneapolis earned the distinction of being a city with paved alleys and dirt streets.

Historically, the city has billed the benefiting property owners for 100 percent of the cost of alley paving. That worked out for about 98 percent of the public alleys in the city. The other 2 percent were skipped over due to either assessment or construction challenges.

“They weren’t the simple, straightforward alleys that could just go ahead and be paved,” said Brian Lokkesmoe, a senior engineer with Short Elliott Hendrickson. Others served too few properties to adequately spread the cost of construction.

Of the 81 unpaved alleys identified in the firm’s preliminary report, 21 are in the First Ward, which includes the northern two-thirds of Northeast. That’s the highest number anywhere in the city, followed by 11 each in the Second and Fourth wards.

“The south half of town is pretty darn flat. Things are a lot simpler,” Lokkesmoe said. Northeast is “the hilliest part of town. There are more railroads up there that get in the way… There were a few more of those features up in that part of town that caused unusual situations.”

Don Risk, who was City Council member for the First Ward in the 1960s when the area’s streets were paved, said he was “amazed” to learn that Northeast still has some unpaved alleys.

“I had no idea that all of the alleys were not paved,” Risk said. “Had they paved these alleys when the streets were paved, the cost would have been minimal compared to what the cost will be today.”

While the costs have certainly gone up since then, most of the challenges remain the same.

The city’s public works department will spend the rest of the year working with the consultants to refine cost estimates and come up with an “equitable” way to assess for the alley paving.

Under the standard formula, the city splits the paving costs among adjacent property owners based on the length of abutting property. In situations where retaining walls are needed or very few residents are served by an alley, that could mean extraordinary bills for property owners.

Instead, in those cases, the final recommendation to the City Council is likely to involve billing property owners for a “normal” alley assessment and have the city pick up the tab for any additional costs, said Mike Kennedy, the city’s transportation repair and maintenance director.

“The ideas was to come up with an equitable way to continue and to have the city fund the majority of the projects through assessments,” Kennedy said. “[Property owners] may not like paying an assessment, but at least they can feel it’s an equitable assessment.”

A “normal” alley paving rate has not been determined yet, Kennedy said. A rough estimate used in the report says alleys cost about $140 per linear foot. That cost is split between owners on both sides, so multiply the length of alley against your property by $70 and you get a ballpark figure, Kennedy said. A homeowner on a standard 40-foot lot, for example, would pay about $2,800 based on the estimate.

Dianna Tadlock said she and her husband David would rather put up with a bumpy ride to their driveway than face another tax from the city. One of the unpaved alleys is a dead-end nub that runs north between their house and a neighbor’s house on the 1300 block of 36th Avenue.

“When we had to have the sidewalks [assessed], they don’t give you a choice,” Tadlock said. “We’d like to have a choice.”

Back on the “forgotten alley” behind 36th Avenue east of Johnson Street, Baron said he’d settle for a good layer of blacktop instead of concrete.

City officials have told him in the past the alley would be too expensive to pave, he said. But this year’s crop of potholes is one of the worst ever, and it’s a daily reminder for him and his neighbors that something needs to happen.

Says Baron: “We’re still waiting for them to come out and patch.”

Dan Haugen is a freelance writer who lives in the Waite Park neighborhood. You can contact him at 612-216-1057 or dan@danhaugen.com.