A string of sugar crystals: Greenway inspires a new model for urban development

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Before Tina Nelson started working for the Midtown Greenway Coalition back in 1999, she worked for years as a community organizer in the Seward neighborhood. She toyed with the idea of going back to school for urban planning, but remained uncertain.

Then Tim Springer entered her world.

Springer is a bicycle commuter and has not owned a car for many years. In 1991 Springer became frustrated about the lack of a proper east-west bike route in South Minneapolis. At the time, he was a commissioner on the now-defunct Minneapolis Environmental Commission, advocating for traffic calming and bike lanes on 31st Street to make the area more bike-friendly.

At the same time, another area resident, George Puzak, was advocating for the construction of a bikeway in the 29th Street railroad corridor. Puzak learned about Springer’s efforts and called Springer up. He invited Springer on a bike ride.

Puzak took Springer along the five-and-half miles of railroad track, dirt and gravel that are now the Midtown Greenway and talked about his vision for an expansive bikeway from the Chain of Lakes to the Mississippi. Springer was sold.

Puzak and Springer agreed to combine their efforts, co-founding the Midtown Greenway Coalition in 1992. Springer later became the organization’s first paid staff person and is currently its Executive Director.

Springer’s energetic, years-long pursuit of the Midtown Greenway vision pulled Nelson from her thoughts of grad school. “I wanted to be a part of an organization that was changing people’s behavior,” said Nelson, now the Coalition’s Program Manager for Greenspace and Arts Programs.

Nelson said that working with the Coalition, she can readily see the results of her work. “The hundreds and thousands of people I’ve seen become bicyclists, myself included, over the last almost nine years that I’ve been here has been a complete, wonderful benefit.”

“I chose to buy a home right off of Hiawatha so I could be near a trail and be able to use the Greenway,” said Nelson. “And prior, I would not be going to Uptown. I wouldn’t be going anywhere on Lake Street if the Greenway wasn’t here.”

The Greenway runs through a number of neighborhoods and Nelson said she’s seen how it’s helped connect a variety of neighborhood groups. Greenway issues, she said, bring communities together to act around common goals.

A String of Sugar Crystals

“Since the first phase was completed in 2000,” reads the Coalition’s website, “the Midtown Greenway has been seen by developers as a prime location for residential development. Even with housing market ups and downs, the Coalition has seen a steady stream of development proposals that front on the Greenway.”

Springer said he is excited to see how the Greenway is transforming the city and rewriting old models for urban growth; new development is beginning to grow around and be oriented toward the Greenway.

“The simile that I like to use,” said Springer, “is that the Greenway is like a string immersed in a solution of sugar water and crystals grow around the string.”

“Instead of our city growing up around highways,” he said, “our city is growing up along a linear Greenspace…it’s a transformation of how we live, and what our city is all about.”

Biking’s incredible popularity in the Twin Cities, in spite of our cold winters, Springer said, may lie in the extensive system of bike trails the Cities have long had around our lakes.

“There are wonderful enticing outdoor places to go biking that are pleasant and safe,” he said, which gets people used to riding bikes. With a lot of bike owners around, he said, “This leaves us sometimes considering using [a bike] for errands, and eventually using it for transportation regularly.” Our lakes and wonderful park system, he said, helped create a bicycle constituency.

And in the spirit of these roots, the Coalition is a strong advocate for more public open spaces along the Greenway. The “Parks & Plazas” page on the Coalition’s website identifies over a dozen locations along the Greenway where the Coalition encourages there to be publicly owned land where there isn’t now.

“My big dream is for [the Greenway] to be a destination in itself,” Nelson said. “Not just for commuters, not just for people who are in the know about it, but as a destination itself in Minneapolis.”

One way that Nelson sees the Greenway becoming a destination spot is through the Coalition’s public art program. She hopes the Greenway becomes an opportunity to share through public art the corridor’s cultural diversity. Nelson’s dream is that the Greenway will serve not just as a bikeway but as “a cultural exchange, an exchange of ideas, of creativity, because it’s a perfect gallery for that.”

Along with public art, Nelson hopes the Greenway’s native plant gardens will come to be recognized as special community efforts that carry a purpose and a message. The gardens don’t just beautify, Nelson said, but are planted with a deliberate spirit of exchange of knowledge. They are tools of learning and community empowerment.

The Coalition is currently drafting an implementation or action plan for its public art program, with timetables, to help lure partners to unite around the Coalition’s arts vision — something people can read, evaluate and get behind. And, Nelson added, the Coalition is now considering a variety of fresh fundraising models and may end up using a different model than those they’ve used in the past.

Public art and gardens that promote cultural awareness and exchange will attract more users to the Greenway, Nelson said, and introduce biking to those “who may not see bicycling in their communities or in their culture.”

‘Oh, my gosh. What have I gotten myself into.’

“Well, the office is a little small, so we’re going to split shifts,” Nelson recalled that Springer told her when she started with the Coalition in 1999. At the time, the Coalition was holed up in a small office inside a warehouse in a tough neighborhood. Nelson would report in during daylight hours; Springer would take shifts that ran after dark.

“We had one computer and a heater and one little window where bad activity was happening outside of it,” said Nelson. At this point, there was no Greenway, no bike trails, just the vision. Nelson said that Springer took her for the same bike ride on which Puzak took him — along the railroad tracks where the Greenway now runs. “There was garbage everywhere,” she said, and “the [train] tracks were still there.”

“We’re out in the middle of the Mississippi, and I’m like ‘Oh, my gosh. What have I gotten myself into.’”

Now, just under ten years later, the Greenway has grown from bold idea to minor marvel. The City of Minneapolis Department of Public Works counted traffic along several points on the Greenway all day and night for a year. They released their report this past July.

The report states that taken together bicycling along the Greenway in the past year alone has increased by 38%. The highest trafficked point on the Greenway, Hennepin Avenue station, in June of 2008 averaged an astonishing 3,620 bicyclists per day.

And this past May the Coalition moved into spacious new offices in the Freewheel Midtown Bike Center that fronts the Greenway between Chicago and 10th Avenues. A wall of windows near Nelson’s desk looks out to the Greenway; sunlight streams in and bikes steadily zip by.

But wild success hasn’t kept the Coalition from looking ahead and thinking even bigger.

One vision, Springer said, is of Greenways crisscrossing the Cities, so that no matter where you live there would be a nearby bikeway running north-south or east-west, or some other radial for you to access. “A skeleton,” said Springer, “a main system of linked major bikeways and Greenways that allow distant travel, travel from distant parts of the metro area, in a way that’s fast and safe and pleasant. Fast, safe and pleasant: That’s the mantra.”

With the Greenway, Nelson said, “You can go to Uptown, go to the library, go to the YWCA, go to St. Louis Park, go to Trader Joe’s. I mean it’s all along this line, so you seriously can live without a car, if you choose a certain location where you live and a certain location where you work.”

But to continue to get more and more people commuting by bicycle, Nelson said the Greenway needs to improve its connections with bus and rail systems. “The likelihood that we’re going to get all these people bicycling in the winter is unlikely,” Nelson said. So she encourages a “multi-modal” lifestyle where people add to their car travel, biking and taking the bus or train, in some combination.

Springer’s big dreams for the next twenty years include building stronger bike connections between the Greenway and Powderhorn Park and getting the Greenway across the Mississippi River.

Another coalition has formed, he said, that is advocating for a Greenway from South Minneapolis through Powderhorn Park, across the Midtown Greenway, through downtown Minneapolis and out through North Minneapolis.

“And they’re thinking big,” Springer said with a grin. “They’re thinking maybe vacating streets to motorized traffic, and making them real Greenways.”

Jason Ericson’s writing also appears in Lyndale Neighborhood News, Minneapolis Observer Quarterly, Rain Taxi, Twin Cities Daily Planet and Utne Reader. He lives in Lyndale and enjoys biking, taking pictures, and counting his blessings. Read more at: jasonericson.blogspot.com.