Hennepin County has asked for community feedback on the two-year Minnehaha reconstruction project for the approximately 2.2 mile stretch from 46th Street South to Lake Street. However, details about the project and how to submit feedback have been lacking, according to many. Dave Koch, manager at the Rail Station Bar and Grill, commented, “What can we do? It’s going to happen. We’re not looking forward to it, but it’s going to happen.”
This is one of three articles on the Minnehaha reconstruction project. The first article focuses on bicycle issues, and this article focuses on business concerns. The third article is Minnehaha Avenue reconstruction: What we know, what we don’t know
Additionally, as the community meeting date continues to get pushed back, some are concerned that the opportunity for residents to engage in meaningful ways may pass.
In 2012, Hennepin County surveyed more than 700 residents to determine what the top environmental and health concerns in the Minnehaha-Hiawatha Corridor were. Air pollution, asthma, nutrition and obesity were ranked in the top five concerns. The Environment and Transportation Committee passed the results of this survey on to county staff working on the reconstruction, but found that the large-scale survey didn’t get much traction. Co-chair Naylor said, “It was slightly frustrating that the observations from this report did not seem to be of interest as part of a public works project.”
How To Get Involved
If you have input on the project, you may call or email Hennepin County Project Manager Kristy Morter at 612-596-0384. or firstname.lastname@example.org. Council Member Cam Gordon recommends contacting county and city elected officials, including County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, City Council Members, and Mayor R.T. Rybak.
With the exception of the Mayor, each of these people were contacted in regard to this series. Schiff responded, commenting that he had not yet decided on what he believes the best solution is for the roadway. He said, “I will be listening intently to the needs and wishes of the community as well as to the thoughts of the engineers.”
“Community engagement on this issue is a challenge because it’s never been clear when or how people can provide meaningful input,” said Spencer Agnew, housing and environment coordinator at the Longfellow Community Council. “The County and City both tend to pass the buck on responsibility for decision making. County staff say the City Council has the authority to approve or deny plans, but City Council members say they rely on recommendations from County staff. Hennepin County staff may have finally arrived at a recommendation for the layout, but that’s not necessarily the final decision. The City Council still has to approve it, and the County could change its recommendation if they saw fit to do so.”
Lack of Information
While some information was shared by the county at a March Longfellow Business Association meeting and at an LCC Environment and Transportation Committee meeting, project details and up-to-date information has not been forthcoming. For example, most people who were contacted for this article did not know that county staff had decided that they would recommend bike lanes to the city.
This lack of information has left many confused about when it is appropriate for them to provide input. Some say that they need more details and information before they can provide quality and accurate feedback on project plans.
Lee Wallace of Peace Coffee commented, “I was under the impression that businesses would have an opportunity to see designs at the July LBA meeting and be able to weigh in. I will definitely be disappointed if we don’t get that opportunity, but until the county has concrete proposals with cost information and recommendations I haven’t particularly felt that there was much concrete to weigh in on.”
Harriet Brewing’s General Manager Katie McLaughlin explained that they hadn’t heard any of the project details or information about a formal meeting. She added, “We want to hear what the plan is, then we’ll talk about it. There hasn’t really been any information.”
The Hub’s Tsai said he has received most of his information through the Bicycle Advisory Committee. “Honestly, the only information I’ve received on the project is through the BAC.” He added, “I feel like I’ve been provided with enough detailed information [through BAC] and drawings, but there’s a lot of details remaining and questions remaining.”
While supporters of the cycle track see the reconstruction project as a way to change Minnehaha Avenue into a less vehicle-centric roadway, some businesses would prefer to keep it business as usual along the route. They believe that a redesign of the road will be bad for business.
To take action, nearly 40 business owners on the roadway have signed a petition that they delivered to City Council Members Gary Schiff, Sandy Colvin Roy, and Cam Gordon. The owners are asking that the county reconstruct the road as it is currently, leaving the bike lanes and not extending the curbs.
Increased Cars = Increased Customers
In recent years, Minnehaha Avenue has seen increased traffic from drivers who were fed up with long waits at lights along the neighboring Hiawatha Avenue. Owners believe that this increased vehicle traffic has meant increased customers.
Jennifer Lindgren, manager at Minnehaha Falls Nursery, commented, “The traffic is good for business.” She added, “What we’ve been told is that the County is trying to move the traffic from Minnehaha Avenue back to Hiawatha. That’s their long-term goal. That’s not the best thing for businesses.”
Ella Ritzman, owner of E’s Emporium, agrees. She organized the petition and is working to get their voices heard by the County. She believes that for Minnehaha Avenue to maintain its business community, the roadway must maintain its vehicle traffic. “All of the businesses along Minnehaha rely on auto traffic, not on bicycle traffic,” she said. “We’re not in Europe or Vancouver or Portland,” she added. “People are not going to just stroll up and down Minnehaha, this isn’t going to be a leisurely road.”
While most of the business owners are in favor of biking and appreciate that the city is working to increase the number of cyclists, they are concerned that cycle tracks aren’t the solution for Minnehaha Avenue. Instead they suggest that the County make the bike lanes wider, creating room for cyclists to navigate between traffic and parked cars. Or, if a dedicated track is the goal, Ritzman recommends moving the bikeway to a less congested road like Dight or Snelling Avenue.
Parking at a Premium
When customers travel by car, they need a spot to park. And some businesses along Minnehaha, including Ritzman’s, have little or no private parking available. Instead, their customers rely on street parking, which is also shared with local residents. Business owners are worried that the planned curb extensions will put a strain on available parking. The petition states, “Fewer parking spots will put businesses and residents in competition for parking space, and discourage potential shoppers from “stopping in” when they happen to drive by.”
Businesses cite other problems with curb extensions. They note that the curb extensions will slow traffic since cars will be unable to pass a car making a left turn unless there is a left-turn lane. Snow is another issue they bring up. In the petition they ask who will bw responsible for removing snow from the curb extensions. If snow removal doesn’t happen, will it be difficult for pedestrians to navigate the mounds of snow pushed on the curb by plows?
The county cites several reasons for adding the extensions, including the fact that they reduce the distance that pedestrians have to cross the road, improve visibility between motorists and pedestrians, reduce vehicle turning speeds, and increase sight lines for all corridor users. Hennepin County Project Manager Kristy Morter also noted that the curb extensions help prevent illegal parking, such as parking too close to or within a crosswalk, and they also prevent drivers from blocking curb ramps.
Weathering the Storm
With the Lake Street reconstruction and the strain it put on businesses fresh in owners’ minds, shopkeepers are concerned that the reconstruction might mean lights out for some. “Most of our customers are derived from destination or drive-by traffic,” states the petition. “And it is possible that a prolonged construction effort could shutter some businesses, adversely affecting not only us but also the surrounding community.”
“They’re going to put people out of business,” said Lindgren. “And, they’re thinking long-term and not short term, but still…” [trails off].
Lee Wallace, queen bean at Peace Coffee, stated that they are looking forward to completion of the project. In the meantime, Wallace said, “[I’m] scared of the impact it will have on us during the summer months. We are going to have to remind residents to patronize us while construction is underway!”
Resources for Businesses
Businesses do have a few resources at their disposal, including the Community Planning and Economic Development department, as well as the City’s Great Streets program. Council Member Cam Gordon noted that CPED can help develop financing programs, create ‘shop local’ promotional materials for businesses, and create campaigns that will help bring back business when the project is complete.
Gordon commented, “The City has had mixed experience with helping small businesses stay afloat during the construction periods. I think we could have done more when East Lake Street was being reconstructed and that we did a better job during the construction of the Central Corridor Light Rail, which runs through Ward 2.”
Kristy Morter, the Hennepin County project manager, added that the county is working with the Longfellow Business Association to identify ways they can help businesses survive the reconstruction. She said, “Reasonable efforts will be made during construction to minimize disruptions to motorists, bicyclists, pedestrians, bus service, and property owners along the project corridor.”
What Comes First: County Decision or Community Engagement?
The County brought forward two bikeway options for the Avenue, and has decided to recommend one to the City Council, without first having a broad community meeting. A meeting is tentatively planned for June, at which time the County will ask for feedback. The process of decision-making and engagement has some wondering how much impact community input will have.
Jill Naylor, co-chair of the LCC’s Environment and Transportation Committee, stated, “I would definitely say there is universal concern about the process and there being time for authentic input for the plan and not just going through the motions.”
Melanie Majors, director of the Longfellow Community Council, is concerned that the information might be too little, too late. She said, “I’m at a loss for how to convey any information at this point and I do feel that by the time the community sees/hears about the plans that their input may not have much of an impact.”
Kristy Morter, the Hennepin County project manager, explained that at the to-be-scheduled community meeting, “residents will be able to ask questions and discuss project concerns with staff from Hennepin County and the City of Minneapolis to help shape the future of Minnehaha Avenue.” She added that, “phone calls and emails to county and city staff involved in the project [have allowed] businesses and residents opportunities to provide feedback/comments on the preliminary plan.”
Hennepin County has welcomed input on the project from individuals, and staff have attended six meetings in total since 2010 with members of the Longfellow Business Association and the Longfellow Community Council committees. However, some of these meetings were about the broader plans for the entire Hiawatha/Minnehaha Corridor, and were not specifically focused on the reconstruction project.
Project details were most recently discussed at a March meeting of the Longfellow Business Association and an LCC Environment and Transportation Committee meeting. The LBA meeting provided attendees with the opportunity to view the two plans and ask questions. The committee meeting was described by the LCC’s Agnew as “more of an informational presentation than an opportunity to gather input.” Indeed, looking at the meeting minutes, Hennepin County presented the project to the 14 attendees, and announced that public input would be taken at a yet-to-be scheduled open house.
While committee meetings and business association meetings are open to residents, the presentations were not widely advertised. Business owners have reported that they have not yet received information from the county on the project. However, they can sign up for information from the Longfellow Business Association. Ruth Romano, coordinator at the Longfellow Business Association says that she has an email distribution list of more than 230 businesses — not all of which are LBA members — and that they receive updates from the organization, including meeting information about the reconstruction project.
- Minnehaha Avenue reconstruction: What we know, what we don’t know
- Where’s the space for community input on Minnehaha Avenue reconstruction? Part one: Bikes
- Where’s the space for community input on Minnehaha Avenue reconstruction? Part two: Businesses
CORRECTON: Spelling corrected – Dave Koch
UPDATE 5/27/2013: The phone number for Kristy Morter at Hennepin County that her phone number has changed to 612-596-0384.