Sidewalk of the Week: Riverside & 20th Avenues

[The freshly poured sidewalk around the brand new building.]

This week's Sidewalk of the Week is Riverside Avenue & 20th Avenues SE, located on the edge of the University of Minnesota Campus and just a few blocks from bustle of Cedar Avenue.

I've always loved the West Bank, ever since Bohemians first settled there its been an interesting display of the great variety of people that live in the city of Minneapolis. Plus it has an excellent arts and night life scene, and despite the fairly poor sidewalks, has remained one of the best places to walk around in the TC.

Anyway, a while back I saw a talk on the future of the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood given by one of the city's planners. During the powerpoint presentation, the planner talked about how they were trying to cultivate business and pedestrian activity along Riverside Avenue, and described how difficult and important that would be. Then she mentioned that the University's new Herbert M. Hanson Jr. Hall was the kind of architecture they didn't want to see along the street. According to the City of Minneapolis, Riverside Avenue is destined to be a "commercial corridor", linking together the three large West Bank institutions (the U of MN, Riverside Hospital, and Augsburg) and helping to entice the neighborhood's thousands of employees to get out of their cars and walk around the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood.

[Minneapolis' "future land use" map for the West Bank. Note the diagonal pink stripe indicating Commercial Corridor status for Riverside Avenue.]

Currently, Riverside is far from that goal. There are a lot of empty storefronts (including the recently closed North Country Coop and the long-shuttered Viking Bar) and the sidewalks are pretty empty all the way until Franklin Avenue, save for the occasional fast food chain.

But part of the problem is that the institutions along Riverside don't seem to want to build buildings that front the street, or connect well with the sidewalk. And the University's new Manson Hall is a perfect example of this:

[A building like this, without any ground floor windows, can only be enjoyed from a far distance. The sidewalk is much too close.]

Large office buildings, especially ones that serve as "gateways" for institutions, ought to have some sort of entrance facing the street and the neighborhood. Instead, Hanson Hall offers a large, blank, and reflective facade that juts toward the street, overhanging like some sort of business school guillotine.

[The only entrance to the building from Riverside is unmarked, and entirely penned in by poured concrete.]

They've placed a park along the corner of 20th and Riverside, but I've only once seen anyone sitting here. To my mind, it seems rather too exposed to be really pleasant or comfortable.

[Here's where the architects envision you sitting around in the grass and having a picnic. To me, it seems rather like a golf course.]

In short, the sidewalk on Riverside Avenue is pisspoor. Not because of any problems with the concrete, or indeed because of the lack of width or bike parking... but it sucks to walk along here because there's nothing to see or look at. It's a veritable window Sahara.

[The U architects saved the most interesting and walkable part of the building for the "inside" wall, off of the public face of Riverside Avenue.]

The U's new building only makes that problem worse, and seems to fit a pattern of the University "turning its back" to the West Bank. The way that the buildings are arranged to form a kind of wall around the campus seem to suggest that people from Cedar Riverside neighborhood are not wanted around the U of MN. Apparently, when someone donates money to the U for a new building, there are almost no restrictions on the kind of architecture that new building can have. In other words, every department or wealthy philanthropist can help design any kind of sidewalk space they want, regardless of its overall impact on the neighborhood.

Certainly the Carlson School of Business is not interested in cultivating streetlife outside its classrooms, but that doesn't mean that the University should be allowed to ignore the goals and interests of the City of Minneapolis or the West Bank neighborhood.

[The U Campus crouches low behind its protective berms, offering a well-guarded wall from which business students can pour burning pitch onto the West Bank's Viking mobs.]


Anonymous said...

I'm not a big fan of the new building at the U either, but cultivating street life along this corridor is going to be much more complicated than architecture. The elephant in the room is perceived racial and cultural differences between most U students/employees and the neighborhood residents. Maybe people don't want to talk about it, but I guarantee it's a bigger deterrent than architecture.

Also, how would you respond to the statement that ground floor windows facing a lively street environment would be a major distraction for the students inside trying to focus on their work and so should be avoided?

j. said...

they only just started using part of the new building, so you might expect to see more people in that uh space (i wouldn't have called it a park) come fall. also, it just stopped being 40 degrees the other week.

momo said...

The Carlson School's Temple of Capitalism sucked away a lot of Central administration money from planned projects for rehabbing the completely inadequate social sciences classrooms and offices on the West Bank, and remodeling the completely inadequate classrooms and offices of Folwell. I was present for a series of highly discouraging administrative meetings in which the fight between Colleges over resources for building made it clear that the Carlson funding tail wags the U's Central administration dog, much as the medical school is dragging the Central Corridor process down. It boils down to sucky leadership that thinks that the future of the U is in private funding because the state has turned its back on maintaining basic infrastructure (look at the last bonding bill). CLA tried mighty hard to make the West Bank Arts Quarter into something more friendly, but it's surrounded by parking ramps and acres of sidewalk.