4.12.12

Today on Streets.mn: Will Rybak Follow Through on Washington Boulevard?

[One of the "visions" from Rybak's 2007 Washington Ave plan.]
I have a new post up today over at Streets.mn. It's about how today's public meeting about the future of Washington Avenue relates back to some lovely planning and visioning that Rybak and a team of talented designers and architects penned back in 2007. Here's the crux of the piece:

The best thing to come out of the Great City initiative was the plan for Washington Avenue, or as Rybak’s group christened it, “Washington Boulevard.” The planning document, which you can see here, is an extensive collection of impressive platitudes about sidewalks, streetcars, and cafés shaded by tree leaves. It begins with some of the “challenges,” pictures of how empty and alienating current state of Washington Avenue. Quickly, the plan begins overflowing with photos of Paris and more Paris and Portland. The “vision study” is filled with hopes and dreams.
Five years later, as it turns out, not much has changed on Washington Avenue. There are a few new buildings, mostly five-story condos with underused street-level retail, but Washington Avenue is still a terrible place to take a stroll, and you’ll not find a single sidewalk café (except maybe Runyon’s?).  The street is a smelly car sewer designed to get people to and from 394 and 35W. Crossing Washington instills panic, and makes you feel like Washington crossing the Delaware. Five years after Rybak’s watercolor vision, Washington remains a vast moat keeping people downtown from finding the Mississippi.

[Remove the trees, people, and median, and this is about right.]
This story is really close to my heart for two reasons. First, it dates back to the moment when I developed my mancrush on Minneapolis Mayor RT Rybak, when I accidentally wandered into an architectural pep rally that was right up my cobblestone'd alley. Second, it means that I've finally been around this town long enough to start seeing how things play out, slow motion style, in the world of local urban planning decisions.

You see, change in Minneapolis and St Paul happens incredibly slowly. Almost any debate you can think of has a long and tortured history that stretching back to the dawn of Central Standard Time. Almost any issue you can think of has probably already been discussed and debated by your mothers and your mother's fathers (and in the case of St Paul road design, probably far longer than that).

That means that it really helps to do some homework before you jump into the kaleidoscopic world of Twin Cities planning debates. It helps to have been around for a while, to have been paying attention for a few years or a few decades. This is a perfect example. Just looking at the announcement by Hennepin County about the Washington Avenue redesign, you might never know that the city and its mayor invested time and energy into this project already. You might never know about the designs and  the street in the Pedestrian plan or the Bike Master Plan or the Access Minneapolis plan. You might not have seen the historical photos of Washington, before the street was transformed into a viaduct for its freeways.

This is a great example of the "rubber meeting the road." I remember Rybak talking onstage about how great Washington Avenue could become. Thinking back to that moment and comparing it today's meeting throws into relief the difference between talking and doing, between actions and words. At last I've been around long enough to remember.

[The 2007 Great City Design event, where "Washington Boulevard" was born.]

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