Lake Street in a Day -- Part 1

The other day my friend and I decided to walk the length of Lake Street in Minneapolis, just to see what we could see along the way. We began at the Mississippi and headed for Lake Calhoun at around 11:30, on a nice, warm, windy day in May. I'm pretty familiar with Lake Street, as is most everybody in Minneapolis, but Lake Street is constantly changing. Its such a diverse mix of commercial, residential and even some industry, not to mention the way that the history of Twin Cities urban development visible along the way, not to mention the way the street functions as a microcosm of the ethnic and economic diversity of the entire metro. It's no exagguration to say that it is probably the most interesting road for hundreds of miles in any direction. This is me heading out, starting at the Lake/Marshall Bridge over the river...

There was road construction for about the first ten blocks (from W River Blvd to 36th Ave or so) as the city was completing the final stages of their multi-year streetscaping project, a total restructuring of the sidewalks, curbs, and trees along the road.

But almost the first thing we saw (@ about 43rd Ave) was a parade of latino people marching, some wearing indigenous headdresses and beating drums, some waving American flags, all walking down the sidewalk towards us. It turns out they were marching all the way to the State Capitol (farther!) after a 10 day fast to try and acheive action on immigrant rights in the U.S. A friend of mine was marching with them and it seemed an auspicious beginning to our own Lake Street walk.

The first third of Lake St, stretching from the river to Highway 55 (Hiawatha) gradually evolves from a upper-middle residential (along the river) to a middle class residential neighborhood to a much more industrial corridor as you approach the old railroad tracks parallel to the freeway. Because of that, once you get a few blocks past the river (and its new mixed-use condo development @ W River Road), Lake St in this stretch has a lot of large, liminal spaces -- big old buildings like the American Rug Laundry, a block-long "machinery" store with all sorts of industrial gadgets inside, and a great many automotive dealerships and repair shops. Pictured above right is an old, large brick building that used to be the "Riverside Clubhouse," (with Six Packs to Go!), and didn't seem to be used for much of anything any more.

In fact, considering how relatively well-off this neighborhood (Longfellow) probably is, it was surprising to me how little commercial space there was along this stretch of Lake: along with the aforementioned rug cleaners and car shops, there was a leather cleaners, union headquarters, some office space, a record shop (where I bought an old 78), old churches, gas stations, &c. There were maybe two restaurants or bars, one coffee shop, and no retail stores apart from ubiquitous the Super America (which was involved in putting Molly Quinn's, one of the more successful bars in the area, out of business).

It wasn't a total retail wasteland, but it certainly didn't have the density of many commercial corridors that I've seen in other cities. But while there were many spaces for rent or unused, the stretch didn't really seem economically depressed. It's just kind of a spread out, really blue collar street at this point, and it only gets more so as you approach the Hiawatha interchange.

In fact, the stretch in the photo at right is probably the most densely active corner along the whole stretch (if you discount the Big Box retail... more on that later). There's a hardware store, a braid store, the MN School of Barbering, and a store that offers "gold teeth". Its pretty close to Joe's Garage, a nice lil' restaurant/bar in an old auto repair shop.

But, much more frequent along Lake Street is this kind of business, the mid-50's small used car lot. This one, Bob Kennedy Motors (since 1951) is one of the nicer along the road, but there are probably more than 50 used car lots and auto repair/auto parts places (Car Quest, Tires Plus, or small independent shops) along Lake Street, from edge to edge, and they represent probably the largest single land use on the street, and the car businesses make for a rather awkward marriage with the commercial and retail aspects of the street. The aforemetioned Joe's Garage is only one example of the intermingling of car and people-focused uses, but there were a number of times when I was struck by the way that car dealerships were right next to food establishments: Midas Mufflers shares space with a Subway sandwhich shop, a Chinese food place is located right in a used car lot... maybe there's some shared cost savings for the engine and cooking oils, but it seems a rather odd mix of land uses, and is actually kind of a problem for enhancing the future walkability of the street.

One of the interesting details of this photo is the way that the new, streetscaped sidewalk comes up to the car lot... Minneapolis finally invested in some infrastructure improvements laong Lake Street a few years ago, and this stretch along East Lake is the last part of the avenue to get made over. They windened and repoured all the sidewalks along the route, added bumpouts to slighgly calm the traffic, and re-did the tree plantings. I guess the idea is to improve the pedestrian experience along the route, and in the picture at right you can see where the new sidewalk replaces the old sidewalk (right in front of the E. Lake White Castle). So far, I'm not that impressed with the new sidewalk... its so bright and glare-y, and the trees have yet to attain any sort of respectable size. Time will tell, though, and in a few years I think the Lake Street pedestrian experience will be vastly improved. It might even start a renaissance along the boulevard, and maybe someday a few of these car dealers might become corner stores, bars, or shops.

But one big obstacle along the way is the Target/Cub Foods located at Lake & Minnehaha, right next to the LRT stop. It's this vast wasteland of parking lots, and probably did as much to suck the retail life out of the surrounding neighborhoods as any economic depression. Of course, people like shopping at Target, which is why they make money, but that doesn't mean that having this giant big box/grocery complex on the corner of one of the city's premiere retail corridors isn't counterproductive. Not only that, but it makes for a pretty unaesthetic part of the walk, and its located right between the LRT stop and the densest part of E. Lake, the block just East of Minnehaha Avenue. I've marked in red all the spaces along Lake Street that are lined with parking lots, for whatever reason, and as you can see, the Target plaza is the largest auto-dependent use along the street.

More to come in Lake Street in a Day -- Part 2


Aaron said...

Cool blog project! I'm just two blocks off of one of those photos. Can't wait until all the construction is wrapped up.

Stephen Gross said...

(1) Cool project--I really love reading about firsthand experiences of urban areas.

(2) Regarding Target, and bix-box urban retail in general: yeah, it sucks. Well, more specifically, the suburban big box configuration sucks in an urban setting. I've been impressed to see that it's actually possible for bix-boxers to locate in urban areas without destroying them (that is, without laying down a few acreas of concrete parking lots). See Pottery Barn on Grand for an example...

(3) Beside re-laying the sidewalks, has there been any significant change?

(4) What role do you think the used-car lots play in urban life? How crummy / not crummy are these cars? How much do people depend on these cars, and how often do they need to get repaired?

jhop said...

How did Super America have anything to do with Molly Quinns closing??

I loved that place. I never go to SA, so I can't really boycott them anymore than I am already.

I agree, the east end of Lake St needs help. First, the car dealerships need to go. Next, all the damn auto shops. Most people in the area bike and walk, so why such a high concentration of auto shops?

Big Daddy Malcontent said...

It seemed like this section of Lake was staging a comeback just a couple years ago, but then everything fell flat. Molly Quinn's lost their lease at their old location, which is now occupied by The Craftsman. They moved down the street into an abandoned falafel place and lost the bulk of their crowd in the process. I don't think SA had much to do with their demise, except in an indirect chainstore kind of way.
Also, just to nitpick a bit, I think it's called the Lake Street Garage, not Joe's.
This is a cool idea for a blog and nicely done at that. Good work.

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