Planning Blunder #8: The Franklin / Hiawatha / Minnehaha intersection

[Part of a series on the Top 10 Twin Cities' Planning Blunders. See #10 and #9.]

Why it’s dumb: Huge dual freeway and rail over/underpasses in the middle of a dense walkable neighborhood creates an impassable pedestrian wasteland barrier.

What they were thinking: As best I can tell, the origins of current clusterf**k date back to the construction of the freeway along Hiawatha Avenue, which is one of the first things that Minneapolis and the Minnesota DOT did following World War Two.

Following the war, the intersection of Franklin and Minnehaha had two things going against it. First, it was the site of a big railroad interchange that belonged to the Chicago, Milwaukee, Saint Paul, and Pacific Railroad Company, which had a railyard just north of Franklin at the site of the current LRT maintenance facility.

Second, the intersection lay in the path of a proposed freeway plan that city transportation engineers envisioned along Hiawatha Avenue, that would eliminate congestion by speeding the booming number of cars Southeast out of Downtown Minneapolis all the way to Fort Snelling. This project killed two birds with one stone, and creating a new urban freeway and elevating the train tracks over Franklin’s at-grade railroad crossing.

[The program for the Cedar Avenue Grade Separation ribbon cutting ceremony on November 9, 1950 featuring a parade, a performance by the South High Band*, and a speech by Albert Bastis, chairman of the Post War Progress Committee.]

[It looks so nice in the cartoon. (That church is soooo toast.)]

[The gradual disintegration of the Franklin / Minnehaha / Hiawatha intersection, from 1938, 1954, and today. CLICK TO ENLARGE.]

My take:
Along with Lake, Central, and University, Franklin Avenue is one of the most pedestrian-oriented, diverse, and vibrant streets in the Twin Cities. It has a rich mixed-use walkable infrastructure, and happens to run through some of the most under-served communities in the city. And, at least these days, for the most part Franklin is pretty well designed and a pleasant street on which to walk or bike or shop or hang out.

Well, all except for the half-mile stretch between 19th and 15th Avenues where Franklin becomes a complete hell on earth, running through and under what have to be the least-inviting underpasses this side of Detroit. The current intersection has all the aesthetic appeal, pedestrian conveniences, and warm secure feelings of the dungeon levels from Super Mario Brothers.

[Walking from 15th to 19th Avenues along Franklin. (Dramatic Re-enactment.)]

Today, looking at the corner where these three streets come together, you might think that they’ve always been this way, that these corners have always been a pedestrian nightmare filled with rail tracks and freeways.

But, looking back at what the corner was like before the “Post War Progress Committee” completed their plan for “Progress in the City of Minneapolis,” the corner used to be a neighborhood street with rail tracks running through it. Where today you’ll find freeways and overpasses and endless amounts of concrete and car lanes, there used to be nothing but (probably slapdash) homes and shops along Franklin with a rail line running through them.

[The houses and shops along Franklin and Minnehaha in 1938. Img fm Borchert Map Library.]

And then someone got the great idea to build a freeway along Hiawatha, and used the opportunity of the at-grade rail crossing to extend the road into the middle of Franklin and all the way into to downtown. And it was this move that really separated the Phillips / Stevens Square part of the city from the West Bank / Seward part of the city, creating two separate Franklin Avenues that to this day have remarkably different characters and characteristics.

Its hard to really blame the car-blinded Progress Committee. This was the very beginning of the freeway construction era, and I’m sure building as many lanes of car capacity as possible was seen as an unmitigated good.

[How to walk on Franklin from 15th to 19th Avenues. Step #1: Negotiate the five lanes of speeding traffic coming off Minnehaha and Hiawatha Avenues.]
[Step #2: Wait for long time at small concrete island in between 4 lanes of traffic. Cross street. Repeat Step #2.]

[Step #3: Walk along dark concrete pillared corridor underneath train tracks.]
[Step #4: Cross large "no-man's land" on-ramp area and repeat Step #3 process for dark concrete underpass underneath freeway.]

[Step #5: Walk up hill along barren empty (ice-caked) path until you are finally in an area surrounded by buildings again. Total distance covered: 1/2 mile.]

But to this day, we’re still living with the legacy of the unfortunate decision to place a freeway in the middle of Franklin Avenue. We’ve spent a lot of time and money trying to undo this particular bit of progress, re-designing the corner in a futile attempt to make it work for both the giant stream of car traffic and the large number of pedestrian, bike, and transit users in the area, all while trying to cultivate density around the light rail station.

There are options for improving this corner, the most obvious being a roundabout-style intersection with lots of crosswalks. (Not sure how that would work…) But its almost impossible to imagine any sort of decent transit friendly walkable treatment for this corner that didn’t involve getting rid of the Hiawatha freeway that funnels thousands of cars into the neighborhood. As it is now, the Hiawatha /Minnehaha/ Franklin clusterf**k corner is a lost cause. For the entire ¼ mile radius of the Franklin LRT stop, as there is nothing here but concrete and freeway overpasses.** And that’s why it’s the #8th worst planning blunder in the Twin Cities!

[A lonely woman begins the lonely trek through the 1/2 mile Franklin Avenue gauntlet.]

[For what its worth, these two sides of Franklin Avenue might as well be separated by a giant moat filled with sharks with freakin' laser beams on their heads.]

* Not the same South High.
** And the Cabooze.


Mike Hicks said...

Amazing how long ago this happened.

Unknown said...

ooh good one. This is def a blunder.

PhilmerPhil said...

Reading these make me sad! Well done though!

brad said...

I have never laughed while reading an article on urban planning until today.

Brendon said...

With some creativity, I think the ped/bike and car movements in this area could be helped greatly with a roundabout. It also seems like pedestrians could easily be directed up and over the LRT tracks, rather than under. Crossing the freeway is a whole other issue though, perhaps a nice bike/ped bridge a la Martin Sabo?

posicionamiento web said...

Of course, the writer is completely fair.

Rosa said...

it would be nice, both as a pedestrian and a cyclist, to have a safe, well lit, obvious, and protected (shade & windscreen) connection route all the way from the west bank, the light rail stations at Riverside & Franklin, to the pedestrian bridge at 24th, and the parts of Franklin east to the river, including a way through this terrible intersection (or maybe around it? There's that little street between the light rail and the pawn shop/Caboose triangle).

There are some great pieces there, unconnected - the elevated light rail station, the now closed to the public road into the Metro Transit property that *used* to be a nice connection to the LRT trail to downtown, the pedestrian bridges across Cedar at Little Earth and across 55 at 24th St. And of course all of Franklin Ave from the River to this intersection and from Bloomington to Lyndale.

I don't know about roundabouts though - it seems like a few safety islands, and some better signals would solve a lot of problems, plus a little bit of enforcement of speed & stopping rules. And signs! It shouldn't take special insider knowledge to navigate the sidewalks & trails.

sheldon said...

It would have been nice to talk about current plans pushed by Ventura Village Neighborhood, Seward Neighborhood, and Native American Community Development Institute to improve the intersection for pads and bikers. Also, the article missed the plan to turn Franklin Avenue into a 4 lane road across the city (this was before the plans for I-94.)

sheldon said...

correction to last post--
"improve the intersection for pads and bikers"
should be
improve the road and intersection for peds and bikers

Pseudo3D said...

How is this a "planning blunder"? From the oldest shots, it looks like multiple railroad tracks crossed straight across an intersection--a dangerous area for cars and pedestrians alike.

Current problem is two-fold: the triangular area created by the intersections is problematic--four lane 22nd and close off Minnehaha north of it and force all traffic onto an expanded intersection at Minnehaha and Cedar Avenue. This would eliminate the problematic intersection and reduce the stoplights.

As the overpasses, replace the sloping concrete retaining walls with new vertical ones, expanding the space, and adding lights.

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