Since Southwest Voices launched, the Hennepin Avenue South redesign has been one of the most contentious issues we’ve covered. There are people that have spent a huge number of hours fighting for and against the current plan, and people are justifiably very concerned about the final product, as Hennepin is a major corridor that many people in the city rely on for different needs.

We hear a lot from you, our dear readers, about Hennepin, and the redesign in particular. Most of that has made it into bits and pieces of articles, but we wanted to put everything down in one place where people can see it. You can read through a few people’s thoughts on the redesign on our Hennepin Avenue Perspective Page

Now that the redesign plan is up for committee, City Council, and mayoral approval, we thought it’d be a good idea to review what’s been going on with the redesign up to this week. 

Some of what we share here is verifiable  fact, some information is from  people who have gone on the record, and some of the information is from people who  shared their perspectives off the record and don’t want to have their name attached to any published content. We tried to note what is what, but we wanted to share what we’ve heard and seen in the past several months so that you know everything we do. 

First off, what’s happening today (Thursday, May 19th)?

The city released the “final” design back in January. That launched an additional round of community engagement. Today, the Public Works & Infrastructure Committee  will be discussing an adjusted version of the design that will include a “phased in” implementation of the 24/7 bus lanes (see “Dynamically operated” at that link). After discussion today, the plan will head to the full City Council for approval later this month.

Why is the city redesigning Hennepin Avenue South?

It’s been a really long time since the city did a full redesign. The current design is from the late 1950s, and the street has an especially high number of car crashes relative to the rest of the city.

The street will be getting redesigned no matter what happens with the bus lanes. Construction is currently slated to begin in 2024 and be completed in 2026.

How did the process begin?

The Public Works Department, which handles things like this, brought the project to the Capital Long-Range Improvement Committee in 2018 to ask for funding. The committee recommended that Public Works perform extra public engagement because the street is such a heavily-trafficked, high-profile road. The Lowry Hill East Neighborhood Association put out a neighborhood survey in April 2018 about the redesign. The first open house on the redesign was also in 2018

Why is this different from other major street designs in the past?

This project is the first time a city-controlled corridor has been reconstructed since the city implemented its Transportation Action Plan, which is a 10-year plan designed to guide transportation planning and project implementation. The plan includes a  Climate Emergency declaration, which “demands a massive-scale mobilization to halt, reverse, and address its consequences and causes of climate change.” The plan also intersects with the Minneapolis 2040 Comprehensive Plan, which is intended to guide the development of the city from housing to building development to roads and everything in-between.

These plans were partly intended to change the way the city has done planning in the past, by establishing processes and guidelines for developers and planning staff to follow. This means that projects aren’t driven by the desires of individuals or neighborhoods, but rather work towards overarching goals that people wanting to plan or build things can work within and around. The flip side of that is that neighborhoods and their representatives can’t have as much influence over a project like this as they would’ve in years past. 

Which brings us to…

Why are some people so upset about the Hennepin redesign process?

There are three groups that have been vocally concerned about the project. Let’s get into their stated concerns. 

1. The businesses on Hennepin or that are Hennepin-adjacent. When we say “the businesses,” you should know that it’s somewhere between most and all of them, as seen on this letter, signed by close to 120 businesses and associations. A thing that these business owners  will frequently tell you is that they don’t think the planning staff that works on the project was proactive enough at engaging with, listening to, and incorporating their concerns about losing on-street parking in this redesign. 

To further trace the source of their discontent, you have to go back to a separate Hennepin redesign – the street that runs in front of Seven Points (formally Calhoun Square), where the businesses of Uptown felt like they were forced to accept a road design that they did not want. There is a lot of lingering resentment towards the plan that Public Works came up with and implemented, which resulted in a loss of parking spaces outside of several of the businesses. This parking was replaced by a wider sidewalk, bus lanes, bike infrastructure, and spaces for loading and unloading. This current fight north of Seven Points has a lot to do with that fight. When you talk to many of the business owners about this design, they will voluntarily bring up the last Hennepin redesign as a major factor in their fight. Either way,  Hennepin businesses are speaking with basically a single voice on this issue, and they are not happy.

2. Some of the neighbors. Now, this is where things get contentious. On the west side of Hennepin, the Lowry Hill Neighborhood Association wrote a letter this year opposing the redesign arguing that “pre-2020 input assumptions on the Hennepin Avenue South design are no longer valid” and the virtual public engagement process was “confusing and cryptic.”

On the east side of Hennepin, the Lowry Hill East Neighborhood Association discussed but voted against writing a similar letter in opposition to the plan. There are many people on both sides of the street that don’t fit neatly into their neighborhood association’s position, but it is a fact that some of the most vocal opposition and support has come from some of the neighbors. 

3. Some drivers. Some of these people live elsewhere and shop locally and want parking to be as convenient as possible (see number 1). There's another group that simple use Hennepin to get from point a to point b. They want traffic to flow as smoothly as possible. They want to drive as quickly as they can to their destination. And they think that adding priority for bus and bike lanes will slow down traffic, aka them. Would transit and bike lanes present a good enough alternative to driving that it would take several cars off the road, maintaining people’s ability to drive through? Who knows! But many of these people think it won’t, and they do not want to encounter more traffic or have to drive more slowly.

So who supports it, then?

The most vocal group is made up of advocates for improved transit, be it buses, biking, or for pedestrians, as well as people who want to make the street safer by reducing vehicle speeds, make the city cleaner by reducing vehicle miles traveled, or a combination of both. 

Broadly, this plan has followed the city’s processes and goals that have been established for projects like these, and many of these advocates will point towards that fact when seeking approval for the “full” design with the 24/7 bus lanes.

What was the process for community engagement around the design?

While the engagement from the Public Works staff kicked off in 2018, much of that engagement had to take place during the pandemic, which made it more difficult to listen and engage with people’s concerns than it would’ve been to do so using more traditional in-person engagement. 

According to Public Works staff, they privately met with every active business owner on the corridor at least once. Public Works formed a community advising committee to help with outreach, posted signage along the corridor, mailed out materials for surveys, and posted surveys online to attempt to capture thoughts from different groups. 

Over the last four years, more than 80 community engagement events were held.

In an interview with Southwest Voices, City Councilmember Lisa Goodman offered a possible indication of how many of the opponents of the design feel about the engagement process. “I think the all-or-nothing approach in this current design is what has made so many people have a lack of respect for Public Works and think that their voices haven’t been heard,” Goodman said. 

Where do city councilmembers stand on the issue?

The current and former councilmembers that represent this section of Hennepin Avenue S feel differently about the current plan. 

In the interview referenced above, Goodman, who represents the west side of Hennepin, hasn’t been thrilled with the process. 

“I think the design is not in tune with the current reality. I think that it creates a win-lose between small businesses and advocates. I think that it is rigid and entrenched in politics, and ultimately I think it will be the demise of businesses on Hennepin Avenue if we don’t do something to change it. 

What would I do to change it? I would have the bike lane on Bryant. We already have significant bike infrastructure on Bryant, which would free up 11 feet on either side of the street to allow for better pedestrian access, curbside usage, and yes, include parking. 

I support transit lanes on Hennepin. A big percentage of the people using the avenue take transit. I am not yet convinced that it's an either-or, and that you have to have transit-dedicated lanes 24/7. I prefer that we start with transit during rush hour and see how it goes, then use those curbside uses for other things. But if a bike lane is a priority on Bryant, then you probably could have a dedicated transit lane and some levels of usage.”

The councilmembers involved on the east side of Hennepin have a different story to tell. 

Lisa Bender, the former Ward 10 councilmember and council president, was a supporter of the plan from the beginning. Overall, Bender has been a major supporter of public transit and bike infrastructure in the city. She also played a major role in establishing the city’s new processes for developing infrastructure and has typically deferred to Public Works staff and their designs on projects like these, rather than emphasizing localized concerns.

The area’s new representative, Councilmember Aisha Chughtai, has also been supportive of the design. Here’s what she told us about it in an interview:

“Making sure that there’s a protected bike lane and a protected bus lane, I care about that a lot. We know that access to public transit is massive in our communities. Thirty percent of Black households in Minneapolis do not own a car. Working class people rely on the bus to get to work and to access social services. Making sure we have a protected bus lane and we have sidewalk space so that people who patronize our businesses on Hennepin can do so safely. 

We hear that conversation around us all the time, that we have to revitalize businesses, we have to revitalize our corridors, a part of doing that is making sure people don’t fear getting hit by a car when they’re sitting outside for lunch.”

How are state and federal officials involved?

Because this is such a major project, a bin chunk of funding came through the state and federal governments.

Last summer, Gov. Tim Walz signed a bill that included funding from a bill pushed by Rep. Frank Hornstein that would fund bus rapid transit service down Hennepin Avenue S and into downtown. So the bus line, known as the E Line, is already paid for. Last week, the entire Minneapolis legislative delegation came out in favor of preserving the current design, including the 24/7 bus rapid transit lanes, and asked for no more delays.

In March, Sen. Tina Smith announced she had secured an additional $5 million in funding for the E Line.

Why are some people arguing that the timing of the redesign has been controversial?

There are a couple issues here. One, the original design and implementation was postponed, initially as a result of the pandemic, to both allow for more time for community engagement and to attempt to mollify concerns from small businesses on the corridor who were especially concerned about the timing given the hit their businesses took from the pandemic.

Then, there was another delay in 2021. Here’s where we get more into the rumor territory. Many supporters of the plan’s 24/7 bus lanes believe that the final design was postponed to push it beyond the 2021 election. They believe this was done so that Lisa Bender, a major supporter of the plan, would no longer be council president. Additionally, a new Public Works director could be brought in to alter the design. Whether that’s true or not, there was certainly a lack of action in the lead-up to the election, and no public explanation has been offered for why that happened. And yes, the City Council voted in a new Public Works director this year. 

Enter Margaret Anderson Kelliher

Margaret Anderson Kelliher was nominated to become the city’s new Public Works director in January. That role puts her at the center of this issue, as she now runs the department in charge of the redesign and works directly for the mayor.

She made her position clear in this interview, where she stated “I do believe there is a way to largely preserve the plan. If you are going to have a bike lane it needs to be protected. We have an opportunity to preserve and phase in a transit priority… I strongly support having 24/7 [dedicated bus] lanes, but I am not sure it will be needed on the day we open.”

Why are the Hennepin Redesign supporters not happy with the phasing in the 24/7 bus lanes?

There is a belief among many of the supporters of the design that this “phased-in” tactic is a sneaky way to kill the 24/7 rapid transit lanes, and that once the phased plan is implemented without the 24/7 lanes, it will stay that way forever. The supporters also argue that there hasn’t been a timeline or process for phasing in the 24/7 lanes presented at any point.

That’s it. That’s all we know. We’ll keep you posted on how things develop as we move towards a final Council vote on the plan later in May.