This story was originally published by MinnPost.

Almost since its inception in 2009, the advocacy group Our Streets Minneapolis(known as the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition until six years ago) has been organizing Minneapolis’ popular Open Streets events, where a main street is closed to car traffic for an afternoon. This August, they did something that’s never been done before in the history of the organization: They sent the city of Minneapolis a budget request.

As you might have read, the Minneapolis Public Works department did not respond with open arms to the entreaty, and instead officially ended the partnership with the advocacy group for future events. According to José Antonio Zayas Cabán, the executive director of Our Streets Minneapolis, the dissolution is a long time coming.

As Zayas Cabán argued in a recent podcast, the model under which Minneapolis’ Open Streets events had been taking place has long been “unsustainable.” The group has decided it can no longer, in good conscience, keep organizing the events for almost no money.

The shift didn’t come out of the blue. A year ago, I wrote about the group’s efforts to get city funding for organizing costs. This week’s brouhaha over the end of the arrangement between Our Streets Minneapolis and the city’s Public Works department brings that long-standing problem to a head.

“I think that my predecessors have been timid about expressing their concerns, even though it has lived with the organization for a long time,” explained Zayas Cabán. “They feared what is happening now, that the event series would discontinue.”

How the partnership ended

In the meantime, there was confusion about what exactly happened to end the partnership between Public Works and Our Streets Minneapolis, and specifically about whether or not the decision was “mutual.” It turns out the answer is complicated.

Here’s the timeline as I know it. In fall 2021, coming out of the pandemic, the city released a “zero dollar” RFP for a three-year series of Open Streets events. In February 2022, the Minneapolis City Council selected Our Streets Minneapolis as the vendor, continuing their long-standing work running the series. As usual, the city would provide “in-kind services,” estimated by city staff to be worth about $30K per event, things like trash collection, recycling, street closure and the (quite expensive) staff time from the Minneapolis Police Department that is often a barrier to street festivals elsewhere.

Before that contract was finalized, Our Streets Minneapolis began lobbying the city for dedicated funding to support the events, asking for around $100,000 in support for staff doing the organizing. Through ongoing conversations between the city and Our Streets Minneapolis, who were even then dissatisfied with the arrangement, the city switched to a year-by-year arrangement. That is the contract that runs out in October.

After a more recent request for funding from Our Streets Minneapolis in early August, this time over $800,000 for a series of up to 10 Open Streets events, the contract was not renewed and city staff has turned to alternative, less expensive, options.

Another matter, significant at least to city officials dealing with legal issues around procurement, is that the difference between “zero dollar” contacts and contacts with payment entail a new bidding process. City staff claim that if they were to offer direct payment for Open Streets organizing, they would have to go through a more intensive public process in selecting a vendor, or else be liable to lawsuits.

“These weren’t easy conversations,” Public Works Deputy Director Brette Hjelle told me, referring to the tension around the zero-dollar contract. “These issues have been building.”

The only remaining dispute seems to be about which group — Public Works or Our Streets Minneapolis — officially ended the zero-dollar contract. According to both sides, a meeting never took place to discuss the 2024 schedule. There had been a meeting on the calendar for mid-August, but it was rescheduled due to time conflicts. By the time that Ward 2 Council Member Robin Wonsley put in her newsletter that the contract had ended, the cat was out of the bag.

Open Streets in the future

At Thursday’s City Council committee meeting, Director Margaret Anderson Kelliher and division Director Jeni Hager outlined the plan for Open Streets going forward. They sketched a new plan for future street festivals and car-free events in Minneapolis. As currently planned, Public Works will be organizing two to four car-free streets events under the “As You Go Minneapolis” banner, an effort to push the city’s ambitious mode share goals. The new series will coexist with some form of Open Streets events, now run by the city’s Office of Public Service, organized locally by a group to be decided.

During the meeting, Public Works Director Anderson Kelliher fended off allegations that the end of the contract was political, as was suggested by some on the City Council.

“There is no evidence of retaliation in any way, shape or form,” Margaret Anderson Kelliher stated in a testy exchange. “The group chose not to sign the contract. They chose not to sign the zero-dollar contract. We did not decline the contract. That is why we need a look at going forward with the event.”

Meanwhile, at Our Streets Minneapolis, it seems unlikely that their goal — a significant organizing allocation from the Minneapolis city budget — will come to fruition. Reading the City Council tea leaves during the meeting, ideologically centrist council members like Andrew Johnson were vigorous in defending Public Works’ role in the contract negotiations.

Our Streets Minneapolis is evolving

For most people participating, the events on the ground seem unlikely to change all that much. There will likely be fewer Open Streets and less programming, but nobody yet knows what a future Open Streets Minneapolis will look like.

As someone who was at the very first Open Streets event on Lyndale Avenue in 2011, the entire effort has always been rather contingent. I often wonder what might have happened if it had rained on that particular Sunday (as it threatened to do), and whether Open Streets would have even continued in Minneapolis in the first place. Many people and businesses were skeptical about the concept at the time, but the proof was in the pudding. People turned out in droves, businesses made money and people reclaiming city streets made local history.

Open Streets on Franklin
There will likely be fewer Open Streets and less programming, but nobody yet knows what a future Open Streets Minneapolis will look like. Photo by Bill Lindeke, courtesy of MinnPost

Going forward, it seems like Minneapolis will be returning to that more experimental future. Judging from what Public Works Director Anderson Kelliher said, future As You Go Minneapolis events will feature existing newly completed infrastructure — for example, an event closing Bryant Avenue or Grand Avenue to cars, featuring the new reconstruction projects on those streets.

As I understand it, Our Streets Minneapolis seems resolved to turn their attention toward wholesale advocacy. It’s another step in the continued evolution of the transportation advocacy group, which began in 2009 as a response to the terrible bicycling conditions on downtown’s Hennepin Avenue.

“I want to add that [the current arrangement] is exploitative,” said Zayas Cabán. “The staff time for Open Streets is done heroically by one person, Ember Rasmussen. All the things that people enjoy about Open Streets, that costs a lot of money. For that burden to just fall on the organization while also trying to fulfill our mission, we should go into a relationship that’s more conventional.”

Under the leadership of Zayas Cabán and previous directors, Our Streets Minneapolis has placed greater focus on racial justice issues around transportation. For example, the “Rethinking 94” organizing efforts, and their work around a campaign focused on 6th Street in Minneapolis’ historically marginalized near north neighborhood offer examples of how that will look.

“The budgets we submitted are not that ambitious,” said Zayas Cabán. “We want to do this next year [and] for 10 years, fairly and sustainably.”

There’s another question about how and with whom the city of Minneapolis chooses to spend its considerable annual budget around public space activation. Current expenses include over $600,000 for the Downtown Council, who are running a series of weekend car-free street events called Warehouse District Live along 1st Avenue. Needless to say, there’s an ideological gulf between the Downtown Council and Our Streets Minneapolis, the latter of which has become deeply focused on racial equity work. While I think city funding for Open Streets would be a great investment, city budgets are a hard game of triage.

Warehouse District Live
The Downtown Council is running a series of weekend car-free street events called Warehouse District Live along 1st Avenue. Photo by Bill Lindeke, courtesy of MinnPost

Meanwhile, Open Streets is in at least as good a shape as any other Twin Cities street festival, which is to say, not great. Events like St Paul’s Grand Old Day and the Little Mekong Night Market (RIP), or Minneapolis’ legendary Mayday Paradeare facing greater hurdles.

Enjoy a street fair while it lasts, as you never know how long that will be. The next Open Streets will be on Sept. 16 and Oct. 8, on West Broadway and Lyndale Avenues respectively. Savor every minute. While you’re there, think of the underpaid labor that went into it. That part of the story won’t happen again.