Transforming Residential Streets into Car-Free Greenways
By Randall Arendt
A two-block section of Milwaukee Avenue in Minneapolis, Minnesota—about 1,200 feet in length—was converted into a pedestrian greenway through joint efforts of residents and city officials after the area was designated a historic district at both the national and municipal levels. Removing vehicles from this part of the street has created a small linear park providing an extremely pleasant ambience. The conversion project works well because the 19th century lots facing Milwaukee Avenue are all served by rear lanes providing garage and surface parking access. This transformation, increasing livability while reducing infrastructure costs, provides a double win that could serve as a model not only for other older residential neighborhoods with alley access, but also for new development.
The Milwaukee Avenue Conversion
Historically, Milwaukee Avenue was platted as an alley serving lots facing 22nd and 23rd Avenues. In 1883, however, the avenue was re-platted as a narrow street (originally called 22½ Avenue) by developer William Ragan, who then created smaller lots along it for modest worker cottages. These lots, ranging from 2,200 to 3,000 square feet, are about half the depth of those in adjacent blocks, where lots average approximately 7,500 square feet. Most of the small lots along Milwaukee Avenue were occupied by Scandinavian immigrants, many of whom worked in local brickyards or for the Milwaukee Railroad. Although the lots on the west side of Milwaukee Avenue are served by a rear alley, those on the east side are not. Residents there pay the homeowners association for the use of several small parking areas, which the HOA created and maintains.
The street-conversion story began during the early 1970s, when city officials announced plans to demolish 70 percent of the homes within a 35-block area south of the downtown (including all houses on Milwaukee Avenue), using funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Many of the houses on Milwaukee Avenue had been neglected during the Great Depression and World War II, and had fallen into disrepair. Most were also nonconforming in terms of lot size and setbacks. HUD’s public process required that a project area committee, or PAC, be formed to provide public input. The PAC was the official group representing residents and other concerned citizens. Many of the PAC members were new arrivals—college professors, students, and artists—who had been attracted by the Victorian architecture and the relatively low house prices. Instead of endorsing the city’s proposal as officials had hoped, PAC members vociferously opposed it.
Angered by the demolition proposal, the PAC proposed rehabilitating the homes instead, ensuring that they all had indoor plumbing and central heating. City officials, arguing that this would cost more than razing and replacing the nonconforming buildings, essentially ignored them. This energized the opposition, which secretly filed an application for federal designation as a National Register Historic District, receiving critical assistance from the Minnesota Historical Society, which informed the PAC that approval by the Minneapolis Housing and Redevelopment Authority was not needed to obtain this protective designation.
The federal designation, granted in 1974, effectively blocked the MHRA from using HUD funds to demolish the homes and construct their planned four-story, walk-up rentals, which would have negatively affected surrounding property values. Rehabilitation was coordinated and assisted by two nonprofit groups—the Greater Minneapolis Metropolitan Housing Corporation and the Milwaukee Avenue Community Corporation—with much of the actual work performed by residents, who contributed vast amounts of sweat equity, individually and during numerous “gutting parties” that also served to further bring the community together.
Although nine severely decrepit homes were razed and replaced with replicas, 98 others were thoroughly rehabilitated, including Improvements such as new basements, plumbing, heating systems, and electrical service, plus new front porches. The houses were given historic exteriors and completely modern interiors. Although it had originally opposed the street conversion, the MHRA eventually offered low-interest mortgages and restoration grants, allowing some long-time residents to remain in their homes.
After the local (municipal) historic district was created in 1975, and with the urging of neighborhood residents, the city agreed to create the Milwaukee Avenue mall by vacating the street’s two-block length and part of a cross-street (East 22nd Street). The PAC requested the city also designate the area as a four-block planned residential district, which included properties abutting Milwaukee Avenue’s rear yards, essentially relaxing most dimensional and area standards.
In 1976, using municipal funds that had been received from HUD for urban clearance and “renewal,” the city replaced the street pavement and curbing with a central mall or greenway and a small playground on the site of the former intersection of Milwaukee Avenue and 22nd Street. The pedestrian walkway, lawn area, trees, sidewalks, and play area were designed by PAC architectural staff in collaboration with public agency engineers, and are owned and maintained by the Milwaukee Avenue Homeowners Association, which was formed in 1978 and has about 80 member homes.
Deed covenants were attached to each property, mandating the homeowners association with assessments required of each member to pay for common area maintenance, including such items as lawn mowing, tree trimming/replacement, gardening, and sidewalk snow-blowing. There is an in-ground sprinkler irrigation system for the lawn and garden areas. Annual dues are currently $600 per household. Architectural review of exteriors is performed by a MAHA architecture review committee. Volunteer clean-up days occur each spring and fall.
Despite the smaller sizes of the homes and their yards, and the reduced privacy, property values per square foot are said to be higher along Milwaukee Avenue than in other nearby neighborhoods where lots are two to three times larger. This is due to the fact that this neighborhood is unique, has architectural controls, and provides a quiet, safe, car-free walking environment along its central mall.
Precedents in Other Car-Free Pedestrian Precincts
The process of creating the necessary covenants and conveying the public street right-of-way to the Milwaukee Avenue Homeowners Association was long and difficult, but precedent exists in many cities to convert sections of streets (typically in downtown commercial areas) into car-free pedestrian precincts, closing them to vehicular traffic and replacing the asphalt with brick paving, shade trees, and benches—all paid for and maintained with municipal funds. In residential neighborhoods that are under-served by public parks, such street conversions could provide green oases, similar to pocket parks that are occasionally created on vacant lots or leftover spaces in downtown areas such as in Lewisburg, West Virginia, and Auburn, California.
This novel concept has almost unlimited potential if also applied to new development when alleys are provided, and could become part of the municipal regulatory standards governing the design of new neighborhoods and commercial areas. Indeed, many new urban communities have included such elements, from the car-free street section in Mashpee Commons in Mashpee, Massachusetts, to the short sections of “green streets” in Baldwin Park in Orlando, Florida. This concept is not at all new, as the following photo of Belgravia Court, dating from the late 1880s in Louisville, Kentucky, demonstrates. In new developments, this concept could be extended over a dozen or more blocks to create greenways thousands of feet in length, connecting neighborhoods with schools, parks, and shops. One big advantage for developers is that this open space does not consume land that could otherwise be used for homes.
This design approach reduces costs to developers (providing only sidewalks and landscaping is less expensive than paving streets and installing curbs), and also enables them to charge lot premiums, as they are not only more desirable places in which to live, but also appreciate more quickly due to the adjacent greenspace. Cities spend less on them even if they are not turned over to homeowner associations, as they do not require periodic repaving or winter snowplowing. This approach also reduces impervious cover and therefore stormwater runoff, and can provide locations to install landscaped “rain gardens” to help infiltrate runoff from roofs and sidewalks.
Such examples have been described by architect Ross Chapin as “pocket neighborhoods,” defined as “cohesive clusters of homes gathered around some kind of common ground within a larger surrounding neighborhood” where “a dozen or so neighbors may interact on a daily basis around a shared garden, quiet street or alley.” They are built at a scale “where meaningful ‘neighborly’ relationships are fostered . . . . It is the physical basis for creating community with one’s neighbors.”
Milwaukee Avenue residents report that their green “street” functions like a continuous front yard, with this shared social space creating a relaxed, friendly atmosphere where spontaneous encounters and interactions occur fairly often among the neighbors. Community spirit is high, with volunteer workdays in both spring (winter cleanup and planting) and fall (leaf raking). Summer events have included puppet shows and neighborhood nights out in August, with a winter potluck in February.
To help more neighborhoods follow the Milwaukee Avenue example, municipal governments could lower the legal and institutional obstacles facing local residents interested in taking over ownership and maintenance of such street conversions, which the city would initially create. As the University of Minnesota’s Minnesota Design Center director Thomas Fisher says:
What if other blocks in the city served by alleys did what the residents of Milwaukee Avenue accomplished: forming a homeowners’ association, taking over the street in front of their houses, and converting the road to green space, play grounds, bike paths, and pedestrian walks, with visitor parking at either end of the block? How many homeowners already have the equipment needed to clear snow, cut grass, and rake leaves in front of their property, and who wouldn’t want more space in which children can play and nature can thrive?
Randall Arendt is a landscape planner, site designer, author, lecturer, and an advocate of “conservation planning”. He is the founding president of Greener Prospects and serves as senior conservation advisor at the Natural Lands Trust in Media, Pennsylvania. In 2003 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Town Planning Institute in London, and in 2004 he was elected as an Honorary Member of the American Society of Landscape Architects. Among his six books are Rural by Design: Planning for Town and Country, entirely updated and greatly expanded in April 2015, for the American Planning Association.