The urban environment is far too often a reflection of past mistakes that have long-lasting social and economic consequences. The conflict between suburban and urban planning while designing Hennepin County Road 81 (West Broadway Avenue in north Minneapolis) is a key example of what can go wrong when citizens are either left out of a process or ignored by their political leaders.
For several years, Hennepin County has planned to reconstruct a large section of West Broadway. Construction begins this spring but not without controversy. The plan fails to address community concerns about safety and green spaces.
The county plans to remove several existing stoplights in areas in which more than 50 percent of the population is under age 17. County officials appear more than willing to compromise the safety of children who cross the street to buy groceries or go to school. Also, the only green elements are located at the border between north Minneapolis and Robbinsdale.
North-side residents want more numerous and accessible transit stops and streetscapes with community art and green boulevards.
Our leaders often forget that West Broadway is a main artery of the north Minneapolis community, not the thoroughfare to the suburbs. The reconstruction plan is a pre-eminent example of what happens to a community corridor when leaders remain territorial, fail to share information with each other and the community, and act in ways that do not invigorate urban communities. Indeed, when our elected and appointed leaders do these things, they actively participate in the degradation of neighborhoods. Impacted neighborhoods (the combination of minority and low income populations) that border West Broadway get hit the hardest.
Two years ago, according to West Broadway Area Coalition executive director Kari Neathery, the coalition, neighborhoods of Hawthorne, Jordan, Near North and Willard-Hay, 68 businesses and police lobbied against the reconstruction plan or were simply not consulted.
At that point, those groups could have worked together to change the county’s plan. However, as in most situations like this, they assumed the county and city would take their opinions, concerns and suggestions into consideration and change the plan to reflect their opposition. But the county moved forward with its plan. My conversations with community members have made it clear that north Minneapolis citizens did not know they were sidestepped in this process and that the West Broadway repaving plan might not be as safe or green as they would have liked.
Now, Hennepin County officials steadfastly argue the plan cannot be altered. The officials say they are giving enough stoplights. The county has expressed that the block or two of green space to be added at the Robbinsdale boundary was a gracious gift. Robbinsdale residents are mostly the beneficiaries of this gift.
Sadly, state aid standards for highways – West Broadway is a county state-aid highway – only define suburban and rural highways. So, as we have seen lately, the Twin Cities area is building suburban main streets while a north Minneapolis main street with actual history and real character is neglected.
Ultimately, we need leaders who actively work for change, not white county bureaucrats who lack creativity and Minneapolis officials who vigorously work only for rich, predominantly white neighborhoods, suburbs and, noting the Interstate 35W access project, big businesses. We should concentrate on the revitalization of our inner cities. We should also discuss the use of an urban avenue such as West Broadway by people who live in the community versus its main use as a highway for suburban inhabitants. Residents, businesses, city government and county government have conflicting interests. Yet these disparate groups must come together for the health, safety and well-being of impacted neighborhoods.
Community struggles such as these often bring forth a key question: If democracy fails at the local level, what chance does it have at the federal level?
Whatever happens in the coming months with the West Broadway reconstruction, north-side residents will have to live for at least 50 years (the predicted road life) with the ramifications of our leaders’ actions.
Joel T. Helfrich is a columnist. Send comments to [email protected]