The Benefits of Closing a Street

We need to move beyond Open Streets and start taking concepts that work on a temporary basis and make them permanent features.

When the streets turn back into uninhabitable congested roadway the following day I’m left asking myself, ‘What’s the point?’

Open Streets closes down auto-oriented streets in Minneapolis and St. Paul along major corridors and opens them up to pedestrians, cyclists, strollers and skaters for one-time events. The transformation is astonishingly beautiful. But, when the streets turn back into uninhabitable congested roadway the following day I’m left asking myself, “What’s the point?”

This is a common question. If not permanent, then what?

Herein lies a perception problem with tactical urbanism and ciclovía-styled events. They must go beyond the event and aim for a greater good. Open Streets must be a tactic in a broader strategy, and merely raising awareness may not be enough to accomplish their mission of enhancing healthy living, local business, sustainable transportation and civic pride. The goal of tactical urbanism is to be a testing ground, and this should be the selling point for the start of the project.

I mean no disrespect to Open Streets. I admire and applaud the organizers. They’re an excellent organization and I support them 100 percent. But, among all their other much needed work, there must be collaboration on behalf of the cities beyond just permitting it. They must join forces to help make these important infrastructure adjustments the other 364 days of the year.

One of the best examples is in Minneapolis: Milwaukee Avenue.

The Milwaukee Avenue Historic District runs for two blocks in South Minneapolis and is composed of small homes built for lower-income residents between 1880 and 1890 on quarter-sized lots. Deterioration occurred throughout the second World War and preservationists in the 1970s helped save the homes and turn the street into a park. Today, Milwaukee Avenue is a stunning place.

Closed streets have livablity, but what does that mean? It’s a soft, open-ended concept that doesn’t mean much. I wanted to see if the livability of a closed street created any monetary return. I took Milwaukee Avenue and compared the property values against a similar nearby street open to vehicle traffic.

There are no perfect equivalents when comparing complex urban environments. Here are important notes about the comparison:

  • The homes along Milwaukee Avenue are smaller and more compact when compared to their neighbors, but have more architectural character.
  • The homes on nearby 26th Avenue were likely built for middle-class residents, whereas Milwaukee Avenue homes were built for the city’s lower class.
  • Commercial properties on the corner of each street at the intersection were excluded for this analysis.
  • 26th Avenue South included three (3) tax-exempt properties owned by the County. In an effort to be fair, since no value is assessed on public record, I assigned each property the mean value of all other properties ($209,986).

The math speaks for itself;

  • Milwaukee Avenue has 47 properties with an average value of $223,647 with an overall market rate taxable value of $10,511,400.
  • 26th Avenue  has 38 properties with an average value of $209,986 with an overall market rate taxable value of $7,979,458.

In this comparison, the closed street has a total taxable value of $2,531,942 more than its neighborhood (approx. 31 percent). Again, I’d like to put this into perspective: Milwaukee Avenue has smaller lots, smaller homes and was originally built as affordable housing. This means the City of Minneapolis takes in about $43,043 more in property tax revenue per year on these two blocks.

There are wide streets all over Minneapolis that have limited functionality in our grid network. Upon repaving and/or reconstructing, we need to really examine whether or not we actually need these streets for vehicles, especially if the homes have adequate alleyway access. There is no reason we can't do this on one out of each 10 city blocks.

This is where Open Streets comes back into the equation. How can they (and we) help sell this idea of a closed street as a permanent fixture for creating a permanent and tangible community value? I don’t believe that Open Street events are just “feel-good projects”, they are real economic development if transitioned into infrastructure. Imagine the value that could be created by the City of Minneapolis if they were to replicate the success of Milwaukee Avenue?

(Top photo: A pedestrian-based street in Carlton Landing, OK)

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