Hennepin Avenue, the cultural spine of Minneapolis, is more of an axis with intermittent hot-spots than a continuously active pedestrian space. To help fill in the missing gaps, many of the cultural organizations that line the avenue came together to work with the city in transforming the historic urban corridor into a cohesive and dynamic public space.
Minneapolis is home to several world-class cultural institutions, and many of them are located downtown on Hennepin Avenue. This critical corridor links the Mississippi Riverfront with this arts and commercial district. Hennepin Avenue is home to the new Cesar Pelli-designed library, the restored Cowles Center for Performing Arts, Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, the historic Pantages, State, and Orpheum Theaters, and the Herzog & de Meuron-designed Walker Arts Center. The city’s oldest street, it carries a 500-year history as a pathway, meeting ground, and a place of cultural exchange. Running from the banks of the Mississippi River to the Walker Art Center, today the approximately mile and a half long downtown stretch of Hennepin Avenue remains the current and historic heart of the social and cultural life of the city, a serves as a destination for millions each year for arts, business, education, entertainment, religious and sports activities.
The area around Hennepin Avenue was recently designated as a business improvement district (BID), with an eye toward growing the area’s residential population to 70,000 by the year 2025. This goal came about through a planning initiative of the Downtown Council, which created the Downtown Minneapolis 2025 Plan. Within the plan, city officials recognized that Hennepin Avenue, which was already a culturally rich urban area, was important for fostering growth in the Downtown and for the city’s vitality as a whole. As with any other dense urban area however, projects organizers would have to engage a diverse community of citizens in the surrounding area. In an effort to make the project’s overall planning approach as inclusive, creative, and participatory as possible, the team reached out to neighborhood organizations, the area’s business community, and cultural institutions in order to create a larger public dialogue about the future of the area.
Despite this historic and contemporary significance, many vacant and underdeveloped public and private properties dotted the avenue, diminishing its potential as a vibrant urban space. Hennepin Avenue was described as “uneven” with a mix of vibrant blocks and underutilized blocks, characterized by vacant storefronts and surface parking lots. Local stakeholders recognized that in order to leverage the full strength of the area’s cultural institutions, they needed to connect the existing destinations into a cohesive pedestrian experience, rather than having isolated activity spots along the avenue. In addition, there was a need for an overarching neighborhood-based plan that could help guide land use decisions in a consistent way and closely link revitalization efforts along the avenue with the the larger downtown planning initiatives that were currently being sponsored by the city.
The project emerged from the desire to create a vibrant and livable mixed-use urban area filled with cultural activities. Coming together under the umbrella organization of Hennepin Theatre Trust, avenue-based cultural and business leaders set out to create an urban corridor defined not only by its cultural amenities but by green space, courtyards, event space, restaurants, and street-level shops that would connect everything together. The Trust expanded its mission beyond individual buildings to community culture development, as they wanted to weave the together the disparate parts of the Avenue using arts and culture as the vehicle and building on the assets that were already there. "Imagine walking out of the Walker Art Center, through the sculpture garden, down Hennepin and have two miles of seamless and interesting activities," says Tom Hoch, President of the Hennepin Theatre Trust. This vision aligned with the Downtown Council’s 2025 Plan and their efforts to increase vibrancy and activity in the downtown area. Project leaders also knew the importance of making sure that the vision was one that was truly shared between all the stakeholders along the avenue. To do this, they would create a community engagement process fully inclusive of the wide range of area stakeholders—from residents to business owners, and from cultural leaders to local youth.
Hennepin Theater Trust took the lead on the project and worked closely with Walker Art Center and Artspace to help involve local artists inthe planning process. The team also worked with the City of Minneapolis to ensure that they were able to facilitate creative, cross-sector solutions to the challenges facing the avenue. Tom Borrup of Creative Community Builders, came in to manage the planning process and the various artists who became involved. As part of its strategy to formulate comprehensive solutions, project managers also tapped companies with expertise in planning. AECOM, a design firm with offices on Hennepin Avenue, for example, provided considerable pro bono contributions, including site analysis, participating in the artist-led public process, and building a 42-foot-long, 1:20 scale model of Hennepin Avenue that became instrumental throughout the process. Forecast Public Art provided site analysis and developed a public art plan, while Metris Arts Consulting developed a set of indicators for use in measuring project impact. Everyone worked closely with the neighborhood associations and the Downtown Council.
- Hennepin Theatre Trust – project lead
- City of Minneapolis
- Walker Art Center
- Target Corporation
- Frauenshuh Companies
- AECOM, Inc.
To create a comprehensive plan for the new Hennepin Avenue Cultural Corridor, the team knew it needed to address streetscape design, event planning, development, public safety, and transportation. Since past experience had taught them that community planning efforts can often devolve into perennial complaints about traffic, parking, homelessness, or perceptions about crime and safety, they made a conscious decision to follow an assets-based approach and focus on identifying and leveraging the strengths of what currently exists. “As part of an assets-based process, we wanted to shift the conversation to focus on what’s already great about this place—what’s already working,” says Olga Viso, Executive Director of the Walker Arts Center. The team also put artists out front in the planning process by having them lead exercises for the community, thus bringing insights from music, movement, and story telling to the process of urban planning. This influenced not only the way people and professionals thought about the space (“What if we really embraced Hennepin Avenue as a theater of seasons with more winter activities?” Former Mayor Rybak asked,) but it also influenced how they thought about the planning process itself (“Why couldn’t our traffic and pedestrian planning be done with a choreographer?” asked project manager Tom Borup.)
- Harry Waters Jr. – Theater artist, Macalester College professor
- Leah Nelson – Independent choreographer and educator
- Ta-coumba Aiken – Independent visual artist, educator
- Mankwe Ndosi – Independent vocalist, educator
“Artist are able to help solve urban problems on so many different levels, but they sometimes move on a different time frame from standard project schedules, and that was sometimes hard to communicate to those who were used to projects happening in a certain way.”
- Tom Borup, project lead.
Project managers felt that the biggest project success was that it was able to “galvanize our community around the notion of possibilities.” In the short term, changes are already evident. Under the direction of the Hennepin Theatre Trust empty storefronts are being converted into pop-up art galleries, utility boxes that scatter the sidewalks are now painted by local artists, and surface parking areas are being transformed into public gathering spaces. As a long-term planning project, the team also established quantifiable goals. Indicators developed by Metris Arts Consulting, in collaboration with the public safety, transit, planning and economic development departments, will measure long-term impacts. (See sidebar for specific indicator information created by Metris Arts Cosulting.)
Attract people and improve experience and perceptions, measured by:
- Change in population and number of housing units.
- Change in the number of visits/multi-destination visits.
- Attendance at cultural events.
- Change in bus boardings/deboardings and light rail boardings.
- Survey questions on whether people perceive the physical experience to be more vibrant, beautiful/inspiring, walkable, and safer.
- Change in levels of proxy crimes (robbery and theft from motor vehicle).
- Crime in hotspots.
- Change in permits for sidewalk cafes.
Foster an activity-rich and inclusive cultural environment, measured by:
- Change in permits for festival and parades.
- Numbers and kinds of cultural events.
- Survey/interview questions on organizations' perceptions of audience/participants demographics and diversity/inclusivity of offerings.
Strengthen arts and cultural organizations and support artists as measured by:
- Attendance at cultural events.
- Survey/interview questions on boosts to individual organizations' visibility and exposure, boosts to patronage, opportunities & expanded capacity through collaboration/new and deeper partnerships.
- Financial performance metrics for arts and cultural nonprofits.
- New, paid opportunities: public art commissions, coordination of pop-up programs and/or tours.
- Support for artist housing and creative/cultural enterprises.
Generate positive economic momentum, indicated by:
- Change in "creative industry" business establishments and employment.
- Change in local option sales tax (sales and use, liquor, lodging, restaurant and entertainment).
- Change in overall number of business establishments.
- Change in real estate Estimate Market Value.
- Change in "creative occupation" employment.
- Annual sales in select "creative industries".
Monitor for unintended consequences and equitable revitalization by monitoring:
- Survey/interview questions on arts organization's perceptions of space affordability, and whether /benefits of cultural district participations outweigh costs.
- Red flags for gentrification-led displacement of low-income residents and people of color: change in race/ethnicity composition, change in percent white population, change in poverty levels, change in rents