The $23 million reconstruction of Hennepin Avenue in downtown Minneapolis will bring with it protected bike lanes, wider sidewalks and better streetlights when it’s finished in 2022.
One thing it won’t have: Any public seating along the stretch from 12th Street to Washington Avenue.
Benches and planters with seating were removed from the street once construction began last year. The new designs, approved by the City Council last year, don’t bring them back.
The decision has distressed those who see public seating as a necessary component of any walkable street, especially one of the most traveled in the city. Bright with neon lights and theater marquees, the sidewalks of Hennepin Avenue are often busy with people shuffling over to baseball and basketball games, standing in line to get into shows or heading to dance and drink at nightclubs.
People use benches to rest tired legs, tie their shoes, readjust shopping bags, take off layers and more, said Julia Curran, a member of the city’s Pedestrian Advisory Committee.
“Anyone who has ever walked … knows that sometimes you need to sit down,” Curran said. “It’s absolutely fundamental to being human: to walk and to sit and to walk and to sit.”
She said it directly affects downtown’s homeless population and others who used the benches in the past.
“The concern is about poor people of color,” Curran said. “There’s a sense of being in public as being a bad thing if you’re not within a certain demographic. And it’s actively hostile.”
Last month, the Pedestrian Advisory Committee issued a resolution condemning the city for omitting seating from the Hennepin Avenue redesign, saying it failed “to even reinstall basic pedestrian infrastructure that was previously in place.”
City officials said it’s about money, not policy. Business and property owners, who will be assessed for the improvements, objected to the cost of the seating, which was part of the initial design for the sidewalks, said Don Elwood, the director of transportation engineering and design leading the reconstruction.
The design package was brought down to $4 million from an initial $6.5 million, he said. Other amenities, including additional lighting and larger tree grates, were also eliminated.
“The good news is, we can put that seating in later,” Elwood said. “I’m hopeful that we can still put that in in the future and it wouldn’t be as costly to do it.”
One business owner said he hoped the benches don’t come back.
Benches and planters were stationed in front of Infinity Smokes, a tobacco shop that opened by Hennepin and 9th Street 10 years ago. Owner Tariq Hamouda said he saw the people congregated around them take part in drug deals, fights and robberies.
Groups would stay until dawn and sleep on the benches under blankets. All that went away once they were removed, he said.
“That’s good for people that come to downtown Minneapolis,” Hamouda said. “Because they got harassed by people that sat in those seats. People were scared.”
Others are torn.
Brave New Workshop, a sketch and improv theater next to Infinity Smokes, usually had large groups of loiterers under the marquee before shows, box office manager Thalia Kostman said. Although occasional fights broke out and security was needed to shepherd people into the theater, she said not having seating would make the street less inviting.
“From the point of view of the business, it’s probably good,” she said. “From my point of view, it’s complicated. Because there are a lot of homeless people downtown. It’s a little unfair.”
The Harbor Light Center, a homeless shelter run by the Salvation Army, is located a couple of blocks behind those businesses. During the day, many of the shelter’s guests gather at the Minneapolis Central Library downtown, roam the skyways or disperse across the city, said Trish Thacker, the shelter’s executive director.
While Thacker doesn’t think business owners who oppose the benches had bad intentions, she said removing public seating marginalizes people who don’t have anywhere to go.
“Having a place to be and feeling welcome is a big deal. This population of people is vulnerable to crimes of livability and feeling kind of targeted that way,” she said. “Something like not having a place to sit brings all that up for people, and they can feel forgotten or not cared for.”
Sidewalks won’t be entirely without seats once the street is reconstructed. Restaurants will keep their fenced-off patios, and new bus shelters are expected to have benches, Metro Transit spokesman Howie Padilla said.
The renovation of Nicollet Mall in 2017 prominently featured new seating, in the form of colorful Adirondack chairs lining the street. Council Member Steve Fletcher said he’s open to discussing adding benches to Hennepin Avenue in the future.
“If we get eight benches on Hennepin, that doesn’t solve the problem of the probably hundred benches that we need downtown,” he said.
With benches removed and the avenue reduced to two lanes by construction, the sidewalks were mostly deserted Tuesday morning. One lonely bench was pressed against a restaurant on the southeast corner of 9th and Hennepin.