Typically I would praise the folks at City Hall for their efforts to make the most out of the scant four square miles of land that Hopkins has. When projects are proposed, they focus on smart development that increases the value of the city over time. Prime examples are the transit-oriented developments planned around the light rail stations, the Blake Road corridor, and attracting medium-density developments along Main Street. It is so unfortunate that they seem to be bowing to the wills of other government entities and killing the west end of the city with the Shady Oak “Stroad” project.
Shady Oak Road, as it currently stands between Highway 7 and Excelsior Boulevard, is a two-lane remnant of crumbling back-country road that is terrible to drive on and worse to walk along. One would think that, with the city’s goals of eking out every last bit of value within the city limits and creating a smart, walkable city, that we would see plans for a rebuilt two-lane street with sidewalks and wide boulevards. Instead, they are widening this stretch to create a five-lane swath of STROAD, taking out a few houses and eliminating parking spaces for businesses along the way.
Wait, what is a “stroad” anyway? If you follow the intelligent fellows over at Strong Towns, they will start off by telling you what a “street” and a “road” are. A “street” is a collection of places lining a strip of pavement created to gain access to these places. Think of your neighborhood, or a downtown street. The intent of the pavement and sidewalk systems for a “street” are there so you can get to your house or a business. A “road” is a strip of pavement created to move cars from one place to another in the most efficient means possible, much like a highway. A “stroad” is an unfortunate hybrid of the two, an awkward stretch of pavement that is unpleasant to walk along and horribly inefficient at moving traffic (due to the high number of driveways and intersections) that typically lowers the property values of the places along it.
A “stroad” is what is planned for this stretch of Shady Oak Road, and it’s a near-mirror of what the folks over at Strong Towns have been talking about with the College Drive project going on in their city. At the open house detailing the Shady Oak Road project, they laid out the cost of the project: Hopkins is paying $2.8 million, Minnetonka is paying $2.5 million, and the federal government is chipping in $7.4 million, provided that they build it big and wide. That’s right, not only is small, urban Hopkins having to conform to Minnetonka’s suburban-sprawl method of development, we’re having to pay more and getting far less out of the deal.
And just how bad of a deal is Hopkins getting for their $2.8 million? Take a look at the map of the project. At the south end of the project (the left side of the map), Hopkins businesses are getting this wide, fast street put right up to their front doors. It eliminates their few parking spots and puts cars whizzing by mere feet from their door, providing an unsafe place for pedestrians to get in the front door. North of Main Street, the project is tearing out a commercial building and ten homes on the Hopkins side of the street. That’s a lot of valuable, taxable space that is being lost, and we’re paying $2.8 million for it. Nothing is being demolished on the Minnetonka side of the road.
This is a ridiculous project for Hopkins to be willing to partake in. There is no good reason to widen this road. The city gets no value out of putting in the means for cars to pass through that neighborhood faster. We are sacrificing businesses to the altar of bad urban planning, and for what? Oh, if we do it then the feds will toss $7.4 million our way. Once this project is finished, who in their right mind would want to start a business along this stroad? Who in their right mind would want to live along here? The property values are just going to drop, and in this economic climate cities can’t be paying money to ultimately earn less money.
And then, sometime in the future, we’re going to have to redo this $12.7 million dollar project all over again once the pavement is worn out, except that when that happens there won’t be the matching federal dollars, nor will there be the tax base along the route to help pay for the work since we will have destroyed all that taxable property.
Here’s how we could do it better:
1. Tell the feds to take their $7.4 million and shove it. There are far too many strings attached, and taking the money means diminishing the value of the places in our city for the sake of allowing cars to pass through faster.
2. Take the $5.3 million that the two cities are willing to spend and build a street, not a stroad. Keep it two lanes (three with a turn lane, if need be). Build sidewalks along the whole way. Keep the speed limit low so that drivers slow down and pay attention to the businesses along the way instead of zipping past. More importantly, keep the cars slow for the safety of the children that live along Shady Oak.
3. Divert all the big, heavy traffic to the north-south freeways that are already close by. Highway 169 isn’t far, and neither is Interstate 494. If the federal government wants to help out with this project, have them spend their $7.4 million on an interchange at 494 and Excelsior Boulevard.
4. If the city of Minnetonka still wants a stroad for cars to zip by, then why don’t they take out some homes and widen Baker Road instead? Let them destroy their own city and leave ours alone.
This project should be a non-starter for Hopkins. Freeways and highways are designed for bypassing cities, and what they’re proposing here is a highway/street hybrid that is designed with the sole intent of moving cars through faster with no regard for adding value to our city considering the expense. This is dumb. Designing a road to get cars to zip by faster does nothing to help a business, nor does it do anything for the safety and well-being of the residents whose homes won’t be destroyed by this project. It drives away customers who feel unsafe about walking up to the front door (if they notice the business at all, what with how fast they’ll be going by) and drives down the value of homes where front lawns are nothing more than useless buffers between the houses and busy roads.
My plea to the Hopkins city council is this: Don’t invest in this project if all it does is destroy homes and businesses. Work with the county and Minnetonka to rebuild the road in a way that will truly benefit the residents and businesses in our city, not just build another way for cars to bypass the town.