Lake Street Makeover: Designing for Small Business Success

Consider a $25 million, three year project to repave a major arterial boulevard that carries about 26,000 cars a day, and you can imagine the fears of disruption in the hearts of hundreds of business owners on Lake Street. But just 10 blocks to the north, recent experience with the remake of Franklin Avenue has business owners saying that all of the headaches are worth it.

When Franklin Avenue underwent its streetscaping and rebuilding in 2000, Theresa Carr, director of the American Indian Business Development Corporation, was worried. “We had just opened the Ancient Traders Market, filled with brand new businesses, and suddenly the street was under major construction for four months—it was a huge challenge,” Carr recalls. “We learned that good communication with the businesses was essential. At the end of the project, not a single one of our businesses was lost, and the benefits from the project have been more dramatic than we thought.”

The lessons learned at Franklin Avenue will be critical to making the Lake Street reconstruction and streetscaping a success. Hennepin County will rebuild Lake Street in three phases, from 2005 to 2007. The County has scheduled the next two segments for construction in the following two years. According to Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, “the key to making this huge project a success is active community and business involvement. Between now and construction in 2005, we have committed to engage in an extensive process of engagement and communication to create the best design and mitigate the difficulties of construction.” This public involvement process will follow some of the lessons learned on Franklin Avenue.

Maria Hoyos opened Maria’s Café on Franklin Avenue in January, 2000, and six months later, the street closed down. “What really made the whole project work was good communication,” Maria believes. “We had a 24-hour question-line we could call, we had regular meetings to talk about the construction and what could be done to improve it for us, and we received written updates regularly—knowing where the project was and what was coming up was really important.” Now, Maria has expanded twice since opening her doors, and she sees many businesses thriving along Franklin Avenue that did not exist before the street reconstruction.

Livable by Design

Carr credits the effective streetscaping design for much of the Franklin Avenue’s revitalization. “We now have wider, more pedestrian-friendly sidewalks, much more lighting, and landscaping that isn’t a hiding place for crime. Little things like flowers make a big difference in livability, and our businesses have translated that into success.” The neighborhood’s engagement with this design process, and their willingness to change their own buildings to integrate with the designs of the street and sidewalks, have led to reduced crime, a livable neighborhood, and business growth. That high standard will guide the Lake Street process, and is another reason for supporting community involvement.

Hennepin County has formed a Project Advisory Committee (PAC) to guide the design, construction management, and community involvement in the project. The PAC’s workload will be heavy until 2005, and will continue after. Among their tasks will be to help set the project schedule, develop an organizational structure for public participation, develop a traffic management and parking plan for construction, and participate in streetscape planning. The PAC will begin work after Labor Day, and their first task will be reviewing and approving their own goals and objectives.

Ted Mueller, the executive director of the Lake Street Council, is a member of the PAC and believes that business owners will play close attention to this process. “The parking, detour, and special assessment issues will be of vital interest to the Lake Street businesses,” Mueller explained. “The key here is for everyone to help build a vision of a new Lake Street that helps businesses and neighborhoods to thrive.”
As Commissioner Gail Dorfman notes, “it’s a long process, but in the end, only active participation by neighbors and businesses will lead to a successful project. We want this project to be about much more than asphalt—it’s about strengthening our communities along Lake Street.