Why a city investment in Open Streets would be a bargain for Minneapolis

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I imagine that for people in Minneapolis living near one of the city’s commercial streets, the annual Open Streets event might come as a surprise. Maybe they’ve spotted signs around the neighborhood telling them to move their car, and maybe they didn’t. Then, one weekend day, barricades appear at all the intersections. Like magic, the cars are removed from major streets like Lyndale, Broadway or Franklin.

The typical Open Streets event lasts for less than six hours, a low-key street fair where a few miles of a main street is blocked to motorized traffic on a Saturday afternoon. People from all over the neighborhood flock to the street, go on walks, ride bikes or take their kids on adventures. Meanwhile, nearby businesses, organizations and artists set up shop, and for many people, the food is the highlight. Unlike the deep fried carts of summer fairs, it’s usually restaurants, cafés or church groups selling a wide diversity of tasty treats.

For 11 years, Open Streets has been a popular addition to the city’s summer calendar. But the organization that runs it, Our Streets Minneapolis, has hit a wall. A lack of funding means cuts to the number of events and limits to outreach. With an event that promotes community building, public health, and public safety, it’s clear that Minneapolis should dedicate city money to expand Open Streets in the future.

Something to treasure

For most people, Open Streets starts on a Saturday in June, but for Ember Rasmussen, Our Streets Minneapolis’ community development and events manager, it begins in January. That’s when the organization begins reaching out to Minneapolis 70-odd neighborhood groups.

“Each one of these events takes a significant amount of outreach to neighborhood associations, talking to every business on the route, making sure everyone knows it’s going to happen, coordinating all the permits, making sure performers have what they need,” Rasmussen said.

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While the city of Minneapolis does provide “in kind” support, primarily in the form of the police staffing to close off the streets, there’s still a lot on Rasmussen’s table. For one thing, there are all kinds of permits: everything from noise amplification to the SP-19 permit (allowing sales to the public) to working with food regulations.

After March, when vendor applications open up, Open Streets is “off to the races,” as Rasmussen puts it. From that point in, their job consists of wrangling a thousand community cats.

Especially now, when parades and street fairs are dropping like flies, folks in Minneapolis should treasure Open Streets more than ever. It’s one of the most successful such programs in the country, a great U.S. example of a global trend around reusing streets to emphasize biking, walking and community.

A brief history of Open Streets

When Minneapolis Open Streets began in 2011, it represented the culmination of years of work by a Minneapolis-based planning consultant named Colin Harris. Harris spent a lot of his free time setting up dozens of meetings with different city staff, and lobbying them to try one of these new “open street” events.

At first, many city departments — police, public works, community planning — were skeptical that it would work. Would small businesses go for it? Would people actually show up? Would there be traffic chaos?

At the time, nobody really knew.

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Given the untested idea, a lot hinged on the weather on that particular Saturday 11 years ago. As I remember, there was drizzle that morning and it was chillier than a typical June Saturday. I sometimes wonder what might have happened to the movement if it had stayed cold and rainy back in 2011, whether or not Open Streets Minneapolis might have simply fizzled out.

Thankfully, the rain held off and the weather stayed pleasant. That day, for the first time since the arrival of the motorcar to Minneapolis, normally traffic-choked Lyndale Avenue became a place for people to come together without honking.

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke

A scene from Open Streets on Lyndale Avenue in 2011.

Dads taught kids to ride bikes on the open stretches of pavement, folks walked dogs along the curb, outdoor games emerged from sheds, and asphalt turned into plazas. Many small businesses did record sales, and the shops on each side of Lyndale seemed connected in a new way.

To me anyway, it felt like a whole new street was born. The rest is history.

Funding model forces tough choices

During the 11-year entire run of Open Streets Minneapolis, there’s only ever been one staff person organizing it all, despite the fact that the event has grown rapidly.

“Because of staff capacity and resources, it’s just not feasible for us to do seven or more events per year,” said Rasmussen, explaining the cuts to the Northeast and Nicollet events for 2022. Rasmussen, who’s had the job for a little over a year, has experience in the food service industry and as a staffer at Paisley Park. In other words, they’re used to juggling and dealing with complex logistics.

But it’s still a lot. In the early years, Open Streets had grant funding from the city of Minneapolis and Blue Cross/Blue Shield health insurance. These days, it survives on its own, relying on user fees from street vendors, a structure that forces Our Streets Minneapolis to make tough choices.

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“Looking at equity of events and route selection, we have to sometimes select events based on profitability,” Rasmussen told me. “It’s important to be financially solvent, but with some of our events we literally lose money on them. We might not have enough money coming in from people who are purchasing spots on the street.”

Earlier this year, Our Streets Minneapolis ran a (so-far) unsuccessful campaign to get dedicated Open Streets funding from Minneapolis. Financial support from the city would allow them to expand their capacity, and make sure that, in the future, Open Streets could grow and become more equitable.

One thing in particular that Ember Rasmussen would love to be able to do is hire people who speak some of Minneapolis’ other languages, to do more outreach with communities of color.

“Lake Street has a lot of Hispanic and Latino businesses,” Rasmussen said, pointing to the upcoming Open Streets East Lake, set for Aug. 13. “It’s a strong cultural corridor, but they are saying to us that their perception, for whatever reason, is that Open Streets isn’t a place for them. A big part of that is not speaking the language. For that to be a true celebration of the community on Lake Street, we need to be able to actually talk to people in their first language.”

In my opinion, a city investment in Open Streets would be a bargain for Minneapolis. Especially these days, following a pandemic and years of intense community stress, few things have the potential to bring people together like Open Streets. Some funding would pay big dividends in community building, public health benefits and literally bringing people together to appreciate the city’s public spaces in a new way.

Even without more funding and the equity that would come with it, the festival will be a blast.

The first of five Open Streets events is this Saturday along three miles of Lyndale Avenue, which officially opens to people on foot at 11 a.m. If you haven’t gone before, head down there and appreciate one of south Minneapolis’ best corridors in a new way.

Ember Rasmussen will be there, of course, and hopefully won’t be too frantic. “I’m going to have a blast,”  Rasmussen exclaimed. “There’s definitely stress at the event, and I’m often looking around, making sure everything is fine, or picking up trash on the side of the road. But after the hours and months of work talking about them with people, and getting people to sign up, being able to walk down the street and see the people of Minneapolis out together in community — it’s really really rewarding.”