Biking, Walking & Blogging: Bicycling and walking are core values in Seward—An Interview with Katya Pillingand Sheldon Main

From Joan Pasiuk, Program Director, Bike Walk Twin Cities

How do neighborhoods express their transportation vision and values? How do we cultivate, at the grassroots level, a personal stake in more walkable and bikeable neighborhoods.

I spoke with two key figures in the Seward neighborhood of South Minneapolis—Katya Pilling of Redesign group and Sheldon Main of the Seward Neighborhood Group—about the development of the neighborhood.

Joan: Tell us about Seward Redesign and Seward Neighborhood Group. What role do your organizations play in the neighborhood?

Katya: Seward Redesign was created forty years ago by neighborhood residents who were fighting urban renewal projects. A project came up to take out an additional third of the neighborhood and the people that lived there made it clear that the homes were valued by the community. That street turned into the Milwaukee Avenue that we know now -- the first planned unit development in the city of Minneapolis. The power of grassroots activism is a part of our collective history and the culture of Seward neighborhood. We recently updated our mission statement to say “Redesign uses development to engage the energy and creativity of residents and businesses in the evolution of neighborhoods to serve future generations.”  

Sheldon: Seward Neighborhood Group has been around for fifty years, which makes us one of the oldest neighborhood organizations in the city. Our mission is to make the Seward neighborhood a better place to live, work, and play. We are based in community participation and organization, and less on the development side. While we often cooperate with Seward Redesign group, our goals can be different and we can disagree –it’s a creative tension.

Katya: There are a number of projects we can point to, like the Franklin Avenue vision, as good examples of how the Seward Neighborhood Group, the Seward Civic and Commerce Association, and Redesign can bring our expertise together to benefit the neighborhood. The community put together a set of values to guide future development. What I’m excited about is the risk-taking that happened in the process. Sometimes when you seek large input you can end up with the lowest common denominator.  But for Seward, they identified that “for people in the neighborhood, bicycling, walking and public transit are prime modes of transportation.”

Sheldon: A number of businesses in the area have metro-wide audiences and do rely on cars for a lot of their patrons. Even the Seward Coop advertises throughout the metro. There is that recognition but in spite of that, the neighborhood values multi-modal transportation and even those businesses support multi-modal transportation.

Joan: To what extent did the business community buy into that vision?

Katya: Property and business owners were included in the process. We started talking about Seward as green, but what does the word “green” mean? In terms of infrastructure, the neighborhood wants the city to explore ways to reuse the structures already there. We should always strive to have just enough of things like parking. We really want to approach it from what can we do creatively at the grassroots level by asking questions like, “What is within our control and how do we add that with strategic infrastructure?”

Joan:  BWTC has been working with the city to reduce motor vehicle lanes (road diet) and incorporate bike lanes on Riverside Avenue. Riverside is a critical corridor with many neighborhood and regional destinations. There will be a total reconstruction of Riverside in coming years. How will your organizations come into play?

Katya: We created a pedestrian safety taskforce and have representatives from our three neighborhood organizations, the city and the county, and Transit for Livable Communities. The taskforce talks about Franklin Avenue and the immediate goals of how to implement changes. We have a group of stakeholders, relationships with key government entities and folks who are becoming educated through the process. We’ve had engineers in to talk with us about what is possible.  We’ll meet with the city engineers for Riverside as well. We’re a working group.

Sheldon: We already know of some major issues for Riverside and Seward. One is the bike connection. The plan is to have bike lanes to the east on Franklin but there are no plans to continue the bike lanes the whole length of Franklin Avenue. We’ve talked about a bike boulevard down 29th as well. We have an issue with people driving through neighborhoods because you can’t turn left onto Riverside from Franklin when you’re heading east. We also have parking issues. We do fairly well dealing with conflict and working things through in the neighborhood, but not everyone’s happy.

Joan: The reconstruction of Riverside will be influenced by the travel patterns the City predicts from the new Central Corridor light rail train line.

Sheldon: I don’t know that the models are correct for the Central Corridor project.  You have to push back on the models and really question them. Another concern is that the engineers will do the engineering before coming to the community. We’ve had more success with developers when they’ve come to the community early and said, “We’re planning to do x,” so the community can be involved in the process. One thing we’re asking is, what are the assumptions going into the model? What are the basic assumptions of the development, what are you focusing on? Good things can happen when you get everyone involved early. Engineers are not trained to get the community involved, but it tends to work really well. That has to happen with Riverside because it can’t be just driven by the models. It’s not purely an engineering decision.

Katya: With the Franklin planning process, we had grassroots engagement on pedestrian safety. We did two things. First, we started a pedestrian safety crossing guard program.  We’ve done it on an ongoing basis; it raises awareness. We also received part of the city’s climate change grant and have wagons available at the Co-op for individuals to check out. At no charge patrons may take the wagons home, unload their merchandise, and bring the wagons back.

Joan: Do the local businesses appreciate the bike and walk connections or is it more the residents that advocate?

Katya: The bike parking was really led by the business community. They recognize that they need it in order to serve the clientele. It’s also good publicity because it’s part of the culture of Seward and to be able to be in Seward, you want to be a bike friendly business.

Sheldon: One example is that a number of businesses participated in the bike rack program. There are a lot of “Seward Design” bike racks at the co-op. Also, between 23rd Avenue and Milwaukee Avenue, there is a whole block of bike racks put in by two businesses, Hoffman Guitar and Second Moon Coffee. Businesses throughout Seward installed bike racks. All the businesses paid 50%.

Joan: What have you learned about how to create more bikeable and walkable communities? What can you say to other community groups and neighborhoods who are hoping to achieve similar things?

Sheldon: Don’t focus on one huge massive project. While those are great for publicity, they take a lot of time. Start with little things. The community notices those little changes and they build your credibility.

Katya: It’s how it all fits together. We’ve got a plan that articulates what is important to us –we’ve done little projects like bike parking, but at the same time we’re working on large projects like the Bystrom Bros project , which is transit oriented development at Minnehaha Ave and Franklin. Our neighborhood wants it. The changes will improve pedestrian access to the light-rail station while also improving access through the site to the bikeway. We want to make changes that knit together the infrastructure at the edges as effectively as we can.

Sheldon: That’s a case where we’re not going to initially get everything we want. Fixing the 22nd St connection to Cedar is all we’re getting right now, but that will eventually allow us to get the rest. When you have a small victory, have a party and celebrate it. If you have failure, learn from it and move on. Just keep trying to push. Find your local bicycle advocates, get them involved. Find what people are interested in doing and try a variety of things.  Don’t lose sight of the bigger issues.

Joan: Is that a message the neighborhood group has started to deliver to the neighborhood?

Katya: We were talking about what that has to do with our overall community agenda. We’ve created an opportunity for people to live in a place where they aren’t car dependent. Everything is within walking distance from Franklin. We have a healthy commercial main street.

Sheldon: When I moved here 30 years ago, people asked why I was moving to Seward and I replied that I like the idea of being able to walk to the bank that has my mortgage.

Katya: What would have happened if our organizations hadn’t been there? It’s easy to say now, “we have these things and they work,” but if Redesign wasn’t there, what would have happened?  If we were a private developer, we would have had different uses here. People would pay good money to bring something in that wouldn’t fit with the pedestrian design of the community. Instead, we were able to bring businesses in that fit with the community values and see how that affects the overall district. And not every neighborhood has that vehicle to do that.

Joan: Let me ask about the people at the table during this process. Who’s there, who’s not at the table? Seward has a large Somali population, for example.

Sheldon: First, don’t assume that everyone can make it around a table. For Franklin planning, we’ve had great communication with the Somali community.  First, we had two Franklin Ave walks where local businesses provided food and we gave every group a disposable camera to take pictures of what they liked and didn’t like. We worked to get Somali residents in those walking groups and had a great turn out. About one-fourth to one-third of the participants were East African immigrants. We next had meetings in the Seward Towers apartments as part of their monthly resident meetings. We also had child care at the big Saturday meetings. The participation varies, but you have to come up with different ways of involving people. It can’t always be around a table.

Katya: What excites me about neighborhood development and neighborhood groups is that we’re encouraged to be on the cutting edge. We can take risks and make innovative changes.

Katya Pilling is the Associate Director of Redesign, a nonprofit community development corporation that serves the Seward, Longfellow, Howe, Hiawatha, and Cooper neighborhoods of the Greater Longfellow Community. Their mission is to plan, advocate, and implement development that responds to community priorities and creates living-wage jobs, affordable housing, and quality goods and services.

Sheldon Main is the President of the Seward Neighborhood Group (SNG). Established in 1960, SNG is one of the oldest neighborhood organizations in Minneapolis. Their mission is to make Seward a better place to live, work and play. SNG is a volunteer-driven organization with an elected Board of Directors that focuses on community development, crime and safety, environment, history, and restorative justice.