Reconsidering the Nicollet Mall Redesign

There is a $20 million sum of state money that may be dedicated to redesign Nicollet Mall. While $20 million could bring some impressive changes to the pedestrian mall, these funds would represent an unfortunate misapplication of limited resources.

We need to reconnect Nicollet Avenue- not redesign Nicollet Mall.

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Nicollet Mall, the nation’s first pedestrian transit way, is one of Minneapolis’ great success stories.  It’s the heart of downtown Minneapolis and has history of being the Minneapolis’ Main Street.

The Mall came about in a time of urban turmoil across most of the United States. Cities were desperate to attract people downtown while residents were fleeing to the suburbs. Minneapolis got stakeholders together and created what was really one of the few urban success stories of the 1960s. Many cities followed suit. Most of them failed.

Fast forward to 2013. Nicollet Mall is still a great artery running through the heart of downtown. It’s bike, walk and transit friendly. It has retail, food and good amount of street life. One could even argue that Nicollet Mall is downtown Minneapolis.

Minneapolis is still waiting on $20 million in state funding to redesign for the State government. However, the city is still moving forward on a design competition. This is a bad idea for two reasons:

  1. There is nothing particuarlly wrong with how Nicollet Mall looks or functions that can’t be fixed by land use tweaks, and
  2. To achieve a much higher return on investment, the money would be better spent on other needed projects

First of all - there is nothing wrong with Nicollet Mall that can’t be fixed by a little land use tweaks (and adding some more amenities on the north side of the mall besides parking). If you traverse Nicollet Mall, you’ll quickly notice that building don’t always address the street frontage in a responsible way. That is the main culprit.

The main problem is that the buildings need to do a better job of addressing this pedestrian elements of the Mall. It needs more cafes, more food trucks, and more informal activity that integrates with building programming. But, by and large, the street does well. If anything, Nicollet Mall needs more small storefronts. It’s as simple as that. It adds to the diversity of the environment and gives people something to enjoy. Large monolithic towers may look good from afar, but often do little for the street.

Now, there might need to be a brick that needs to be fixed here and there. Add a few climate-appropriate tree. The sidewalk heating system might need some updates and some fountains re-tooled. The Mall was reconstructed in 1991. At the time, a sidewalk heating system was installed – and it’s not worked since. And guess what? It doesn’t matter. The Mall still works because snow shovels still work (and they are much cheaper).

There is also something to be said about Nicollet Mall as a historic place. While other cities were giving up, Minneapolis fought back. There is something beautiful in that. It not only fought back in 1965, but also in 1991 (which was another decade of big city turmoil). Minneapolis’ endevour worked, and it should be celebrated because it tells the great urban story of resiliency.

Re-design or not – the Mall will still be a central part of Minneapolis life. In the process of acquiring this $20 million in State money, there might be some great re-design submissions. And, I certainly do not mean to criticize city officials for trying to make downtown as great as it can possibly be, it’s just that money can be spent more strategically elsewhere.

If the City of Minneapolis is looking to really create a noticeable difference in a world of limited resources, they need to look at the corner of Nicollet Avenue and Lake Street. One would be hard pressed to find a single decision that would have a greater impact on the lives of Minneapolis residents than opening up south Nicollet to Eat Street and connecting them to the Mall in downtown.

A redesign might make Nicollet Mall more modern, green and more landscape urban-y. But, I think we need to concentrate on places where we can get the highest return on investment. When I say, “return on investment” – I’m not just referring to the city’s financial bottom line, I’m talking social and culturally. We can take a hub that has been depressed for 30 years, connect it north and south to downtown – not just for automobiles – but for pedestrians and cyclists.

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It’s been talked about for years; and people are going to keep talking about it until it’s fixed: let’s re-connect Nicollet Ave! Let’s get people together and let’s get politicians on board! Today is DFL Caucus Day in Minneapolis – bring it up in your ward! Let’s do something about Nicollet and Lake!


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26 Responses to Reconsidering the Nicollet Mall Redesign

  1. Janne April 16, 2013 at 7:54 am #

    Currently, Downtown is one street — Nicollet Mall. Maybe they could use it for a contest to redesign Hennepin between the Basilica and Franklin (or the River to Franklin?), or Washington from North Loop to 7 Corners.

  2. Brendon Slotterback
    Brendon Slotterback April 16, 2013 at 8:25 am #

    Seems to me the goal is to do both – reopen Nicollet at Lake and redesign/rebuild the Mall.

    • Nathaniel M Hood
      Nathaniel April 16, 2013 at 9:22 am #

      It is a goal to reopen Nicollet at Lake. Unfortunately, it always seems as if it is talked about with very little action behind it. It seems like it is the one project everyone supports, but no one acts upon.

      • David Levinson
        David Levinson April 18, 2013 at 7:32 pm #

        I think buying the K-mart, running Nicollet through, and redeveloping the now more valuable rest, would make a great Kickstarter project. How much do you think we need to raise?

        • Nathaniel M Hood
          Nathaniel April 19, 2013 at 9:57 am #

          That can be the next big Streets.MN project! We’d need a lot of money (Hennepin Co. values the parcel at $6.55m). What about a http://neic.coop type entity to run it?

        • Geoff Brunkhorst April 21, 2013 at 12:37 pm #

          7M for that parcel is pricey, but not unheard of. Northrup school recently was valued at 1.8M and it’s about 1/2 the size and not nearly the commercial upside (Northrup is required to be a school or senior/low rent residential).

          Building a urban density property at the Kmart site, tying Lake street, the Midtown Greenway, and Nicollet as a commercial/residential low impact (like only allowing a max of 1 (2 for handicapped) parking stall per residence, a street/greenway level commercial space, and transportation hub would be an excellent use of the space.

          Problem is that requires at least the city (and the city council… who could veto a Trader Joes with just one vote, the local Council member), county, and met council to weigh in, if not MNDOT (with the new Lake street/35W hub in design). In short, a Kickstarter project may be the ‘easiest’ part, but moving the leviathans of gov’t to a multi-use center at this location would be a ‘bridge too far’.

  3. Matthew April 16, 2013 at 8:48 am #

    Doing something to Nicollet-Lake is important, but I don’t think that the answer is simply connecting Nicollet Ave. the K-Mart is probably the reason that Eat Street between K-Mart and Franklin is so pleasant. I’d be concerned that connecting Nicollet would turn it into a crappy thoroughfare like Lyndale.

    I also agree with Janne. Downtown is mostly Nicollet Mall. Downtown needs to be better-developed for vibrant streetlife.

    Furthermore, I think it’s important to reign in some hyperbole: “One would be hard pressed to find a single decision that would have a greater impact on the lives of Minneapolis residents than opening up south Nicollet to Eat Street and connecting them to the Mall in downtown.” That’s unnecessarily over-the-top, and it disregards and disrespects the many important issues that many MInneapolis residents face.

    • Nathaniel M Hood
      Nathaniel April 16, 2013 at 9:26 am #

      It is over-the-top, but is not meant to disrespect. I do believe that if Minneapolis residents were to rank physical infrastructure projects, a sizeable number would support opening Nicollet and Lake above others. There are non-psychical infrastructure projects that are important, but I’m talking about streets, sidewalks, bike lanes, buildings, etc.

      • Geoff Brunkhorst April 21, 2013 at 12:47 pm #

        I agree with Nathaniel. While not a long time resident of south Minneapolis. I’ve been the ‘outsider’ who visited the city felt that blaisdell and lake demarcated a zone that ‘good’ Uptown, and ‘bad’ South Minneapolis in the 70′s and 80s.

        I’m not keen with Trolleys and the what not, but I do agree that Eat Street is a pleasant corridor… It would be nice for it to extend to Lake street and have a multimodal transportation center built there (with a proposed BRT and exit ramp plans for 35W Lake), it would be nice to bus to that location, xfer to trolleys or pull your bike and ride to the lakes, Midtown, eat street, etc.

        I think Nicollet can be as nice as Lyndale south of Lake, esp if built for bus/bike (such as a dual direction bike lanes.

    • Matt April 16, 2013 at 9:47 am #

      I think it would have helped if Nicollet, between 29th and Franklin, had the following:
      - Vegetated medians in many areas instead of the middle turn lane which is useless in many spots
      - Bumpouts and neckdowns

      Even if reopened at Lake, cars will still take the easiest path to travel north/south. This would be 1st and Blaisdell.

      • Peter April 16, 2013 at 10:59 am #

        Have you driven down Nicollet? That middle turn lane is absolutely needed, since cars can’t park along the curb when snow is built up, tons of people sit in the lane waiting pick up and drop people off, buses stop, and bikes go down the road. Putting a planter in the middle of Nicollet is a terrible idea. If anything, they need more traffic lanes, not fewer.

        • Matt April 16, 2013 at 12:48 pm #

          Yes, I’m on Nicollet all the time. The wide suicide turn lane is only convenient for making mid-block U-turns.

          If the driving lanes encroach on the center turn lanes because snow encroaches on the parking lanes, then that’s a snow removal issue which needs to be remedied.

          As buildings take the place of surface parking lots, there are fewer aprons that need to be served along the block faces. Furthermore, there’s no reason why these aprons need more than right in-right out access.

          Finally, there’s no need for a northbound left turn lane at 26th, or a southbound left turn lane at 28th.

        • Geoff Brunkhorst April 21, 2013 at 1:01 pm #

          Driving Nicollet (I do it often from 50th to lake) is never my first choice, however the fact of the matter is that 35W and Lyndale (south of lake) are worse.

          Nicollet from Franklin to 40th should be considered for treatment similar to Lyndale… I prefer turn lanes, but bumpouts and neck downs would control flow very well. Also with 1st and Blaisdell providing 1 way routes in and out of downtown for ‘suburban commuters’ , then nicollet can focus on local commerce and residential.

          Most reuniting Nicollet with Lake would integrate those neighborhoods better, and if designed well, could drive quality of living space of the 28th to 33rd Stevens to Lyndale areas.

          Extending ‘Eat Street’ through to 46th would connect Whittier to Kingsfeld and if properly bussed, can make for a pleasant residential ‘artery’ in my mind more beneficial to the community than the Lyndale redesign which I really like.

    • Janne April 16, 2013 at 12:31 pm #

      I totally agree with Matthew about the concerns of Nicollet’s Eat Street becoming a speedy through street if/when it gets reopened. Avoiding that fate is going to take some brilliant design.

  4. Faith April 16, 2013 at 10:45 am #

    Your most important point: “The main problem is that the buildings need to do a better job of addressing this pedestrian elements of the Mall.” A $20 million redesign of the street is not going to solve the main problem.

    Yes, reopening of Nicollet at Lake is important but it is a separate issue. Achieving that goal will not enliven Nicollet Mall downtown and solve the main problem of the buildings. Anyone that has ever walked down Nicollet Mall at, say, 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday notices that it is devoid of positive activity – to the point of being creepy. The only part with people is the restaurant area between Zelo’s and Brit’s.

    Spending $20 million to increase the front door density and to add space for businesses that attract customers from 8 am to 10 pm would do more for Nicollet Mall than anything else.

  5. Randall April 16, 2013 at 10:46 am #

    $20 more million for the DT worker bees and suburban tourists!?!? Please please please we need to start spending this kind of money in neighborhoods.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke April 16, 2013 at 5:36 pm #

      Even in the downtown, there are better uses for money. How about figuring out how to better connect Nicollet with the river? How about using it to improve Washington Ave for people on foot? How about an East-West pedestrian/transit mall? How about some sort of air-rights project that would connect Nicollet seamlessly South over the freeway?

  6. Nathaniel M Hood
    Nathaniel April 16, 2013 at 12:53 pm #

    Thanks everyone for reading. I love the dialogue.

  7. ben April 17, 2013 at 8:45 am #

    I think you have to put this in perspective of how state bonding money is allocated. It really has to be a project legislators and the governor view as of regional or statewide significance. Nicollet Ave seems to fit that bill since it is in the heart of the state’s largest city and is visited and used regionally and statewide. The same is not necessarily true of Nicollet and Lake, and would surely have a harder time getting funding. You can’t just “use” the money for other projects. That said, there are other projects that may be better for Minneapolis to request, and that could receive support, such as a the urban park proposed for the Nicollet hotel site to the river.

    Somewhat related, isn’t this a time to bring up the skyway problem? the rendering above shows the strange cylinder-stairway/elevators down from the skyway that just obstruct things even more. Its also funny how the rendering still shows people up in the skyway. Nicollet isn’t as good as it could be is because all of the traffic is up in the skyway. A stairway will not solve this. If you want to improve Nicollet and connections to it, tear down a good many of those skyways.

  8. John Bailey April 17, 2013 at 10:17 am #

    My kids constantly remind me that I’m no fun, and my idea will reflect that accusation. I just think pedestrian and bus malls are a failure and should be relegated to the dustbin of urban planning history. They can be buried next to sunken public plazas. To me the solution is fairly obvious: open Nicollet up to cars. Nicollet should have street trees, more cafes and food trucks, and slow moving traffic with parallel parking. No speed bumps or anything stupid, you can get slower traffic in a variety of other ways that all of you know about as well. In fact, this is even the rare time I would say you could even take back a little bit sidewalk to make this happen. This isn’t a home run, but there are just far, far more examples of that working than bus malls.

    Maybe if I grew up here I’d feel different. There does seem to be this local civic pride in the construction of Nicollet Mall in 1967 and the argument that it helped to stop the hemorrhaging of folks and businesses from downtown. I’m a little skeptical, but I’ll take peoples word for it. But the idea now that you’d go to Nicollet Mall for the purpose of “going to Nicollet Mall” just seems laughable. You might go to your job or perhaps to a particular bar or restaurant, but you’d go to that establishment if it was anywhere else downtown, or for that matter, anywhere else in the city. There is no feeling of being somewhere special by being on Nicollet Mall. I’m not trying to be cynical, but that is how I see it.

    This discussion is strongly tied to the skyways, which (I assume though don’t know) were constructed around the same time. Minneapolis already screwed the pooch with the skyway system in that the skyways will always significantly limit street life on Nicollet. To the extent that pedestrian and/or bus malls can work….you need lots and lots of human beings. I was being hyperbolic previously about their failure everywhere, obviously there are great examples in Europe and in a few college towns in the States (Charlottesville, Burlington, Boulder) but those examples prove the rule. I don’t want to make this all about the skyways. I get it…they’re here and they’re not going anywhere for a variety of political, legal and financial reasons. But even if downtown residential doubled, the mix of skyways and heated garages will limit the rationale for a car free street.

    And that’s OK because we have this tried and true example of avenues with wide sidewalks, street trees, outdoor seating, and slow moving traffic that can work beautifully in a variety of settings, Nicollet Avenue included.

    • Faith April 17, 2013 at 1:55 pm #

      Whether the street has cars, transit, both, or neither doesn’t change the fundamental function of the street and the most essential question to consider: are there destinations worth going to along Nicollet at street level?

      How many front doors are on Nicollet that attract pedestrian traffic? How many events are planned along Nicollet that attract pedestrian traffic? A great street can enhance these experiences but a street design or streetscape amenities does not create an experience alone.

  9. JIm Watkins April 17, 2013 at 11:52 am #

    If one looks at popular streets, a couple things you will find. #1 Overhead signs, archways, special lighting- Neon and LED. This gives the impression that this is this is the place to go.
    #2 A tourist attraction. I remember as a kid going to the observatory at the Top of the IDS.
    Nicollett Mall should be a national destination for tourists. A simple street with trees and shops will not do. How about an interactive museum? With light rail, many options for families.
    #3 Should be family friendly. A family friendly Mall is a safer mall. There should be playgrounds, climbing rocks, waterfalls and safe crossings.

    Interesting fact: When San Antonio redesigned their Riverwalk in the 1970′s, they hired Disney to help with the redesign of walkways and vegetation.

    Pie in the sky idea:
    Submerge the Mall one floor below street level and run a canal from the Mississippi River
    through the mall. Gondola’s ,water taxi’s, and in the winter- Ice skating.

    • Colin April 18, 2013 at 8:03 am #

      Have you ever smelled the Mississippi in Minneapolis? Walk across the Washington Avenue Bridge on a sunny day in June and even from a couple hundred feet up it’s like the world’s largest pancake is rotting somewhere beneath you. I’m not sure routing that water along Nicollett would add much to the ambiance.

      • JIm Watkins April 18, 2013 at 8:39 am #

        See San Antonio Riverwalk , Brick City Canal in OKC. Riverwalk in Pueblo, Co.

  10. helsinki April 18, 2013 at 4:04 am #

    This article at the Strib quotes Downtown Council President Stenglein saying that the $ 30 million estimate is too high:

    http://www.startribune.com/local/minneapolis/203189831.html?refer=y

    He notes how the underground portion of the street was rebuilt in 1990 (utilities, I am guessing), and so that wouldn’t need to be repeated.

    This has to be true. The city of Helsinki spent € 10 million (admittedly, in 2003, but inflation has hardly been rampant) to rebuild essentially the same kind of street: the ‘main street’ of Aleksanterinkatu. And that reconstruction included utlities and a tram line in addition to granite pavers and public art. (See: http://www2.hs.fi/english/archive/news.asp?id=20031007IE14)

    Of course, never underestimate the ability of our municipal governments to overpay for the truly underwhelming.

    I agree with the central premise of the article. What, really, is wrong with Nicollet? The arguments seem to be: (1) the pavers can get slippery and some of them are cracked, and (2) it looks dated. Neither of these seems compelling enough to rip up the street and re-do the whole thing. What about just replacing the kitschy post-modern lamp posts with better ones (sleeker, more energy efficient), get rid of the garish banners (http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/71/Skyway3.jpeg), and pay for proper snow and ice removal, and voilà – Nicollet is ‘updated’ and we didn’t assume $ 40 million in long term debt obligations.

    Further, if there really is going to be a streetcar on Nicollet, it would be truly moronic to re-do the street as a separate project.

    Far more important, to my mind, is doing something about the sheer insult to Nicollet that is City Center. (Representative image drawn randomly from google images: http://mw2.google.com/mw-panoramio/photos/medium/77256479.jpg). This facade says to passersby: “I hate you and wish to inflict my unsightly indignity upon you.” This is a more pressing problem for Nicollet than some cracked paving tiles.