What do the great streets that Nicollet Mall aspires to become have in common? Do they all have benches? Do they all have trees? Are they all vehicle free? Do they all have shade trees? Do they all have a playground? Are they all major regional shopping streets? No. One thing they all have in common is plenty of room on the sidewalk for pedestrians; that is a given. Interestingly, the other thing all great streets seem to share is something not even on the street itself but rather the buildings; they all relate well to the street. There are lots of windows and doors. This provides a reason to walk down the street. They all have a high Gehl Door Average, or GDA.
What the hell is a Gehl Door Average? Like the Earned Run Average (ERA) in baseball, which measures runs given up per nine innings pitched, the GDA (named after Danish self-described “urban quality consultant” Jan Gehl, based on his book Cities for People) measures the number of doors per 100 meters of street frontage (fear not, Americans; meters or feet, the result is the same). An ERA of less than 4.0 in baseball is good; conversely, a GDA of 10 or more is good.
To put the GDA to the test, I conducted a spot survey of four of the streets mentioned in the Nicollet Mall Project website’s questionnaire, which lists several great streets in the U.S. and asks which ones should Nicollet Mall emulate. The four streets I chose at random are Pearl Street in Boulder, 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica, Times Square in New York, and Michigan Avenue in Chicago reveals a strongly consistent result: a GDA of between 8 and 13. A GDA of 10 is necessary to be considered good or “friendly.” Nicollet Mall has just one block with 10 doors; most have fewer than five, which is considered “boring.”
Pearl Street between 13th and Broadway has a GDA of 13. Pearl Street also has a wonderful playground and a grove of pine trees, but not all streets do.
3rd Street Promenade between Santa Monica and Arizona has a GDA of 10. Benches and street vendors help immensely. The palm trees are a bonus.
The east side of Times Square between 46th and 47th has a GDA of 12, but no benches or trees, just lots of people.
Michigan Avenue between Huron and Superior has a GDA of 8, despite a lack of places to sit.
Some claim that new developments on Nicollet Mall have better urban frontage, but the Target store/Retek block, as nice as it looks, has a GDA of just four. When CenterPoint moves in at 501 Nicollet Mall, that block will still have just four doors. The Ladd Corner building (the old Let it Be Records, etc.) went from a GDA of nine to zero.
Why is a high GDA so important? Having a different storefront every 20 to 30 feet along a sidewalk is a basic rule of thumb for an active and interesting street, provided people can access the store from the sidewalk. (Indoor malls have a high GDA as well – as you walk along in a mall, there is another storefront to look at and enter every 20 to 30 feet. Mall interiors have very few blank walls.) The more different retail shops located along a street, the more reasons to be there.
The best retail space on Nicollet Mall is LaBelle Crepe. It is also the smallest. There is a lesson here. Nicollet Mall will become a great street when we stop hoping that a grand gesture will attract people and realize that intimate, small scale storefronts are what is needed most. If there were more barbers/salons, dry cleaners, gift shops, florists, cafes, jewelers, and banks (even ATMs), to perform everyday, mundane shopping, Nicollet Mall would be immensely better off, and these services would complement the farmers market, food trucks and street musicians very well.
How do we get there? There is plenty of demand if we can just coax a few retailers out of the skyway and down to Nicollet. After all, there is more foot traffic on Nicollet, so businesses should be drawn there if storefronts were provided.
Zoning is another key. It is worth pointing out that many of the streets we aspire to be more like are from a pre-WWII era when zoning codes didn’t even exist; GDAs were naturally high. The Nicollet Mall Overlay requires just one door per block, and if retailers face the ground floor they are only “encouraged” to have an entrance off the street. Furthermore, only 40% of the building frontage is required to be window or door (my house has 40% windows or doors – this is hardly enough). In other words, even with special attention to zoning, it is still possible to get away with urban murder. We simply need a stronger ground floor policy; a code that graphically shows what we want for Nicollet Mall, and a form-based code is one option. And planners at the city are not to blame here – public expectations of our city are. CPED has the talent on staff to pursue a solution. We need to demand better urbanity, as do businesses and most importantly elected officials.
In lieu of a major zoning change, there are a variety of temporary solutions, like “pop-up” or temporary art galleries or retailers. But vacancy isn’t the problem so much as a sheer lack of storefronts with which to work. Deploying street vendors like the farmers market or food trucks on more of a semi-permanent basis, an entire week or month, for example, could boost the GDA temporarily, to very positive result. In downtown Pasadena, when Macy’s wanted no part in making its street level more engaging, the city simply worked with retailers to build two retail storefronts stuck on the building’s exterior (see above), to great result and improved GDA.
While we’re at it, we need at least one good laneway like those found in Melbourne, with a high GDA and lots of activity.
I’m concerned not about what James Corner Field Operations is being asked to do but rather what they are not being asked to do with Nicollet Mall. That part is up to us. We need to increase our GDA to make Nicollet Mall in to a vibrant public street, and the redesign of the space between buildings presents an excellent opportunity to begin to reimagine the building frontages themselves. But we the citizens, with business leaders and city staff and elected officials, must demand it.
This was crossposted at Joe Urban.