A Final Flourish for Nicollet Mall? Don’t Believe It

Friday’s Star Tribune commentary by Mayor Hodges and Steve Cramer is misguided at best, and at worst terribly delusional. Don’t believe them when they say $50 million spent on rebuilding Nicollet Mall will provide “downtown that final flourish.” First of all, saying that anything will provide a “final flourish” implies that a city can be somehow complete. That’s impossible. A city cannot be final unless it disappears entirely. Second, as I’ve stated before, great cities have three things: streets that are attractive to walk on, buildings that are nice to walk past and/or in, and people walking on those streets and using those doors. That’s all you really need for healthy urban activity and vibrancy that is timeless. But you cannot have it without these things, and simply rebuilding Nicollet Mall in hopes it alone can complete downtown is foolish.

We’ve tinkered with Nicollet Mall (and frankly, the rest of our city) for too long. I’ve tried to explain that Nicollet Mall suffers from a lack of all three of these elements; a skyway system that pulls people (vibrancy) off the street, a lack of pedestrian-friendly buildings with doors that face Nicollet, and it is in disrepair. Rebuilding it will solve this final ill, but cannot address the other two by itself. In fact, we could address the other two without rebuilding the street and make Nicollet Mall a much better place, but let’s not lead ourselves to believe that rebuilding Nicollet Mall will automatically make it a “prominent symbol” and “world-class destination.”

With all due respect to James Corner Field Operations, a firm with tremendous talent (did you know they designed the High Line in New York!?), and who I’ve heard has been really good to work with so far, but they cannot alone deliver what we want. We can rebuild Nicollet, and James Corner Field Operations will likely deliver a very nice product, but the promises made by our leaders will still be unaddressed.

Hodges and Cramer cite Newbury Street, Beale Street and Michigan Avenue as magnets for their respective cities that Minneapolis has yet to replicate. Last time I walked down any of those streets, it wasn’t fancy embellishments on the streets themselves that made them wonderful and attracted people, but the fact they all had buildings with good urban design and also doors, lots of doors. (They also don’t compete with a skyway system for people.) In other words, these streets are great because of some very basic things, the streets and buildings allow for people to occupy them and make them great places. The reason Minneapolis has yet to replicate these streets is not because of the design or condition of Nicollet Mall but because our buildings physically prevent us from doing so because they don’t relate well enough with the street. Nicollet Mall is supposedly our best street, yet I’d never recommend anyone walk the length of it because there’s not enough good urban fabric surrounding it.

I’m disappointed with the argument Cramer and Hodges are making by talking about how we can generate $2 million for the state and $8 million for the city and county in taxes, $105.5 million in additional spending, and “close to” (how close?) 1,000 jobs, double the population of downtown, add 3 million square feet of office, 200,000 square feet of retail and 1,100 hotel rooms. I don’t know where they got all these numbers, but they’re just numbers, I’m pretty sure we can achieve them without spending $50 million in hopes that Nicollet Mall will provide downtown with that “final flourish.” What the public wants, more than numbers, is a downtown that is loved.

I’m not naive. I understand how smart public investment can lead to substantial private investment. And in fact, I’m not actually opposed to spending a substantial sum for rebuilding Nicollet Mall. My son tripped on a pavement the other day; repairs are certainly needed, maybe more. I also realize Hodges and Cramer inherited this project from predecessors, and are at least trying to put a positive spin on it. But we’re not stupid. We’ve seen countless dollars spent on downtown projects while basic elements of good urbanism are ignored (or bulldozed). We’ve also seen a lot of other great streets and understand why they are great. Hodges and Cramer would be better served by advocating for changes to the zoning code to require better frontages and more doors, generating more activity and vibrancy, or just more food carts or street musicians.

Perhaps most distressing of all is staff at CPED and the Downtown Council get it. They indicate there is a lot of energy for solutions about how to make downtown more attractive. There is talk about working with the new owners of City Center to make it more engaging to pedestrians by simply adding one or more retail frontages facing Nicollet. There is talk about a replacement event for Holidazzle (love it or hate it, you have to admit, it drew a lot of people downtown!). They understand how a more robust set of zoning tools can encourage better buildings in the long run. Staff get it, so why do Hodges and Cramer ignore their own staff and instead make a flimsy argument about how waving a magic wand (and spending a ton of money again) will make Nicollet Mall a world-class destination?

Hodges and Cramer state that they are new leaders in their respective posts, and that this is a chance to elevate our offerings, but they did so in the same paragraph that mentioned Block E and the Vikings stadium. Do I have to explain the problem? New leadership requires new thinking and a much more holistic approach to what makes a good city. After all, we rebuilt Nicollet Mall twice already, only to have it be viewed 20 years later as a dated design. In a way, we shouldn’t have messed with it in the first place.

Look at a pre-1960 photo of Nicollet Mall (it was an “avenue” back then) and tell me how those hundreds of retail doors, attractive ground level facades and basic sidewalks (with a curious lack of skyways) wouldn’t support vibrancy and the kind of public life we desire today. Rather, Hodges and Cramer should advocate for rebuilding the street for less and use the savings to offer incentives for building owners to add retail frontages to Nicollet or offer reduced rent for tenants that want to face the street. Little by little, offer more reasons for people to visit Nicollet Mall. The city will never be finished, but in the long term, basic decisions made today about how we build streets and buildings, and how we populate them, will impact the city for decades.

Maybe we should just accept that we can’t change. Maybe we’re too entrenched in our skyway culture and should focus on improving that. Maybe we can’t find any building owners willing to punch some pedestrian access in to their buildings. Maybe Nicollet Mall should really just be a linear park connecting the Sculpture Garden and the Mississippi River. Maybe (gasp!) James Corner Field Operations can’t deliver a new High Line for us. But if that is the case, we certainly should save the State of Minnesota its share of our $50 million tab for rebuilding Nicollet Mall on the promise that it will be a world-class place. But I don’t see it that way. I think we can change. I think we can be a better city. Let’s not get to 2016, or 2026 or 2036, and wonder what the hell is still wrong with Nicollet Mall. Rebuilding Nicollet Mall is needed either way, but let’s also repair the urban fabric around it and the soul of our city while we’re at it.

This was crossposted at Joe Urban.

Sam Newberg

About Sam Newberg

Sam Newberg, a.k.a. Joe Urban, is an urbanist, real estate consultant and writer. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two kids, and his website is www.joe-urban.com.

18 thoughts on “A Final Flourish for Nicollet Mall? Don’t Believe It

  1. Pingback: Joe Urban » Blog Archive » Nicollet Mall Brings a Final Flourish to Downtown? I Think Not.

  2. Cameron ConwayCameron Conway

    I think part of what makes Nicollet Mall underwhelming, and why built environment changes are absolutely essential to the end goal we’re looking at, is that it’s unfortunately one of the best downtown pedestrian streets. We look to Nicollet Mall to be a beautiful redeeming factor for downtown, a distinct contrast from the surface parking and blank facades. Unfortunately, Nicollet Mall’s design tends to remind us more of the rest of downtown, rather than some other major metro’s glistening shopping street.

    I’d love Nicollet Mall to be a sexy, narrow store-fronted, pedestrian oriented place. However, the problems that it faces are representative of problems that the rest of downtown also faces. I don’t think that we can fix NM by ‘fixing NM.” I think we need form-based code for the entirety of downtown, especially in development prone Downtown East. If we can find a good way to incentivize this form based code, I think we’ll find the NM we’re looking for.

    Also, I blame lack of residential density rather than the skyway system for ‘pulling people off the street.’ Montreal maintains an equally extensive underground network with a retail-packed ground floor level at the same time. The difference? Montreal has downtown residential density, consistent connections between the street and the underground, as well as legacy narrow storefronts. I think it’s far wiser to acknowledge the reality of our climate while also legalizing and incentivizing a competitive ground floor experience. We can make all of these happen, plus give ordinary people a great route across downtown.

  3. minneapolisite

    I’d be interested to hear Mayor Hodges say what exactly out of this $50 million spent would make her or anyone want to visit Nicollet Mall specifically. I can tell her she’d be able to give more concrete reasons to visit if the a good chunk of the $50 million were spent on making the side streets off Nicollet Mall retail friendly with lots of storefronts: many more people will make a trip out to Nicollet Mall if it were flanked by several more destinations (bars, restaurants,shops) just off each intersection.

    Let’s not forget that cities with a much smaller downtown populations than ours have been able to attract and retain a much larger number and variety of downtown destinations. Portland only having abut 10,000 downtown residents as of 2000 or a third of our current population certainly didn’t stop all those businesses from opening because they have a much more complete network of .streets packed with storefronts. Non-residents of Downtown Mpls are much more likely to visit if there are 2-3 times more destinations than there are now with many within walking distance of each other: it’s just that where they should be there are instead parking lots, garages, and blank walls of vertical office parks and ugly government buildings.

  4. Brendon SlotterbackBrendon Slotterback

    This post seems free from some basic context: we are currently in a legislative session, one that may result in bonding. The City would like some of that bonding money to reconstruct the street (as you agree we should do). Zoning and urban design are somewhat separate issues that certainly can be tackled, but it seems like you may be cutting off the nose to spite the face.

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      Brendon, maybe I should have been more explicit when I explained that I get it – the current situation Cramer and Hodges have inherited is going begging at the state capitol for their project. I do get that. I’m just saying the way they are selling this to the public is disingenuous and makes it sound like rebuilding the street alone will solve its ills. Zoning and urban design are separate issues only for the present mechanism by which the city is asking for funding. I can accept it, but it shouldn’t be that way. Furthermore, I’m not really convinced enough decisionmakers understand just how important zoning and urban design are. maybe the state should fund the project but with strings attached, namely zoning and urban design.

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      Yes! I’d wholeheartedly recommend people walk it, from 7th to 12th, on a nice summer day. In fact, between 7th and 12th is a pretty nice walk on most days. Recommend they walk between Washington and 6th? No, that’s not tops on my list of places to walk in Minneapolis if I was trying to impress someone. Not over the top at all.

      1. Adam MillerAdam

        That’s most of my commute.

        6th to Washington might get more pleasant with the Nic construction wrapping up (I don’t know, is there going to be ground floor retail there?).
        Hopefully the new Xcel office will help to, and get rid of one of the uglier parking ramps in town.

        Speaking of Xcel, if would really help that strip of sidewalk if they’d uncover their lobby windows and let the building and the street speak to one another.

        And while I’m being really optimistic, let’s hope the new residents will cause someone to want to make use of the empty first floor retail at Renaissance Square.

  5. Cindy Zerger

    And with all due respect to you, Sam, I think the redesign will do far more than you give it credit. If the new concepts (which are awesome) are implemented, perhaps building owners/businesses will not need a stick (form based code), but rather they will see the carrot. Years back when the pavement changed to granite, businesses/buildings adapted and we saw new marble sculptures and benches going up everywhere. I can’t find out if they were privately funded but the proximity to building entries leads me to believe so. I’m not suggesting that marble was a good thing, but an example of how investing in this corridor (and a place) will lead to future modifications.

    I’m also not sure why we continue to beat this skyway dead horse. They (a) will not be taken down, (b) will continue to exist, (c) may grow in number, (d) are not the problem, and (e) see a.. Also, did you note the new designs provide skyway-mall access in two key spots. Genius. Perhaps embracing them is a better move.

    The title of the op ed was wrong, but certainly the investment in Nicollet Mall is not.

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      Cindy, I hope you are right! And as I said, I believe James Corner has some great ideas and will make Nicollet better. What bothers me profoundly is the messaging, which is promising much more than a street redesign can deliver. Even if City Hall and the Downtown Council believe and advocate for a more holistic solution involving the street and buildings that face it, they haven’t publicly said so and that is a disservice. There should be a PR campaign to address BOTH.

      If the 1990 remake of Nicollet Mall led to private investment, why do we feel the need to redesign it again? A great street shouldn’t require a brand new redesign every 20 years in order to attract investment. Something else is clearly missing.

      (visions of ribbon cuttings dancing in their heads)

      And by the way, I do hope we can embrace the skyways a little more, but as long as they exist I will continue to advocate for their removal – someone has to!

  6. Pingback: A Welcoming Nicollet Mall? | streets.mn

  7. Jeff Pesek

    Interesting read.

    “I understand how smart public investment can lead to substantial private investment.”

    Could you elaborate on your understanding and do you have specific modern examples from Minnesota?

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      Sure. Remediation of rail yards and TIF investment in early projects made the Mill District what it is today. Pretty good use of public dollars if you ask me. I think recall public investments in the North Loop led to similar results. The area around Surdyk’s in NE is another, as is the North Quadrant in downtown St. Paul. Generally speaking, publicly investment that makes a key early development pencil out, or cleaning up contamination to leverage private investment can be very good for significant investments later. And keep in mind even if it’s affordable housing, the city collects taxes from the property owner (not at the same rate, albeit).

      Public investment in downtown retail has done far worse than promised, so it depends on the type of investment.

      I question whether all the development activity occurring and proposed along Nicollet is contingent upon its rebuilding. Seems to me that demand is already there.

      1. Jeff Pesek

        I see. Thanks for the response, Sam. I wonder about the nature of these “op-eds” sometimes. There’s a pattern forming…Do you know who owns the Star Tribune? As in, specifically, what persons or groups have vested interest and influence?

        1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

          I think the Star Tribune owned those five blocks until very recently. Try looking at it from their perspective – they are an operating entity that uses all five blocks of their property. I think they were holding out until they got the right offer, but also until it made sense to move operations. Apparently the combination of public money and Wells Fargo investment was enough to finally trigger the decision.

          1. Jeff Pesek

            Sam, I was referring more to the company, not the land, but that’s also an interesting angle.

            So…do you or does anyone reading this know who owns the Star Tribune?

  8. Pingback: Can we kill two birds with one stone when it comes to light rail planning? | streets.mn

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