A Welcoming Nicollet Mall?

Last Friday, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges and Minneapolis Downtown Council CEO Steve Cramer penned an op-ed about Nicollet Mall for the Star Tribune. They stated that “the renovation of Nicollet Mall has the potential to transform the 12-block pedestrian and transit thoroughfare into a prominent symbol that will make Minnesotans proud.” They drew parallels between Nicollet Mall and New York’s High Line, and they set a goal to turn Nicollet Mall into “the” city’s public square.

Hodges’ and Cramer’s goals for the Mall are philosophically laudable but incomplete. There has already been some well-deserved criticism on streets.mn about whether reconstructing the Mall, while ignoring the surrounding urban fabric, will make a walkable physical environment. The Star Tribune op-ed also failed to talk about turning Nicollet Mall into a place that actually welcomes activity, outside of any physical changes.

A Brief Personal Anecdote

I graduated from law school last spring and got around to taking the bar exam in the last week of February 2014. I took the week before the bar off from work and spent my days studying in the atrium at the Minneapolis Central Library. On February 19, the City of Minneapolis, the Downtown Council, and James Corner Field Operations hosted an event titled Nicollet Mall Redesign Ideas and Update at the Central Library.

The offending rock

The offending rock

I wanted to go to the event and knew I would be distracted by seeing people I know enter the library, so I left. I meandered down Nicollet Mall as I flipped through flashcards and found myself at the Bankcorp building between 8th and 9th Streets. There are a series of boulders set into the sidewalk in front of the building, and I hopped up on one of them to get a different perspective on the street while I studied. I stood on the rock for a minute or two, and then had the following exchange (edited version):

[Guard walks out of Bancorp building toward me]

Guard: Excuse me, what are you doing?

Me: I am going through flashcards.

Guard: Could you please get down off the rock.

Me: Why do I need to get off the rock?

Guard: People inside are asking what you are doing.

Me: Why can’t this city act like a city!

Guard: This is a bank. You are making people uncomfortable. Get off the rock or I am going to call the police.

Me: Go for it. Call the police.

[The guard shakes his head and starts to walk away. I decide that the week before the bar exam is not the right time to force a confrontation with the police.]

Me: Never mind. You don’t need to call the police. I’ll get off the rock.


I then did exactly what everyone down the street at the library presentation were trying to get people to stop doing: I left downtown because I did not feel welcome.

I am a member of one of the least discriminated-against populations in history (white male, advanced degree, work for a nationally-known company). I want to live in a city. If someone in my shoes does not feel welcome in the corporate center of downtown, I hate to think of how others might feel.

A Welcoming City Needs More Than Infrastructure

Downtown Minneapolis leaders continually talk about how Minneapolis needs to attract talent from other major cities. The Downtown Council’s 2025 Plan states that “Downtown Minneapolis will benefit greatly by fostering an attitude of openness to all people.” (p. 31.) This is spot on but is not happening. Downtown Minneapolis can’t even deal with someone standing on a large rock!

Ask yourself which, if any, of the following activities would be deemed acceptable in downtown Minneapolis: (1) riding a tall unicycle as a street performer; (2) setting up and using a 3 foot high mobile PA speaker; (3) skateboarding and doing tricks in a crowded place; (4) climbing over a fence to sit in a grassy spot; (5) climbing over a fence to climb on the base of a tall statue; (6) sitting on a fence; (7) sitting on the ground slouching against a fence.

Photo attribution "Postdlf from w"

Photo attribution “Postdlf from w”

All of these activities and more are in the plaza photo above (I did not search hard for this picture – it was the first one to pop up on a Google Image search). Where is this plaza where scoundrels congregate? It is Union Square in New York. Facing this plaza of debauchery are establishments like the Union Square Café, one of the best restaurants in the world, and one of the highest grossing Whole Foods in the country. So it appears as though some street activity, even unpredictable street activity, might not be such a bad thing for business after all.

I know, I know. We are not New York. We don’t want to be like New York or San Francisco. I hear this all the time. The thing is, we will never attract talent from New York or San Francisco (which we purportedly do want to do) if we do not create a vibrant city. A vibrant city needs more than strategically placed concrete and doorways. It needs a culture of acceptance, of city life. This means allowing people to engage with the city in creative ways, so long as they are not harming others.

People do not have to live in Minneapolis instead of other cities. I want to be an ambassador for Minneapolis, to convince friends to move here from Silicon Valley, Chicago, Pittsburgh, L.A., Brooklyn, D.C., and Boston to move here. But I cannot honestly say that they will love it here. They are city people, and Minneapolis has not figured out how to act like a city.

Getting Minneapolis to act like a city will not happen overnight, but our city leaders can start to change the downtown community’s attitude. Mayor Hodges can communicate why we need a lively city and can instruct police to allow people to congregate and play in the city core (I could find no ordinance banning rock climbing in downtown, so those rocks appear to be fair game). Steve Cramer can send a memo to businesses who are members of the Downtown Council requesting that building security not shoo people away for “loitering” or enjoying the cityscape. Maybe this could be the subject of their next Star Tribune op-ed. . . .

23 thoughts on “A Welcoming Nicollet Mall?

  1. Steven Prince

    Nicollet Mall will never be Minneapolis’ Union Square (in New York), – The Mall has a 17, 18 and 10 bus and bicycles. Union Square is a transfer between N-S and E-W subways with both local and express stops, seven different subways and six different bus lines stop there. Put a N-S to E-W LRT transfer at 5th and Nicollet and you could really make exciting thing happen.

    Instead, the goal is to apparently emulate the high-line – an abandoned elevated train track repurposed as a public park. Great in a part of Manhattan poorly served with parks, but a silly concept in Minneapolis where what we really need is a great public street. If you want Minneapolis to “act like a city” you need an urban transportation system.

    1. Matt Brillhart

      “Put a N-S to E-W LRT transfer at 5th and Nicollet and you could really make exciting thing happen.”

      The powers that be instead decided that a train transfer at 5th & Nicollet was a bad thing and we should run our trains through an unpopulated freight/recreation corridor, all so we can interline them to save a few bucks on operations (nevermind that it’s now going to cost us an extra $250-300MM to stick to that plan). Maybe we should revisit the Nicollet alignment since the whole “this other thing is cheaper” has gone out the window.

      1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

        And it also means that our leaders’ vision of our city’s transit stops at four LRT branches operating as two services. Is that all we’ve got to look forward to?

    2. Sam RockwellSam

      I disagree that Nicollet Mall could not be our Union Square. It is certainly true that transit access is vital, but I’m not sure how you came up with your bus count. Within a one block radius of the intersection of Nicollet and 4th we have the following buses: 10, 11, 17, 18, 25, 4, 6, 12, 61, 3, 7, 14, 16, 50, and the 94 (and this does not count any of the many suburban buses that travel on Marquette). Then there are the Blue and [future] Green lines. These buses and trains include those in the “high frequency network” (higher frequency would be nice) and they go in all directions. (Several of those Union Square stops are not actually at Union Square — you have to walk a block or two underground, or get out at the Gristedes grocery store exit a block and a half away and walk that distance above ground — so I think a one block radius is a fair comparison).

      I’m not arguing that our transit system is great. However, much of the transit system that we have converges on or near Nicollet. As we [hopefully] continue to build it out, it will continue to converge there.

      Is there any reason we couldn’t have a Minneapolis Union Square at the proposed Gateway Park site on the surface parking lot just north of the Central Library? Maybe we could blend Gateway and Cancer Survivor’s Park (one of the least urban parks ever). I don’t see why not. Some of the basic bones are there, including transit access, public facilities. Granted, it would take some work, including developing other surface parking lots in the area.

      1. Cameron ConwayCameron Conway

        The point is that Union Square is surrounded by countless narrow retail storefronts, all creating a complex, walkable urban environment. I don’t think anyone is arguing that Nicollet Mall couldn’t ever be a Union Square-caliber place, but it’s definitely not going to happen with new sidewalks. Transit access is important, but plenty of unremarkable downtown streets have great transit access.

        1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

          Absolutely! Especially given the Whole Foods on one side, library on the other, protected bike lane coming along Washington, and possibility of good developments nearby by Opus and Stanton.

  2. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    I think you’re right. The high line, nice as it is, isn’t a city street with lots of activity diversity and multiple uses.

    PS this is another reason skyways are bad for urban space. They encourage people to think of our downtown as a mall, with all the mall rules (no politics, no street life, no just hanging around).

    Many DT streets either feel like malls or bus stops with very little in between.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      I respect JCF and their work on the High Line. But that’s a project that took abandoned aerial infrastructure and turned it into a park. It takes some bold minds and a big design budget to pull that off effectively.

      But we’re talking about a street. Streets aren’t complicated. As a civilization, we built great streets for thousands of years all over the world… whether in big cities or small towns… until the advent of the automobile. And we did it without spending $5 million per block ($210,000 per block a century ago). We did it for relatively cheap, and we had awesome results.

      Why do we have to pretend that this is more complicated than it really is?

      1. Cameron ConwayCameron Conway

        I don’t think people realize that the High Line wouldn’t be nearly as celebrated if it wasn’t immediately adjacent to a pre-existing badass pedestrian realm. Ergo, if High Line Minneapolis (whatever the hell that looks like) is ever to be a reality, you kinda have to encourage the kind of chaotic order that we enjoy in *gasp* New York or San Francisco. Speaking of which, what on earth does anyone envision for an improved Nicollet Mall, if not more dirty, unpredictable, character-filled big citiness? It feels like folks want to have the benefits of an inviting, free downtown without actually giving up the control they’ve amassed. A controlled, over-zoned city is a boring city indeed.

    2. Cameron ConwayCameron Conway

      Ackerburg just bought Calhoun Square, there are plans to make it “gritty.” Maybe if we can conquer the sterile urban mall-ish environment, then we can actually redesign some urban, inviting skyways! Plus, what is Minneapolis’ High Line, other than a skyway redesigned to look like an abandoned rail line? 😛

  3. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

    Interesting post, Sam. Funny how you cite Union Square as a public space to emulate and I cited Washington Square Park as a model for The Yard – both parks are in New York City and experience a lot of casual hanging out, rocks or not.

    I think you raise a very good point about how Minnesotans view appropriate use of public space.

  4. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

    I suggest the next James Corner Field Operations public meeting be held on the rocks, with the blessing of security, of course, an “Occupy the Rock” if you will.

  5. Adam MillerAdam

    Not sure that this particular anecdote is all that enlightening, as I’m not sure you’d have fared any better trying to play in the security planters around Goldman Sachs either, nor am I sure you’d have had an issue if you were sitting on the rock instead of standing.

    But I think there are two different places I’d go with your point. The first is that people in New York have to make do with the public spaces they have, which are limited, especially in proportion to the number of people. Meanwhile, we have proportionately more parks and other places to do the kinds of things you’re talking about, so they strike us as unusual when they are happening on the sidewalk.

    Even saying that, though, I’d suggest that you’d find quite similar behaviors at the Government Center Plaza on any nice afternoon day. Heck, it wasn’t even that nice last week and there were guys skateboarding there when I passed through last week.

    Second, I think your story highlights what downtown in general and Nicollet in particular are missing: places to do things. It’s built for pleasantly passing through, but there is almost no where to sit and nothing to do. Presumably that’s by design. We certainly wouldn’t want to attract the idle and the homeless, and if we allow sitting, that’s what we’ll get. That’s both a mindset and a design that needs to change. That’s one of the reasons I really liked that one of the redesign proposal included demolition of part of City Center to create a public square and event space (redoing Peavy Plaza would help too).

    But really, I agree with you. Nicollet Mall is already decidedly walkable. That’s not the issue. We’ve got that part down. It needs to be inviting.

  6. Paula Pentel

    Hello from NYC. So today I was on the highline….and have the following observations. They’ve had to put in a string fence to keep folks from getting in the gardens and also because the surface has tripping hazards.
    There are no diesel busses running along the highline….it is quiet.
    From the highline you can see into buildings and have great views towards the Hudson river. What can you see from the Nicollet mall? People in skyways, busses and little street retail. Additionally; its axis assures that greening will be hampered by a lack of sunlight. It is a busy bus line lacking street retail and street culture. I love the story of standing on the rock…..unfortunately it seems we really cannot handle any “oppositional” use of our streetscapes…….

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

  8. Matt BK

    The mall being what it is (a long hardspace rather than a compact/equilateral greenspace), you might want to look to Church Street in Burlington, VT as inspiration. It may not be as “city” as NYC or Chicago or even Minneapolis in some ways, but it does have a lot going for it.

  9. minneapolisite

    Does NYC’s High Line have bars and restaurants interacting directly with it? In any case, I live just south of here, but don’t feel welcome at any of the bars since I’m not a lawyer or a banker. And in any case that’s not my crowd, so the feeling is mutual. Are more lawyer bars and expensive restaurants like a Morton’s of Chicago supposed to make it more “welcoming”? What about families? Demographics outside of the 40+ upper-class, vanilla white male? Is is too much to ask that something “cool” open up over here? Probably.

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