The Nicollet Mall Redesign and the Failure of Planning

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” – Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

The biggest impediment to improving Nicollet Mall is not the aesthetic of the street, but the buildings themselves and their poor frontages. This fact is apparently lost among the Minneapolis Downtown Council and the Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District’s Board of Directors, a self-selected group of downtown building owners, property managers, and corporate stakeholders.

The irony of their push for a publicly-subsidized Nicollet Mall redesign is that the single biggest problem with the street are the buildings themselves. Those advocating for urban improvements are precisely the ones who are creating most of the problems.

The Downtown Improvement District (DID) and the Downtown Council driving the Nicollet Mall process is the same group who gave us the universally disdained mostly disliked $6 Christmas Market. This matters because it’s an organization composed of people with a disproportionate amount of power who are disconnected from everyday urbanism and what it takes to make a great place.

In the planning profession, we spend a lot of time talking about the virtues of Jane Jacobs’ works, but pay her little respect in practice. Our planning projects, and the leadership that supports them, still hold to modernist planning practices that have been long criticized. Our leadership, despite good intentions, continues to develop projects that accommodate those who do not live in the city all while paying lip-service to public input, diversity, and the little slices of chaos that make places great.

In a nutshell, here’s how a top-down Nicollet Mall redesign / Robert Moses system works:

The city starts the process by hiring the best outside ‘star’ consultant to tell us the things we already know. They draft renderings with the best design software money can buy that includes the finest superimposed human silhouettes unpaid interns can draft. Minimum engagement requirements are hit by having people fill out online surveys while business and political insiders, not the countless thousands of daily users or small business owners, drive the process forward.

Where projects are funding from State and Federal sources, local input is limited to ensure the process goes as quickly as possible. Local political leaders go along with the process, despite it’s flaws, because it isn’t local money. It is something for nothing, and something is better than nothing.

It begs the question: Are we still in the era of top-down modernist planning?

I think the answer is “sort of”. We have made improvements, learned from our mistakes, and we certainly aren’t tearing down entire neighborhoods for freeways. Yet, in many ways the same general mentality still holds true.

The big-budget process of creating most places are little different than the works of Robert Moses. And, as we historically seen, these top-down approaches tend to give us sterile places. For example, the new Nicollet Mall renderings more closely resemble the Mall of America than that of a real city street. It is not the beautiful chaos nor the street ballet urban dwelling humans crave.

We think we’re doing the right thing. We create neighborhood groups and then gave them limited power. We let them create their neighborhood plan, then we immediately ignore them. In the end, lobbying their local City Council member might be their most powerful tool. We’re better than we once were, but that’s not saying a lot.

Most of our buildings and street designs in our central cities fail to pass even the most basic Jane Jacobs litmus test. There is nothing wrong with Nicollet Mall that can’t be fixed by small land use tweaks and removing some parking lots. When 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. As a pedestrian space, it’s already good.

There is certainly a brick that needs to be fixed here and there. Add some 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).

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. If anything, Nicollet Mall needs more small storefronts, more diversity, and a little more chaos. 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.

I once wrote that Nicollet Mall was the heart of downtown Minneapolis and has history of being the Minneapolis’ Main Street. As time passes, I have changed my mind. Nicollet Mall is Minneapolis’ Mall of America. Lake Street and Central Ave are it’s Main Streets, and the countless other more urban streetscapes.

Nicollet Mall is a good pedestrian space, but its far from the heart and soul of Minneapolis. If it ever wants to be something else, it’ll need better building frontages, more doors, more windows with stuff in them, more small businesses, smaller adjancent running streets, food trucks all the time, and more residential buildings.

The biggest impediment to improving Nicollet Mall is not the aesthetic of the street, but its buildings and their poor frontages. The failure of leadership and their lack of understanding of basic placemaking will lead to good money being spent with a low return on investment.


ATTN: BOARD MEMBERS: If you are a Board Member (or work for DID), fill out my personal website’s contact form, and I’ll send you a free copy of The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs.

Update (1/7/15): The Minneapolis Downtown Council (MDC) and the Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District (DID) are legally separate non-profit organizations run by the same Board of Directors out of the same office space (81 S. 9th St., Ste # 260). It was technically incorrect to single out DID. I should have originally included MDC and the City of Minneapolis leadership at the time, such as former Mayor RT Rybak, as collaborators.

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109 thoughts on “The Nicollet Mall Redesign and the Failure of Planning

  1. Keith Morris

    Not only are there not enough storefronts facing Nicollet, but I have seen nothing to partially address this by extending the mall to 15th instead of Grant. No reconstruction of existing buildings would be needed.

    I’m not sure how suburban business leaders could not notice that there are plenty of “lifestyle centers” with high walkability and are bike friendly (if you drive there first) . They’re packed with small storefronts and lots of crosswalks mid-block: suburbanites flock to these places and are not deterred by having to drive slower and deal with crowds when on foot.

    As it is now planned, Nicollet Mall will still not match a standard outdoor mall, aka “lifestyle center.

    1. Nathaniel

      More storefronts are needed. I think you’re right in saying that “lifestyle centers” (at least a block or so of them) have a leg up on parts of Nicollet Mall’s building frontage.

    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

      I don’t know how the overall monetary elements worked out but there were apparently a number of vendors unhappy with the overall number of people and sales. It was first year though.

      Now, let’s think about it from an urbanism standpoint. 75% of the street frontage was steel barrier and chainlink fence. The other 25% was largely blank plywood with a couple of entrances. I’d put it up there with city center or Block E. On weekdays it was mostly empty moribund space about as appealing as a parking lot. During portions of weekends it was over crowded with about half the crowd not shopping but just trying to get out.

      Other Christmas markets (Vancouver and Minneapolis the only exceptions I’m aware of) are inviting, open, and permeable on all sides. Anyone walking by during the week can easily and quickly browse through on their way to their destination without need of going in and out through a ticketed entrance barrier. During more crowded times (which includes weeknights at all I’ve ever seen) people can wander in and perhaps more importantly wander out. They’re not trapped within. They can enter when they want and leave when they want. This makes them not only more child friendly but alleviates lines and significantly reduces crowding and increases the percentage of people walking by a booth who are buyers rather than people just taking up space trying to get back to the entrance/exit.

      The difference in the DID Christmas market and nearly all others throughout the world is similar to the difference in Nicolette Mall and more inviting streets like Hoofstraat in Amsterdam, Stroget in Copenhagen, or Bond St in London.

      1. John Charles Wilson

        Charging admission to the Christmas Market was dumb IMHO. What would have made more sense, if some kind of funds had to be raised, was to do what Taste of Minnesota does. Establish a system of “Christmas Bucks” and sell them at 4 for $5 or 9 for $10 and use the extra dollar to fund the market. Require all merchants in the market to accept only Christmas Bucks. Make them very artistic so people save extras for souvenirs (just like stamp collectors make money for the Postal Service by buying stamps and not using them).

        1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

          That sounds substantially worse to me. I absolutely hate having to change my perfectly good currency for some sort of single-use token.

          Also, you’re system likely would have ended up costing me more and does nothing to address the “problem” of free riders.

  2. mplsjaromir

    I liked the Christmas Market. So did many others. I would argue against your characterization that it was universally disdained.

    1. Bill LindekeBill LindekeModerator  

      I agree with the two previous commenters. People can sometimes enjoy bashing change a bit too much, and this is one of those times. Minneapolis downtown leaders are trying something new; isn’t that what many of us keep asking them to do?

      1. Brian Udell

        I’d give it a B-. I went twice.

        First was a Saturday evening with the wife and kids. Checked out all the free stuff on the street, found out that the line to get into the paid area was over a half hour long. The biggest folly was, the carousel was inside the $6 part, but there was no other kid-oriented activity inside. So we’d pay $6 a head so our daughter could ride a carousel (after waiting in another long line) and then be bored by everything else inside. We passed and went home, the whole thing seemed like a racket.

        Went back with the kids and in-laws during the day on Christmas Eve. No crowds and discounted admission, so it really wasn’t bad. The ornament kiosks and German food and beer were all very nice. And it being the last day, our daughter got a few extra free rides on the carousel.

        I wasn’t too heartbroken when they discontinued the parade last year, as I’ve always viewed parades as the most low-rent form of entertainment ever. But this needs some major reconfiguration for future years if it’s to have any hope of surviving.

        1. Nathaniel

          Thanks for commenting Brian (and everyone else). Hopefully the Christmas Market learns from its mistakes and is awesome next year. It’s a good idea and there is a lot of potential for it to be something great.

          1. Shawn

            “You can bet they’ll learn from the mistakes and improve it year after year, as the Holidazzle parade did.”

            If the parade was continually better from year to year, why’d it have to go?

  3. Bill LindekeBill LindekeModerator  

    While I agree with your critique of the buildings, I don’t think you’re giving enough credit to the shift in mentality that has happened with the downtown council. For example, last summer they sponsored a bottom-up urbanism project with the U of MN where students designed and implemented their own creative tactical urbanism projects intended to improve street life and create (as they say) a “consistently compelling downtown experience.” The holiday market is another example, as are pop-up parks.

    Read through the downtown Minneapolis 2025 plan (http://www.downtownmpls.com/page/show/423275-2025-plan) and pay attention to the language. It is actually pretty smart about focusing on sidewalks, and does not have very charitable things to say about the skyway system. At some level, they are aware of the architectural problems and are trying! Whoever wrote that has definitely read through their urbanism.

    Implementation is another matter, though. If you want to make a smart critique of what’s happening in downtown Minneapolis, maybe start pointing out the disparities between idea and reality, or in the amount of money spent on projects like Vikings stadium skyways vs. plaza improvement, etc. There is lots to poke at with the Nicollet Mall redesign project, but I think you’re a little off track here. The Downtown Council is aware of the problems they face.

    1. Nathaniel

      There is a shift in mentality and it’s better than it used to be. I cannot argue there. Downtown is moving in the right direction, but I see most of the positive stuff happening outside of the realm of Nicollet Mall. I don’t disagree with your comments though.

    2. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      That’s exactly what happens in unquestionably great cities without skyways, where the weather gets miserably cold or miserably hot for part of the year. Is it worth sacrificing street life year round to accommodate the climate-controlled-walk-to-distant-lunch-spot demands a few weeks or months out of the year?

        1. Wayne

          Also, plenty of people arrive downtown in buses and don’t drive directly to a ramp that connects to the skyway. People who probably have a coat capable of waiting for the bus they got on in the first place. So I’d wager there’s plenty of downtown workers for whom skyways are not, in fact, necessary.

          1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

            What does “necessary” mean?

            Because I’d wager a lot of people who arrive downtown on a bus take to the skyways immediately too, despite the fact they are likely already wearing a coat (or rain gear).

            I arrive at my office downtown on foot, which means I’m wearing a coat too. I still enter the sykways at the first opportunity when it’s this cold. And when I go down for lunch, I don’t have to bring my coat and can and do patronize businesses all across downtown.

            To walk outside all the way on a day like today, I’d need to wear more clothes than are comfortable for the work day and would need to seriously consider driving instead. For a commute around a mile, that’s pretty sad, even if that’s only a few days a year.

            But watching people come back from lunch carrying bags from Target, which is about a half mile away, along with seeing the same people in very different parts of downtown leaves me with absolutely no doubt that the skyways induce people to walk a lot farther they otherwise would.

            How much value is in that? And is it worth it? I don’t know.

            1. aexx

              Absolutely agree here.

              I’m a bus rider and immediately hop in the skyway system. It gets me to my office on the other side of downtown (that I can’t get by bus without a transfer) in mere minutes.

              Downtown is bitterly cold in the winter and sweltering hot in the summer. Part of the appeal of downtown is everything that I can access. If I can only get to what’s within a block or two comfortably, I might as well work in the ‘burbs and drive to Taco Bell. Instead, I can stretch my legs during the workday, get some food, and accomplish shopping needs.

            2. Wayne

              In the instance of my use above, “necessary” means something absolutely required to get by.

              Sure, you use the skyways because of the convenience, but if they didn’t exist … you’d be fully capable of walking a few blocks outside with your coat, right? My point is that people who think downtown would suddenly shut down if we closed all the skyways tomorrow are blowing things way out of proportion. If anything, it would just mean people who park in the ABC ramps would need to bring a real coat instead of whatever little fleece they get away with now.

              It’s not like people never go outside in the winter, right? Why did we build our downtown with the expectation that everyone would refuse to come if they had to go outside to get there? Pretending that people will hide inside if we don’t give them climate controlled hamster tubes kind of flies in the face of that whole ‘hearty outdoor spirit’ thing that Minnesotans try to project.

              1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

                If they didn’t exist, I don’t know that I’d live downtown. And I’m certain I would not venture as far as I do.

                For one weak example, I don’t go to nearly as many movies now that there is no longer a movie theater I can easily walk to. Skyways allow me to live car (and motorized vehicle) free 5-6 days a week year round.

                I don’t see anyone arguing that downtown would suddenly shutdown without skyways. I see people arguing that the people who live, work and own property downtown want, like and use skyways.

                I do see people arguing that everything would suddenly be better without them, though.

                We built our downtown hoping to entice people to come. We need to stop thinking that way. We should build our downtown for the people that are already there first. If we do that right, others will come too, but that’s secondary.

                1. Wayne

                  Fair enough! I guess I’ve never worked or lived downtown (unless you count downtown zone northeast), so my experience with the skyways is tangential and completely different. For people who don’t live or work within their confines, they are confusing and uninviting. I probably don’t even know half the retail businesses that exist downtown because I rarely venture into the skyways. I guess they don’t want me as a customer anyway, though, since they all close as soon as the office workers go home.

                  I think one of the main reasons a lot of us hate the skyways so much is that it feels like a cloistered world that the rest of us aren’t invited to. Like they should just put a sign out that says “Downtown Workers Only” and make us use the rear entrance if we come during off-hours after we get done working somewhere else in town. My hyperbolic point is that the skyways make downtown extra uninviting to anyone who isn’t there from 9-5 M-F, instead of being something that everyone can enjoy all the time.

                  I guess it just seems like a bad idea to me to replace yet another public realm with something privatized that has access controls and onerous rules related to private ownership (see also: mall of America protests, skyway arrests/taserings).

                2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

                  The skyways absolutely have major issues, including poor signage, bad or missing connections to the streets, inconsistent and too short hours, and an insufficiently public attitude, and I’m all for addressing those things.

                  Honestly, though, I always find it strange when someone “hates the skyways so much” but never interacts with them.

              2. aexx

                Downtown would certainly not shut down, but you’d see the empty streets pretty much all winter.

                Here’s my anecdata: I’ve worked downtown in several locations, including two in skyway-connected DTE buildings, a North Loop warehouse building not far from Hennepin/First, and stubby office not connected to the skyway down by Laurel Village.

                Of those jobs, guess which ones had me out shopping, eating, and getting more exercise during the day? Yep, it was the skyway-connected ones (or rather is, since I’m currently working at a skyway-connected building).

                I get off the bus and immediately head up to the skyways. It gets me there quicker and it’s warm. In the summer, I’m not sweating like crazy in work clothes. I don’t want to feel sticky all day. Skyways are an air-conditioned paradise. I occasionally stretch my legs by a “long” walk to Target. That’s not going to happen when it’s -40.

                When I was in the North Loop, winter essentially had me trying to scope out the nearest lunch spot on my block. I wasn’t going to wander far at all. It essentially cut off my lunchtime spending, which was good for my wallet, but bad for businesses in general.

                People often like to talk about how we only “need” skyways for a few days a year. That’s true in the simplest sense, but we have two-plus months of frigid cold weather (that’s only just now starting) and plenty of weeks in the summer–this last one excluded–where temps sit in the upper 90s or higher with dew points to match. On top of that, you have the typical bad weather days. Days when it’s pouring rain or gusting winds (woo, canyon effect) or generally crappy out, you can count on the skyways.

                They’re far from perfect. So ridiculously far. They need a lot of work, especially with access and wayfinding. But they’re a huge reason why I love working downtown and I would hate to see them go.

        2. Keith Morris

          I think it’s too easy to heap the blame onto the skyways for a lacking urban environment outside. If every block was packed with destinations I’m sure no one would be complaining about the skyways sucking life out of the sidewalks.

          1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

            It is true that if every block was packed with destinations, skyways wouldn’t be as bad.

            But the problem with skyways is that they split the public realm into two physical floors (or three if you’re Rochester with a “subway”), meaning you need double the destinations to keep the same level of usability compared to not having skyways.

      1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

        It’s not a few weeks or months. It’s every day.

        Sure, some of those people would do the same thing on outdoor sidewalks (next to cars and buses) but nowhere near all of them, I don’t think.

    3. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      It’s more complicated than that. Businesses want to be in skyway-connected buildings. People want to live in skyway-connected or adjacent buildings. Developers want their new buildings to be connected to them.

      The market values skyways. If it’s willing to pay for them (which can be a big if), should we say “no” to more?

  4. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker

    I think the best response here is: “why not both?”

    I’ve gotten the sense (and am heartened by what Bill posted above) that the DID does “get it” to an extent.Your point about the bigger issues with the mall is well taken, but in an ideal world both this redesign and piecemeal fixes for the buildings go forward hand in hand.

    1. Nathaniel

      There are improvements that can be made to the actual street infrastructure (I agree), but I think the biggest hurdle is building frontages (especially along the “dead” malls of Nicollet Mall)

  5. bw

    Perhaps what the post is talking most about are the 200-600 blocks of the mall? These are the blocks without really any building-sidewalk synergy — the failed indoor malls and empty blocks.

  6. Todd

    I wish the Board Members understood that nobody will ever care about the attractiveness of a sidewalk if it runs along a blank wall.

    Have the public officials in Minneapolis & St. Paul ever asked themselves, as they sprint past those awful, blocks-long inaccessible hellscapes, exactly why people are not filling the downtown sidewalks?

    As for the Holiday Village, or any quasi-municipal public event (downtown music festivals like 10,000 Lakes, or the State Fair), how come our burgeoning food truck & local beer/distillery scene is completely absent? Are these vendors not invited? It would be awesome to attend something like the Holiday/Christmas Village if I knew that these creative entities were present, instead of the “multiple ‘vendors’ actually owned by same corporate/out-of-state proprietor selling foodservice-level cuisine” model that appears to pervade most of these events?

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      The funny thing is, those are among the most populated stretches of the Mall, because that’s where the busiest bus stops are.

      As for the Holiday Village, I think all of the food vendors were from local businesses (unfortunately the Black Forest is the only one I specifically recall).

      A friend who has her own small baking business told me that it was much too expensive for her to considering trying to get a booth, though.

      1. Nathaniel

        We need transit retail. At busy bus & train stops in major cities, there will usually be (during peak hours) a food cart with coffee, small snacks, etc. It adds vibrancy and some eyes on the street.

    2. Nathaniel

      I think you’ve said something very important: “… nobody will ever care about the attractiveness of a sidewalk if it runs along a blank wall.”

  7. Jesse Langanki

    Comments on the redesign were almost universally in favor of getting rid of the street and making the entire mall pedestrian only. City leaders are ignoring the demands of the people and telling us they know better.

        1. Wayne

          Marquette and 2nd are already at capacity during rush hour. The ‘bus/bike’ lanes on Hennepin are never enforced and buses are slowed down massively in mixed traffic during rush hour there.

          I was thinking about this earlier and the only real alternative I can think of besides a tunnel is somehow turning 3rd into a half-and-half transit mall and street. But 3rd ave is pretty far from nicollet and the core and you’d get a massive drop off in retail customers who ride the bus.

          1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

            I’m not sure what “at capacity” means. The streets themselves certainly aren’t. Traffic moves fairly smoothly even at rush hour (which is a darn small part of the day anyway). But maybe room for stops is maxed out?

            I haven’t considered that. I bet we can think up solutions, though.

            I have a hard time believing that Nicollet is any faster, though, as I consistent outpace the Nicollet buses on my bike and nearly keep up on foot.

            1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

              Marq 2, as a bus facility, is indeed at capacity during peak hours.

              The problem is limited north-south capacity, especially west of Nicollet since the grid skews. The obvious answer seems to be one or more major east-west transit spines, where the grid does not skew and where we have excess actual street capacity. And since much of the peak hour transit capacity is for express buses which enter/depart downtown via freeways, and the downtown street grid is not orthogonal, then it would be just as easy to send a large chunk of those services east-west rather than north-south.

              Considering how easy this proposal is, I have no idea why we haven’t done it.

              1. Wayne

                That’s brilliant, actually. make 7th/8th into the new MARQ2 for express buses and re-use MARQ2 for local buses. It will take a bit of the convenience out of going to target downtown, but I like this idea. Or heck, even split up the street pairs the express buses go to based on which general direction they’re going (94 north, 35W to the south, 394 west … etc). They could do so much better with downtown transit organization.

                Although, actually, I prefer the idea of going all in on either Marquette or 2nd as a transit mall both ways instead of having it split like that. Probably Marquette if you’d want to close Nicollet to buses. Turn the other one back into a normal car street. Hennepin to 2nd doesn’t seem too far without a normal car street, right?

                1. Adam FroehligAdam Froehlig

                  8th was seriously looked at during the Access Minneapolis study. For some reason, they decided not to pursue it further.

                  7th probably wouldn’t work because of its through downtown access connections (from Hiawatha…from 94 in the future when they replace the ramp to 5th…to Olson Hwy on the other side).

  8. Adam MillerAdam Miller

    The buildings are certainly a big part of the problem, but not the only one. For one thing, there are empty store fronts at Renaissance Square, City Center (obviously, scale is an issue there) and next to Walgreen’s, off the top of my head. And, actually, I’ve wondered if 50 S. 6th didn’t intend for another street-level retail space in the building facade you linked to.

    I’d say the problem with the Mall more generally is a lack of anything for people to do there. The buildings certainly contribute to that, but they might be the hardest part of fix. While adding simple things like some places to sit should be pretty easy.

    1. Keith Morris

      I’m thinking expanding Nicollet Mall to include more storefronts is much more attainable than retrofitting several buildings. I’d like to see blocks just off of Nicollet getting the “Mall” treatment: 6th at least would be the best connector to/from Hennepin (which should have the same treatment on the same blocks as Nicollet).

      1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

        I’m not sure expanding it does anything to make the existing parts better, but yeah, making 6th or 4th more pedestrian-friendly as a way of connecting foot traffic to Hennepin/Warehouse District on one end and the new park and stadium on the other would make a lot of sense.

        6th would especially make sense as there are actually businesses along it that people might want to walk to and probably has more car capacity than it needs, but then again its blocked by the HCGC.

        4th is a bit more of the blank canvass, but at least connects directly to the coming park.

        Or I guess the other option is having pedestrians share 5th with the trains, as that’s already not terribly useful to cars. I’m not sure how to make that work as a pleasant place to walk though.

  9. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

    Nate, you may not be making any friends with the downtown Minneapolis power structure, but I certainly hope at least a few DID board members take you up on your offer of Jane Jacobs.

    What would Jane Jacobs do? It does beg the question what would she even like about downtown Minneapolis? Food trucks, Piazza on the Mall, that little crepe shop in the Medical Arts Building, the Trieste Café in the Lumber Exchange. In other words, the human scale building frontages and activities we have.

    With the deeply rooted problems downtown has, the hint of optimism I see is the huge amount of human capital (downtown workers, and a growing amount of downtown residents and visitors) who respond favorably when we have cool stuff for them to do at street level, and there is significant evidence that it doesn’t require $50 million to do so.

    And yes, we do need a better zoning code, plus the political guts to tell companies like Target that while we love that they are based downtown they must understand that Nicollet is our premier street and they can’t occupy a street-level building with private space. I mean, seriously….

    1. Nathaniel

      “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.” And, thus far, no one has taken me up on my offer for a free copy. I think your comments are spot-on (especially the part about not making friends).

  10. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    I think Adam nailed it with this: “I’d say the problem with the Mall more generally is a lack of anything for people to do there.”

    In cities that in my opinion have good urbanism/vibe the things to do there are eat & drink and shop. People spend time on these streets not because of the street design or the planters or the artwork but because of the cafe’s and stores that are in all of the buildings along the street and because the facades, at least at or near street level, are appealing.

    The DID getting it and implementing it are vastly different. I’ve decades of experience of people getting it or paying lip service to it and there ends it. I hope Bill is correct and that this time we’ll see some good and solid action to follow up the verbiage.

    1. Bill LindekeBill LindekeModerator  

      Talk is cheap, of course, but so are lots of tactical urbanism approaches. Last summer Ben Shardlow, who works for the DT Council, took me on a tour of some of the summer UMN projects I mentioned. I have a bunch of photos but have been too lazy to write them up yet. Maybe I’ll do that for tomorrow’s post! Some of the projects were cool.

  11. Aaron IsaacsAaron Isaacs

    I believe Nathaniel’s allegation that the sidewalk heating system never worked is wrong. I attended the planning meetings for the last Mall reconstruction and recall the decision, after much study and debate, not to install a sidewalk heating system. This was done because the original Mall had an electric system that had to be shut down because it shorted out. No one could guarantee a reliable system, so it was decided to make do with shovels, plows and salt. A couple of adjacent buildings have systems, which may cause some to think the Mall did as well.

    1. Monte Castleman

      I guess I still fail to see what was so wrong with the original version of the mall, apart from people hated at the time of the rebuild (and seem to still do) mid-century modernism.

  12. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    I wonder if there could be a mechanism in our zoning code to not only require storefronts, but to somehow require that they’re leased. My gut says that many downtown storefronts are vacant because a) when you have a giant tower or other structure, it’s a relative hassle to rent out a couple thousand square feet and b) the management is happy to wait out for a theoretical high-buck lease.

    But the reason why we require active frontage is because of the activity. Empty frontage is barely better than a blank wall. We’re already requiring these downtown developers to build storefronts at sidewalk level rather than blank walls (and even that’s a fight, as we’ve seen with Kraus Anderson, Target’s new thing, and Centerpoint/Gaviidae). But every space has a clearing price. If we require a certain maximum vacancy, prices will drop accordingly and bring in active users of the space. It would be a new cost of doing business downtown, but on the whole it would significantly raise values of sidewalk frontage over time. Additionally, it would give developers and existing owners an incentive to a) push for streetscape improvements and b) remodel/retrofit their spaces in a way that is more appealing to small businesses and thus maximizes revenue of this required space.

    There’s plenty of opportunity to enhance streetscapes around downtown, and the increasing residential population is helping. But when you look at spaces like Renaissance Square that have been vacant for a decade at the corner of Nicollet Mall and the LRT, it’s clear the issues are deeper than just street design.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      Yes, because that’s what creates a vibrant downtown. And we need a critical mass of storefronts to create a bunching effect, which was lost when we tore down most of downtown and rebuilt it around the automobile. Cost of doing business.

  13. Claire VanderEykClaire

    I completely agree – particularly with this: “In the planning profession, we spend a lot of time talking about the virtues of Jane Jacobs’ works, but pay her little respect in practice.” — That’s something I don’t understand, how we can sit around and talk about what creates great cities and then turn around and do the opposite most of the time.

  14. Wayne

    It needs more damn space to walk on. Between the stupid curves, oversized and obnoxiously placed street furnishings and decorations, and imposition of sidewalk cafes the walkable space on the mall is reduced to 2-3′ in several locations. I’m not saying do away with all of it, but maybe, just MAYBE try to fit it together in a way that doesn’t result in horrible choke-points?

    If a curve is swinging towards a building that wants a sidewalk café, maybe don’t allow it to stick out as far as one where the curve is swinging away? Or maybe just straighten the street and do away with the truly stupid undulating curves that are yet another way to slow down the glacially slow buses. I can’t believe they want to keep the curves and add a streetcar … what tracked transit in the history of ever has wiggled back and forth like that for no discernible reason other than ‘aesthetics?’ I’m sure everyone enjoying their sidewalk café seating will appreciate the constant squeal of passing trolleys.

    In a perfect world we’d have a transit tunnel and a pedestrian mall, but we live in a cheapskate world that refuses to make necessary infrastructure investments. So I’d take maybe just a bit more care in how things are laid out as a ‘best-case scenario.’ But I won’t hold my breath for it.

  15. Wayne

    Oh, and just to throw in some snark, maybe we should just elevate all of the downtown roads to skyway level and bring the street to where the retail already is? Deck over everything! Keep the underground as a sad tunnel system to ferry cars quickly to the highways like they already do and start from scratch above.

    I mean, if Chicago can do it …

      1. Wayne

        Plus, then Peavy Plaza can be even DEEPER underground, which should extra please those who prefer its pit-like nature.

  16. PT

    Having recently returned from a visit to Denver, this post really hits the mark. The frontage on the 16th Street Mall is excellent. Every block features numerous street-level storefronts or other commercial spaces. It gives a real energy to the area, at extended hours, something sorely lacking from NIcollet Mall.

    Denver has its share of skyscrapers; it helps greatly that they mostly seem to be off the Mall, and even those that are on the Mall generally have significantly improved public space and street-level frontage than the Minneapolis monoliths.

    It surely helps as well that the 16th Street Mall is given almost entirely to pedestrians, with the exception of an extremely frequent, high-volume free shuttle. A real free shuttle, not repurposed regular routes heading to their terminus. Lack of skyways, another benefit.

    Issues with chain saturation aside, dropping all skyway-level retail to the street would revolutionize the downtown experience. And yes, Denver is not as cold as Minneapolis — but it does still get chilly for months on end. You get a real sense of disappointment walking down NIcollet Mall after experiencing what has been done with this type of project in other cities. It’s unfortunate that we seek to refine our failures instead of revolutionizing our public realm.

  17. Casey

    This biggest problem is filling empty retail. This will not change any time soon in today’s economy. There is less demand for retail, as online shopping is at an all time high. Book stores, music stores, printing businesses and many others are dealing with changes in technology, consumer demand, and competition from huge companies with more buying power and advertising dollars.

      1. Nathaniel M Hood Post author

        I think another response it food. I see successful food trucks migrating to small brick-and-mortar locations and this might be a great opportunity for that.

    1. Nathaniel

      If we had good spaces for small retail, I’m confident it’d exist. Many of the retail spaces along the mall are too large to appeal to most small businesses.

      1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

        All the downtown office workers create a huge market for small retail, and in fact it exists and is pretty well occupied, but mostly at the skyway level. If the square footage of daily needs retail (coffee shops, fast food, convenience goods, etc.) were simply relocated from skyway to street level, we’d have a much better sidewalk experience overall.

        1. Wayne

          And most of it seems to close at 5PM when they go home because it’s inaccessible or unseen by anyone else who passes through downtown. I imagine a lot of the shops and restaurants could have longer hours (and more customers) if they had actual street frontage and weren’t buried in some obscure corner of the skyway where no one except workers in that building or one that makes them pass through there can see it.

          Honestly it’s going to be hard to get existing retail to move, but can we at least put a moratorium on opening any new skyway level retail spaces? Can we demand that new construction or remodels have street-facing retail? We should at least start slowly turning the tide.

          1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

            Your first proposal will not work. No one is going to open an unprofitable street-level business because you won’t let them open a profitable skyway-level business.

            I don’t know what the existing rules are as to your second suggestion, but the Nic and the remodeled Soo Line building have street-level retail, so maybe that’s already required?

            The trains, which deliver people directly to sidewalks, and requiring mixed use, with residents who are right there anyway, seem like factors that can really help bring back the street level.

            1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

              The point I made earlier was that “what is profitable” is different for a landlord begrudgingly required to include storefronts in their downtown developments, and actual small businesses. It may be easier for landlords to have unreasonably high rent demands for their downtown storefronts, since they’re really in it for everything above the storefront, and if they never get someone to bite on a high-dollar lease then so be it. But that’s not the intent of requiring the storefronts in the first place. If we’re already burdening developers and landlords with the requirement to have the physical space to support active sidewalk frontage, we might as well somehow require that they use it as such.

              1. aexx

                I fail to see how any builder owner would turn down thousands of dollars a month because it’s “smaller” than some of the offices above. There are plenty of small offices downtown, too, and yet they find space.

                In the end, it’s collecting a check. What’s so difficult about that?

                1. Wayne

                  Managing retail space is different from managing office space, though. I’m sure a lot of people who mostly do the latter aren’t super excited about doing the former because they’re not used to it or it seems like some kind of ‘extra’ work to them. So they’d rather miss out on what, to them, is a pretty small amount and avoid the hassle. That’s what he’s saying.

                  1. aexx

                    I’m sure it’s different, but most of these buildings are managed by big management companies that do this sort of thing as their job. The owners hardly matter (they get a new one every few years as a building is sold off to a new investment firm).

                    It just makes me think it’s a little more complex than that. Namely, a lot of our street retail locations are pretty poorly designed. That’s a factor that independent of the skyways.

            1. Wayne

              If, nay, WHEN more people live downtown they could easily also be open for dinner if they were located somewhere people actually could see and access after hours. As it is now, I think you’re mixing up cause and effect. They aren’t open for dinner because the location assures no one will be around for it. On the street they *could* be. Maybe they wouldn’t all, but I am willing to bet at least a few would.

              1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

                No, they really can’t. Even when more people live downtown, the city is still going to swell substantially during working hours so that it needs a lot more casual dining capacity at lunch than it does at dinner.

                That’s okay. Even DC and NY have breakfast and dinner casual dining places in the financial districts.

                And no, I’m not mixing cause and effect. You’re assuming the thing you don’t like is the driving factor when, in this instance, it really isn’t.

                  1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

                    I’ve also been to weekend brunches and dinners in the financial districts of NY and DC, and they do not look dead like Mpls does. Difference? Skyways.

                    1. Kevin

                      Really? Are you kidding? Mpls looks “dead” on the weekends compared to NYC and DC because they both have much larger populations. They also both attract tourists and visitors from around the world. Or shall we now blame Mpls failure to be a global financial/political powerhouse on the skyways too?

                    2. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

                      Tourists and visitors aren’t the ones going to haute restaurants on K Street though. Even sections of NYC and DC look dead outside of business hours, just not to the degree of Mpls.

                    3. Adam MillerAdam Miller

                      I lived in DC for 11 years. It’s downtown is pretty dead on weekends unless you’re near something touristy.

                      Stroll down H, I, L or M street west of 16th on a Sunday morning and see how lively it is. And look, no skyways!

                1. Wayne

                  Touche! But I still think that downtown could maintain a higher amount of retail with longer hours if it had street frontage. Especially into the future as the population continues to expand. Agree to disagree?

                  1. Michael RodenMichael Roden

                    my spouse and I lived in downtown west for two years and now live in lyn-lake.

                    We left downtown because we found ourselves always going to uptown on the weekends. We would much rather have just walked to something we like, but it was mostly all enormous and boring restaurants. There wasn’t any small local breakfast places, for example. Hell’s Kitchen? No, thank you.

                    All the tumbleweeds we would have to walk past on Saturday mornings were a deterrent, too.

  18. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    Are skyways the problem or that most of the retail is on the skyway level? What if the retail were moved to street level with street front access and where possible also with interior/skyway access?

    1. Adam FroehligAdam Froehlig

      The “problem” depends on who you ask. There are several members of this forum who say the very existence of the skyways is the problem. Others point to the poor skyway/surface level circulation. I personally lean towards the latter…and this has also been pointed out in downtown transportation plans (namely the downtown component of Access Minneapolis).

      1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

        I’m in between, but more towards the former. Why? Skyways nearly double the amount of active frontage, putting it on two levels. Even if you provide better circulation, wayfinding, and access, you still have skyways consuming lineal frontage for stores and restaurants that would otherwise activate a sidewalk.

        1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

          I think there is a very real dilution because of those two levels, and because a lot of downtown daily needs retail and restaurants follow footfalls, they’ve mostly migrated to the skyway level. Clearly there isn’t enough demand to fill retail space on both levels throughout downtown(otherwise it would have happened), so what we have is sort of a self-perpetuating cycle, and street level activity suffers.

          The problem with improving access between the two at this point is it is horrendously expensive and legally dicey, as where do you draw the line between public and private space? And the evidence of this is the Nicollet Mall plans dropping the stairway connection because of those issues.

          1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

            There’s a stairway from the skyway along the back of the Thrivent building down to the street level. The door facing the street at the bottom says something like “no skyway access” or something similarly facepalm inducing.

  19. Nathaniel M Hood Post author

    I’ve issued two corrections on the blog post above:

    1 – The Minneapolis Downtown Council & the Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District are, for purposes of taxation, legally separate non-profit organizations run by the same Board of Directors out of the same office space. The author should have originally included MDC and the City of Minneapolis leadership at the time, such as former Mayor RT Rybak, as collaborators.

    2 – I incorrectly stated that the Christmas Market was “universally disdained”. It was only “mostly disliked”. More people enjoyed it than I had thought. While my experience with the market was rather negative and online reviews were not flattering, some people did enjoy it. I look forward to future Christmas Markets and hopefully the MDC/DID improves on something that has great potential.

  20. Dan Barnes

    I agree that the buildings are the key. I’m just back from a vacation week in Portland, staying in the Nolo-ish Pearl District downtown. Lot’s to like in that experience, not least of which being actual street level retail. Yes, things close down at night, but a closed storefront is more interesting than a blank wall.

    I’m about to move to a skyway-connected office. I’m sure there will be days I really enjoy it for practical reasons, but the skyway system is basically a sprawled-out shopping mall, a suburban experience transplanted into the core, and it’s hard for me to see that as (a) interesting or (b) good for the city in the long run.

    Question for another thread: How many skyways will be built in Nolo?

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      Portland has a literal downtown shopping mall.

      Visiting made me very jealous of their downtown retail, but I think calling skyways a suburban experience is rather a large stretch.

      1. Daniel Barnes

        Yah, downtown Portland is pretty neat!

        Regarding our skyways as a suburban experience, I should have fleshed that out more:

        The actual over-the-streets walkways are distinctly urban. But much of our skyway system’s retail and dining build-out inside the skyway-connected buildings reminds me of the lesser hallways at, say, Southdale. You get a carpeted, room-temperature, safe-feeling experience insulated from the world. Personally, I’d rather have a little liveliness. YMMV.

  21. Keith Morris

    Just visited Hopkin’s Main Street today: Nicollet Mall’s walkability doesn’t come close. There are way more storefronts clustered together than any block of Nicollet Mall. There’s also art on the sidewalks and benches dotting the stretch. Benches! Nice wooden ones too. There’s even a micro-brewey and a non-chain coffee shop (which were both quite good): Nicollet Mall has bland chain coffee shops and

    As far as pedestrian-friendliness goes it also blows away Lyndale, Hennepin, Lake, etc. There are two lanes, as the street wasn’t widened for encroaching suburbia. Sidewalks don’t feel so narrow and there are these things called “curb bump outs” which Minneapolis should look into. They actually shorten the walk across the street: it’s like magic!

    Again, this is a town of 18,000 which no one knows of outside of Minnesota that can best any business district in the state’s largest city when it comes to walkability and pedestrian-friendliness. Doesn’t that sound so very backwards?

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      You drive there though.

      I bike through once. Seemed nice. Like 3-4 blocks. With no bike facilities, right?

      Not sure I’d rave about a tiny stretch of old design still espxisting, but yeah, we used to do so much better.

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