The Downtown Home-free Zone

As any local resident knows, “what’s wrong with downtown retail” is perennial topic of conversation that seems like it started with the opening of the first of our beautiful suburban malls. Even worse, everyone has an opinion. Unluckily for you, I have the keys to this blog, which means I get to share mine (and force you to read at least this far).

For some time, I’ve wanted to come up with a way to visualize what I see as the main problem: there are large swaths of downtown in which no one lives.

The No-Home Zone

The No-Home Zone

Above you see my rudimentary attempt to outline exactly where people don’t live in downtown Minneapolis. This is all rather non-scientific, as I’m eyeballing things here, but this at least roughly demonstrates that there are almost no homes for people to live in within the oddly-shaped area enclosed by red line.

I say almost because the five green ovals are the exception to the rule. From east to west, they are 52 units for formerly homeless and at-risk youth at the St. Barnabas Apartments, 21 units of condos at Six Quebec, 121 units at the LaSalle Apartments, 55 units at the City Place Lofts, and 32 units at the Stage Apartments.   (After having created and uploaded the image, I realized I also left out 70 units for the formerly homeless at the Continental Hotel just inside the line at 12th and LaSalle.)

If I did the math right, that’s 351 housing units, total, within the central business district of downtown. That may not be the only problem for downtown retail, but it is certainly one of the problems. Without the sort of built-in customer base that comes from being the closest available option, downtown retailers face a somewhat unusual obstacle. They have to get almost all of their customers to pass by a closer-to-home option to come shop in their stores.

The good news, of course, is that this is changing a bit. I had initially intended to do a second version of this map that didn’t include more recent developments like the Edition, Soo Line, 4Marq, the Nic, 222 Hennepin, Sexton Lofts, (the planned) Thresher Square, etc. that have been eating in to the boundaries of the No-Home Zone. All of which is great news.

But there will always a be challenge inherent in the fact that we built out the heart of downtown in an era that didn’t require (or maybe even discouraged) mixed use development.

Adam Miller

About Adam Miller

Adam Miller works downtown and lives in South Minneapolis. He's an avid user of the city's bike paths, sidewalks and skyways. He's not entirely certain he knows what the word "urbanist" means.

27 thoughts on “The Downtown Home-free Zone

  1. Joey SenkyrJoey Senkyr

    Nitpick: You also appear to have left out the 112-unit Metro Apartments, at 9th and Marquette. Doesn’t really change your point, though.

    1. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

      10th and Marquette? But yeah. Point stands that retail follows rooftops, and the retail district of Nicollet is lacking of close rooftops. Southdale is piling up apartments next to it and slicing off its parking for apartments and a hotel.

      I wonder if it would be worth a version of the map with pins for hotels?

      1. Adam MillerAdam Miller Post author

        I don’t know what to think about hotels, because, yeah, there are obviously quite a few hotel beds within the zone.

        On the one hand, hotel customers are obvious demand for food and drink. On the other they aren’t shopping for other necessities that might be a critical “base” demand to make a shopping district viable.

        Meanwhile I’d suspect that tourists do more recreational shopping than business travelers, but I have no idea what the mix of the two is for downtown hotels.

        1. John Charles Wilson

          Personally, when I travel as a tourist, I prefer outlying/suburban hotels (but not so far out as to have poor transit access). The only advantage to a downtown hotel IMHO is if you’re a business traveler and your business is downtown, or if you’re main purpose in tourism is shopping at downtown stores. Of course, I’m a low-budget traveler which also influences my decision. Nothing downtown comes close to the price of a suburban Days Inn, Super 8, or Motel 6!

          1. Monte Castleman

            I’m the same way, having a car + staying in the suburbs = a lot more flexibility for about the same price as staying in the city without a car. Suppose someone was visiting here and wanted to see the Minnesota Zoo, Taylor’s Falls, downtown Stillwater, and Valleyfair as well as the Stone Arch Bridge and the Capital building.

            1. Adam MillerAdam Miller Post author

              I’m the opposite. If I’m on vacation, I want to be able to walk to as much as possible, especially dinner/evening entertainment.

              That’s a luxury in this country, unfortunately.

    2. Adam MillerAdam Miller Post author

      Doh! You’re right.

      Also, I should have pointed out that on both the east and west sides, I stopped at the freeway even though there’s obviously not housing in the freeway trenches or (generally) immediately beyond them.

  2. Jeramey Jannene

    Really informative for an outsider from Milwaukee. I’ve visited Minneapolis countless times, but never get the sense that anyone really lives downtown. Then, I’ve looked at the average-weighted density figures from the census bureau, and see that Minneapolis actually has a number of residents close to the center of the city.

    When I’ve visited Minneapolis in the middle of the winter, I’ve stayed in that bubble (don’t worry I’ve wandered beyond many times during my more favorable weather visits) and never really encountered a real residential population.

    Reflecting on how this same thing could be seen in Milwaukee (Westown, the area of downtown west of the river has only like 1,200 residents or so), shows the same problem. Retail struggles in this deadzone, despite that downtown is home to well over 15,000 people. You could easily get the same impression if you stayed in many of the hotels west of the river downtown.

    All of this is to say, if we want to create more healthy, vibrant downtowns it seems that it would behoove the cities to seed things by subsidizing the development of housing within a defined area.

  3. Wayne

    While there’s little to no housing *in* the CBD, I think it’s an important caveat that directly adjacent to the CBD you have some of the densest neighborhoods in the city (state even?). Loring Park has got to have some serious numbers in terms of residential units, and the north loop, elliot park, stevens sq, etc. are no slouches either. There’s plenty of people for whom downtown would be and is the closest option for several kinds of retail, but some of it is simply not present so we have to go the opposite direction to get it. For example, clothing and furniture have very few options downtown (especially outside of 9-5 M-F hours), so I’ve been forced to go to uptown or even the suburbs to find certain kinds of shopping options. I still blame the skyways for the crap quality of downtown retail.

    1. Wayne

      Also I wasn’t trying to diminish in the least the idea that we need more housing downtown. We need more housing everywhere, and downtown has the infrastructure to support a lot of density so it needs to get build up more. I just don’t think it’s really the limiting factor to retail so much as the skyways and the perception that nobody will come downtown for shopping.

      1. Rosa

        about 15 years ago I had a coworker who bought a downtown condo, but after a year or two they moved because they kept having to go so far for basics like food and clothing.

        Things are better now – there’s the Target, among other things. But I’d love to see the # of housing units over time. Wasn’t there a downtown condo boom in the ’80s too? And wasn’t there a lot of housing (mostly cheap) that got bulldozed/”renewed” in the ’50s?

    2. Adam MillerAdam Miller Post author

      Yeah, you can read the map in the inverse too. Just on the other side of the red line, there is at least some housing (with the exception of the freeways), and as you say, some of it is quite dense.

      I just don’t see the skyways as a obstacle to downtown retail (indeed, in large part they are a result of trying to foster downtown retail).

      They are arguably an obstacle to retails on the street level, but I think that’s a different question.

      Nor do I think there’s a perception that no one would come downtown to shop, I think there’s a reality which is why downtown retail needs to starts with serving people who are already downtown.

      1. Joe

        I tend to agree with you re: skyways.

        Except that skyways are open and have tons of traffic during business hours and the streets have most of the traffic outside business hours (weekend and evenings). If we didn’t have skyways you’d have potential shoppers to a street store 12 hours a day 7 days a week. With the skyways you can either have potential shoppers 8 hours a day 5 days a week, or be on the street and miss most of the daytime shoppers. Not a major contributor, but certainly a bit of one.

      2. Wayne

        The skyways primarily serve downtown workers and not downtown (or near-downtown) residents, though. If you want to get into the “core” of the downtown skyway system from loring park you have to walk so far that you’re basically already in the core of downtown. Or you can walk through the convention center and go waaaaaay out of your way. Plus they’re generally not open outside of business hours and figuring out where/when you can get into them is a mess if you don’t already know. It’s enough to keep me from ever using them now that I live right on the cusp of downtown.

        So any retail in the skyways is pretty useless and hard to find for downtown residents unless they are also downtown workers who use them during the workweek, in which case they are they downtown worker use case and not the resident one. I know there’s a lot of overlap, but quite a few people live in/near downtown and don’t work in the skyway-connected core (or even downtown at all).

        Adding grocery stores is a good start for downtown retail, but it needs a lot more of the ‘basics’ aside from just target and macy’s to really get downtown shopping going again.

    3. Sam

      Agreed. I live in Stevens Sq and while I do wind up at the downtown Target pretty often, that and the LRT are really the only things that get me across 94 regularly. There’s no regular person grocery store downtown, which means I’m forever on the 17 going to the Uptown Cub. Franklin/Nicollet CVS means I have no use for the new Walgreens. I can never trust that any of the downtown restaurants I can afford will be open when I need them because almost all the downtown restaurants I can afford are in the skyways (and Eat Street is right there anyway). I can only speak for myself, but the unreliabilty of the skyways and skyway-level businesses is one of the biggest deterrents for me.

      And even when I do need to go downtown for something, I have to haul myself across the dreary (and currently very cold) 94 bridge, past the monolithic convention center, and through the god-awful 1300 block of Nicollet to get there… It’s just not desirable. I’d so much rather walk down 1st Ave S or 3rd Ave S or Nicollet Ave S, where there are trees and cheap businesses and people.

    4. Steve

      Yeah, I was kind of thinking the same thing. There may not be a lot of housing right in the immediate loop area, but there’s quite a bit all around it, and we’re not talking about that big an area. I don’t, however think skyways are to blame. I’m old enough to remember when skyways coexisted with a healthy retail scene (for several decades). I think the decline in downtown retail had more to do with the big redevelopment and rebuilding boom that started in the 80’s. A lot of lower rent space went away and retailers were unwilling to pay higher rents. It seems like property owners would rather let spaces sit empty rather than fill them up for perhaps less rent than they think they should be getting. Also I think suburban style developments like City Center and Gavidae were ultimately disasterous for downtown retail. It seems like failed retail is one of those things that really creates a negative perception for an area that can take a long time to overcome. Finally, I think all the online shopping has hindered the resurgence of downtown retail. I would bet that we all buy a lot more stuff online than we’re willing to admit.

  4. Dana DeMasterDanaD

    Not sure if I have a point yet, but I was curious what the Census had to say about number of people living in different neighborhoods. According to Minnesota Compass at Wilder Research ( the 2009-2013 American Community Survey shows that the population of these neighborhoods was:

    Downtown Mpls – 30,773
    Longfellow – 28,237
    Phillips – 20,356
    Northeast – 36,682
    Near North – 31,563

    Downtown Saint Paul – 6,885 (tiny!)
    North End – 22,413
    Hamline-Midway – 12,012
    Frogtown – 15,327
    Highland Park – 24,744

    So, downtown Minneapolis has as many residents as Near North, more than Longfellow or Phillips, but less than Northeast. No Saint Paul neighborhoods have as many residents as downtown Saint Paul.

    I don’t have a conclusion here, but wonder how much of it is residential population versus land/development/building costs, big box style preference for large parking lots (see Hamline-Midway, Lake St/Hiawatha, and the Quarry), and other factors.

    That said, I really, really, really miss Macy’s in downtown Saint Paul. I used to be able to run over at lunch to get needed shopping done and now I have to do it at night or on weekends (taking time away from my kids). Lund’s has been great.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      FWIW the “area” of downtown Saint Paul is much smaller, less than half I believe. But yes, tiny. Needs to double at least, for the same reason (supporting mix of uses) mentioned in this article.

  5. Wanderer

    Pre-1960 (or so) downtown shopping districts drew customers from a citywide/regional base, and didn’t really rely on neighborhood residents. I wonder if the lack of residents in Minneapolis’ downtown core doesn’t affect neighborhood or “convenience” shopping like grocery stores and hardware stores the most. People don’t generally want to travel to a grocery store if they can help it, but will travel for “comparison” shopping like clothing or furniture.

    In addition, the home-free zone may not last forever–apartments and condos have been built right in the center of a lot of cities.

    1. Rosa

      my mom grew up in northern Iowa in the ’50s and they used to come up to Minneapolis for fancy Christmas shopping – when she visits we still go downtown “to shop” but it’s pretty disappointing these days. At least we can have a nice lunch.

  6. dan k

    The biggest problem is the people want free parking right at the front door
    Most Mpls residents would rather drive 10mins to shop at Target in SL Pk or elsewhere .Mpls is the suburb of Roseville .

    Thye need to get rid of the panhandlers downtown first to get retail back downtown .Mpls is heading the direction as downtown St PAUL .
    Maybe the city need to give the residents a CIVIC lesson,speedning your $$$$ at ROSEDALE/MOA decrease their tax base.

    Close the mall to traffic and allow street vendor / market all times esp weekends

  7. Joe ScottJoe Scott

    Seems to me one of the main problems is the lack of appropriate commercial real estate. If you’re Whole Foods, you can afford to be the main tenant on the ground floor of a new building, but you’re not going to get “interesting/vibrant” retail downtown (i.e. things other than Walgreen’s and Bruegger’s) because what are you going to do, rent some class A office space for your startup clothing boutique or vegan restaurant? The scale of downtown real estate isn’t designed for locally owned businesses, it’s designed for major corporate offices serviced by corporate food chains. That’s a structural problem that won’t be solved by additional residents.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller Post author

      Yeah, I don’t know about that. A lot of smaller spaces have been wound up/converted to other uses over the years (City Center and both Gaviidaes used to be multiple levels of smaller mall-like retail storefronts) and there seems to be available smaller spaces on the skyway level.

      And I don’t think it’s that hard to subdivide larger spaces if there’s a demand for it, which seems to happen when things sit empty too long anyway.

  8. GlowBoy

    It does seem like downtown Minneapolis isn’t the shopping destination it could be. One thing Portland (whose downtown is smaller than Minneapolis’, though bigger than St. Paul’s) did to keep retail vibrant was to create half a dozen subsidized parking garages (branded “Smart Park” and well-signed so people can find them) scattered at strategic locations across downtown. These are intended to welcome shoppers driving into downtown — not commuters — with 4 hour limit and rates currently somewhere around $3 an hour. From what I understand the rate is actually adjusted periodically to adapt to market conditions and keep the garages a certain percentage full, or full a certain percentage of the time, not sure of the exact methodology.

    I know what most Streets.MNers are probably thinking here: isn’t this a subsidy for driving, and isn’t that a bad thing? Well yes, and I get the second point. But:
    1. I think it’s a better thing than the free parking that shoppers get everywhere else. That’s the subsidy that kills downtown retail.
    2. It dramatically reduces the amount of driving-around-the-block “trolling” for parking spaces if you are nearly guaranteed a moderately priced space in a garage.
    3. The Smart Parks have been credited with keeping downtown Portland’s retail alive, and unfortunately that retail is significantly dependent on people who arrive by car. Not that many people will pay $8 an hour to park and shop downtown (what Minneapolis Macy’s garage currently charges), but people will pay something. Suburbanites won’t go to downtown Portland for casual shopping, but many are attracted to it as a shopping *destination*, and that’s worth

    I have a very close acquaintance who’s as car-dependent as they come, and is continually perplexed by my bike-riding and transit ways. But he and his wife spend a weekend at a downtown Portland hotel every December to shop. How many people are staying at the Renaissance Depot to do that? Obviously the short-term Smart Parks aren’t directly responsible for this, but they are indirectly responsible in the sense that they’ve kept downtown retail vibrant and attractive to non-urbanites.

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