Tough Love for Downtown Minneapolis

I took my mother to the Oak Grill in January. We needed to see the place one last time. Share one last popover. And a manhattan. I’m embarrassed to say I’d never been. So for me eating at the Oak Grill was a new experience in downtown Minneapolis. Looking around the dining room that day I suspect I was the only one for whom this was true. For them, a piece of downtown died last month. I’m not sure what it meant for me.

Nicollet Mall in Another Era (courtesy MNHS)

Nicollet Mall in Another Era (courtesy MNHS)

The downtown I miss is shown in the photo above. Sure, I did shop at Dayton’s and Macy’s as an adult, but I won’t miss the department stores as much as what this photo portrays: people on the sidewalk, in downtown, the way it should be. I grew up going downtown with my grandfather on the bus, so it’s likely I walked down Nicollet Mall a few short years after this photo was taken. It really looks lovely, doesn’t it? After looking at photos by Mike Evangelist from Downtown: Minneapolis in the 1970s, by him and Andy Sturdevant, I realize I don’t really remember this ideal version of downtown. Did life in downtown Minneapolis really used to exist at street level, before the skyways really took hold of our daily habits, with all people mingling on the sidewalks? Or is it all a dream?

On the topic of skyway removal, it’s worth pointing out Eric Dayton’s Skyway Avoidance Society (having largely avoided skyways for more than a decade, I’ve officially taken the pledge, why don’t you?). In a recent article he characterizes the skyway issue in a way I couldn’t agree with more, saying, “Would you trade the comfort of the skyways today for a healthy, vibrant Minneapolis year-round?” That cuts to the core of the issue. And the past couple years the city has embarked on an unprecedented skyway expansion, further protracting the problem of lifeless streets. Read Bill Lindeke’s recent Minnpost article comparing the skyway decisions on Minneapolis versus Saint Paul. The skyways continue to vex us. And based on this 2016 Star Tribune article, I can’t help but point out that Minneapolis has a system of pedestrian access that has not only common ownership but also regular predictable opening hours – they are called sidewalks. So let’s agree to disagree – as long as skyways exist, downtown Minneapolis will not as as healthy and vibrant as it could be, or was back in the “good old days.”

Brit's Pub - Best Frontage in Downtown

Brit’s Pub – Best Frontage in Downtown

So where does that leave us? There are places I like downtown, when I gather the courage to venture out on those inhospitable, barren sidewalks. Brit’s Pub with its fireplaces and televised soccer games. The Trieste Cafe, where Omar and Sammie have been sweating over shaved lamb for years. La Belle Crepe and their amazing crepes and intimate space carved out of the Medical Arts Building: my favorite tiny sidewalk storefront in downtown. I like the lobby and bar in the Westin Hotel. The Crystal Court is sublime. Hennepin Avenue at dusk when the theater marquees all light up. That one gold star on First Avenue. And the serene view of the skyline from Target Field. Yes, there is lots to like, but there could be more vibrancy.

February 5, 2018 is the first day of the rest of downtown’s life. We’ve based most planning decisions in recent years on hosting the 2018 Super Bowl, which is deeply misguided and won’t leave us with a healthy, vibrant downtown when the Super Bowl leaves town. Macy’s and the Sports Authority and Barnes and Noble spaces could still be vacant. But since there are efforts to plan for programming and activating downtown for the Super Bowl, let’s consider that some ideas may actually have lasting value.

Here are some suggestions. Build a newsstand, even if it’s temporary. Plunk it down in Nicollet Mall and have it open 24/7 the week before the Super Bowl. Have pop-up stores or art installations in all vacant ground level space on Nicollet and perhaps all downtown streets. Host Super Bowl events in the vacant ground floor of Macy’s – the high ceilings will accommodate a few footballs being tossed around. Activate the hell out of the Commons Park, with an ice rink and all things winter. And lastly, this may sound insane given that Barnes and Noble is closing, but a pop-up bookstore would be an excellent temporary addition.

There are choices to be made for the post-Macy’s, post-Oak Grill, post-Super Bowl downtown Minneapolis, and even if it will never be as vibrant or healthy as it would be without the skyways, there is still room for improvement. Maybe some of the Super Bowl planning will result in permanent improvements. We can only hope.

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

29 thoughts on “Tough Love for Downtown Minneapolis

  1. GlowBoy

    I agree that downtown’s vibrancy leaves a lot to be desired, and that the skyways are a pretty big part of the cause. I’ve also learned in my 2 years here that the sidewalks are often a much more efficient way to walk across downtown than the convoluted and confusing skyway system.

    That said, the skyways sure were vibrant when I was down there at lunchtime yesterday. Sorry, not willing to join the Avoidance Society: in really cold weather I prefer them, in mildly cold weather if I have my kids with me I’m not going to make them suffer to prove a political point, and like it or not most of the affordable lunch places are up there.

    But I do try to use the sidewalks a lot too. FINALLY getting that Nicollet Mall project done will help. If you ask me, that’s done as much damage to downtown as the skyways have.

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      I make my kids suffer all the time – they can use the skyways when they are 18, not on my watch!

      Seriously, though, you suggest a good, what’s that word? Compromise. Using the sidewalks as much as possible is great and I wish more people did so. The food trucks sure help when they’re around.

      And yes, street reconstructions are tough! East Lake’s vacancy rate went way up when it was rebuilt 10 years ago or so. Basically a necessary evil.

  2. Theo K

    You missed a very, very vital piece of what currently does bring foot traffic to downtown: food trucks. Wherever food trucks congregate, so do pedestrians- to the point where many sidewalks are impassable.

    How might this idea be expanded on and broadened so that foot traffic doesn’t exist just at certain places or times of day? Perhaps more kiosk-type businesses with a small enough footprint that local small businesses can afford to set up shop without paying the kind of overhead that makes a downtown location only viable for corporate chains. Perhaps more kiosk restaurants.

    It actually doesn’t take a lot to coax people to the sidewalks, but the one thing it takes- effort- has been pretty lacking.

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      I’m big on kiosks. There are cities that pitch in on costs in order to attract people – a cost/benefit analysis on that compared to other city costs is a worthy endeavor.

    2. John Charles Wilson

      Cheap hot dog carts would make a good addition to the street food scene. In Denver in the late 1990s, one could get a hot dog for 45 cents. Sure it wasn’t the best quality on earth, but two of the could keep you going for an afternoon. Great when you’re homeless and almost but not quite broke. Beats the soup kitchens!

      Little kiosks which sell small snacks and reading material would also be a good thing.

      Since we lost Shinder’s, the only out-of-town newspapers you can buy in the Twin Cities are the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. A newsstand selling the Duluth News-Tribune, the Rochester Post-Bulletin, the Fargo Forum, and the Saint Cloud Times would probably do well.

  3. Keith Morris

    Also worth noting is that back when that picture was taken virtually every street intersecting Nicollet Mall probably looked a lot like Nicollet Mall. Until all of those dozens of blocks of small storefronts were demolished for blank walls, that is. I think this is what kills the level of sidewalk activity the most. Uptown isn’t packed because of its lack of skyways for example, but it’s concentration of destinations.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele


      We’ve destroyed downtown’s fine grain along sidewalks. Even on Nicollet Mall.

    1. John Charles Wilson

      Bums aren’t the problem. Thugs and people who act like thugs are. Get rid of the wild and crazy behaviour on Hennepin Avenue, espcially near the light rail. That area is nervewracking in the daytime and downright scary at night.

      1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

        I’m not comfortable using the term “bums” or “thugs,” but I do believe additional resources should be placed towards solving issues pertaining to homelessness in Minneapolis and other cities.

      2. Reilly

        But let’s not also over-define “wild and crazy”. That’s the mindset that led us to eliminate Block E. If someone is harassing people, then yes, by all means, let’s move him out; that’s what cops are for. But if he or she is just being boisterous or weird? That’s part of what makes it downtown and not an office park in Eagan.

        1. cobo Rodreges

          If dealing with loud, rude, and disrespectful aholes is what downtown is about … then give me the suburbs any day…

  4. Steve

    It’s easy to blame the skyways for all of downtown’s ills, but it misses a lot. As a kid I went downtown a lot with my parents in the early 70’s. I remember when it looked exactly like the pictures in Mike Evangelist’s book. The truth is that the skyways and sidewalks coexisted nicely for many years. They were both full of people because there were just a lot more people downtown. Downtown retail suffered when all of the lower rent property got replaced. People also seem to constantly want more and more, while at the same time paying less and less for all of that stuff. Instead of preaching skyway avoidance, we should be preaching avoidance and outlet mall avoidance.

    1. John Charles Wilson

      Agreed. Downtown Minneapolis and Downtown Denver are almost alike except Denver doesn’t have skyways. Denver isn’t any more “vibrant” than Minneapolis. There are no major department stores in either downtown. The majority of the eateries and small shops front on the inside of buildings, not the sidewalk. The only difference is that in Denver, most activity is on the first floor and in Minneapolis it’s on the second.

      16th Street Mall to Nicollet Mall
      15th and 17th Streets (and to a lesser extent 18th and 19th) to 2nd/Marquette
      Stout/California to 5th Street (light rail)
      Denver equivalent to Hennepin is Broadway south of downtown
      Auraria Campus to MCTC
      LODO to the Warehouse District
      Union Station/Coors Field to Target Center

      1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

        What confuses me is Portland, which at least appeared to have a thriving downtown retail scene (also plenty of homeless youth).

        I’m not convinced that the main driver is skyways, but they are doing something right that we aren’t.

        1. GlowBoy

          Portland does indeed have a thriving downtown scene. I still go back there frequently for work, try to stay in downtown hotels when it works out, and in fact I spent last week there. There are several unique things about Portland:

          – It’s become a tourist town. Last week I was struck by how many of the people on the sidewalks were stopping to look at maps, ask for directions, etc. It looked like at least half the people downtown were not locals. Ten years ago, Portland was not yet on the tourist map and – not coincidentally – downtown was not quite as busy as now. The more Minneapolis gets on the tourist map – which IS starting to happen – the better. For what it’s worth, my wife and I hosted tourists from New York and Tokyo at our home last weekend, showing them some of the sights. Tourism is still small-scale here, but IS happening.

          – Portland has a fraction of the downtown employment (and a somewhat smaller skyline, perhaps due in part to building height caps) than Minneapolis.

          – As in Minneapolis, Portland’s downtown Macy’s was just sold for redevelopment for $50-60 million, and will close this spring. Obviously retail is still a challenge, though there are still a decent number of shops and boutiques in downtown Portland.

          – I think both downtowns may be about equally thriving in terms of evening arts (theater, music clubs, symphony, etc.) and the sit-down restaurants that support those patrons. One difference is that in Minneapolis many of these fancier restaurants are stand-alone, whereas in Portland many of the hot restaurants are in new hotels that have opened downtown. Another effect of the big increase in tourism there.

          – Portland subsidizes retail by providing city-owned “Smart Park” garages in multiple downtown locations. There is a cap on downtown parking spaces that cater to commuters (to encourage transit use), and these garages exist specifically to encourage people to come downtown and shop: limit is 4 hours and the rate is about $2/hr. Suburbanites know they can come downtown, almost always find a parking space right away without circling around for blocks, and known in advance what it’s going to cost. More cities should do this.

          – Portland has food CARTS everywhere, and they’re open every day. Minneapolis has a handful of food TRUCKS that appear sporadically. The difference between carts and trucks is key: food carts (mostly converted camper trailers), while technically mobile, sit on a semi-permanent space of pavement, usually around the edge of a parking lot (“pod”). They have access to electricity and don’t have to move every night. This reduces cost, and improves predictability for the consumer. Portland has something like 800 food carts in pods all over the city, with somewhere between 100 and 200 food carts in 4-5 pods downtown. I suspect Minneapolis needs to change its licensing procedures to enable this. The restaurant lobby will fight this. Hard. Guess how I know.

          – Portland has Voodoo Donut. This alone is a HUGE chunk of the tourist draw. There is always a line, whether at 1pm, 7pm, 1am or 7am. Minneapolis’ Glam Doll may be comparable in terms of offerings, but the doughnuts cost twice as much and they’re not downtown. Voodoo more or less started the inventive-doughnut trend 15 years ago, but almost all the offerings still cost under $2. Angel Food might have the potential to fill this gap, but so far it has not happened.

          – As we have discussed, Portland has almost no skyways. It does, however, have an enclosed downtown shopping mall covering two and a half blocks (connected by underground tunnels rather than above-grade skyways), which in many ways functions similarly to part of a skyway system.

          – The commercial core of Minneapolis is somewhat lacking for parks or other “hang-out” spaces, at least with Nicollet torn up. Portland has Pioneer Courthouse Square (known as “Portland’s Living Room”) in the dead center of downtown, plus the mile-long Park Blocks nearby and and several other block-sized parks within a few blocks of the center. The riverfront is a block or two closer, and more open – imagine if the Minneapolis’ (beautiful, irreplaceable) Post office were parkland, and downtown were shifted a block or two closer to the river.

          – Portland does not have gigantic sports stadiums creating dead zones downtown. The only major sports facility, Providence Park (where the Loons will be playing the Timbers next week), is a few blocks beyond the edge of what most people consider downtown (but is still on a light rail line).

          – Speed limits in Portland (as in all Oregon business districts) are 20 mph, with signals timed for 13-18 mph depending on the time of day. Minneapolis, with its longer blocks, is 30 mph. Traffic doesn’t move any faster overall in Minneapolis, but it’s a far, far less pleasant place to be a pedestrian with the way traffic roars by.

          – In Portland, downtown is a more important transit hub than in Minneapolis, due to the topography forcing a lot more transit (and car) traffic through the area. Almost all transit passengers traveling between the east side of Portland (the “cool” part) and the westside suburbs (where most of the better-paying jobs are) must travel through and/or transfer downtown. Also, I believe the rate of transit usage is about 50% higher in Portland. All this puts more people on the street downtown.

          – Minneapolis’ Metro Transit effectively subsidizes downtown employment by providing dozens of commuter-specific express bus routes downtown that run only a handful of times per day but make a fast trip (thanks to the freeway-shoulder thing) from far-flung suburbs. Although downtown Portland is a major transit hub, with five light rail lines converging into the tight space there, there are only three or four (!) express bus routes. And no buses on freeway shoulders, or otherwise dedicated busways. Chicken and egg: are there few express buses because there are fewer downtown workers, or are there fewer downtown workers because there are so few express buses?

          1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

            This assessment of Portland would be great in a standalone post on with photos!

            1. GlowBoy

              That could happen. I’ll be back in Portland for 8 days in April, staying downtown again.

          2. Holly Weik

            “The commercial core of Minneapolis is somewhat lacking for parks or other “hang-out” spaces, at least with Nicollet torn up. Portland has Pioneer Courthouse Square (known as “Portland’s Living Room”) in the dead center of downtown, plus the mile-long Park Blocks nearby and and several other block-sized parks within a few blocks of the center.” Precisely. Even in Anchorage, the courthouse lawn area makes the downtown feel much more social. It also helps that the farmers market is held downtown on summer Saturdays, and that the Coastal Trail connects to downtown as well, allowing folks to walk or bike to the fun.

      2. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

        John, I’ve actually compared Denver and Minneapolis a couple times:
        And I disagree to some extent that the two cities are equally vibrant. At least at street level, the 16th Street Mall is vastly more vibrant than Nicollet Mall, primarily due to the mall shuttle and far greater number of storefronts that face 16th.
        I’m also very impressed with the street level and urban design around Union Station. We could learn a lot from Denver.
        But you are right the difference is the activity is on the second floor in Minneapolis and the sidewalk in Denver – I won’t argue that point at all, but it does present a huge ongoing problem for Minneapolis.

    2. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      It’s worth checking out this time lapse of the evolution of skyways.

      What struck me is how long the skyway system took to expand. Although started in 1962, it was’t until the IDS was completed in 1972 that the first skyway crossed Nicollet Mall, and another 11 years before the second. According to today’s Strib ( the last department store to close prior to Macy’s this month was Penney’s in 1986 (this isn’t quite true, as Carson Pirie Scott closed in 1992). Nonetheless, most downtown department stores were gone before the skyway system had really taken hold.

        1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

          Carson Pirie Scott was the successor to Donaldson’s, having been bought out in 1987 (according to wikipedia).

          Donaldson’s had previously acquired Powers in 1985.

            1. GlowBoy

              OK, makes sense. I’d forgotten that bit of the history. Although I spent my adult life in the Northwest, I did grow up here. I still remember the department stores as Dayton’s, Donaldson’s, Powers and YQ (yes, I am old enough to remember them). More or less in that order.

              Funny how memory works, though. I guess I didn’t realize how recent most of the skyway system is. I thought I remembered it being pretty extensive before I moved away, but that must not have been the case. Or was St. Paul ahead of Minneapolis in that regard?

    3. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      I just paged through Evangelist’s Downtown book again, and the only images of a skyway are that of the one connecting the new IDS and Daytons, and most of those show it under construction. This is a fascinating bit of skyway history for lovers and haters of the system, but I think the takeaway is at the time of his book, the only way to get across or along Nicollet Mall was at street level, which is exactly why the street is so busy.

      Steve, you raise some good points about low rent and Amazon and outlet malls, but the skyway system as it exists in some crazy contortions for retail decisions. Look at the new Walgreens at 7th and Nicollet. Sure it’s great that the store is two levels, with a street entrance, but vastly more attention was paid to the skyway level -it’s bright and airy and welcoming, whereas the ground level is smaller and less inviting and feels second-class. I think the new Walgreens store perfectly encapsulates the “skyway conundrum.”

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