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.
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.”
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.