Final Four Nicollet Mall News Room S 10th St 2019 04 06

Final Four on Nicollet Mall Shows What Downtown Minneapolis Could Be

On semifinal Saturday, as the game between Virginia and Auburn was about to begin, I followed the streaming crowds backward to Nicollet Mall, where the other half of the fan base was enjoying our new pedestrian mall, now vehicle-free!

Final Four Nicollet Mall Gaviidae Common S 6th St S 7th St 2019 04 06

As I approached the festivities, I couldn’t help but snap this brave soul standing in the middle of a bus lane. Gaviidae Common is to the left. Photo: Author

Traffic was relatively light, and visitors were taking to the sidewalk pretty well. One Final Four volunteer guide at Gaviidae Common said few visitors were asking for skyway directions. They had also volunteered for the Super Bowl in 2018, and with the cold weather, more people were taking the skyway directly into the stadium. The volunteer worked for the City of Minneapolis for 30 years and enjoys passing on their knowledge to visitors. “A lot changes,” they said.

Final Four Nicollet Mall Target S 9th St 2019 04 06

Intersection of Nicollet Mall and South 9th Street, in front of the entrance to Target. Photo: Author

As I approached South 8th Street and then South 9th Street, I started to see the crowds that others on Twitter had described. Several thousand people were enjoying the mall between 8th and 10th streets. The lack of cars again amazed me. The police would stop pedestrians to let cars pass; five to 10 cars would pass, and then 30 pedestrians would cross the street. I had just assumed, with my windshield mentality, that visitors would use Uber and Lyft to get everywhere in a foreign city (especially one with a reputation for being cold). I got a treat from Dairy Queen and just watched the traffic for a while — the foot traffic, that is.

Final Four Nicollet Mall News Room S 10th St 2019 04 06

Open-air restaurant seating. People walking by. This is what street activation looks like. Photo: Author.

I just love the photo above. I had seen a reporter snap a similar shot earlier on Twitter, and I wanted to witness the scene for myself. Patio seating at the News Room bar stretched for about half a block, and pedestrians packed the remaining sidewalk. Tents and other impediments occupied the bus lanes, so the overflow crowd was sandwiched in.

Final Four Nicollet Mall Ferris Wheel 2019 04 06

The Capital One ferris wheel asks us all, what’s in your wallet? Photo: Author

Between Barrio, the News Room and the Capital One ferris wheel on South 10th Street, the Nicollet Mall had 100 percent street activation. It warmed my cold Minnesota heart to see people being able to cross the street, take a picture in front of a giant trophy in the middle of the street and otherwise have a banger Open Streets day.

What if every day could be like this?

Final Four Nicollet Mall Ids Bracket Sculpture 2019 04 06

Who do you think will win? Photo: Author

What if visitors were taking pictures with interactive street art dressed up as an NCAA referee?

Final Four Nicollet Mall Games Polish Golf 2019 04 06

This game is not for the faint-hearted. Photo: Author

What if residents and visitors played ladder toss with each other every day of the week? I understand that these free games from the Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District are used on other days, but today they were really used.

Final Four Nicollet Mall Games Cornhole 2019 04 06

Passersby playing cornhole on Nicollet Mall. Photo: Author

Final Four Nicollet Mall Games Big Chess 2019 04 06

Young people playing giant chess on Nicollet Mall. Photo: Author

Final Four Nicollet Mall Games Basketball 2019 04 06

Young kids shooting hoops on Nicollet Mall. Photo: Author

Even young kids were shooting hoops on Nicollet Mall. I know not everybody in the neighborhood has been in favor of adding basketball infrastructure, but now that we have it, I would love for it to stay.

What would it take for every day to be like semifinal Saturday? One could argue that a large increase in the downtown Minneapolis residential population is needed. The central Minneapolis population is 49,721, a 14.5 percent increase from 2017 and a 56 percent increase from 2006, according to the Minneapolis Downtown Council. The Final Four organizing committee estimated that 94,000 people visited the Twin Cities for the college basketball championship. How could we possibly bring an extra 94,000 people downtown? We are already running out of surface parking lots. Do they think we are going to demolish parking garages next?

In fact, other cities are removing parking infrastructure to make way for bikes and pedestrians. Oslo recently repurposed 700 street parking stalls to make way for bike lanes, pocket parks and other amenities. Compared with that, the scale of Minneapolis’ parking infrastructure is intimidating for any city reformer. According to a 2017 report from the Minneapolis Downtown Council, over 70 parking ramps and 55,000 parking stalls pack the downtown. The average rent on a 160-square-foot parking stall was $158 per month, cheap rent to house a car.

Others argue that we need better light rail or even subways. Unlike Minneapolis, Oslo has a fully realized metro system connecting the suburbs to the core. For a city of 673,469 and metro area of 1,588,457, the system is robust, with eight lines and 95 stations. By comparison, the metropolitan area of Minneapolis-St. Paul had a 2017 population of 3,600,618.

T-Banen Oslo route map. Credit: Sporveien AS

T-Banen Oslo route map. Credit: Sporveien AS

I don’t know precisely how to create the utopia of the Coca-Cola, Capital One, ESPN festival I saw. But I know it starts with making space for people.

For the moment, however, in America, the car still rules. Long may it rule.

Which team did you root for? How would you like to see downtown change? Are you in favor of permanently moving buses to a new Hennepin Avenue with dedicated bus lanes? Share your court reports and opinions in the comments!

Conrad Zbikowski

About Conrad Zbikowski

Downtown Minneapolis resident covering local issues including parks, transportation, zoning, and development.

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