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!

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11 Responses to Final Four on Nicollet Mall Shows What Downtown Minneapolis Could Be

  1. Alex Schieferdecker
    Alex Schieferdecker April 8, 2019 at 12:52 pm #

    The Nicollet Mall rebuild was a missed chance to design the mall to close all traffic, but it doesn’t mean the chance is gone, Minneapolis could still do it anytime they want. Businesses would be allowed to put seating all the way out to the curb, and the cartway would be kept clear for pedestrians. Special events could invert that formula, as they often do today, but by closing the street to traffic, there would be ample space.

    Of course, Nicollet does not exist in a vacuum, and there are some issues.

    During the Hennepin Avenue reconstruction, Nicollet will be essential to serve the diverted buses.
    After that Hennepin rebuild is complete, putting all of the Nicollet buses on Hennepin and into mixed traffic would be a mess. The key would be to convert the far lanes on Hennepin into bus lanes, leaving just a single driving lane. But with the combined bus traffic from Hennepin and Nicollet, you’ll need a dedicated lane, and the through-put would justify it. Stop consolidation with multiple stop locations (like you see on 2nd and Marquette) would also be essential to limit bunching and queueing.

    I’m hopeful that people making comments on the GoMpls Transportation Plan will bring this up!

    • Mark April 8, 2019 at 1:33 pm #

      Shutting down Nicollet sounds great in theory, but would only work year round if several of the skyways were removed, and vehicular access to downtown was limited. In winter everyone sticks to the skyways, there’s no farmers market, no food trucks, no street presence. In the summer everyone is out and about, but the current issue is that when Nicollet is closed the buses overload Marquette causing significant delays. I know several people that saw 45-60 minute delays.

      Seasoned street veterans recognize that a significant amount of the delays are generated by cars blocking intersections and other streets not having a dedicated bus lane. But most workers just see the delay, correlate that to Nicollet being closed, and then scream to the press and City officials about their commute being lengthened. So what do City officials do? Nothing. Instead we’re left with a complete redesign of Nicollet that is underwhelming at best, and adds little to no long term value.

      • Alex Schieferdecker
        Alex Schieferdecker April 8, 2019 at 2:17 pm #

        Hence why I described how closing Nicollet would necessitate dedicated bus lanes on parallel streets.

        • Mark April 8, 2019 at 2:43 pm #

          And how do you propose to get people to use the new Nicollet from October – April?

          • Julie Kosbab April 9, 2019 at 9:26 am #

            XC ski sprint racing.

            There are a couple amazing city sprints in Europe. We need more of that!

    • Russell Utoft April 9, 2019 at 12:28 am #

      I agree.

  2. jack April 8, 2019 at 12:52 pm #

    It was nice to see the streets filled during Final Four. It felt like we were a real city!

  3. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke April 8, 2019 at 2:21 pm #

    Nicollet should be bikes, scooters, pedal pubs, and marching bands only.

  4. Keith Morris April 9, 2019 at 7:46 am #

    I’m not for Nicollet being totally closed to traffic. Cars of course, and maybe even busses, sure. As the only bike friendly street on this side of Downtown it was a bit of a hassle biking slowly on the morning commute and having to get on the sidewalk frequently. Also, they set up an invisible bus stop at 12th and LaSalle for the 10, 25, and 59. The sign with those buses listed is only at Grant and Nicollet: you’re supposed to assume that the bus will stop for you at 12th and LaSalle with no sign saying that the bus stops there. It’s 6 blocks between 12th and 2nd and 12th and LaSalle, 10 if you go by the next marked stop at 9th and Hennepin. Why such a large gap either way in a densely populated neighborhood I can’t understand
    They usually can’t bear to stop more than two blocks apart, but oh well.

  5. Keith Morris April 9, 2019 at 7:57 am #

    As far as potential, I just saw a lack of choices for tourists to choose from: Nicollet Mall as we know, should be crammed full of lots more for how long it is: too few restaurants, bars and the like and too many blank walls. Nicollet Mall is still a far cry from Eat Street let alone being the premier business district in the city/state.

  6. Andrew Evans April 12, 2019 at 2:07 pm #

    It would be great if part of the street could be turned into a market or more of a park. it was also nice around 10 years ago or so when they didn’t have buses, so a person could sit outside on a patio and really enjoy the area.

    But really, we have a perfect opportunity for a weekend farmers market, antique markets, or having a nice pedestrian mall.

    I’m indifferent to the skyways, and they are hard to get into anyway or at least there isn’t the access between them and the street to really make them useful in a market or mall type setting.

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