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3 crazy ideas to lure people to downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul

3 crazy ideas to lure people to downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul
MinnPost photo by John Noltner
Getting from Point A to downtown is not just a hassle; it's a near impossibility.

Are downtowns doomed? A small stream of people are moving back into them , so probably not. But many center cities, and our two are no exceptions, seem to have trouble drawing the crowds that can support the stores, restaurants and entertainment spots they once did. So here are a few of my more off-the-wall ideas for bringing in the mobs. 

Problem 1: Some people can't get there

If you live in the suburbs and don't have a car, getting from Point A to downtown is not just a hassle; it's a near impossibility, especially if you don't want to -- or can't afford taxi fare. The problem will only get worse as we aging baby boomers ultimately see our cars taken away by safety-minded adult children.

A Solution – Peseros: Mexico City's system of privately operated collective taxis  (called peseros because they originally charged a single peso, then about 8 cents), could keep Twin Cities suburbanites from becoming stranded without necessitating huge investments in public bus and train systems. Peseros got their start in the 1970s when Mexico City began a trajectory of explosive growth. They have specified routes, but unlike buses, they pick up and drop off passengers anywhere along it. Time was, you squished into a large, American car that held four to six passengers, and you yelled something like "aqui no mas!" when you wanted to get out. Along the way, you exchanged pleasantries with the other customers with whom you sat thigh-to-thigh. These days, peseros are less cozy VW minivans with the route, including major stops, posted on the front window. Fares have been updated too, with peseros charging according to the length of your trip.

Working here: I could see collective taxis traveling on all kinds of suburban arterials, either all the way to downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul or to LRT and bus lines that connect there. Let's say we put some on Cedar Lake Road in St. Louis Park. They could convey people from County Road 73 to the West End development where there's a Rainbow, shops, Home Depot, a movie theater and restaurants, a downtown-like development that's struggling. A pesero could also travel on Snelling Avenue south from Arden Hills, stopping at shopping venues along the way, and winding up on University Avenue, where the new LRT will connect both downtowns. Obviously, Minnesota peseros would have to charge more than 8 cents, but probably less than a taxi. And, while the Mexico City business is largely unregulated, MNDOT or city licensing bureaus would want to make sure that our peseros met licensing and insurance requirements.

Problem 2: Our winter weather

The sidewalks even downtown can be slushy, icy and dangerous, and sometimes pedestrians have to climb over snow mini-mountains to get from sidewalk to street. Is it any wonder that people prefer suburban malls where they only risk life and limb in the parking lots?

Solution -- heated sidewalks: You laugh, but some towns have heated not just sidewalks but major streets. Helsinki, Finland (pop 602,000), which receives snow for five months of the year, heats some of its major plazas and shopping streets. Over here, Holland, Mich., (pop 33,000) installed piping that uses waste heat from a nearby coal-fired power plant to keep its downtown snow- and ice-free. Liberated of their fear of breaking hips and other bones on icy patches, Holland's citizens tend to linger downtown, where they wander around and spend money. Concord, N.H., (pop 42,600) is planning to install piping under pavement that would use hot water returning to the power plant from downtown buildings to melt snow and ice.

Working here: Minneapolis and St. Paul have downtowns too big to heat completely. But we can certainly do as well as Helsinki and put pipes under our major streets, perhaps Nicollet Mall and Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis and the streets around Rice Park in St. Paul and on St. Peter Street. (This is not a particularly new idea. Apparently, Nicollet Mall once had heating coils, but they were removed in the ‘80s after salt that seeped in from side streets corroded them.) Already, it is planned for excess energy from the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center on 6th Avenue North to heat the sidewalks and stairways of the Interchange, the new transportation hub downtown now under construction. Maybe some of that excess can be channeled a little further south to Minneapolis' two main drags. With heated sidewalks, and maybe a few space heaters thrown in for good measure, can winter outdoor dining be far behind?

Problem 3: Little unique shopping

As things stand now, you can find a lot of the same stuff in the suburbs. So why bother? At the same time, some of us have accumulated so much stuff we've had to curb our appetite for new purchases. Many a family has adopted a rule that requires them to get rid of two things before acquiring anything new. Yet there's no good way to get rid of all the mucus green fondue sets (one of my wedding presents) or quilting hoops (an ill-advised purchase). And speak to me not of Craig's List. To sell, you have to allow complete strangers into your home and pray that they don't return to burglarize you. If you're buying, well, what's the fun of shopping a bunch of listings? You can't see or touch the stuff and to get it, you have to go into a stranger's home -- a stranger possibly intent on locking you in his basement hideaway for the next 14 years.

Solution -- downtown flea market: I am sure you've noticed: We're in a recession, and people like to -- and need to -- sell and buy used stuff. So why force them to hunt for junk yards or consignment shops where they can off-load their cupid furniture or buy used hockey equipment when they could plunk a massive flea market right in the middle of downtown? Sellers should be able to rent a space for a nominal amount (bringing their own table, chairs and awnings). Allow food trucks to sell their stuff and an amusements company to install a merry-go-round and one of those bubble bounces for kids, and pretty soon mobs will be trolling for bargains.

Working here: One of Minneapolis' fallow surface parking lots would be prime territory for a flea market. If, instead of lying empty as they do on weekends, these lots were repurposed, we'd see some lively crowds looking for things to buy, scarfing down po' boys and pork tacos and, in general, enjoying themselves. The City should lease a lot right on Hennepin, maybe the one between 10th and 11th Streets, for Sundays starting in May. If the market proves popular, it can be expanded to other lots. I could even see them specializing, with one lot designated for clothing, one for antiques, one for furniture and so on.

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Comments (11)

Downtown ideas

I always appreciate Marlys Harris's MinnPost articles, reading them regularly. I do, however, disagree with the lead in this particular story -- are downtowns doomed? This feels like a lead from the 1970s, and would have been an appropriate question at that time. Yes, there is the concern over Macy's in downtown St. Paul, as well as the meaning of Neiman Marcus's departure from downtown Minneapolis. But those two issues speak more to the future of department stores than urban centers. Our downtowns are in the midst of a renewal period -- witness the amount of construction of high-end apartment buildings in Minneapolis's North Loop neighborhood, the ongoing development of St. Paul's Lowertown, and the continued vibrancy of the restaurant scene in both cities. While Harris's ideas are good, and not crazy, they needn't be positioned as saving doomed downtowns; rather, just interesting ideas.

bigger ideas needed

I have to agree, to some extent, with the commenter above. There is a wave of people moving back to cities (however, downtowns still suffer -- particularly, I think, in Mpls/St. Paul). But the ideas here -- heated sidewalks and so on -- are not going to make a big difference for the Twin Cities. Here are the problems that hamper a revival in downtown Minneapolis:
-- The downtown is isolated by surrounding freeways (I-94, 35W, etc.), cutting it off from vital neighborhoods around it. That's a legacy of postwar urban planning, and it would be difficult to overcome.
-- There is too much dead space downtown -- vast parking lots that spread-out amenities. Addressing that down by the dome would help.
-- There should be more living spaces, at a human scale. See below. Again, down by the dome would be great. And if people are going to live down there, there need to be good options for school and everyday shopping.
-- The buildings are monumental and massive. It's great to have some of that, as it gives the downtown a nice look driving up 35, but vital urban areas have more squat buildings, scaled for human beings.
-- Cities can't rely entirely on entertainment and high-end retail. There need to be other things to do. More green space and recreational space would be great.

more on parking

I should have made stronger points about the "dead space" and parking. I just looked at Minneapolis on Google maps, and I had forgotten just how much surface parking there is downtown. In terms of urban planning, surface parking is on its way out, and yet the east part of downtown Mpls, along with lots of other space in the downtown area, is composed of surface parking. I would say that surface parking, more than any of the problems outlined in the article, hampers a downtown revival.

Going Downtown

It's a shame that the stadium rebuild is landing on the old stadium site. I think the dome would make a great multi purpose area with flea markets, shops, restaurants, theaters, gyms, maybe even apartments all built in. Lots of access, warm and sheltered all year (hopefully), unique.

Define Struggling

The West End is a wanna-be downtown development. But struggling? Every time I've been there, I've marveled at the traffic. Chicago-Lake's savvy John Wolf is opening a big discount liquor store in the area. Housing is sprouting all around.

We're not far away in Golden Valley, but we just purchased a condo in the real downtown, which looks pretty good to us.

Flea Markets

I read about the various flea markets in Manhattan. Usually positive comments.

I think it would work well. Multiple smaller markets, each with a certain focus, might work best and help "spread the wealth" in different neighborhoods. Perhaps even a somewhat indoor market in one of large city-owned parking ramps.

Okay, good but maybe not crazy good, we can work on them though.

Of the three main ideas, the heated sidewalk pay-back would be most immediate, an effective way to address the depressing and dangerous aspects of moving about on icy snow piled walkways in the winter time-- it would be welcomed by everyone. Let the tax squawkers squawk... it would be a solid infrastructure investment. The Mexico City style car idea is fun and could add some style and flair to moving around town... but doesn't really address the question of *what* is attracting people to come back downtown (other than game nights) in the first place. I can see them taking hold though... Maybe it's one of those build-it-and-they-will-come-deals! Flea markets are fun and great for people mixing, etc., but what the hey, how much fun are they going to be in the grunge days of winter? You better have it indoors at least 6 months a year. The idea of plopping one in a car ramp is enough to cause immediate depression, ugh! Now, talk about Reading Terminal, indoors food market in Philadelphia... that one is a winner. Maybe a flea market in that mode instead of a food market would work.

Infrastructure?

It's rather easy to propose something like heated sidewalks but not very realistic. Who's going to pay for the installation and maintenance? Local business, local residents, metro residents? What is the current condition of the infrastructure that would support something like that? Minneapolis residents will eventually be responsible for the additional costs of accelerated deterioration of the infrastructure due to the introduction of water into a frozen system.

Something called a bus?

Reading your thoughts on the Mexican Peseros made me wonder if you had ever explored the wonders of the Metro Transit system? I believe there are buses that run the routes you brought up. I know Metro Transit is fairly easy to use, is pretty inexpensive and long-standing, so I'm not sure why you'd discount people using that system to get to and from both downtowns. With the addition of the light rail and the upcoming bus rapid transit, it seems like they're way ahead of you on planning for transportation needs in these Twin Cities. But maybe I missed something?

I also recall reading recently that the city is considering allowing flea markets. In fact, I believe it was right here in MinnPost.com.

City size

Keeping in mind that I'm not only not native to the area, but haven't even been here 5 years…

Maybe this says something about city size that most Twin Cities residents who are genuine urbanites won’t want to hear, but the three problems Marlys laid out are either already being addressed – transit, particularly – or aren’t going to be significantly influenced by her proposals, which aren’t necessarily “crazy,” but don’t address the core issues of size and distance.

My far-northwest corner of Minneapolis is bereft of commercial activity of any kind. If I’m going to buy something, I have to either get in the car and drive, or make use of a transit system that doesn’t get me downtown with any degree of ease or convenience. I can catch a bus at the corner, but none of the bus stops within a quarter mile of my house get me downtown without at least one transfer, and most require 2 or 3 transfers. I’m simply not going to do that. The lengthy winters here don’t make standing at the bus stop a pleasant experience, and beyond that, running a single errand should not – cannot – take up an entire morning or afternoon, which is what happens when the errand-runner has to depend on Metro Transit’s schedule rather than his/her own.

Beyond sheer convenience, another issue is distance. From where I live in the city of Minneapolis, going downtown for virtually anything requires that I travel at least twice as far as is necessary for me to accomplish the same purpose in adjacent suburbs. Nothing that Marlys proposes will alter that geographic fact.

Founded in the mid-19th century, Minneapolis is a “mature” city. It’s surrounded by areas that are now already developed in their own right, and many of them have their own parochial identity well-established. Among the several errors of the city’s planners – errors which won’t be undone without genuinely huge efforts on the part of all concerned and affected – one of the most serious was/is the emphasis on a single “downtown.” Instead of developing multiple commercial and/or industrial “nodes” as the city grew and expanded, so that there would be multiple centers of commercial (and employment) activity, all the thinking, effort and money went into developing the central core.

As long as population is relatively small, that model works fine, but as the city grew in both population and geographic size, the vision didn’t change with the times. My area of the city was probably considered “suburban” when it was built out in the 1950s, and to a degree, instead of diminishing, that label seems actually to have become more accurate in the past half-century in a bizarre sort of way. As a resident of Minneapolis, my access to downtown is surprisingly restricted unless I have an automobile. While I do contribute my share of property taxes as a home owner, I spend no significant amount of money in the city, and contribute virtually nothing to the city’s sales tax base because there’s – literally – nothing around me that even allows for that to happen. My retail dollars go to suburban stores that are both far closer and far more convenient for me to get to, and while – a couple of times a year – I enjoy going out for a meal at an upscale restaurant in the city, doing so requires something above and beyond “ordinary” effort. That’s not a prescription for retail success if I’m the restaurant owner.

Finally, I see very little green space downtown, especially the sort of space that children might use. If I were young enough to be a new parent, I’d want not only schools, but recreational facilities suitable for toddlers to be at least as convenient, safe and available as they are in the ‘burbs, and frankly, I see no indication that that’s likely to happen. If I’m that new parent, even if I stay in the city, I’m going to head for the outlying areas – name your geographic quadrant – where the city’s laudable park system seems more evident, and is oriented more toward the sorts of activities that little kids are inclined to use.

How about making it a pleasant, worthwhile place to go?

The article and comments get at my thought obliquely, but let me say it right out.

The streets of our downtowns -- both of them -- are almost universally unwelcoming. It's unpleasant to walk down narrow sidewalks next to massive windowless walls. The streets are massively wide with cars zooming past, too close for comfort. There are few things I want there, And while the entertainment options are pretty good, the ones in my neighborhood are better, closer and thanks to stadium taxes, cheaper (at least in Minneapolis).

What about improving the design of our streets -- narrowing them, making more pleasant walking and biking routes, putting more interesting things (this is starting with food trucks) all along them. Add in some useful stuff, say, drug stores and grocery stores and schools. And top it off with greenery, parks or parklets, pleasant connections to trails along the Mississippi, and populated plazas.

THAT might get more people out in our downtowns, and choosing to live in our downtowns.