Beginning at noon today, Metro Transit will parade 19 spankin’ new hybrid electric buses down Nicollet Mall. Over the next five years, the company will add 150 more to its fleet. They get 22 percent better fuel mileage and spew out 90 percent less junk than the buses they’re replacing. And if all goes according to the Access Minneapolis transportation plan, they’ll be the only type of internal combustion engine operating up and down the Mall by 2010.
But not if Sam Grabarski has anything to say about it. As president and CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council, Grabarski’s job includes shilling for the fat cats who operate large businesses within the city, and he’s done it with gusto for many a year now. So it’s not surprising that the week before Metro Transit’s green parade, Grabarski unveiled what he calls a “comprehensive retail remerchandising project,” which included a proposal from the consultant, Washington D.C.-based ERA/Downtown Works, that cars be allowed back on Nicollet Mall. Forewarned by the consultant’s report to the Downtown Council’s board of directors, Grabarski was saying the very same thing to the Minneapolis City Council last summer.
After last Wednesday’s unveiling, Grabarski took his song-and-dance to “Almanac,” the Friday evening public affairs show. “When people hear we might want to get some vehicles back on the Mall they think we are looking backwards, trying to turn back the clock. The retail consultant is telling us that it is time to turn the clock forward, to look ahead, because there are no retail malls that exist anymore that are just transit malls,” he said. Later he added that the consultant, whose name is Midge McCauley, “doesn’t want the buses off the Mall, she thinks there should be cars back on it. And if you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. A lot of people have not been on Nicollet Mall in years because they can’t drive down it. They don’t even know what stores are on it now.”
The Downtown Council is not releasing McCauley’s report to the public. But reached by phone, McCauley was firm in her conclusions. “Nicollet should be widened and straightened to accommodate cars and buses. The sidewalks are too wide; there are not very many people walking on them. Everybody says, ‘What about the outdoor cafes?’ And I say you don’t need them four aisles deep; they could still have two rows of tables. I want people on those sidewalks 12 months a year, not just four or five.” Reducing emphasis on skyway traffic for pedestrians is another of her recommendations.
In late September of 2003, Grabarski was warbling a very different tune. In his then-weekly column for the Skyway News, he wrote: “Here’s a vision that might be heavenly to us all. No buses on Nicollet Mall. You could talk in whispers at a sidewalk café. No longer would the fruity aromas of your Pinot Noir mix uncomfortably with the diesel fumes. The loudest noise would be from bicyclists reminding each other politely to signal left-hand turns. A pedestrian’s pace would thrive where a commuter’s race once ruled.”
At the time, Grabarski was describing the broad strokes of what eventually became the Access Minneapolis transportation plan: Remodeling both Marquette and Second Avenues so they can accommodate express buses coming in and out of the city and leaving Nicollet for the bicyclists, pedestrians, and the quieter hybrid buses that will become primarily connector and circulator transportation. Assuming the State Legislature bonds for its token contribution this session, the feds will pick up 80 percent of the $32 million tab to renovate Marquette and Second by December 2009.
On “Almanac,” Grabarski said the Downtown Council continues to support the Access Minneapolis plan, thus reassuring longtime Grabarski-watchers that he’s still capable of making spectacular leaps of logic with a straight face. According to Access Minneapolis project manager Charleen Zimmer, cars on Nicollet would undermine the fundamental purposes of the plan at least three or four different ways — by bogarting the bike lanes, snarling the timely routes of connector buses, and preventing reductions in noise and air emissions.
And why must this drastic step be taken? “If you don’t do it, retail won’t get better,” the consultant McCauley flatly states. “I am very well connected to major retailers in the country and they have done deals there [on Nicollet] where the results haven’t conformed to the levels they thought. Until a commitment is made to open Nicollet Mall [to cars], national retailers are going to want to know what has changed.”
But wasn’t it just 18 months or so ago when Grabarski was last raising a ruckus? Remember, he was at the forefront of those claiming that if Hennepin County consumers were dunned hundreds of millions of dollars for a new Twins stadium without putting the matter up for a public referendum as required by law, well, it would provide an enormous boost to the economic vitality and health of downtown Minneapolis. Now, apparently, that’s not going to be enough after all. But if residents can drive their cars down Nicollet Mall and figure out where the stores are located…
Thinking forward, backward
“All we are saying is that if the future of retail in Minneapolis is going to be bright in downtown — and we have 2.1 million square feet of retail right now — we are going to have to at least think forward and backward and try and do a good job of matching this plan to reality,” Grabarski said on “Almanac.”
So let’s think forward and backward. Say Marquette and Second are completed on schedule in December 2009. And then let’s say that the $16 million required to widen and straighten Nicollet (assuming the cost is about the same as the budget for Marquette or Second) is somehow immediately available. For a long period of time — renovating Third Avenue earlier this decade took two years — retailers on Nicollet must endure the disruption in their business caused by construction. But let’s be optimistic and say that by June 2011, the circumstances are finally in place to have cars travel on Nicollet Mall. In January 2004, oil was selling at $33.78 a barrel. In April 2006, the price was $71.35 a barrel. Last week, it rose to $98.62 per barrel. Does anyone imagine it will be lower in June 2011?
McCauley cited many cities where transit and pedestrian oriented malls seemed to drag down retail business, including Philadelphia, Denver, and even Portland, Oregon. But the two places where she says they have been most successful are in Santa Monica, Calif., and Burlington, Vt. — two areas renowned for being ahead of the curve on “green”-oriented, sustainable urban planning. Given the gathering awareness of the need to combat climate change, along with the projected rise in the city’s population and likely spike in oil prices, doesn’t it make economic sense to keep cars off Nicollet?
Now, as Grabarski instructed, let’s also think backward — to Sept. 29, 2003, the date of that idyllic Skyway News column. Grabarski might argue that a lot has changed since he wrote it (we were going to ask him but a Downtown Council staffer said he was tied up preparing for a large presentation), but it’s about as far away in the past as a car-ready Nicollet Mall would be in the future, so who knows what other unforeseen changes lie ahead? The title of that piece, by the way, was: “Is This Heaven? No It’s Nicollet Mall.” But now that Grabarski has made his Faustian bargain with the owners of 2.1 million square feet of downtown retail he might someday find that the fruity aromas of his Pinot Noir have taken on a hellish tang.