Why the path to pretty city sidewalks leads to the private sector

Broken fences and weedy pavement make much of downtown Minneapolis unappealing.
MinnPost photo by Steve Berg
Broken fences and weedy pavement make much of downtown Minneapolis unappealing.

The Republican National Convention generated the active, upscale street life that Minneapolis wants to see regularly on its downtown sidewalks. But to attract that kind of pedestrian traffic the city is going to have to vastly upgrade its curb appeal.

Sidewalks must be kept cleaner. Trees and flowers must be planted and cared for. Bus stops and train stations must be better maintained. Confidence that walking will be safe and hassle-free must improve.

To accomplish all that, Minneapolis will have to do what other cities have done to keep their downtown districts competitive: Enact a Downtown Improvement District that essentially turns over the operation of sidewalks to the private sector.

New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Denver, Portland, San Diego and Washington, D.C., are among the dozens of cities using that model.
Here’s how it typically works: All property owners inside a designated district are assessed a fee as part of their property tax payment. The money is pooled and managed by a board of property representatives who ensure that sidewalks stay uniformly cleaner, that greenery is planted and cared for, that snow and graffiti are quickly removed, and that vendors, festivals and other activities are coordinated. Most districts also employ security ambassadors (uniformed employees on bikes) to offer tourist information and provide extra “eyes on the street” for police.

After a five-year delay, downtown businesses are in final discussions on the matter. If they can agree, the Minneapolis City Council will vote on a similar plan this fall, with the district taking effect by next spring. An estimated $6.5 million would be raised within a 140-block area running roughly from Loring Park to the riverfront, and from the Metrodome to the new ballpark. Mayor R.T. Rybak, City Council Member Lisa Goodman, Walking Minneapolis CEO Sarah Harris and the Downtown Council are among the supporters.

“This is a no-brainer,” said Goodman, whose ward covers most of downtown. “The private sector is coming up with $6.5 million to clean up downtown on a regular basis and the council is going to turn it down? That would be hard to do.”

Harris, who’s spearheading the effort, said such a district is not extraordinary for a major downtown. “Actually, we’re catching up,” she said. Attention to higher standards, including landscape, is a focus, she said, emphasizing that businesses themselves will drive the agenda and the district’s accountability. Services — and costs — will be greater in the central core and lessen toward the periphery.

Dealing with the skeptics
There are a few skeptics. Some businesses are angry that the city, Metro Transit and the Park Board cannot — or will not — take proper care of the downtown district despite the taxes already levied. Others, including some large companies, balk at having to pay more to compensate for derelict properties that now do nothing. Some companies prefer the status quo, believing that their clean and green properties enjoy a competitive advantage over those that neglect their property.

The sad truth, however, is that downtown probably sinks or swims together. The combination of derelict properties and inefficient public bureaucracies spoils the overall downtown atmosphere even for those companies that do a stellar job.

The Broken Window Theory explains why: A street that is even minimally littered, marked by graffiti or poorly maintained encourages more such behavior and leaves the impression that the whole district is declining. That’s the current impression in downtown Minneapolis. A few bad apples have begun to ruin the whole barrel. The only way to recover is to force derelict property owners to pay clean-up costs and to override public bureaucracies that can’t — or won’t — do the job.

Landscaping and cleaner sidewalks have transformed New York.
MinnPost photo by Steve Berg
Landscaping and cleaner sidewalks have transformed New York.

The question is really about competition. Can downtown compete for new jobs and new residents, visitors and shoppers against suburban lifestyle centers and corporate campuses that provide a lush and pristine atmosphere? The answer is yes. The city has authenticity, cultural attractions and good restaurants on its side. But to fully compete, it must add the nice atmosphere that people now expect.

Downtown does have skyways. Still, as some of the world’s top urban designers have noted, skyways are a big part of the problem. They allow neglect on the street level. Corporate decision-makers who never set foot on a sidewalk might not even recognize the decline down below.

Catering to the pedestrian
Focus on the pedestrian atmosphere has grown sharper as Minneapolis undertakes a conversion of sorts. A 10-year transportation plan has begun to recast downtown as less an auto-only eight-hour district to a place that emphasizes transit, walking and biking as well as cars. The aim is a 24-hour city that includes nearly as many residents as office workers. But to get there the walking atmosphere must be vastly improved.

The theory works this way: beautiful sidewalks draw more people; more people discourage illegal and questionable activity; retail revives, and success feeds on itself.

“The convention gave us a taste of what a city can look like and feel like when it spruces up a bit,” said Mike Christenson, the city’s director of Community Planning and Economic Development. He’d like to see the spruce-up continue on a permanent basis. “It would turn a good city into a great city,” he said. “As it is we have portions of downtown that are a little too ‘interesting.’ We need the whole downtown to be reliably safe and pretty.”

Christenson said that a better and more consistent pedestrian atmosphere would help recruit retail and bolster the office and entertainment markets. Four-dollar gasoline will help downtown’s residential growth in any case, he said, although nicer streets may entice downtown residents to actually shop downtown more often.

No clear accountability
The clearest need is for central governance, he said. Property owners are rightly frustrated when, for example, a tree dies on their sidewalk and no one knows who’s responsible for replacing it — let alone watering it. Now, there’s no clear accountability for downtown’s sidewalks. The city, Park Board, Metro Transit and property owners each point to one another to take responsibility. A Downtown Improvement District would end the confusion over management and give downtown a chance to compete with suburban districts managed by a single entity, Christenson said.

Why can’t the city do its job? The answer is complex. Start with the confusion over who owns downtown sidewalks: some are city-owned, others are owned privately. It’s a mish-mash. City crews clean most sidewalks, but budget cuts and union rules make it hard for city workers to do a good enough job. The Park Board is responsible for most trees and plants, but the same shortcomings apply. Even if more money could be found to shift to downtown, the other 12 wards scream bloody murder. The only recourse, really, is to tap downtown businesses — as other cities have already discovered.

City unions have concerns about a new district. But City Council President Barbara Johnson emphasizes that the district’s work would be added to what’s done by city crews. “We’re talking about an entirely new layer of service,” she said.

Disclosure: Among Steve Berg’s urban design consulting clients is the city of Minneapolis.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Reggie McGurt on 09/16/2008 - 09:57 am.

    Business Improvement Districts (or BIDs) can do great things for a downtown area (Denver is a wonderful example), but you have to carefully consider the ability of local businesses to pay. Given the state of the economy, I’m a little skeptical of trying to institute a BID right now. Consider the list of major retailers that are bailing (or have already bailed) out of downtown Minneapolis: Walgreens at Block E (despite huge tax breaks), Crate and Barrel on Nicollet Mall, and Williams Sonoma in the IDS skyway. There are probably more. I’m just not sure that it’s the right time to hit these businesses with more ongoing fees.

  2. Submitted by Steve Backoff on 09/16/2008 - 12:40 pm.

    I agree with the Skyway problem. I frequently take the skyways between the IDS and the Target Center “A” Ramp, even during nice weather because:

    1) I don’t want to be hassled.
    2) The streets between those locations are dusty and barren, and bus stops are set up so that you have to dodge people waiting for a bus.
    3) Hennepin is a wasteland of unused, or underused properties, even if you’re not counting the Pence building (currently under renovation).

    Though it increases my walk time, a casual stroll through the skyway is much more relaxing.

    Without the skyways, we would be forced to confront, and hopefully improve, the street level.

  3. Submitted by Robert Albee on 09/16/2008 - 11:44 am.

    Yah Yah Yah! This still reminds me of lipstick on a park. The big problem is our city visionaries really didn’t want the downtown traffic of people that they say they want. Look at downtown Vancouver if you want a vibrant downtown. Reason why? In my humble opinion, they recognized what hundreds of very small businesses can do to generate traffic. Most of Minneapolis downtown area is dead because there are too many larger ground floor businesses anchoring those big buildings. In Vancouver, there are many small Asian eateries and small shops. It’s like they stretched a “Pike Street Market” (Seattle) throughout the downtown. If our visionaries would travel a little more and recognize what most urban areas look and feel like, they’d recognize that the basic design for Minneapolis can be characterized as “Downtown Mortuaria!”

  4. Submitted by Tom Hilde on 09/16/2008 - 04:17 pm.

    Landscaping will do nothing to increase traffic on our downtown sidewalks.

    More mixed-use development, people living and working downtown, greater variety of uses to provide traffic at all times of the day, and that pesky LRT line would all increase foot traffic.

    Provide places for people to live, work, shop and play within a comfortable distance and you would be amazed at what happens.

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