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.