Nicollet Mall: As in the ’80s, redo saw a need for skyway-street connection but abandoned it

Courtesy of James Corner Field Operations
The modern proposal for a skyway-street connection for Nicollet Mall didn’t make it past design revisions.

“Movable chairs come to Nicollet Mall!” the headline reads, touting a brand new idea from an urban design consultant. The effort is part of a redesign aimed at revitalizing Minneapolis’ main shopping street.

Only the headline is from 1988, when the Metrodome was still new, and the chairs quickly disappeared into the alleyways of history. But the idea has returned, almost 30 years later, as part of the flashy plans for a remade Nicollet Mall.

Even expensive consultants readily admit that most hot urbanist ideas are old news. The basic tenets of good street design — small active blocks, people-watching, comfortable sidewalks — were thoroughly laid out in 1961 by Jane Jacobs, and nobody has done a better job since. For 50 years, the problem with American cities has never been a lack of good ideas. Rather, our cities have failed to execute good street design, and it’s a mistake we seem to make repeatedly. 

A brief history

What’s old is new

As the tale is told, Nicollet Mall emerged as part of a suite of reactions to suburbanization. As shoppers and office workers fled the center city for the ever-expanding ‘dales and office parks (and finally the Mall of America), downtown property owners grew desperate to do something to lure people back into the city.

Most of the key features of today’s downtown landscape trace back to this time. The first was the destructive urban renewal of the Gateway district, the area surrounding Washington, Nicollet and Hennepin Avenues. Next came Nicollet Mall, which disrupted the street grid for better and for worse. In 1961, downtown property owners were surveyed about what solutions they’d like to see on the city’s main shopping street, and given five choices that ranged from full-blown pedestrianization to underground tunnels. They opted for a “transit mall” centered on a bus system. Well-known architect Lawrence Halprin was hired, and a few years later Minneapolis had a main street that would become the background for a ’70s sitcom (shot in LA).

Finally, the skyway system was gradually built out, achieving critical mass with the 1972 completion of the IDS center, still the city’s signature building. The key components of downtown Minneapolis were in place. (Since then, the biggest changes to the downtown landscape have occurred around the edges of the core: the riverfront parks, the wide network of bike lanes, and the light rail along 5th Street.)

Flashback 1987: The case of the skyway towers

Yet this isn’t the first time Nicollet Mall has seen a makeover. During the 1980s, downtown Minneapolis was in the midst of another big construction boom aimed at revitalizing the office and retail core. At the center of the efforts was a redesign of the decades-old transit mall. Much like today, a famous consultant was hired (BRW), state and city money were earmarked, and downtown property owners were roped into a contentious political process around a remodel.

This week I did some digging in the wonderful James K. Hosmer city archives on the top floor of the Central Library, and pored through the old news clippings from 25+ years ago. Frankly, it’s surprising how similar the key ideas of both remodeling processes look.

Back in the ’80s, Nicollet Mall was seen as an aging street unable to compete with suburban shopping and office parks. Designers pointed out the lack of contiguity between the fairly successful center (near the IDS Tower and Dayton’s) and the north and south fringes of the mall. In particular, leaders at the time identified the lack of connectivity between the streets and skyways as a key problem, which made it very difficult to foster activity at the street level.

The initial design proposal planned to create a “retailing system [that would] challenge suburban centers” by “integrating retail and public space” from 5th to 11th streets.

In response, the design team proposed a series of four glass towers that would visibly link the second-level skyway system to the mall’s wide sidewalks, connecting the two levels of downtown pedestrians and clearly opening up the skyways to the public.

The design team proposed a series of four glass towers that would visibly link the second-level skyway system to the mall’s wide sidewalks.

 

The rest of the proposal also might sound familiar. The designers proposed a series of “pocket parks,” new materials and landscaping (granite and pine trees), and a bunch of ideas centered on activity programming. Architectural renderings featured black-and-white sketches showing streets filled with life.

Budget crunch and protest

But back in the ’80s, the political process didn’t proceed smoothly. Much like today, a rock star committee of downtown movers and shakers formed and began meeting to work out the financing and design details for the project. Then, as now, they lobbied the city and state for money, and the rest of the burden fell to a special downtown assessment district.

But things started to go sour when the money began disappearing. A group of downtown property owners and retailers formed in opposition to the project, and centered their arguments on cost. In particular, many people took issue with the proposed towers connecting the skyway to the street, fearing they would “attract vagrants” and “create drafts.”

The cutbacks began in 1988. First the plans for four towers were trimmed to two, as property owners began balking at the proposed $30 million price tag.  (That’s $62.5 million in today’s dollars, quite a bit more than the budget for this remake.) Eventually the committee decided they would trim the tower plans again, building only one tower as a “test.”

Here’s a representative quote from Dan Hauser’s ongoing coverage of the redesign in the Skyway News:

“The three items that were cut or reduced were sticking points for several property owners. Some said the stair towers would invite the wrong element into the Skyway system. Others said spending money on side street improvements was unnecessary. As for the pocket park [by then whittled down to one], the owners of the land where the board had hoped to build it were opposed to the idea.”

By August 1989, after the City Council again cut the budget, the skyway towers and pocket parks were abandoned altogether, along with other grandiose ideas like heated sidewalks and a free shuttle bus.

By the time the “new” mall was actually built, the changes were largely superficial. Crucially, the mall was reconstructed without any new straightforward connections between the confusing skyway system and the street below. Downtown Minneapolis has struggled with that problem ever since.

History repeating itself?

Though there are a great many newer and shinier elements to today’s mall makeover — see: sky-reflecting overhead mirror, akin to Chicago’s famous Millennium Park “bean” — at first glance it appears the same problems have resurfaced. As Marlys Harris reported earlier, today’s consultants identified a lack of connection between the skyway and the street as a central problem with revitalizing the street life on Nicollet Mall. And all through their initial proposals, the architects proposed “the island,” an open public staircase that would connect the mall to the skyway. The proposed connection was in exactly the same location as the scuttled glass towers from the 1980s.

But just like the last time, the idea has been rejected. This time around, the connection was seen as “invasive” and “challenging to operate.” 

As in the ’80s, I’m sure that the redesign will be an improvement over the often-mediocre status quo. This time around, church kvetching aside, there’s a lot more agreement by the decision-makers about the value of diverse street life, transit and quality public space. And the problematic remarks about panhandlers and poverty seem to be less obvious.

Downtown pedestrian malls are a difficult thing to get right. Particularly given the skyway system looming overhead, Minneapolis has an uphill battle to build a shopping street with a consistently compelling street-level experience. Without unifying the city’s grade-separated throngs, a real downtown shopping street, like Madison Wisconsin’s State Street or hundreds of shopping streets in Europe, will likely remain a pipe dream.

Despite the flashy renderings and slick design, with the current plans the fundamental problem with the downtown street experience remains. Without including “the island” staircase connection, Minneapolis is again missing a chance to desegregate the skyways from the public realm. Maybe in another 30 years we can try again. 

Comments (24)

  1. Submitted by Mike Evangelist on 05/29/2015 - 09:17 am.

    You nailed it!

    De-stratifying downtown is the only thing that would have a chance of revitalizing the Nicollet Mall experience. I’m dumbfounded that the geniuses working on the revamp don’t realize this. SMH in disbelief.

  2. Submitted by David Brauer on 05/29/2015 - 10:10 am.

    I’m just waiting …

    … for the chairs to get stolen again.

    Thanks for the excellent coverage, Bill. 

    • Submitted by Adam Miller on 05/29/2015 - 11:25 am.

      Chairs

      The ones on the Loring Greenway and the Piazza seem to be doing okay.

      • Submitted by Max Musicant on 05/29/2015 - 02:56 pm.

        Chairs

        Our firm has been the ones responsible for the installation of movable furniture on the Loring Greenway, Piazza on the Mall, Cancer Survivor’s Park, and 333 S. 7th Street. For each space there has been very little theft and they are used (and loved!) infinitely more than a fixed bench – and can be had a fraction of the cost.

        For all the bells and whistles being called for along Nicollet, just putting out more movable furniture throughout downtown – and caring for it – would be truly transformative.

  3. Submitted by Rodgers Adams on 05/29/2015 - 10:15 am.

    Nicollet Mall’s problem

    Isn’t a more serious issues than a stairway to the skyways the reluctance of the corporate owners of much of the Mall frontage to break up their grandiose entrance lobbies into subsidized rental space for a variety of small retailers?

  4. Submitted by John Mark Lucas on 05/29/2015 - 10:24 am.

    I could not agree more

    While it’s repeatedly stated as an objective in various document including the City’s Ped Master Plan , “Objective 1.3: Improve Skyway‐Sidewalk Connectivity” we somehow came short in execution. Skyways are well connected to car parks but very poorly to other travel modes. Perhaps the discussion could be expanded to making connections to other transportation modes as well as connecting destinations. I was reminded of this last week after leaving an evening event in Downtown Saint Paul (we love our skyways there too). I passed a number of car park connections but when I got near my bus stop, I could not get to the street level because the nearby street accesses via the (private) buildings were closed. It was very frustrating to stand on the skyway looking at my bus below as it departs. An experience that could easily be repeated in downtown Minneapolis. An equity issue waiting to be addressed? Time to look at this walkway (skyway) network again and prioritize pedestrian desire lines over property ownership lines.

  5. Submitted by Andrew vonNagy on 05/29/2015 - 10:42 am.

    Why Not Pedestrian Only

    The great pedestrian malls that I’ve visited in Europe (Copenhagen, Lille, Amsterdam) and elsewhere (Sydney is a great example) are almost completely “pedestrian.” Closed off from traffic all together; ground-level retail shop storefronts; room for pedestrians to meander; room for street artists to entertain with impromptu live music, etc. It seems like that would be the better way forward.

    • Submitted by William Lindeke on 05/29/2015 - 11:15 am.

      This would be my preference too

      Many people think that we should get buses off Nicollet, and create a true space for people. But for some reason that option was taken off the table right at the get-go of the process.

      Nicollet Mall seems a bit like the “spork” of pedestrian malls… Maybe the proposed streetcar will fix it?

  6. Submitted by Fred Beukema on 05/29/2015 - 10:55 am.

    St. Paul’s Vertical Access

    St. Paul added a public access point from ground level to the skyway at the Central Green Line Station, and that seems not to have been as big of a political deal. Indeed, quite the opposite: it was lobbied for in part as a boon to residents or workers with mobility issues (https://www.metrotransit.org/stairway-elevator-tower-opens-at-downtown-st-paul-metro-green-line-station-connecting-transit-and-skyway).

    There were apparently some problems earlier this year with loitering in the skyway and access tower at night, which seems to have been solved easily enough by closing it during the (extended) time during which no business occurs in the St. Paul skyway (http://www.twincities.com/localnews/ci_27858466/st-paul-light-rail-skyway-elevator-closing-at).

  7. Submitted by Adam Miller on 05/29/2015 - 11:31 am.

    Is it irony?

    That the homeless may well have plenty of time to figure out how to get from the street to the skyway, while the visitors you’re supposedly trying to attract may not?

  8. Submitted by Steve Sande on 05/29/2015 - 12:00 pm.

    Creating new connections between skyway and street

    Although the functional idea behind the staircases from the skyways is a good one, I never felt comfortable with the most recent staircase plans. It wasn’t clear to me that the massive, prominent stairways, and the accompanying design changes to the sidewalk and street configuration as well as to the IDS skyway, would benefit the streetscape. The broad stairways simply couldn’t be comfortably sandwiched into the existing street.

    There are other ways to create better connections between skyway and street. The St. Paul example that Mr. Beukema cites above may help point the way. What if, every block or so, a storefront were to be devoted to a street-skyway connection? On the mall, prominent signage would say “To Skyway.” On the skyway level, prominent signage would say “To Nicollet Mall.” The street-level storefront would be glassed in, with easily visible escalators or a stairway. Ideally, the Mall would be visible and its enticements would beckon from the skyway-level storefront.

    • Submitted by Matt Hoff on 05/29/2015 - 03:10 pm.

      Great Point

      This is good. While the grand staircase in the middle of the mall is enticing, I think you’re on to something with simply readdressing the storefront entry points. It really could be iconic in its own way with good design. I’m picturing a corner spot (expensive, i know) with a clear glass, open-feeling 2 story plaza with an attractive vertical sign on the outside- not unlike the crystal court except much smaller and without retail.

  9. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 05/29/2015 - 12:07 pm.

    A Tactic Supporting What Objective?

    Skyways were originally built with a clear purpose – to allow people to walk around downtown in the winter months in comfort and safety. They every effectively serve that purpose. Let’s say you park in the ramps west of downtown and walk via skyway. Not only do you stay dry and warm, you don’t have to contend with automobiles or stop at traffic lights. They are a great solution to a real problem.

    Of course, moving stairs from street level would be a nice way to access the skyway, but practically speaking, how many of them would you need to build to make a real connection between the two levels? One or two possibly – but beyond that, it gets really expensive.

    As it is, in buildings like IDS, you have escalators between the different levels – which means that the building owners rather than the taxpayer pays to put them in and maintain them. With the many needs of the low income residents of Minneapolis, I would question the wisdom of putting in something that essentially is a hidden subsidy to business. A better approach would be to encourage building owners to design access between street and skyway into their buildings.

    It is also the primary responsibility of the business community to spend the money to create a vibrant downtown. Government, by subsidizing downtowns by parking ramps, arts and sports facilities, light rail and heavy police presence, have already done their part.

    • Submitted by Steve Sande on 05/29/2015 - 01:47 pm.

      What the Crystal Court can teach us

      We do have to begin with building design, as you say. If every downtown building had its own version of the IDS Crystal Court, perhaps we wouldn’t have this issue. The Crystal Court is wonderfully designed to allow you to see and and appreciate the Mall from its skyway level, and it offers an obvious way to get down there. In too many other buildings, skyway and street feel like walled-off, separate worlds. It need not be this way. Skyway levels could incorporate more windows with Mall views, and perhaps they could even cut away sections of the floor to make first-floor retail visible from above.

      If these connections are worth having, there should be a way to apportion their costs. The improvements would benefit both the public realm and private landowners, I think. Everyone, including (and perhaps especially) lower income Minneapolitans, stands to gain from having a strong and vibrant downtown.

    • Submitted by John Mark Lucas on 05/29/2015 - 03:46 pm.

      Public Use – beyond the car users

      As rightly pointed, the original purpose might have been: car to office to shopping to car. With the changes in general transportation needs and aspirations, this may no longer be valid. The Skyway needs to respond to this and I think we all agree on this. With regards to funding, skyways should be seen as public walkways. They are very expensive public walkways but we need them warm and dry, right? In Hong Kong public cost is offset (in fact one could argue transit agency profits from it) by charging adjacent developments that want to connect to the network. They pay for improved access and the foot traffic it generates that brings them potential customers for what ever the building offers. The key however is to get the skyway network’s access right.

  10. Submitted by Sam Newberg on 05/29/2015 - 05:34 pm.

    What would one of these connectors cost?

    Bill, great piece. With the numbers you presented (then and now), what would the cost of just one connector be? Any idea what that single staircase suggested (then nixed) for the 2015 plan? Or those four suggested in 1988?

    As someone who has outright removal of all skyways (and who understands the dead-end and vile backlash to that suggestion), I must say I’m not outright opposed to these skyway to sidewalk connectors. I just think that to make them work throughout the system the cost and legal issues would be quite high and not politically palatable. So we get one or four connections to Nicollet Mall – what about all the other streets in downtown that would also benefit from these connectors?

    It seems like the cost of solving this unintended consequence is significant.

  11. Submitted by Jesse Langanki on 05/29/2015 - 08:36 pm.

    missed opportunity.

    We need some better visionaries in charge of this project. This is a missed opportunity to build a completely pedestrian marketplace/mall with a covered roof along the entire length. Something like that would completely change downtown and be the must-see experience they were trying to build. Streets like this are bustling in European and Japanese cities, and the experience is very enjoyable. The streetcar needs to cross the Hennepin bridge anyway so just move it over to Hennepin earlier and free up Nicollet entirely to be something great.

  12. Submitted by Shantell Webb on 05/29/2015 - 10:41 pm.

    Ok Humans those of you Humans that are scared to come visit Downtown need to realize the new reality…Surprise it now 2015 and not the 1980’s!,, So let us move forward! If New York City can create the High Bridge Park and Chicago has the Silver Bean Minneapolis can she’ll out the big bucks to create another green space. Right now Peavey Plaza looks like crap, which is a shame because Orchestra Hall is right on the doorstep of the park. Minneapolis needs Peavey Park as a connection to Loring Park and the Park to the City Center. so let us move forward and make it into a reality As a Human who loves Summer in Minneapolis I want my tax dollars to create a Green Space that has the Wow factor like Gold medal Park or the Sculpture Garden not just a cement wasteland with cheap lawn furniture. Otther wise maybe we need to replace the mayor and city council with new members/lawn furniture.

  13. Submitted by David Bennett on 05/30/2015 - 04:57 pm.

    Nicollet Mall Revisited-Again

    NICOLLET MALL REVISITED – AGAIN

    As the Principal Architectural Partner of BRW, and the principal Architectural Designer of the original Nicollet Mall in 1988, in support of Craig Amundsen, assigned as the principal Urban Designer for the project, I would like to express my appreciation for Bill Lindeke thorough article, in MINPOST reflecting the history, design intent and somewhat unfortunate lack in realization of the project, in this respect.

    As Mr. Lindeke,s article points out, the introduction and design of the of the stair towers was, among other things, BRW’s work. The visible connection of the skyway system to the street was, and is, an opportunity to overcome the perceived sterility, during the winter, of the Minneapolis (and St. Paul) street scene, largely devoid of human activity, which it doesn’t seem to even share with other, less provincial urban centers, even those with which it does share with equivalently cold climates, particularly in northern Europe. The towers themselves, of small scale and limited capacity, were intended to be largely symbolic. They were to reflect the pedestrian outdoor street as an integral part of the Cities’ public spaces, ancillary to the skyway system, and not wholly dominated by automobile traffic and parking destinations . This was to be enhanced by occupied outdoor spaces in the warmer seasons.

    Along with this, development – although entirely incidental to it – was the creation of an urban shopping building, The Conservatory, deliberately intended to be stylistically distinct from the prevailing contemporary retail shopping centers, instead employing materials and design features which were more related to the conspicuous consumption of the 19th Century – marble, granite, colored glass, curved, sweeping grand stairs and balustrades – intended to evoke associations with New York, London, Paris and Rome. This too, was eventually rejected by the retailers and lasted only about ten years.

    David Bennett, FAIA

    • Submitted by Sam Newberg on 06/01/2015 - 03:14 pm.

      So Interesting

      This is such a great bit of historical research, made all the worthwhile by an actual practitioner who was there at the time. David Bennett, thanks for commenting and giving your perspective.

      I find it almost jarring that you call those original stairway plans from the 1980s to be “symbolic.” It’s kind of an admission that the skyways have brought comfort at the expense of street life, and there really is no way to solve this problem (well, there IS one way, but that isn’t too likely).

      It is interesting, though, because the escalator in the Crystal Court does a very good job of circulation between the two levels, helping support businesses on each. This is hardly symbolic.

  14. Submitted by David Markle on 05/30/2015 - 05:43 pm.

    early design

    Don’t forget other major plans implemented around the time of the destruction in the Gateway district: freeways into downtown. But that’s really urban “undesign.”

  15. Submitted by Bjorn Awel on 06/01/2015 - 12:19 pm.

    I don’t see the value in creating a stairway connection when the real problem are the skyways themselves. A stairway only reinforces the mistake in them being there in the first place. If you want better street life and businesses on the street you need to remove the second floor system that currently holds this activity. It is difficult to support two separate activity centers. You have to make a choice, unfortunately I don’t think Mpls can have it both ways.

    So many are so wed to the skyways that as one other person said it is DOA upon anyone’s suggestion to limit them back even a bit. But to be honest, very little is known on how people move within the skyways: how far on average, trip patterns, etc., that any discussion on the matter only could be simply based on any number of person’s preference to walk one block without a coat in December for lunch than whether the skyways actually provide mobility and vitality to downtown.

  16. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 06/05/2015 - 11:14 am.

    We have our exits and our entrances some one once said…

    It’s difficult to make a skyway look like anything but a glass and steel pollup jutting out of sides of buildings…but to remove and start over would actually expose more sense of open space; real sky that is?

    But people movers protect us from the elements I suppose; conveyor belts for commerce etc. A choice between the two; open street scape over skyway, is probably not acceptable so we wound good buildings with a hole and ‘pollup’ our city-scapes into the 21st century ? Still, it’s difficult to find a designer-god so ingenious to make the glass and steel intrusions appear well adjusted; like they belong there?

    Skyways give momentary comfort and looking at the first aesthetically pleasing tower design, it does convey a certain sense of drama better than the 2015 design; one expansive gone-with-the -wind staircase?

    The 2015 design also reminds me a wee bit of a van truck which flipped its cargo of glass and stair blocks and clogged the darn sidewalks from its intended purpose; walk space?.

    No not too much else one can say without professional guidance here..call it a bag lady’s perspective maybe…all those stairs and me with my full shopping cart…

  17. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 06/05/2015 - 09:18 pm.

    correction

    “polyp”, “polyps” correction…sorry

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