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Minneapolis’ tight rules usher in a new era of window shopping

Shop windows still sit at the center of an ongoing debate in planning circles about how to foster street life.

Windows into a Walgreens, unblocked by shelving, tints, or signs.
Windows into a Walgreens, unblocked by shelving, tints, or signs.
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke

For good reason, window shopping is a holiday season cliché. The little kids tugging on their mother’s arm, or the newlywed couple strolling along the downtown street, turn to press their faces against the glass of a shop window, dreaming of the day when they can afford whatever luxury is on display.

But are shop windows still relevant in today’s distracted world? Most shopping is done today in a hundred different electronic ways, and most images are part of an endless personal montage. So who is paying attention to sidewalk windows anymore?

It turns out that the answer is: urban planners. Shop windows still sit at the center of an ongoing debate in planning circles about how to foster street life. In theory, they boost a city’s walkability in subtle ways and create connections across our fragmented streets, which is why the City of Minneapolis has some of the most stringent regulations about shop windows in the country.

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Window theory

Strolling along an urban street lined with fascinating windows is something that, once you experience it, is rarely forgotten. Windows and pedestrians exist in a virtuous cycle. The more windows there are, the more rewarding it is to walk; and the more people walking along a sidewalk, the more businesses want to create lively windows. Meanwhile, the converse — a blocklong unfenestrated facade — can kill a good street.

“One of biggest enemies of good urbanism is an uninteresting, blank, dead wall facing public sidewalks,” said Jason Wittenberg, who is the manager of code development for Minneapolis. His office in in charge of writing the pages and pages of building code for the city. Making tweaks to ensure compliance is always a big challenge, and the devil is in the details.

This is especially true for fostering interesting windows, which poses a challenge for a city like Minneapolis because much of 20th-century architecture was infamously hostile to the street. Missing out on the positive feedback loop between noteworthy windows and people walking on foot is a big problem for sidewalk vitality.

“Almost every city that has witnessed construction since 1950 has its share of cold, uninviting buildings fronting the sidewalk with rough concrete, tinted glass, or other such nastiness,” writes Jeff Speck, in his book “Walkable City,” the best guide to sidewalk planning yet written. Speck goes over the basics of walkability, and points out window ordinances as an often-missing component.

“In most cities, however, the culprit is less likely to be a starchitect than a Rite Aid, as pharmacies and other national chains refuse to put windows where shelves can go,” Speck explains in his chapter on street design. “These standards can be overcome, but only by cities that throw off the beggar mentality [where cities have to beg for commercial retail] and outlaw the practice.”

It took Minneapolis a while to get on board with strict transparency requirements, but since 1999, the city has seemed to hit a sweet spot with its new window regulations.

“If you look at the typical new grocery store or pharmacy, often corporate chain stores block up all their windows with shelving or other impenetrable things,” said Jason Wittenberg. “[It] creates dead sidewalk situations.” For that reason, Minneapolis has strict rules around windows, requiring both a “minimum window area” of 30% along the ground floor, at least for nonresidential construction. And, most important, the ordinance decrees that these windows shall be actually useful, stating that “shelving, mechanical equipment or other similar fixtures shall not block views into and out of the building in the area between four (4) and seven (7) feet above the adjacent grade.”

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This is the issue that is often overlooked with transparency regulations: New architects often create “windows” along the street, but when the new shop goes in the window is frosted over, covered up, or blocked. To avoid this conundrum, city staff puts a lot of time in on the front end, during the review of the “site plan” when the building design is still being worked out. For those buildings at least, according to Wittenberg, the rules are working.

“I think one example is the new Trader Joe’s on Washington Avenue,” said Wittenberg. “That level of visibility you have, in and out of that store, is a much different experience than you’ll see in a typical Trader Joe’s. And that is not an accident. We get better outcomes than a lot of communities in the area, and when I travel out someplace, I see new development with blocked-up windows to a degree I don’t think we typically see here.”

Window regulations made the new Trader Joe's store on Washington Avenue in Minneapolis more transparent.
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
Window regulations made the new Trader Joe's store on Washington Avenue in Minneapolis more transparent.
Enforcement of window regulations is another story. There aren’t a lot of people who walk down the street thinking about visible light transmittance ratios.

“Compliance is not always 100%,” admitted Wittenberg. “It becomes an enforcement issue, and many enforcement issues like that are complaint driven. And what percentage of the population really knows to complain about things to the office?”

Nicollet’s new window on the block

“They boarded up basically that whole corner,” said Nick Magrino, a former Minneapolis planning commissioner who is one of the rare downtown strollers who complains about window transparency. “It’s basically sealed off. They moved the door to 8th Street, and put the booths up along the windows, and these big shutters that completely block off the view into the restaurant.”

Magrino was describing the new window-scape of the 801 Chophouse, a steak restaurant that opened this week on the prime downtown corner of 8th Street and Nicollet. Unfortunately for city street life, the restaurant pulls some tricks out of the opacity playbook. The sidewalk windows, shuttered up with black walls and the backs of high booths, today offers the barest of glimpses to the passers-by on the new Nicollet.

The opaque "windows" of the new 801 Chophouse on Nicollet Mall.
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
The opaque "windows" of the new 801 Chophouse on Nicollet Mall.
“With Nicollet, there’s already not a lot going on,” said Magrino. “There are really very few doors on the entire street. … It can be kind of barren.”

For the record, Nicollet and much of the downtown have a separate slate of regulations that allow for things like department store window displays. But the new restaurant’s architectural agoraphobia is a throwback to the 20th century. It raises a set of questions: To what extent do Minneapolis’ window rules make a difference to street life? And in the end, does anyone care if you can see in or out of a store?

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“Once, this issue caused CVS Pharmacy to tell us we were the most difficult community in the country to work with,” said  Wittenberg, the code writer. “They wanted to put the backs of their shelves up against windows. There are certainly users that think [window rules are] just a big pain, and they don’t like it because they have their model and want to stick with it. Their coolers and so forth need to go somewhere.”

In this way, Minneapolis’ street-facing windows are the terrain on which cautious businesses, city planners, and overworked regulators wage an endless battle for our eyeballs.

“But I think most architects are very on-board with the purpose of the rules and like the fact we have these regulations,” added Wittenberg. “They have leverage to get clients to do the right thing, and comply.”