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

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

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.

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.”

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?

“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.”

Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by Terry Small on 12/11/2019 - 10:25 am.

    It’s not a compliment when a retail chain tells you it’s the most difficult city to work with. When you just make it more expensive for businesses and builders to execute, it shouldn’t bring a smile to your face-it’s really not a game to see how tough you can make it

    • Submitted by Adam Miller on 12/11/2019 - 11:39 am.

      No, it’s a struggle to make sure new stuff is good for the community, not just the business’s short-term bottom line, especially when they may well be wrong.

      • Submitted by Terry Small on 12/11/2019 - 02:14 pm.

        I’m not advocating making it a free for all. But if you consistently hear the same things, there’s an opportunity to be open to listen

        My experience is- MPLS does this for housing as well as their stringent/complicated zoning rules/inspections/fees make building housing much more expensive as well- that has a long term impact as we’ve seen since it adds 10’s of $1,000’s to the cost of building new rental housing on even small scale projects which causes rents to be higher/housing not to be built so it’s not just commercial requirements that are onerous. There’s a big conflict between the direction of the CM’s/Mayor who want more affordable housing/building and staff who make the rules that cause those costs to go up. The same is true at the state level.

    • Submitted by Matthew Steele on 12/11/2019 - 11:51 am.

      OTOH if we won the “CVS’ favorite municipality” award, we’d look like Rogers or Woodbury. I’m thankful we’re not joining a race to the bottom.

      • Submitted by lisa miller on 12/21/2019 - 11:52 pm.

        I like the transparency rule; however, Rogers was named one of the top places to move to and both Rogers and Woodbury rate highly in a number of areas, including safety and livability; Minneapolis lost its historical charm, years ago and continues to sell out to developers.

    • Submitted by Bill Lindeke on 12/11/2019 - 01:25 pm.

      I bet they tell that to all the cities…

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/11/2019 - 10:34 am.

    For what it’s worth, and as a former planning commissioner (in another state) myself, I like the window transparency rules. I like having a clue about what’s in the shop I’m walking past, and if it’s a restaurant like the 801 Chophouse, I’d much rather be watching the street than “enjoying” a view of a black glass wall.

  3. Submitted by Matthew Steele on 12/11/2019 - 11:50 am.

    801 Chophouse is extremely disappointing. And it’s not just a cosmetic choice they made that can easily be reversed… they put their bathrooms right on the corner of 8th and Nicollet, one of the most prominent corners downtown, replacing a building entrance at considerable expense. How was that even allowed?

  4. Submitted by Laura Silver on 12/11/2019 - 12:09 pm.

    I’m happy to hear about these rules. Retail on the Upper West Side of New York City has been decimated in recent years, but last summer my daughter and I walked past a shoe store window on Broadway, and the experience, for me, was like time travel. We stood there, gaping at the pretty shoes, discussing our favorites, and mulling over whether we should step inside. I realized that I hadn’t done that for years and years. My daughter maybe hadn’t ever. It made me feel connected to the world around me.

    It sounds like these rules don’t call for creative or fancy window displays, just a view into the store. When a store goes to the expense of putting in windows and then covers them up with shelving and equipment (or black glass), it’s a cynical violation of the spirit of the ordinance. I have no sympathy for that.

  5. Submitted by Elsa Mack on 12/11/2019 - 02:10 pm.

    I’d think windows could also have an effect on crime, since there are more eyes on the street that way–more people to potentially intervene or call 911 as needed. In theory anyway.

    801 Chophouse–there are a lot of steakhouses downtown, and right in that area, too. Manny’s, Murray’s, Seven, Ruth’s Chris, Capital Grille, and Butcher & the Boar are all within a few blocks of 8th and Nicollet. So maybe this particular disappointment won’t last too long.

    • Submitted by Bill Lindeke on 12/12/2019 - 08:46 am.

      This is another part of the picture for sure. The more people that can see into or out from the street, the more chance there is of stopping, preventing, or witnessing any conflict. Anyone who has walked down a windowless street is well aware of what it feels like to have no chance of being witnessed…

    • Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 12/16/2019 - 09:57 am.

      Tell me: Where is the enforcement of Minneapolis rules with the 801 Chophouse?

      They should be forced to change the interior of the restaurant (bathrooms right on the street corner? Remove the mall-side door? Really?) to comply with the rules. there seem to be lots of restaurants in the immediate vicinity, so diners won’t have to go far to find a more inviting place, less abrasive and arrogant ownership and management.

      And anyone who says it doesn’t matter, or that it’s too cold to go anywhere but through skyways, just hasn’t had a real city experience in New York, Chicago, Paris, London, Madrid, Tokyo, etc. Windows help in connecting us, in very positive ways.

      Get that restaurant to cop0ly! How ugly it is right now.

  6. Submitted by Robert Beutel on 12/11/2019 - 09:35 pm.

    Yesterday, December 10, had a wind chill of -23 F. No one was browsing windows on Nicollet Mall, you can be assured. Street life in the twin downtowns is on the skyway level in every season, free from pedestrian – vehicle conflict, and free from vehicle noise and pollution. The retail rents reflect that. Experts on walkability should not be allowed to comment on street life in the Twin Cities until they have sampled our streets at least once a week in the months of November thorough March.

    • Submitted by Bill Lindeke on 12/12/2019 - 08:46 am.

      Well, I did take my photos in 5º weather and there were people out on Nicollet, myself included.

    • Submitted by Stuart Munson on 12/16/2019 - 10:55 am.

      On Saturday (December 14) I went downtown specifically to see the window display in the Dayton’s Project. I went because it is an anomaly nowadays and I miss them.

      Your Skyways were mostly deserted and very little was even open

  7. Submitted by Be Joeshmoe on 01/05/2020 - 02:29 pm.

    What on earth does the online world have to do with it? People still walk down the street, and if you engage them with something to look at and enjoy, you will accomplish something. It may even serve its purpose and bring them into the store. Do nothing, nothing will happen.

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