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Remove buses from Nicollet Mall. Downtown Minneapolis depends on it.

It might be time to rethink a decision that was made 55 years ago and take buses off of the city’s odd “transit mall.”

Nicollet Mall
Without office workers, many skyway businesses can’t survive either, and certainly not past 3pm.
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: big changes are coming to Nicollet Mall. Unlike the expensive reconstruction eight years ago, which wielded an influential architecture firm toward largely cosmetic designs, this time there might be a more fundamental transformation to downtown Minneapolis’ main street. It might be time to rethink a decision that was made 55 years ago and take buses off of the city’s odd “transit mall.”

A new new vision for Nicollet Mall was released this week in a report by the city’s Department of Community Planning and Economic Development. Dubbed the Vibrant Downtown Storefronts Workgroup Report, it packaged the results of a monthslong study aiming to (as they put it) “reanimate” Downtown Minneapolis. The goal is to bring street life, storefronts, and people back into the heart of the office district. 

It’s a massive and important undertaking, as Downtown Minneapolis serves as a tax base cash cow for the entire region. As in every American city, the COVID pandemic upended long-held assumptions about how downtown should function. As I’ve written before, without tens of thousands of daily office workers, downtown’s economic foundation is on shaky ground. Lacking a critical mass of people, everyday life on Nicollet feels uncanny and much of the bustle is gone.

The irony here is that many key recommendations fly in the face of long-standing practices by Minneapolis leaders. The Downtown Council, perhaps the most powerful lobby in the city, has since its inception been dedicated to removing working-class street life from the downtown core. Most downtown planning tactics — traditional office space, the obliteration of older buildings and small businesses, and the segregation of the skyway system — make the core into an inflexible place. 

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The central business district’s built environment is the legacy of those decisions, and it poses huge challenges to the new Vibrant Downtown vision. But at least these are some good ideas, and it seems like some downtown leaders are now asking the right questions.

The history of Nicollet Mall

The report’s most notable suggestion, championed this week by Mayor Jacob Frey, is to remove transit from Nicollet Mall. It’s a good idea, and would immediately make Nicollet’s sidewalks a more pleasant place to spend time. 

Transit malls have always been an odd concept in the United States: they’re pedestrian shopping streets that center on transit, which often means buses. Having recently visited Denver’s eerily similar 16th Street Mall (currently being remodeled), I’m not sure it works very well without a lot of already-existing density and vitality. 

But downtown leaders have to try something different, and going “all in” on sidewalks seems like a good idea. After all, the most vibrant part of the mall is the block that boasts sidewalk cafés, in front of stalwart restaurants The Local and Barrio. Trust me, tacos taste much better without diesel buses idling a few feet away. 

Barrio patio, Nicollet Mall
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
More cafés please. Let a thousand movable chairs bloom.
On top of that, the transit on the Nicollet transit mall is not very good to begin with. Glance at routes 18 or 10 crawling along Nicollet one block at a time, bunching up at every red light, and you know nobody riding is getting anywhere quickly. Meanwhile, without daily nine-to-fivers, the extensive commuter bus shelters on Marquette and Second might never see a return to pre-COVID service levels. Moving the buses a block away would surely boost travel times.

Return of Gateway Park

The report itself is unashamedly packed with jargon. It even includes a handy table of “New Buzz Phrasing” in its appendix, trendy stuff like “experiential entertainment” and “cultural rehab.” Sentences like “we must return to activating the inner search for community and individuality as the basis of the human experience” are devoid of meaning. It’s hard to read about lost “Minneapolis flair” without reminiscing about the former Block E Applebee’s.

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Still, these ideas are headed in the right direction. I’m old enough to remember when riding a bicycle was banned on Nicollet Mall, and this new plan takes the exact opposite approach. Focusing on north end of the street, a Frey suggested in an interview this week, is a good spot to start.

 “The Cancer Survivor’s Park, and the plaza at the Four Seasons Hotel and RBC, if you were to connect those two, suddenly you’ve got this beautiful open park space,” Frey said. “A roller rink, ice skating, there’s tons of stuff you could have going on.” 

Proposing a park at this exact spot marks a return of the repressed for downtown Minneapolis. It’s almost the exact site of the Gateway Park, the namesake for city’s mammoth mid-century urban renewal effort. It was bulldozed off the map 60 years ago, replaced with grassy modernism and surface parking, but the loss of the intersection left an emptiness in what should be downtown’s central square. Bringing some public space back would at least be poetic.

Obstacles to downtown dynamism

“There are a lot of incredibly world-class pedestrian malls in major cities throughout the country where, when you walk down them, it’s a whole different vibe,” Frey told WCCO. “I think Minneapolis could have a pedestrian mall that is the best winter street in the whole world.”

It’s certainly true that pedestrian malls can be successful, but bringing street life to Nicollet Mall faces significant structural obstacles. Pedestrian streets rely on density and diversity, lots of different people coexisting in the same place. That requires an abundance of active doorways, actual windows, and different types of destinations concentrated in one place. 

For better or for worse, Minneapolis’ skyway system brings the opposite of that kind of dynamism to downtown, dooming the sidewalks to be vacant, especially in the winter. Thanks to those skyways, most downtown buildings swapped out active street fronts for internal second-story stores, leaving many of the Nicollet sidewalks barren. 

But there are ideas that might work. Frey’s own brainstorming includes skating rinks and/or “obnoxious” levels of holiday lights. Why not re-center skateboarding in downtown Minneapolis, as they did during the X Games? Steal David Brauer’s idea of demolishing the worst building to build a downtown park space. (The godawfully ugly City Center gets my vote.) Park food trucks in the middle of the street. Bring back the farmer’s market that was axed this year. Subsidize bicycle taxis.

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For any of this to happen, lots of things need to change in Downtown Minneapolis. But it’s good to dream, and Downtown needs all the dreams it can get. At the very least, removing buses from Nicollet Mall might get the police department to stop parking empty SUVs on the sidewalks.