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To be THE place to meet when going downtown, Nicollet Mall needs help

Nicollet Mall is meant to serve as a magnet for downtown retail, restaurants and entertainment. Minneapolis has done a fairly good job in making this — unlike some other pedestrian concepts — a destination by keeping the retail and entertainment family-friendly (Barnes & Noble, Holidazzle parades in December and the mini farmer’s market on Thursdays in the summer.)

But it still seems to miss the mark in being THE place to meet for a downtown destination. Unlike Chicago’s Millennium Park or New York’s Times Square, Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis is one of many places downtown that people may go to.

So with a wave of my magic wand, I imagine I am Queen of Nicollet Mall. Here’s what I’d do differently:

1. Connect to the river. The true jewel of Minneapolis is the Mississippi. Nicollet Mall needs to extend to the river and the developing greenway. The several blocks between the river and the north end of the mall are dreary and difficult to manage with a family on bikes.

2. Ban the buses. Despite being a pedestrian “traffic-free” mall, city buses travel up and down the street. If it isn’t the exhaust killing your sidewalk café experience, it is shouting over their loud motors. Without buses running on the street, we could actually create traveling art exhibits in the space, host honest-to-goodness street performances, create a gathering place for public music, and have events on the mall.

3. Go Richard Daley crazy. If hizzoner in Chicago could find the money (usually from deep pocketed local companies) for plants, trees and flowers, so should Mayor R.T. Rybak. In fact, we should tap all of our local companies to make a statement on the new mall: Cargill could donate a plant or two (genetically modified or not); Best Buy could test its kiosk concept and charging stations on the mall; 3M could find funds for a few murals; General Mills should host a few gourmet food trucks; and, of course, Target will dream up something of its own, since the mall is on its home turf. But can we at least begin with plants and flowers?

What do you think? How would you improve Nicollet Mall — or any of America’s pedestrian malls, for that matter?

Here’s my magic wand: It’s good to be the Queen.

Flora Delaney is a retail consultant who blogs here

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Steve Rose on 03/31/2011 - 08:11 am.


    Good thoughts, particularly #2. It is either a mall or a street; it cannot be both. Bust out the curbs and raise what is now the street to be flush with the rest of the mall. Kiosks, movable for the Holidazzle parade, could dwell in the area of the former street. People could meander freely from one side of the mall to the other.

    I know from personal experience that a downtown parking ticket for meter expired is $42. That makes it hard for downtown to compete with suburban malls, all who provide free parking. I parked near the building where I was taking a two hour class and topped off the meter with a two hour limit. I paid for two hours of parking plus $42. Not visitor friendly.

  2. Submitted by andrew stephens on 03/31/2011 - 10:32 am.

    I like the connect the river idea. Hybrid buses on local routes and moving express buses to Marquette and 2nd avenues has greatly mitigated bus problems. Keep the buses. The DID district has done more for Nicollet Mall than your suggestions ever could. The mall is cleaner and safer than it has ever been.

    Steve – Downtown has to offer what the suburbs don’t. Trying to out suburbanize the suburbs has and will fail. See Block E. Downtown offers cultural, dining, sporting and, to some extent, shopping experiences that are not available in the sticks. Quality public transportation doesn’t hurt either. Cheap parking and suburban experiences will not help Downtown.

  3. Submitted by Steve Rose on 03/31/2011 - 12:05 pm.

    Seriously, Block E is an example of success?

    The development changed hands twice in 2010. An incomplete list of the retail failures includes Bellanote, Gameworks, Border’s Books, Hooters, and two weeks ago, Applebee’s. If Kieran’s is a success, it will be due to the location’s proximity to Target Field.

    I prefer the model of a mall that you see in European cities; pedestrians only. No buses! Without the need to acquire any new land, the mall could be transformed and be home to many new retail kiosks. True that much of the kiosk business would be seasonal, being that the weather is cold here well into April.

    I don’t mind paying for parking, but $42 for an expired meter is excessive, and serves as a stiff penalty for coming downtown.

  4. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 03/31/2011 - 12:45 pm.

    The things that make Portland, Oregon’s downtown so great are
    1) a central meeting place, Pioneer Courthouse Square, which serves as weekday outdoor lunch venue, political rally venue, outdoor concert venue, and whatever else people can think up,
    2) Cultural institutions all concentrated in a small area, so that most of the major ones are in walking distance of one another,
    3) Few suburban chain businesses and lots of unique ones,
    4) Superb public transit, combining well-coordinated rail and buses,
    5) Bleak surface parking lots kept to the edge of downtown instead of being allowed to break up the continuity of the center,
    6) Parking ramps that have businesses on the ground floor in order to present a friendlier face to the street.

    There’s not a lot we can do about the basic structure of downtown, but the metro area as a whole is too car-oriented.

  5. Submitted by andrew stephens on 03/31/2011 - 04:24 pm.

    Steve – I was pointing to Block-E as failed suburban style development downtown. Your desire for cheap parking with limited consequences for not following the rules is equally suburban and counterproductive. Work with the city owned ramps, private ramps and businesses to offer discounted parking for off peak visitors but don’t making cheap or “free” parking an absolute God-given right like it is in the suburbs.

    Having our cultural institutions so spreadout does hurt downtown. MIA and Walker are close but not downtown. The Guthrie is on the fringes. The U and downtown St Paul have a lot to offer. One rock-star cultural attraction on Nicollet Mall would be nice.

  6. Submitted by Peter Tharaldson on 03/31/2011 - 04:35 pm.

    On connecting the river I totally agree. That is probably less about a lot of infrastructure and more about the eye. If all those surface parking lots (which really dont park many cars actually) were green grass until development moves in, it would look a whole lot better.

    On Nicollet Mall bus removal. I believe (could be wrong), that much of the mall is paid for by federal transportation dollars as an urban transitway. I may be wrong but I thought I remember that from somewhere.

  7. Submitted by Steve Rose on 04/01/2011 - 08:57 am.

    Peter, yes the funding of the Federal Transit Administration, and their strings are attached to the Nicollet Mall. Now it makes sense; why else would we be running buses down the mall?

    I can see a light rail line running down the mall in the future. Ask the business owners on University Avenue in St. Paul how that is working out for them. BTW, if you would like to visit Porky’s on University, only three days remain.

  8. Submitted by Faith Cable on 04/01/2011 - 02:01 pm.

    Although Marquette and 2nd received FTA funding for their recent rennovation, Nicollet Mall has not. The transit mall concept was pioneered in the U.S. along Nicollet Mall in 1968 (see wikipedia entry for background).

    Some European cities have bus transit along their retail streets (Hamburg) although others do not (Stuttgart). The key element that these cities have, which Nicollet Mall is lacking, is retail businesses with front doors on the street.

    Until retail frontage is added, bus passengers will continue to make up a significiant number of the people walking on Nicollet. Without them the street would be more barren than it already is. Same with a connection to the river – without changing the land uses alongside any future connection to the river, it will not feel active, it will feel empty. Until more business front doors are added, suggestions #1 and #2 will not be particularly successful.

    More plants and flowers, #3 are definitely much needed, and not just on Nicollet but on all the other streets downtown (4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, etc.) that make for rather unpleasant walks to get to Nicollet Mall.

  9. Submitted by Mike Hicks on 04/02/2011 - 02:35 am.

    I’d be happy to see the buses go away on Nicollet. Most of them would be much better off running on 3rd Ave instead, where they will basically have a straight shot through downtown. Today, buses coming from Nordeast make four slow and cumbersome turns before reaching Nicollet.

    Annoyingly, the street isn’t straight along Nicollet — it curves on every single block. I often find it impossible to see oncoming buses until the last second because of that design oddity.

    The buses should run on 3rd and should take a cue from Marq2 and only stop once every two or three blocks.

  10. Submitted by Keith Morris on 12/03/2012 - 07:59 pm.

    I think the buses are worth keeping since they provide free transportation to motorists, TC and particularly suburban residents who probably otherwise wouldn’t use a bus. I’d like to see some signs that specifically say that bikes are welcome on Nicollet to make it more official instead of assuming everyone already knows that. The signs still say “buses and taxis only”. Oh, taxis, both motor and pedicabs are popular here for a reason and I think removing them would only hurt them and businesses on Nicollet Mall. I bet that has an effect on making them a bit more open to mass transit. I definitely agree that the retail needs to reach further north just like it does on Hennepin, but maybe in the meantime some wayfinding signage where the free bus route ends on 2nd telling visitors that the riverfront trail is just up the street along Hennepin could help. It’s a shame both streets had their retail cut off for a few blocks from the river to keep people from walking all the way there without a 2nd thought.

    Really though, how many cities have downtown streets as pedestrian-friendly as Mpls? Go to Michigan Ave to remind yourself how good it is over here: it’s 6 lanes wide and pedestrians are not nearly as bold as they are here thanks to the narrowness of the street. They already act like they own it anyway. As far as the curviness and difficulty seeing oncoming buses on a bike, I think it’s more a traffic calming measure to prevent taxis, buses, and motorists that aren’t supposed to be there but are anyway from speeding down Nicollet at 35 MPH or so and hitting/maiming pedestrians, etc.. Waiting a bit longer to safely pass is a minor inconvenience out-weighted by the positives.

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