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The very future of Minneapolis depends on a Nicollet Mall overhaul

To fail on this front is to completely overlook the demands of the new economy, which include revolutionary ways of interacting, commuting and consuming.

We need to realize, though, that the current effort to redesign Nicollet Mall represents something very different from what has come before: a response to the new economy rather than the old.

Critics have questioned the cost of redoing Nicollet Mall. If we want Minneapolis and indeed our entire region to thrive in the future, however, we can’t afford not to do this project.

Nicollet Avenue has become not just the primary commercial corridor in downtown Minneapolis, but, as some have called it, “Minnesota’s Main Street” because of the important corporate entities and retail establishments along its length. At the same time, like main streets all over America, Nicollet has had to compete over the last 50 years with suburban shopping malls, which have drained retail traffic, especially at night and on weekends, from the city’s center.

In that context, our turning Nicollet Avenue into one of the nation’s first transit malls in 1968 made perfect sense and constituted a visionary response that downtowns copied across the country. We need to realize, though, that the current effort to redesign Nicollet Mall represents something very different from what has come before: a response to the new economy rather than the old.

Old vs. new economy

Thomas Fisher
Thomas Fisher

That old economy, the shell of which remains very much with us, involved the mass production and consumption of goods and services. Malls became places that maximized our ability to buy things, increasingly made halfway around the world, at the lowest possible cost. And companies like Target, whose corporate headquarters faces Nicollet Mall, became retail giants by doing exactly that.

The new economy demands something very different. While we will continue to buy things in stores, online shopping has already begun to overturn the way in which we purchase goods and services. The retail environments that make it in the future will sell not only goods but also unique experiences that the digital environment cannot deliver and that we can only achieve in person.

Also, in the old economy, commuting between suburban residential communities and urban office cores became so common that we came to see it as inevitable and unchangeable. That commuting pattern made sense in an economy that wanted to maximize our access to and consumption of products. The more we moved around in our personal vehicles, the more retail frontage we pass by and the more stuff we can buy.

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The new economy inverts that equation. The more we work digitally and can work at a distance almost anywhere, the more we want – and need – human contact, which had led tech workers and millennials to flock back to cities to live in denser communities. The diversity of people and experiences that cities offer also has become essential in an economy that increasingly depends on innovation and creativity.

To see and be seen

We need to see the redevelopment of Nicollet Mall in this light, as a way of helping the city and this region compete in the new economy.

As his design of the High Line has done for Manhattan’s Lower West Side, James Corner’s vision for Nicollet Mall will provide experiences that no suburban mall – and few other downtowns – can offer. In partnership with such local talent as Snow Kreilich Architects and Coen + Partners landscape architects, Corner’s New York firm Field Operations recognizes that, in this new economy, main streets must become places for people to see and be seen, with destinations to walk and things to watch, day and night, all week long.

To not do this – to say that we don’t need to spend more money on this project – not only misses the point but also sends the wrong message to the very people we need in our cities if we want to thrive in the future. It will look as if we don’t get the new economy – which almost guarantees that the new economy will pass us by.

Thomas Fisher is Dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota.

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