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The very future of Minneapolis depends on a Nicollet Mall overhaul

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.

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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Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 04/04/2014 - 07:36 am.

    New Economy

    That’s a nice analysis of the economic forces at work in today’s world. I would add that we need to invest in our infrastructure and that initiative includes more than just roads and bridges and rail. It also means items that make our cities a joy to live, work, and play in, such as parks and street scapes.

    In an economy where people can and do work from anywhere with internet and airport access, we need to give them a reason to come live here. A large part of that is giving them a wonderful and vibrant city they can enjoy. For the moment we’ll just ignore the 8″ of white stuff outside my window…

  2. Submitted by James Hamilton on 04/04/2014 - 09:02 am.

    For want of a nail?

    Forecasting economic and social trends is risky business. Doing so solely on the basis of those who wish to “see and be seen” seems foolish, as well.

  3. Submitted by THOMAS REYNOLDS on 04/04/2014 - 09:46 am.

    Survival of Minneapolis

    There are so many problems with Minneapolis surviving as a regional HUB and as Minnesota’s first city that Nicollet Mall by itself has little chance of saving it from itself. We are lucky to have Steve Cramer heading up the Downtown Council. His skills and demeanor will go a long way in helping Minneapolis achieve sustainability. The most critical problem facing Minneapolis is its Mayor and Council who fail to understand the needs of a core city in development.

    The development that is occurring and the density from the young professionals moving into the city require major corporations to continue to invest and locate their headquarters downtown. So far it is a miracle that the new stadium was funded which allowed a venue for new development such as the Ryan/Wellsfargo office residential complex. The restructuring of the Minnesota Orchestra, and the Light Rail Hubs near Target Field are building blocks. The rebuilding of block E and upgrades to Target Center as well as many other developments critical to survival. The city continues to fight many redevelopments that investors are willing to make, such as Kelly Doran’s revitalization effort in Dinkytown. Every one of these are critical for Minneapolis to hold onto its hopes of being a first class city and regional hub. By 2030 there will be little or no way to enter the city by a personal vehicle if parking and transportation initiatives are not reconfigured. Yet the city continues to fight the Southwest Light Rail initiative. There is much that needs to be done and I’m not sure Minneapolis is up to the task.

    • Submitted by Doug Trumm on 04/05/2014 - 03:16 pm.

      City survival has little to do with street beautification

      Minneapolis is a regional hub and has been for more than a century and this status doesn’t hinge on any one particular project’s success least of all Nicollet Mall (which I’d argue is largely a glorified beautification project unless we can alter the land use pattern on Nicollet and get significantly more businesses open on the street level.) The first rule of pedestrian planning is you need a destination for people to walk to and throwing flashy titles like “The Reading Room” and “Town Center” on a design doesn’t necessarily mean we are making Nicollet a world class street unless those changes are accompanied many more businesses on street level to draw people in.

      I’m glad we are getting pedestrian improvements on Nicollet, but I think it’s excessive and melodramatic to claim this project is Minneapolis salvation. We need to be thinking about improving every street and promoting more intensive land use everywhere. Getting tunnel vision about this one project or focusing only on massive projects overlooks all the smaller projects that do most of the real work of making our city a better place to live.

      • Submitted by Eric Saathoff on 04/05/2014 - 09:22 pm.

        Winners and Losers

        If you read Jeff Speck’s book Walkable Cities, or even watch some of his talks online, he mentions that there have to be winners and losers. His argument is that there is not enough money to make every street in the city walkable at once. If we try that it will dilute the effect – perhaps make it rather imperceptible. Instead, he argues we should focus on some key areas, especially downtowns, to make them shine and be truly walkable. These become the image and beacon of our city, even if other parts are yet to develop as well. People talk about it, people come to see it. An entire city can’t always be amazing, but a few really special places can be magnets and draw people in. I’m not saying Nicollet Mall is it, but we can’t do everything.

  4. Submitted by mark wallek on 04/04/2014 - 10:11 am.


    The title of this article is saturated with fictional drama.

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 04/04/2014 - 12:10 pm.

      Well put !! But the column’s content is filled with…

      ..delusions, too, not just the headline.

      Did any of these folks ever wonder why so many people avoid downtown like the plague ? Is it because Nicollet Mall hasn’t been prettified enough ? No, it’s because downtown Minneapolis is the most inconvenient place to be for about 500 miles in any direction.

      Their vision is of a downtown Xanadu. I would far rather see intensive public investment along the other major arteries of the city to make them more interesting and rewarding places, you know, like neighborhood jewels. Lake Street, Central Avenue, and dare I mention Hiawatha or West Broadway in the same vein ? As far as I’m concerned, spending more public money on downtown so downtown businesses can trap and prey upon even more people and dollars ? This idea can go straight to h*ll. We’ve poured massive public moneys into this downtown, and what has it got us ? People like the author and other “big development” folks who now pine for more money, telling us the whole city will go to crap if we don’t cough it up.

      The mayor wants to attract new people. OK, good idea. The people who the mayor would like to attract will come for convenient, attractive neighborhoods spread all over the city. They won’t come because of a Nicollet Mall.

      The author says “The diversity of people and experiences that cities offer also has become essential in an economy that increasingly depends on innovation and creativity.” THEN he leaps to his assumption that what all those people want is centered somehow in a downtown.

      If you’ve ever heard people extol the virtues of say, Seattle or Austin, TX or other cities where people prize the quality of life – have you ever heard that they moved there because of their downtowns ?

      • Submitted by jody rooney on 04/06/2014 - 10:32 am.

        Well said Mr. Titterud “community” may be

        be a moving concept depending on topic but it is mostly defined by it’s residents.

        The part of down town that is Nicollet mall is a place to conduct business. And some businesses still need daily contact as part of their model, and others may just need the corner office to impress or intimidate on occasion. A corporate hierarchy needs a playing field after all, and a place to confine people so you can dominate them. Do you think that’s the purpose of the new Senate Office Building?

        But I do agree this is probably not the most effective use of dollars for the city and this whole articles sounds elitist not to mention self serving. Hey I’ve got this design hammer the Nicollet mall must be a nail.

        Invest in the neighbor hoods make the “communities more viable” Let the business community define it’s own needs for the space. I absolutely can’t believe that someone is going to say I an not going to do business with Wells Fargo because I have to go to Minneapolis to see them and they are on Nicollet Mall.


  5. Submitted by Wayne Coppock on 04/07/2014 - 07:57 am.

    any redesign/rebuild of nicollet mall

    Should include a transit tunnel for mixed bus and rail service. Just repaving the surface isn’t going to change anything long term and the transit spine of the city is in desperate need of some infrastructure improvements. It’s currently faster to walk across downtown then to be on a bus traveling through it. With a transit tunnel we can speed up transit trips while making the surface into a pedestrian mall which really will have game-changing effects. Not to mention waiting for the bus or train in a tunnel when it’s minus forty or snowing would be far more pleasant and I’m sure attract a few more riders.

  6. Submitted by Sam Newberg on 04/07/2014 - 12:27 pm.

    I’m A “Critic”

    As a “critic” of the rebuilding of Nicollet Mall – – I want to clarify a couple things:

    First, I’m critical of redoing Nicollet Mall because I dispute the promises that a cosmetic change to the street itself will suddenly make it a better destination. We already know how to make it a destination – for evidence just attend the farmers market, Holidazzle, Piazza on the Mall and outdoor restaurant patios. People and programmed activity are needed, and can be done without touching the street.

    Second, physically, the street and its infrastructure may be aging so I’m not arguing against fixing that. And that won’t be cheap. I do feel that we should consider something a little more timeless. We’ve rebuilt Nicollet Mall twice already and each time it became dated and became politically expedient to redo it – here we are again. I think we need a more timeless street with paving materials that don’t date so easily.

    Third, as I’ve argued before, the attraction of on-street stuff like fire pits and tree groves only goes so far if there are other reasons to visit – coffee shops, restaurants, galleries, dry cleaners, gift shops, storefronts to attract people. We could do far more to make Nicollet attractive by simply adding more doors facing it.

    Just take a look at Larry Millet’s or other historic photos of Nicollet, pre-skyway and pre-suburban mall. It was a basic street lined with storefronts and as a result, activity. That physical setting would be a wonderful setting for “Minnesota’s Main Street” today, provided we didn’t build skyways and as we replaced buildings we provided the same number of retail spaces and doors facing Nicollet. We didn’t do that, and Nicollet has suffered as a result. So, redesigning Nicollet Mall will make it look better (probably), but don’t believe the promises that it will suddenly be transformed in to a world-class destination without changing some other things as well.

    • Submitted by Gregory Smith on 07/19/2014 - 02:29 pm.

      You’re Right

      Old photos of Nicollet show it with not only a lot more storefronts, but with storefronts in parts of the Mall that haven’t had storefronts in decades, not since it was still Nicollet Avenue and the Gateway District still existed in its old form. I don’t think eliminating the vast majority of the storefronts and ruining the actual walkway with a farmers’ market and countless private enterprise dinner tables has helped matters at all… fact the way it has been (way over) done seems ridiculous and designed to encourage loitering while forcing actual shoppers to the suburbs (where retail actually still exists)

  7. Submitted by ken nelson on 04/24/2014 - 06:14 pm.

    Nicollet Mall

    At least Minneapolis still HAS a downtown….it’s more than St Paul has. About all there IS down here now are damn banks and lunchtime cafes for downtown employees to eat in – no real STORES of any kind to browse in. Back in the ate 70s and into the 80s, it was a browsing Mecca and the skyways were overflowing with small specialty shops. Now, St Paul is like a ghost town at night because there’s nowhere to go. Absolutely shameful.

  8. Submitted by Gregory Smith on 07/19/2014 - 02:17 pm.

    What A Mess

    Let’s be honest. Nicollet Mall has been turned into an absolute joke. There is just way too much commercial activity and corporate presence jammed into Nicollet Mall to take it seriously as a “walkway”. Between Farmer’s Market on Thursday and the bars/restaurants like Brit’s paying pennies to their cronies at City Hall for the privilege of having public space stolen away for their countless intrusive dinner tables, there really isn’t anywhere to walk on Nicollet Mall. And with the 10, 11, 17, 18, 25 and probably other buses weaving their way through this jammed, narrow mass of humanity and commercialization, Nicollet Mal at any time is an unnecessarily dangerous proposition. First of all, let’s put Farmer’s Market somewhere else. THERE ISN’T ROOM FOR A FARMER’S MARKET ON Nicollet Mall. Secondly, make the restaurant owners pay real money to steal our sidewalks from us rather than the mere pittance they pay now. The cost to each restaurant to steal our sidewalk from us should be about $2.5 million annually per restaurant. If they can’t afford it, tough, times are hard. Let’s make Nicollet Mall a place where people can safely walk again. Let’s get rid of this overly corporatized nonsense that is passing for Nicollet Mall. Minnesotans, get over your arrogant pride and fix this goofy mess. Stop making corporations the center of everything. Start valuing human beings again. YOU’VE FORGOTTEN HOW TO.

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