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A mid-pandemic reality check for downtown Minneapolis’ future

With many workers wanting to continue some degree of teleworking, downtown needs to redefine itself; there is no going back to the way it was before.

Nicollet Mall, downtown Minneapolis
Nicollet Mall, downtown Minneapolis
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson

Starting in March 2020 and practically overnight, as much as 95% of downtown Minneapolis’ 216,000-person-strong workforce moved out of downtown and into home offices. My recent conversations with human resources department leaders at major downtown companies have affirmed their devotion to telework in ways that weren’t even fathomable prior to Gov. Tim Walz’s Emergency Executive Order to stay at home.

It’s time for a mid-pandemic reality check for downtown Minneapolis’ future.

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Telework has grown eightfold in the metro area in less than a year, according to Metropolitan Council data, and it shows no sign of reversing. Contrary to earlier fears of telework leading to failure, the international real estate firm Colliers found that productivity and creativity have benefited from remote work. In their global work-from-home survey of thousands of employees, Colliers found that 33% of workers would like to work from home four-plus days per week and another 37% want to telework two to three days per week. (Just imagine the potential post-pandemic telework experience with no kids underfoot!) Twin Cities employers reflect these trends, and the savvy ones are doubling down on telework – beefing up their telework policies and benefits and tailoring their office space not for loud, sterile cubes but for future in-person, post-pandemic camaraderie building.

This is the strongest signal we’ve seen to date that downtown Minneapolis needs to redefine itself; there is no going back to the way it was before.

Communities across the metro benefited last year because of telework. Traffic dropped dramatically to the point where you could hear the birds chirping, bottoming out at 50% below typical years and recovering to about 22% lower than typical volumes. The air not only felt crisper, it actually became cleaner. Levels of nitrogen dioxide, pollution predominantly caused by us driving our automobiles, dropped 20% for the period March through June 2020 as compared to 2019. Fine particulate levels were also down about 20% near major highways in Minneapolis. Biking and walking rates in the metro area went up 51% last spring as people flocked to the outdoors.

Becky Alper
Becky Alper
This is remarkable. Prior to the COVID pandemic, we had a hopping downtown clogged with traffic. That traffic brought with it invisible, deadly air pollution, fine particulate matter containing nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and other organic matter so tiny that they lodge deep in your lungs just by your breathing. These cars are also a major reason Minnesota missed critical targets for greenhouse gas emissions this year, with transportation holding steady as the state’s top emission sector.

Telework has the potential to remake our downtown for the better and indeed improve our lives. It has allowed us to dream about a life in which we don’t spend as much time on the daily commute grind, which averaged 54.2 minutes per day in 2018. Downtown’s residential market remains strong, with 50,000 residents who offer a growing customer base for retail businesses. Smaller office and retail footprints can usher in a renaissance of small businesses within a true downtown neighborhood community where people can walk and bike to their jobs and everyday needs.

Of course, telework doesn’t work for everyone. What has happened to the chopped salad bar chef who served downtown employees in the skyways? We must find meaningful ways to support these workers – universal health insurance, a higher minimum wage – but going back to the all-in office life as we knew it prior to the pandemic will only further perpetuate the preexisting inequities in our society. As white-collar teleworkers settle into their remote work routines, it’s easy to imagine a post-pandemic revitalization featuring new neighborhood coworking spaces, restaurants, and coffee shops as teleworkers seek and build work-supportive businesses in their local communities.

As we look to the future of downtown, we can’t go back to how it was before – clogged streets, stressed office workers, unacceptable levels of air pollution. We need a new vision that recognizes that telework is here to stay. We can either watch from the sidelines or embrace telework and its unintended beautiful consequences as we remake downtown Minneapolis for the better.

Becky Alper, a resident of the Seward neighborhood, is outreach director for Move Minneapolis.

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