Downtown Minneapolis is a retail underachiever: Can these ideas bring shoppers back?

Block E Borders
MinnPost photo by John Noltner
Borders Books is the latest among national retailers to leave downtown Minneapolis. To reverse this trend, some experts argue for higher standards for public spaces — like hauling away piles of dirty snow in the winter.

When Nordstrom recently confirmed the selection of Ridgedale for its second Twin Cities store — to open in 2011 — and no one in downtown Minneapolis bothered to blink, well, that was just another reminder of how far down the shopping chain Nicollet Mall has fallen, and how badly downtown’s shopping scene needs a shot of adrenaline.

In the not-so-distant past, Nordstrom’s snub would have caused a furor. But, given the tectonic shifts in retail (online shopping, suburban lifestyle centers, etc.), downtown Minneapolis has grown accustomed — perhaps too accustomed — to playing a diminished role in the metro shopping mix.

Fifteen years ago, downtown was the Upper Midwest’s prime shopping destination. It remains a bit healthier than the retail cores of most major cities. But it long ago lost its dominant role to the Mall of America and other suburban venues, and it shows signs of slouching further toward the kind of eerie retail-free zone that’s increasingly common in American downtowns. (St. Paul lost the bulk of its downtown retail decades ago.) Polo, Crate & Barrel and now Borders Books and Williams-Sonoma are the latest national retailers to depart Minneapolis, explaining that downtown sales don’t keep up with suburban counterparts, a differential magnified by a tough economy.

Indeed, national figures, released on Thursday showed disappointing sales in December, with apparel shops and department stores taking the biggest hit. Given recent trends, downtown stores, both here and across the country, may have suffered disproportionately, further diminishing expectations.

When Apple Computer, perhaps the hottest retail commodity of the moment, recently opened 178 stores nationwide, it located only six of them in big-city downtowns — three in New York and one each in Chicago, San Francisco and Portland, Ore. (MOA, Southdale, Ridgedale and Rosedale landed the four Twin Cities spots).

‘Some positive movement’
The long term isn’t entirely bleak, however, for downtowns that maintain a healthy office and residential core. Creative retailers continue to seek opportunities in those kinds of downtowns, and Minneapolis, with 160,000 employees and 30,000 residents, has the demographic profile to overcome its current status as a shopping underachiever, according to retail experts.

“There’s some positive movement,” said Jim McComb, president of Minneapolis-based McComb Group retail consultants. The recent return of Brooks Brothers and the addition of Len Druskin are good signs, he said. So is the Downtown Council’s new emphasis on retail strategy and recruitment. “Downtown needs to think harder about how it fits into the broader retail landscape,” he said.

Downtown, he said, has many of the ingredients of a budding “lifestyle center,” the magic retail formula of the moment. It has, for example, a nearby affluent population and a sprinkling of the usual “lifestyle” cast members (Talbot’s, Ann Taylor, Banana Republic, Nieman-Marcus, Macy etc.) It also has the kinds of cultural attractions and restaurants to mix with potential shopping success. What it lacks is good design, he said.

What McComb and others mean by lack of design is that city government and the private sector appear to have low standards on public spaces, like sidewalks, and on the architectural details of storefronts. In winter, for example, no one bothers to haul away the piles of dirty snow that bury the parking meters on most downtown streets. No one demands higher quality on the building facades of City Center and other prominent spaces. No one, either public or private, has stepped forward to demand that downtown shopping streets and other public spaces be “drop-dead beautiful,” as in Chicago, Boston or in other successful urban shopping experiences. And no one has yet convinced retailers to turn their stores “inside-out” to embrace Nicollet Mall rather than turning their backs to it. These and other “configuration” problems (including the much-discussed skyway dilemma) are part of what makes downtown a retail underachiever.

“We aren’t getting the kind of design that make people want to linger,” said McComb, who added that parking prices are also far above those in comparable urban shopping districts.

Midge McCauley, a retail consultant at Los Angeles-based Economics Research Associates, said that downtown “could support more retail than it now has” if only it could overcome design constraints. McCauley’s recent report on Minneapolis forms the heart of the Downtown Council’s new retail strategy and provides the basis for council president Sam Grabarski’s prediction that “five years from now you won’t recognize downtown.”

Whether or not auto traffic turns Nicollet Mall back into Nicollet Avenue (one of her suggestions), there will be an active attempt to recruit more stores. The council has hired Ann Wimmer, formerly of Gabberts and Nordstrom, as its recruiter. In a recent interview, Wimmer outlined her thinking.

“We should be more energetic, more varying and more than we are,” she said, adding that downtown must set itself apart not only from the suburban malls but from the successful neighborhood nodes, like Grand Avenue and 50th and France.

SoHo flavor to Hennepin Avenue
Shopping, she said, has become “experience driven.” People shop where they think they’ll have the least chance of failing to find what they want — and they shop to make a statement about themselves. Her goal is a blend of price points and an eclectic mix of stores, many of which you wouldn’t find in a mall.

Her first aim is to give Hennepin Avenue a bit of a SoHo flavor — before the downtown Manhattan district went upscale and mainstream. That means edgy art galleries (perhaps with studio space), unique clothing and home furnishings, interspaced with the theaters, bars and restaurants already there. The hope is to create a critical mass of positive on-street activity that would give theater-goers the courage to actually stroll down the street to look for interesting shops rather than making a nervous bee-line to their cars or tour buses.

Wimmer’s second aim is to fill in Nicollet’s blank spots with more lifestyle-type shopping attractions. She declined to mention names but presumably she’s talking about Patagonia, Pottery Barn, Z gallerie, White House/Black Market and other such favorites, as well as out-of-market finds like Escada, Eileen Fisher, and Bailey Banks & Biddle. But what’s really new in shopping, she said, is that people will buy a $400 jacket to wear with a $10 t-shirt. Nicollet should have both kinds of stores, she said, making it not quite the quintessential “lifestyle” shopping experience but something more “authentic” and tuned to “Minnesota sensibilities.”

A third aim is to remake Seventh, Eighth and other connecting streets into attractive walkways to encourage people to shop both on Nicollet and Hennepin. Meanwhile, street-level businesses catering to transit customers might be attractive for Marquette and Second Avenues, which will become transit spines. As presented in a new report from the urban market consultants, ZHA Inc, of Annapolis, Md., there’s also retail potential surrounding proposed supermarkets at each end of Hennepin Avenue.

Unique stores, prestigious niches
The study portrays downtown as under-retailed, and expects growth to match the eight to 12 new major office buildings projected for downtown over the next 12 years. But it cautions that downtown is unlikely to draw the ultra high-end stores that dot Chicago’s North Michigan Avenue, San Francisco’s Union Square or Boston’s Newbury Street. Even with its condo growth, downtown Minneapolis simply lacks the neighborhood buying power to support prestigious stores. “High-income suburban neighborhoods … are more likely to contain the area’s most prestigious retail locations,” it says.

A better strategy — and the one Wimmer embraces — is to search for creative retailers unlikely to locate in suburbia, retailers that can create an edgy buzz. “The nation’s most successful downtown retail districts have been able to provide this with unique stores, typically serving limited but prestigious niches — not found in suburban malls,” the report says.

The city’s current hotel boom offers further encouragement, Wimmer says. When a hotel comes in, others decide they want to be in the market, too. The same goes for retail, she says. If one or two cutting-edge stores make the leap, others will follow. She’s not mentioning names — Nordstrom “would be nice,” she said with a chuckle — but she is discussing new formats like the “manutailoring” (manufacturer to showroom, no middle man) offered by H.D. Buttercup, the upscale Los Angeles furniture mart, among others.

The bottom line is that downtown Minneapolis will not reclaim its former regional retail status. But it can regain its full potential as an eclectic and innovative shopping destination for downtown visitors, workers and residents. A central challenge will be to convince two generations that have never thought of downtown as a retail option. A bigger challenge is to transform its inward, 1970s-era design into a more attractive, welcoming experience. Downtown retains its status as the region’s premier office district. It has undergone a stunning renewal of its cultural infrastructure. And, despite the current lull, it has added impressively to its residential population. Now, its task is to go shopping for more shopping.

Steve Berg, a former Washington Bureau reporter, national correspondent and editorial writer for the Star Tribune, reports on urban design, transportation and national politics. He can be reached at sberg [at] minnpost [dot] com.

Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Douglas Fredlund on 01/11/2008 - 11:56 am.

    When I was a child, I was raised to be a downtown shopper. While I still enjoy shopping in the city, the biggest obstacle to my shopping downtown is the cost of parking. Stated simply, I will not pay to look, and I will not purchase unless I can see what I am buying. All the parking vouchers for a purchase in the world will not change that.

    While all the suggestions from the experts provide a piece of the puzzle, cost and availability of parking needs to be elevated on their list of “stoppers” to retail vitality.

  2. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/12/2008 - 05:57 pm.

    I’ve traveled all over the world, and to many cities in the US, and people in MN just don’t get one thing- Public transportation. Every vital city that I’ve ever been to has extensive, easy to use, and inexpensive public transport into and within the city. San Francisco has cool old cable cars and street cars as well as an extensive bus and ferry system.

    Boston has commuter trains and subways. Amsterdam has really cool trolly’s. London- subways and double decker buses that serve as cheap tour buses if you get on the correct route. When people come to a city to visit, they don’t want to drive in traffic on unfamiliar streets, or pay for taxis to get everywhere. And people who live in and near cities don’t want to drive in traffic and live in constant search of parking spots.

    What we need in the twin cities is an extensive, easy to use, and inexpensive public transport system that get people downtown, and around downtown. Then people will go there, and shop and hang out. We keep building these friggen stadiums and arena’s downtown so traffic is ridiculous and parking on “event” nights is outragiously expensive- and there is no alternative. The idea of putting auto traffic back on the mall is simply insane. If you want retail downtown to succeed, you need to get people down there and around there in the first place.

  3. Submitted by John Olson on 01/13/2008 - 07:08 am.

    I also recall the childhood wonders of visiting Dayton’s in downtown Minneapolis and browsing Nicollet Mall with my parents. Today?

    Fugettaboutit.

    Doug and Paul have hit on two of the major disincentives for local shoppers to go downtown. I’ll add a third: downtown is a commute–not a destination. Unless you are younger and into the club scene, or you live there, downtown retail is not worth the trouble, expense or hassle.

    If you travel to the Dome for a game, you do not necessarily even have to go into the core of downtown. If you are coming from the south, chances are good that many will stop at Fort Snelling or the Mall of America and take light rail right to the Dome.

    One suggestion: maybe the downtown folks would consider a short branch off the existing light-rail that goes tot he Convention Center. That would be a plus and should not cost a fortune.

    Macy’s has all of the character and charm of a gelatin capsule, whether it is MOA, Southdale or downtown St. Paul. It has been years since I last stepped inside the downtown Minneapolis Macy’s. In fact, last time, it was still a Marshall Field’s. I am not in a hurry to go there anymore since I am presuming that the same cookie-cutter approach is used downtown that is used in the malls.

    I know the folks who live downtown Minneapolis may feel differently about this, and I hope for their sake that the leadership in Minneapolis figures it out before downtown Minneapolis ends up looking more like downtown St. Paul.

  4. Submitted by Susan Lesch on 01/14/2008 - 09:05 am.

    Yes, transportation incentives would help but I would start with something simple and inexpensive like bus schedules at every Nicollet Mall stop (they are only in the shelters now?) rather than suggest a new light rail line. Then I would add a bus stop at the new Central Public Library (who forgot that?). Then try Open on Sunday. Yesterday in a six block walk I found about three stores open on the mall–Barnes & Noble, Macy’s and Target. I saw a customer walk away from Neiman Marcus (closed) and Walgreen’s (closed) for starters. Who needs more stores if they aren’t open?

  5. Submitted by Scott Wolf on 01/19/2008 - 02:20 pm.

    If there was very convenient and FREE parking downtown it would bring in more people and the congestion would be LESS because drivers would spend less time driving around and around LOOKING for a good spot. As a city dweller I hear that all the time from suburbanites and even my urban warrior friends. I admit when I go to a film it’s more convenient to go to Southdale or St Louis park than to Block E where you have to pay for parking and endure higher ticket prices.

  6. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 02/12/2008 - 04:58 pm.

    I like going downtown, for the most part, public transit advocate that I am. However, having lived in and visited several other American cities, I’d like to comment on the weaknesses of Minneapolis’ downtown.

    1) Too many parking lots. They break up the continuity of the cityscape and are hot in the summer, windswept in the winter, and ugly all year around. In Portland, all parking ramps have to have retail or office space on the first floor, and there are no surface lots in the central part of downtown.

    2) Insufficient public transit: I harp on this every chance I get, but Metro Transit is mediocre on a good day. Judging from the system map, it looks as if the planners just took the outlines of the old streetcar system and slapped random appendages on it, mostly commuter lines that run only during rush hour. A good transit system would have buses running the full length of every arterial street a minimum of every 15 minutes, seven days a week, and would get rid of all those confusing letter designations on what are really different routes (e.g. the 6E and 6B, formerly the 28 and the 6).

    3) Too many clones of shopping mall chains and too few distinctive stores.

    4) Not enough services that residents of downtown need. Instead of trying to attract shoppers with clones of the shopping mall stores, emphasize businesses that the growing number of downtown residents need: not only groceries and drugstores but also hair salons, dry cleaners, hardware stores, daycare centers (useful for commuters, too), health and dental clinics, bakeries, pet supply stores, and others, particularly located in the area west of Hennepin where all the condos and townhouses have been built.

    5) Allowing private cars back on the Nicollet Mall would be a mistake, but the one-way streets are confusing and pointless. It’s not as if there isn’t room for two-way traffic on downtown streets. I usually take the bus downtown, but on occasion, I have to drive through downtown to get somewhere, and it took several tries to figure out a route that would have me ending up where I wanted to be.

    6) The downtown planners ought to go visit downtowns that work. Portland and San Francisco come to mind.

  7. Submitted by Bob D. on 02/22/2008 - 03:34 pm.

    I live and work downtown and I rarely venture out to “Shop” downtown. There simply isn’t a critical mass of stores that attract me to make it fun or fruitful. In the last year I have shopped on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, Newbury Street in Boston and numerous locations in New York. I’ve also been fortunate to experience the dynamic shopping in Vienna (an eclectic mix of shopping spread over dozens of blocks of pedestrian-only streets), as well as Dublin, Paris and Seattle. As much as people like to cite the lack or cost of parking as a deterrent I think the parking is a non-issue. I suspect people would flock downtown if there was a reason to do so. Good transit will only help that. But the stores have to be there in order to entice the shoppers. Anne Wimmer has a decent enough idea about attracting retailers and businesses that create an energy that is different than the Dales and other suburban “lifestyle centers.” But I think the idea of starting with Hennepin Ave is misguided. In most major cities that have a defined retail center, there is an address (Fifth Avenue, Michigan Ave, Rodeo Drive etc) that is recognizable as a retail address. Minneapolis has Nicollet Mall; St. Paul has Grand Avenue. Why spend your initial energy trying to draw retail to Hennepin for the purpose of entertaining people pre- or post-theater when you have a retail strip one block away gasping for life? Why not focus on strengthening the retail mix on Nicollet and then work on building a bridge to the entertainment center of the city. Start with a strong base and work out from there. The theaters have an energy all their own and definitely add a dimension to the life of the city. So let it be what it wants to be: entertainment. The retail is the problem area so address the deficiencies head on. If Nicollet gets a shot in the arm then you’ll have complimentary energies emerging along (mostly) parallel avenues. Then, as Ms. Wimmer accurately points out, others will follow (with a little encouragement) to create the connection. I don’t think we can count on any major department stores moving in since most are struggling to stay afloat (Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus excepted). Nor can we count on home furnishings or home related retailers filling in the void, at least not national brands. William Sonoma and Crate & Barrel closed downtown not because the venue wasn’t good but rather because the companies are struggling to meet revenue expectations as a result of too few household dollars being spent on furnishings in an era of economic belt-tightening. So don’t hold your breath waiting for Pottery Barn to open up anytime soon. Their parent company has shut down their Michigan Avenue store in Chicago because of financial difficulties. But while the national brands struggle to meet forecasts, we may have the opportunity to enter into a new era of strong independent retailing. And if that independent retailing is also locally owned and operated then you’ll have a dynamic that will be a welcome alternative to the suburban shopping mall based view of the world. I think the relocation of J.B. Hudson to a prominent and beautiful space on the Mall is a very positive occurrence. I’m not so jazzed up about Target Commercial Interiors taking over Crate & Barrel’s space next door but I guess it’s (slightly) better than another empty storefront (why Target Commercial isn’t occupying the dead retail space in their company headquarters building on 11th and Harmon is beyond me).Regardless, I’d love to see Nicollet re-emerge as THE Place to shop in the twin Cities; A place where locals and visitors alike would shop when they are looking for something just a little bit different. I hope Ms. Wimmer can get something started. But it may take a large gesture to get it going. If the city really wants Nordstrom downtown (or another retailer with that drawing power) they will need to make it impossible for the folks in Seattle who make those decisions to say no. It may mean free rent and/or cash to build their space but if Ms. Wimmer is correct in her assumption that good retail draws other good retail to it…then we may need to dig into our collective pockets to get the engine started. There’s no reason to surrender to the MOA. Instead do something unique.

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