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No, really (say Minneapolis officials): The new Nicollet Mall is on track to be finished by November

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
One of the banners designed by the Gabriel deGrood Bendt agency that have been hung around the project's edges to try to convince pedestrians that the long project is reaching an end.

Just don’t say “substantially complete.”

In March, when the city and the Minneapolis Downtown Council kicked off a promotional campaign aimed at easing concerns over the Nicollet Mall redo, they promised that the two-year, $50 million construction project would be “substantially complete” by November.

The result, not surprisingly, was that media and project critics focused more on the “substantially” part than the “complete” part.

Was the city fudging on a promise to have the project finished for Christmas shopping? Would restaurants and retailers face even more disruptions than they had already lived through?

No matter how project leaders responded — that things were on schedule and that the average pedestrian wouldn’t notice the few trees and plantings that wouldn’t be in place until the spring of 2018 — the message got muddled. Even after Mayor Betsy Hodges had to repeat (over and over) that the third iteration of Nicollet Mall was on time and on budget and would be worth the time and money, a lot of people spent a lot of time discussing the meaning of “substantially.”

So when the city’s engineering staff and its arts administrator gave another tour of the project Tuesday, the only time that the provocative phrase was mentioned was when members of the news media asked about it.

Don Elwood, the director of transportation, engineering, and design for the Minneapolis Public Works Department, has been working on the project for four-plus years. When he heard the question Tuesday about whether the project would be complete, substantially complete or not complete by the holidays, he said: “I’ve been in this business a long time. It will be complete.”

Don Elwood, director of transportation
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Don Elwood, director of transportation, engineering and design, being interviewed during Tuesday’s walk-through of the project.

Surface work mostly completed

Later, he explained that “complete” means different things for different players. For residents using the mall, it will look and feel complete. But for an engineer like himself, it could take a little longer — until he sees all the tree wells filled and the landscaping finalized. In fact, he’ll continue on the project for two more years, even after the ribbon is cut in mid-fall through a warranty period for contractors that assures work is done right.

During the walk-through Tuesday, however, Elwood noted that the work on the surface of Nicollet Mall, is mostly done: the etched pavings; the curbs and elevated intersections; the traffic lanes; the intersections at 3rd, 6th, 7th and 9th streets; and the planting of more than 100 of a planned 240 trees. (The intersections at 4th, 8th and 10th streets will be finished by Labor Day.)

A view of Nicollet Mall from a skyway bridge.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
A view of Nicollet Mall from a skyway bridge.

Another surface element included in the new design: sidewalk icons that mark building fronts that provide access to skyways. It is an effort at “wayfinding” that became a priority after an earlier design element — a set of stairways from the mall to the skyways — was nixed by building owners.

Some of the artworks that were removed — including the refurbished Sculpture Clock, which was part of the first iteration of Nicollet Mall — will soon be reinstalled. The light poles that will carry both pedestrian and traffic lighting will come near the end, allowing for the unsightly temporary light poles and power lines to be carted away.

‘A different mall’

The design for the new Nicollet, by James Corner Field Operations of New York, divides the mall into sections known as the Woods to the south, Nicollet Center and the Groves. “Each block is tied together, but each has its own unique character,” Elwood said.

The construction work is now concentrating on vertical elements — i.e. things that stick up out of the ground — that are features of what’s being called the Light Walk and the Art Walk. The Light Walk includes metal canopies that pedestrians can walk under and that vendors might use during farmers markets, while the Light Walk will support mirrors and LED lights that can change color or respond to music.

Sidewalk inlays attempt to direct pedestrians to skyway entrances.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Sidewalk inlays attempt to direct pedestrians to skyway entrances.

On Tuesday, a large work by Ned Kahn, “Prairie Tree,” was being installed with the help of a crane. Kahn also did the Wave Wall on the west wall of the parking ramp next to Target Field Plaza, and the new piece has similar metal pieces that will catch wind and light. It is one of three new artworks commissioned with the project’s $1 million art budget.

“It’s a different mall, and I think that will begin to show as the vertical elements are installed,” Elwood said.

When will it end?

This third version of Nicollet Mall has been plagued by complaints, of course — chief among them that it has taken too long and that it has cost too many businesses customers, and it has already become an issue in the 2017 mayoral campaign.

The initial work, started in 2015, was mostly on utility lines below the surface, and the project only moved to the hardscape and landscape phases earlier this year. Because the construction plan included two winters, the city staff and contractors tried to schedule the work so as to be the least disruptive to businesses.

Work crews are installing "Prairie Tree" by artist Ned Kahn
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Work crews are installing “Prairie Tree” by artist Ned Kahn, one of three new artworks commissioned for the project.

But the sense that the project is only plodding along persists. When city Public Arts Administrator Mary Altman was showing renderings of “Prairie Tree,” a man riding by stopped to ask what was going on. When told the city was talking about when it would be finished, he guessed the answer.

“Four years?” he said.

November, he was told.

He seemed unconvinced.

Elwood has heard all the complaints, but he reiterates that the project was a 12-block, building-front-to-building-front rebuild with 10 intersections that had to remain open; with dozens of businesses that had to maintain access throughout the construction process. “That’s a lot of people coming through this job site every day,” he said. “At the end of the day, we were able to keep everyone open all the time.”

Supports for what project designers have dubbed the Light Walk
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Supports for what project designers have dubbed the Light Walk will hold angled mirrors and LED lights that can change color and react to music.

The project was funded by a $21.5 million 2014 state bonding bill, $3.5 million from the city of Minneapolis and $25 million in special assessments from property owners downtown. Ongoing maintenance and programming will be paid for by the Downtown Improvement District, which raises money from assessments on building owners.

This is the third version of the mall, for which James Corner Field won the 2014 design competition. The first version of Nicollet Mall was completed in 1967 and designed by Lawrence Halprin and Associates of San Francisco, while the second was unveiled in 1990 with a design by BRW Architects.

Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by Gary Cohen on 08/09/2017 - 10:26 am.

    Nicollet Mall

    One of the biggest “problems” in this whole project has been lack of clear communications. For example, year 1 work was mainly underground, so folks thought nothing was happening. How hard would it have been to do the same PR they are doing “now” to tout it’s almost done to indicate in year 1 “we’re working where you can’t see us, but it’s important we do this underground work now” as the first steps. I still find it hard to believe this had to take 3 years. I don’t know how any of those small businesses along the Mall have survived all this mess. As a former Minneapolis resident, it seems to me it’s just one more indication of the overall problems with the city of Minneapolis that continues to drive businesses away.

  2. Submitted by David Thornton on 08/09/2017 - 11:55 am.

    Nic Mall

    What shopping?

  3. Submitted by Peggy Reinhardt on 08/09/2017 - 12:41 pm.

    Metro Transit and Nicollet Mall update

    I’ve endured years of bus route changes that keep me and other riders away from Nicollet Mall shopping. As I zigzag my way along the mall now, I’m concerned about bus routes again. I’d like to know if and when buses will be back. And will they fit side-by-side along the new mall traffic lanes?

    I also wish that retailers like Target would offer Metro Transit bus tokens in the same way free parking is offered when car drivers purchase xx dollars of merchandise.

    • Submitted by Julie Barton on 08/09/2017 - 01:15 pm.

      bus/cycling on Nic Mall

      I think you should be concerned. I work on Nic Mall, and as it’s been closed I’ve been forced to use alternate streets for my bike commute – streets that have also been narrowed to one lane from 3 lanes plus bike lane because of the construction.

      I look forward to being able to take Nicollet again.

      But as I look down at the street from my building, it looks significantly narrower than before. As in: it looks like two buses would have trouble passing each other on it.

  4. Submitted by Paul Rider on 08/09/2017 - 12:56 pm.


    Too bad it will not be pedestrian only, as in other, more cosmopolitan, cities. I fear that buses making their way through the mall will keep us from being the kind of destination city we want.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 08/09/2017 - 02:47 pm.


      Making it pedestrian only would have been fantastic. Definite lack of vision here.

    • Submitted by Dionna Lange on 08/10/2017 - 06:42 am.

      Cosmopolitan . . . ??

      OMG . . . don’t use that word “cosmopolitan”! After the Miller-Acosta thingee it has the kiss of death.

      I truly doubt if Minneapolis will EVER be cosmopolitan.

      It’s a nanny culture an more given to cosmetics than any genuine sophistication Perhaps in time as the emotionally constiipated scandahoovian mentality diminishes, the arts and academic communities gains more influence, ethnic groups increase in political power. control of the criminal element is restored, and transplants from truly cosmopolitan cities gain numbers, it may indeed become more than a pretentious, insipid little town. Perhaps dumping Bike-Lane Betsy and the Council this election may improve things.

  5. Submitted by Carrie Preston on 08/09/2017 - 02:09 pm.

    How about safety?

    Minneapolis still has a problem. It just does not feel safe to us to go downtown for a meal anymore. And sorry, but Nic. Mall is a ghost town after 6pm. One problem is (and I see this regularly) at the corner of 4th and Nicollet. There are a group of “ladies” that gather on that corner being picked up and dropped off by a limo. I see this limo (and an accompanying town car) driving all over the streets of downtown. Is no one else noticing this? Construction in that area helped a bit but they are now back in their regular spot.

    At Whole Foods, one of these limos was curbside. The “lady” got out and told the driver she had to get a quick bite because she was “just starting her night”. Maybe this working gal isn’t going to bother us but I am uncomfortable with what it attracts to downtown.

    Compared to other cities, Minneapolis has a relatively small downtown. Can we really not make it feel safer?

    • Submitted by Mike Davidson on 08/10/2017 - 12:28 pm.

      Not Dead

      Nicollet Mall is most definitely not dead after 6pm. I live downtown and I walk the mall every evening on my way home. When it’s sunny out there are tables full of patrons on the expanded sidewalk seating areas in front of Barrio, Randles, the News Room, Brit’s Pub, and the Caribou/Bagel place. Also, Whole Foods is on Hennepin, not Nicollet Mall.

  6. Submitted by jim hughes on 08/09/2017 - 03:55 pm.

    the schedule doesn’t really matter

    I’ve never doubted that it was more or less on schedule, despite the lack of PR. What I doubt is that it will seem worthwhile in the end. It’s still a bus route, not a pedestrian mall like it was supposed to be. You’ll still have to dodge buses as they roar by. All the obnoxious panhandlers, wingnut proselytizers and trash-talking losers will be back, probably joined by new ones. What’s going to feel different? Am I just a pessimistic crank with no “vision”?

    • Submitted by Lee McCullough on 08/21/2017 - 03:41 pm.

      Nic Mall

      The saying goes, “You can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear”. Unwashed panhandlers with crumpled signs begging money and beer, zealots of one thing and another exhorting their own personal crusades do little to create the impression of a vibrant, progressive city.

  7. Submitted by Kim Munholland on 08/09/2017 - 03:40 pm.

    Nicollet mall

    The whole project has been a disaster. Downtown has become more dangerous–one comment was “a ghost town”. Only if you fear being made a ghost by the number of knife attacks, which our police force seems unable to control. How many businesses have gone, restaurants (Vincent’s) closed? The other evening a woman was attacked and robbed in the entrance to our condo. Was it necessary to take four years? LaSalle has been torn up three times in three years. We moved downtown in 1999. There were shops, restaurants, easy access to entertainment (not dangerous either). All of that is gone thanks to the Nicollet Mall project that will benefit whom? Time for us to find a more welcoming and safer place of residence.

  8. Submitted by Britter Ritter on 08/11/2017 - 12:30 am.


    It looks like it will be as hideous as before. Here’s a radical notion: open it back up to traffic.

  9. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 08/11/2017 - 07:58 am.

    We need…

    A new standard for skyways. They must have a means to reach street level within their length and they must have an open air provision for warm weather days. Such as a big, conestoga wagon hooped roof that pulls back leaving all open to the sky and spiral staircases at each end.

  10. Submitted by Mike Davidson on 08/11/2017 - 10:50 pm.

    It’s Coming Together

    I live in Stevens Square and walk Nicollet Mall daily on my way either to or from work, sometimes both ways. The south end of the mall to the 900-800 Block is mostly done and it’s nice to see things beginning to return to normal. The expanded sidewalks are great for the restaurants and bars that offer outdoor seating. The newly added trees and green spaces are a welcome addition. For those that mainly traverse the north end of the mall I can understand why it may seem like the end is not in sight

    Given the scope of the work I don’t think it could have been done any faster, if it’s to be done right, however the project has been a public relations nightmare. The mall closed to bus traffic in 2015, yet we didn’t see any “tangible” surface improvements until early 2017. I realize the majority of 2016 was spent on improvements beneath the streets, but periodic updates from the city on what those updates would have, in my opinion, gone a long way in easing frustrations. We’ve lost Macy’s, Barnes & Noble, and Ichiban during construction, and while none of those losses were construction-related, it’s hard to shake that perception. Nordstrom Rack is coming to the old Gap location, there’s a brewery (I hear) going into the lower level of Nic on 5th, and I’m curious to see what will become of the first and second levels of the Macy’s building. If we can get a good anchor (something flashy and cosmopolitan, yet with broad appeal) restaurant in the old Ichiban location we should be solid.

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