Blame it on the skyways

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Downtown Council consultant recommends focusing retail on streets. The skyway system is hurting retailers, according to a consultant that analyzed Downtown stores.

“Cities get their life from their streets,” said Midge McCauley, a principal of Economics Research Associates. “When you take people off the streets, that dilutes the activity.”

The Minneapolis Downtown Council, a group that advocates for the business community, hired Economics Research Associates this year to conduct a retail demand analysis of Downtown. The Los Angeles-based company got its start in 1958 by developing a financing package for
Disneyland, and the firm has since completed retail analyses for downtown areas in St. Louis and Austin.

McCauley said Minneapolis’ notoriously cold weather should not be a deterrent for street-level retail. People walk the streets in New York and Chicago in January, where the average annual temperatures are 55 degrees and 48 degrees, respectively — Minneapolis’ average is 45 degrees.

McCauley said hidden retail hasn’t worked well for other Downtown areas, such as the skyways of Des Moines and the tunnels of Crystal City in Virginia. She said Chicago has four vertical malls, one of which is very successful, but 11,000 residents live within a quarter mile of Chicago’s downtown. In contrast, Minneapolis has 500 people living within a quarter mile of the Downtown core.

The skyway layout can be especially confusing for visitors, who make up an important segment of Downtown’s retail base and stay here nearly four nights on average.

McCauley said she would like to see buildings turned inside out, with individualized storefronts for each retailer.

Downtown Council President Sam Grabarski said access is a key aspect of making insular buildings more open — a number of stores have actually locked their street-level doors, he said.

Cars on Nicollet Mall?

Another major retail recommendation is to divert buses from Nicollet Mall and allow cars to drive there instead. Cars were taken off Nicollet when the mall was constructed in the 1960s, but McCauley said traffic is an important part of an active Downtown.

“After 5:00 at night that becomes a security issue,” she said.

She said bus shelters, however, are not a great asset to a retail-lined street because they block sight lines and force people to walk through crowds to reach entryways.

The Downtown transportation plan recently adopted by the city of Minneapolis would take up some of those recommendations. The plan will move 40 percent of Nicollet Mall’s buses over to adjacent streets during rush hour and will convert Hennepin Avenue into a two-way street with slower traffic.

Grabarski said pedestrian malls are not as beneficial for retail as they might seem. The pedestrian mall on State Street in Chicago, he noted, was later reopened to traffic. He said that although people will stroll for miles through the Mall of America, they are far less likely to hike a great distance on Nicollet Mall.

Grabarski said a study conducted several years ago found that the average “cruising” time for a Downtown worker was a round trip that amounted to a half-mile walk.

Consequently, members of the Downtown Council want to focus recruitment efforts around Nicollet Mall and Hennepin Avenue, rather than expand efforts to the farther flung sports facilities.

McCauley said Downtown has lost a lot of retailers over its history, but not because there is no market to support them.

She said Downtown has a relatively high number of workers (160,000) and an impressive number of residents. The challenge, she said, is that suburban residents tend to shop for personal care services closer to home, and Downtown residents still need to drive or take the bus to shop in the Downtown core. Of the estimated 32,000 people who live Downtown, just 7,500 are close enough to walk to the
Central Business District, McCauley said.

She recommended building more homes above existing Downtown buildings.

What we need

“We need more home furnishings and more fashion,” McCauley said.

A newly hired retail recruiter’s first order of business for the Downtown Council is to draw retailers to a new “Hennepin Avenue Arts District.”

The Arts District vision is to attract designer studios, vintage shops, art galleries and home decorating businesses to Hennepin. McCauley said people will feel more comfortable on Hennepin if there are more stores on the street.

McCauley also recommended using revenue from a proposed business improvement district to enhance the streets that connect Hennepin and Nicollet Mall. Streets between 6th and 9th need to be more pedestrian-friendly so people feel comfortable walking down them after the skyways close, she said.

McCauley said it could take a couple of years before her strategies impact the market, but she said Downtown should look very different five years from now.

“You do have a bright future,” McCauley said. “But it won’t be bright without a lot of hard work.”

Reach Michelle Bruch at 436-4372 or mbruch@mnpubs.com.