A final flourish for Nicollet Mall? Don’t believe it

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Friday’s Star Tribune commentary by Mayor Hodges and Steve Cramer is misguided at best, and at worst terribly delusional. Don’t believe them when they say $50 million spent on rebuilding Nicollet Mall will provide “downtown that final flourish.” First of all, saying that anything will provide a “final flourish” implies that a city can be somehow complete. That’s impossible. A city cannot be final unless it disappears entirely. Second, as I’ve stated before, great cities have three things: streets that are attractive to walk on, buildings that are nice to walk past and/or in, and people walking on those streets and using those doors. That’s all you really need for healthy urban activity and vibrancy that is timeless. But you cannot have it without these things, and simply rebuilding Nicollet Mall in hopes it alone can complete downtown is foolish.

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We’ve tinkered with Nicollet Mall (and frankly, the rest of our city) for too long. I’ve tried to explain that Nicollet Mall suffers from a lack of all three of these elements; a skyway system that pulls people (vibrancy) off the street, a lack of pedestrian-friendly buildings with doors that face Nicollet, and it is in disrepair. Rebuilding it will solve this final ill, but cannot address the other two by itself. In fact, we could address the other two without rebuilding the street and make Nicollet Mall a much better place, but let’s not lead ourselves to believe that rebuilding Nicollet Mall will automatically make it a ”prominent symbol” and “world-class destination.”

With all due respect to James Corner Field Operations, a firm with tremendous talent (did you know they designed the High Line in New York!?), and who I’ve heard has been really good to work with so far, but they cannot alone deliver what we want. We can rebuild Nicollet, and James Corner Field Operations will likely deliver a very nice product, but the promises made by our leaders will still be unaddressed.

Hodges and Cramer cite Newbury Street, Beale Street and Michigan Avenue as magnets for their respective cities that Minneapolis has yet to replicate. Last time I walked down any of those streets, it wasn’t fancy embellishments on the streets themselves that made them wonderful and attracted people, but the fact they all had buildings with good urban design and also doors, lots of doors. (They also don’t compete with a skyway system for people.) In other words, these streets are great because of some very basic things, the streets and buildings allow for people to occupy them and make them great places. The reason Minneapolis has yet to replicate these streets is not because of the design or condition of Nicollet Mall but because our buildings physically prevent us from doing so because they don’t relate well enough with the street. Nicollet Mall is supposedly our best street, yet I’d never recommend anyone walk the length of it because there’s not enough good urban fabric surrounding it.

I’m disappointed with the argument Cramer and Hodges are making by talking about how we can generate $2 million for the state and $8 million for the city and county in taxes, $105.5 million in additional spending, and “close to” (how close?) 1,000 jobs, double the population of downtown, add 3 million square feet of office, 200,000 square feet of retail and 1,100 hotel rooms. I don’t know where they got all these numbers, but they’re just numbers, I’m pretty sure we can achieve them without spending $50 million in hopes that Nicollet Mall will provide downtown with that “final flourish.” What the public wants, more than numbers, is a downtown that is loved.

I’m not naive. I understand how smart public investment can lead to substantial private investment. And in fact, I’m not actually opposed to spending a substantial sum for rebuilding Nicollet Mall. My son tripped on a pavement the other day; repairs are certainly needed, maybe more. I also realize Hodges and Cramer inherited this project from predecessors, and are at least trying to put a positive spin on it. But we’re not stupid. We’ve seen countless dollars spent on downtown projects while basic elements of good urbanism are ignored (or bulldozed). We’ve also seen a lot of other great streets and understand why they are great. Hodges and Cramer would be better served by advocating for changes to the zoning code to require better frontages and more doors, generating more activity and vibrancy, or just more food carts or street musicians.

Perhaps most distressing of all is staff at CPED and the Downtown Council get it. They indicate there is a lot of energy for solutions about how to make downtown more attractive. There is talk about working with the new owners of City Center to make it more engaging to pedestrians by simply adding one or more retail frontages facing Nicollet. There is talk about a replacement event for Holidazzle (love it or hate it, you have to admit, it drew a lot of people downtown!). They understand how a more robust set of zoning tools can encourage better buildings in the long run. Staff get it, so why do Hodges and Cramer ignore their own staff and instead make a flimsy argument about how waving a magic wand (and spending a ton of money again) will make Nicollet Mall a world-class destination?

Hodges and Cramer state that they are new leaders in their respective posts, and that this is a chance to elevate our offerings, but they did so in the same paragraph that mentioned Block E and the Vikings stadium. Do I have to explain the problem? New leadership requires new thinking and a much more holistic approach to what makes a good city. After all, we rebuilt Nicollet Mall twice already, only to have it be viewed 20 years later as a dated design. In a way, we shouldn’t have messed with it in the first place.

Look at a pre-1960 photo of Nicollet Mall (it was an “avenue” back then) and tell me how those hundreds of retail doors, attractive ground level facades and basic sidewalks (with a curious lack of skyways) wouldn’t support vibrancy and the kind of public life we desire today. Rather, Hodges and Cramer should advocate for rebuilding the street for less and use the savings to offer incentives for building owners to add retail frontages to Nicollet or offer reduced rent for tenants that want to face the street. Little by little, offer more reasons for people to visit Nicollet Mall. The city will never be finished, but in the long term, basic decisions made today about how we build streets and buildings, and how we populate them, will impact the city for decades.

Maybe we should just accept that we can’t change. Maybe we’re too entrenched in our skyway culture and should focus on improving that. Maybe we can’t find any building owners willing to punch some pedestrian access in to their buildings. Maybe Nicollet Mall should really just be a linear park connecting the Sculpture Garden and the Mississippi River. Maybe (gasp!) James Corner Field Operations can’t deliver a new High Line for us. But if that is the case, we certainly should save the State of Minnesota its share of our $50 million tab for rebuilding Nicollet Mall on the promise that it will be a world-class place. But I don’t see it that way. I think we can change. I think we can be a better city. Let’s not get to 2016, or 2026 or 2036, and wonder what the hell is still wrong with Nicollet Mall. Rebuilding Nicollet Mall is needed either way, but let’s also repair the urban fabric around it and the soul of our city while we’re at it.

This was crossposted at Joe Urban.