Minneapolis took a big step toward an improved Nicollet Mall Thursday when the city and Downtown Council chose a design team for the street’s revitalization. James Corner Field Operations (known for its work on the High Line linear park in New York) edged out two other finalists. Corner’s team included several Minnesota design firms. For me, the winning plan stood out as the best combination of imaginative, practical, sustainable, and local.
I say local with a few key caveats.
While Minnesota firms are on the design team, true public involvement has so far received a lot of lip service. The City of Minneapolis, the Downtown Council, and the Field Operations team all need to do more to articulate what kind of public involvement they see for creating a design which will actually include the people who use Nicollet Mall currently. This is particularly important given that the renderings which Field Operations showed on Tuesday did a very poor job highlighting people of color, which could be an ominous sign for the future of the project. Now is the time to bring in the robust engagement with diverse Minnesotans that could make a new Nicollet Mall a real strength.
Also, there needs to be more public input on financing. Corner admitted in a conversation following the Tuesday night presentation that with an expected $30 to $40 million budget, the Nicollet Mall redo is going to be lean, but his team was the best choice to figure out how to make the most of it. Still, with so many demands for city funding, should we spend that kind of money on a public space that while in need of some upgrades is in relatively good shape.
The financing plan on the table is suspect, with the city hoping to raise funds through a combination of $20 million in state bonding and soon-to-be announced assessments on downtown businesses. Council person Robert Lilligren said Tuesday following the finalists’ presentations, Nicollet Mall’s revitalization is a top city priority, and local leaders will demonstrate that commitment to Legislature. We’ll know more when the City Council meets October 4th.
From an architectural perspective, the design team has given city leaders a number of selling points for the pitch to state lawmakers. During an interview Thursday morning on MPR’s The Daily Circuit, Corner said in the design process, he had been “struck by how walkable, how livable the city [of Minneapolis] is,” and his team’s proposal shows most of all how committed it’ll be to enhancing that aspect of Minneapolis. Maybe its most imaginative feature is what the team called “social furniture,” a system of both fixed seating and freely movable chairs which creates fluid, flexible gathering spaces along the mall’s walking space.
Some of these spaces could be truly parklike birch groves, but others will actually be the Field Operations team’s answer to existing bus shelters. Too often these are eyesores which keep people in a vaguely embarrassing pen in the middle of the sidewalk. The plan for Nicollet Mall shows attractive new ones developed with local firm Julie Snow Architects: covered but open, inviting seating areas which could include coffee kiosks and other small business outposts.
Field Operations also has particular experience with paving systems that are environmentally sustainable, such as water-channeling pavement it used on the High Line project. On the Nicollet Mall design, the firm used trees and plantings with storm runoff neatly directed into solid but still porous ground surfaces.
While a new Nicollet Mall is hardly an urgent or ideal use of state funds compared with the many other complex issues facing Minnesota, it does seem very likely to move ahead at this point. The project that the Field Operations team proposed could have real value as a public, social space and an aid to interconnectedness in Minneapolis, and I’m now guardedly optimistic as the planning starts in earnest.