Why not Wither the Nicollet Mall Renovation
The city of Minneapolis over the last few years has attempted to get state funding to assist with reconstruction of Nicollet Mall, including a swing and a miss at the Governor’s supplemental budget last spring. Wanting to keep some momentum going forward there is talk that a design competition will be instituted through the City’s Planning and Development office in early summer to seek ideas from design consortiums, reportedly for plans that reflect the principles put forth in the Downtown Council’s 2025 plan.
Especially if there is no progress during this legislative session, maybe city leaders, public and private sector, press “pause” until stakeholders can get to an inspired consensus on what it is they are trying to accomplish. It is important that we come to terms with “why” before heading out on a mission to build “what.” The Mall was built first in the early 1960s to strengthen downtown as the region’s premier destination shopping area. It was in direct response to retailers, mostly the major department stores, who feared the impact of Southdale and the other planned enclosed malls coming online. (Ironically Dayton’s, the loudest voice for a retail street, was the driving force behind these malls.) The second iteration—a redesign of the first—was still premised on this concept. It is interesting to note that there are approximately the same number of trips into and out of downtown today as in 1958, the year that Southdale opened. (The number is approximately 550,000 trips; traffic counts conducted by public works every year for fifty years.) What has changed is that in those days a significant portion of those trips were errands, like visits to the bank, bill paying and of course shopping. Many people came in and out of downtown multiple times in a day for these purposes.
Today Minneapolis’ downtown is home to many more permanent jobs and far fewer errand destinations, so the major movements are rush hours with inbound in the mornings and outbound in the evenings. This traffic is, of course, supplemented by the 30,000 or so residents, many of whom are “reverse” commuting or heading to coffee shops to “telecommute.” The grand Department Stores we grew up with are dwindling everywhere. Recently the market dictated that Neiman Marcus shuttered but the downtown Target is thriving. Dayton’s is now Macy’s which is really Penney’s in a cool old building; Macy’s died in Saint Paul and will die in Minneapolis in this form as well. The retail that does work serves the workers and the residents (which is why the robust grocery section in Target, the new Lund’s and Whole Foods coming online). What is needed for the Mall is a plan that promotes design that fosters safety and vitality and allows the market to be the market. We are not promoting that the piazzas and promenades of Europe be replicated, but we can learn from them. They are simple, open and safe, conducive to storefronts, cafes and circuses. They are constructed with permanent materials that stand the test of time (in stark contrast with the trendy marble veneer that has cracked and failed along the current mall).
The Mayor has advocated that the reconstruction be centered around a streetcar that runs down Nicollet. Others argue that the fixed track takes from the flexibility that allows for street fests like Holidazzle to occur. Some streetcar advocates insist that these vehicles are best used in a loop, say down First Avenue and up Marquette, with the economic development benefits stretching in between. The Downtown Council’s 2025 plan envisions the Mall as an extension of a path that connects the Walker to the River, a bold vision and a great amenity if the why is that an amenity is what we determine is needed.
In this case maybe pause, which does not mean do nothing, can serve the future the best.
BULLETINS and BYTES…
- One of the sharpest commentators in the civic realm, Dan Cohen, is back in the publishing business. We were fortunate enough to have received the link to the inaugural chapter of his new Blog, www.dancohen.org. We know you will enjoy Mr. Cohen’s concise writing style and rapier wit. As a member of the Minneapolis Planning Commission he dares do something we don’t: write from inside the belly of the municipal beast, which we guess will create even more interest in the blog.
- Bob Praus, a main burgher of Red Wing, did his best to find the lost gloves of one of our contributing editors. “They were really nice gloves,” our colleague reported from his hideout in Florida. “I thought I left them at St. Albert the Great church on one of my secret missions to the north country a few months back.” (Really?) Anyway the maniac golfer Praus scoured the St. Albert environs for the gloves after one of Father Joe Gillespie’s Friday evening Lenten Fish Dinners. No luck in finding the precious apparel, but he did wonder why Father Joe was wearing gloves during the dinner as he ladled out fish, Jello and sugar cookies. If you see the Dominican Dynamo preaching the gospel at the Monte Carlo or another of his favorite haunts, check out his hands. We don’t mean to be suspicious, but….
- Speaking of our Florida Bureau Chief, and he just did, Liz Neerland, chip off of said chief, has brought a historical theater tour du force to the stage of the humble nimbus theatre in the form of “Bohemian Flats.” Liz, a nimbus co-founder, both wrote and directed this amazing work. She dipped into historical records, photographs, and family archives to bring a vivid portrait of the struggles of a diverse and lively Minneapolis immigrant world to the stage. The story begins in 1869, and a tiny village grows and thrives literally at the river’s edge, as the years pass and the burgeoning city of Minneapolis tries to crowd it out. Births, marriages, deaths, floods, fights, fires, all play out in a collection of tiny cottages right on the west bank. Nothing now remains but a park bearing the name: Bohemian Flats. The run ends on April 7. Don’t miss it. FFI www.nimbustheatre.com.
It is an election year in Minnesota’s two biggest cities. Local pols that make a career out of making it hard to put a “for rent” sign in a vacant commercial storefront are now campaigning on their deep and abiding commitment to jobs and the local economy. With little or no guile they man the phones dialing for dollars. “Really? You stuck a bike lane in my on-street parking, raised my license fees and encourage your legislative friends to raise taxes on the goods and services I buy and sell.” Pol: “But you and I can certainly agree that job growth is the most important issue facing our city?” Beleaguered community relations staff and association leaders get the brunt of this and drag themselves and the family checkbook to fundraiser after fundraiser, hoping the incumbent that merely slaps their employers in the back of the head will be better for business than the challenger that thinks their business should be municipalized or turned into a co-op.
Thanks to that evil U.S. Supreme Court, local business owners have an opportunity to grab a microphone and have a meaningful voice in local elections. By forming a third-party interest group as in PAC, they can use the company checkbook to put significant support into campaigns that reflect their values. Ideally such a group would enjoy a very broad base: manufacturers, retailers, commercial property owners and area business associations. The complexities of Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) mitigate any one interest group, including the DFL, from determining the outcomes. This is a very unique opportunity and hopefully leaders from the various business communities will seize it.
Dear Reader, if you have been an “Onliner” for any length of time you have been exposed to our unabashed fondness for the staff at Hennepin County. There has long been a can-do attitude that isn’t always found in the public sector. Because both of your senior editors’ lives were touched by the late Stan Cowle we like to think it was he who set a new bar for public service. History shows Hennepin to be a regional leader and innovator dating back to the beginning of its incorporation. Early County leaders boldly funded construction of the Mendota Bridge connecting Dakota County to the south. Getting people and goods in and out they surmised was a good thing. Bridges, not walls. What Mr. Cowle brought to the party was a new spirit of innovation coupled with prudence and accountability. Counties grew exponentially as the Nixon administration unveiled and implemented revenue sharing. He brought on a cadre of talented young people who were inspired by public service, including Jean Keffeler. Together Stanley and Jean hired and mentored many of the County’s leaders who are responsible for so many innovations and projects that have improved the quality of life here. We boast world class libraries, vast regional parks and a recycling program rivaling any in the nation. Even though there would be no Target Field or LRT without the Opats and McLaughlins in elected office, they would concede that these things would not exist save for the brains and brawn that backed them up.
The fierce pride and esprit de corps were all on display this week as the County saluted Phil Eckhert, one of the living embodiments of the Hennepin legacy. Traditionally the Board of Commissioners honors long-timers at its Board meetings. On Tuesday (3/26) an occasion which can be a bit routine was moved to a new level when Phil stepped up to address the Board. He spoke eloquently of some of the traditions and County accomplishments that he has been proud to be part of. Across his career Phil built a forward thinking planning group into an effective change agent integral to the County’s mission. He was key in making Community Works a new model for intergovernmental cooperation and guided the nationally-recognized Energy and Environment group to stellar achievement. Just another day at the office as far as this humble gentleman is concerned. Eckhert was feted by colleagues and friends once again yesterday (3/28). One of the highlights was a special trip in from Montana by his mentor Keffeler. The room was jammed with the who’s who of the area’s great public sector leaders, past, present and future. Board Chair Mike Opat did his own rising to the occasion, deftly emceeing a spirited tribute/roast from some of Phil’s long-time collaborators. While each presentation was special, the highlight had to be the tag team of Ufer and Weiszhaar (Jim and Jerry). Ufer left Jerry to do the dirty work, having penned his tribute from his special Gandolfo in Florida. Then Weiszhaar took over with his own brand of zingers worthy of the Borscht Belt. “It’s no wonder Eckhert did so well running the recycling. He spent his first twenty years recycling the same strategic plan. No one knows better the phrase ‘garbage in garbage out’.” The powers that be are glad that his “retirement” includes a continuation of special project work on Phil’s part. We join the throngs in thanking him for inspirational service and are glad he won’t be too far away.