At 2:01 a.m. on a recent Saturday, Minneapolis City Council Member Steve Fletcher watches hordes of clubgoers exiting Rouge at the Lounge nightclub. Suddenly the heart of downtown is filled with hundreds of people underdressed for the cold.
A group of men in basketball jerseys line up in front of a Caribbean-style food truck called Xstream Cuisine. A guy stumbling on the sidewalk is belting out U2’s 1987 hit “With or Without You.”
Fletcher is on one of his occasional late patrols at bar close, and on this night, it looks like the new strategy for downtown safety is working. Just a few months ago, he explains, this would be the time police began herding masses of people out of downtown, a weekly episode that often escalated into confrontations.
This summer, Fletcher, Council Member Lisa Goodman and Mayor Jacob Frey’s office began a new collaboration with neighborhood and business associations to find creative ways to address the bar-close chaos.
The city placed new restrictions on concert promoter contracts to weed out shows likely to result in violence. It opened up 1st Avenue North, a main drag normally closed off to drivers on weekend nights. It began licensing food trucks for late-night business, and asked police to let people filter out of downtown at their own pace, instead of making them do so all at once.
“We needed to get some positive activity,” said Fletcher. “We needed to make downtown fun again.”
It won’t happen overnight. On Oct. 15, someone smuggled a gun into Aqua Nightclub and Lounge and shot three people, reviving longstanding concerns over downtown violence.
But Fletcher and downtown business owners say they’re seeing early progress they hope could mean the beginning of a culture change.
“We have to continue to evaluate and monitor the changes that have been made, but I would say, so far, so good,” said Steve Cramer, president of Minneapolis’ Downtown Improvement District.
Council Member Fletcher vs. the end of the evening
It’s not the first time city officials have concocted a plan to take on late-night safety in downtown Minneapolis.
Block E has served as a case study in urban planning experiments over the past few decades geared toward safety. This area between 6th and 7th streets and Hennepin and 1st avenues was home to a cluster of seedy bars, then an ill-fated mall. The Legislature toyed with building a casino, which police leaders hailed as a possible deterrent to crime.
Now it’s home to Mayo Clinic Square, with a sports medicine center and restaurants.
In a more recent strategy, police tried to suppress downtown crime through undercover drug stings. After it came out that officers were arresting almost exclusively black men for small amounts of marijuana, Chief Medaria Arradondo halted the operation, and prosecutors later dismissed the low-level charges.
Fletcher, a longtime downtown resident who calls the venue First Avenue his second home, was hungry for a new approach. After talking to law enforcement and local business owners, he noticed a surprising trend: When live shows ended in violence, the common denominator wasn’t the venue or musician, he said. Instead, it was the promoters.
He found cases of promoters falsely advertising a full-length concert when the club only booked an appearance. In others, promoters didn’t book adequate security, or advertised over-the-top drink specials.
So went Fletcher’s theory: a poorly promoted show is a likely predictor of violence.
“If you send a crowd out onto the street all agitated and more intoxicated than they would have otherwise been, that’s a recipe for trouble,” said Fletcher. “Promoters come into town to promote one show, and they don’t care at all about our city, or the venue they’re working in, or the people that are coming to their show, necessarily. So we have to enforce some rules to make sure they don’t come in and cause trouble and then leave.”
Starting in August, the city began requiring restrictions on venue contracts with promoters citywide. This includes provisions allowing the venue to cancel a show if it’s poorly managed or falsely advertised. These new rules will be added to each venue’s entertainment license as those businesses apply or renew.
On this early October morning, officers illuminate busy corners of the city with spotlights. Two mounted patrols trot through the bike lanes. A fight breaks out between two groups of women getting into their cars, and officers on bicycles roll up quickly and send them on their separate ways.
Police are still very much present. What’s different is they are less confrontational in clearing people out of downtown, Fletcher said.
Some police officers resisted the change of tactics, he said. Yet business owners are cautiously optimistic.
Cramer is happy to see some new ideas, fearing past practices “were just living on inertia,” he said. A few years ago, his organization brought in consultants to examine the late-night economy. The recommendations included licensing food trucks for late-night business to make parts of downtown more active late at night. Cramer said he’s now noticing a more seamless progression of activity throughout weekend evenings as the downtown dinner crowds transition into clubgoers.
“It seems like it’s a positive thing to be a part of, as opposed to off-putting — or scary at times,” he said.
Joanne Kaufman, executive director of the Warehouse District Business Association, expressed a similar sentiment, saying the city’s new administration has been much more responsive to businesses’ concerns.
“We’re all working together to really make positive change,” she said.
Businesses have been wanting for years to end the practice of closing main streets, Kaufman said.
“To have the streets open at night, I can’t tell you what a game changer that is,” she said.