The heart of Minneapolis is beating again.
Nicollet Mall reopened at noon Thursday, marking the end of a construction headache that has cost millions of dollars and closed the downtown Minneapolis corridor for more than two years.
Dozens of people gathered on Nicollet and 7th Street midday to celebrate, shivering and sipping from paper cups full of coffee. A woman crouched on the ground to play a giant game of Jenga as songs by Semisonic and Journey blasted from a speaker and, up above, office workers peered down from the skyway.
“Here we are. We are on Nicollet, everybody,” Mayor Betsy Hodges said to cheers from the crowd. “This is an extraordinary day for Minneapolis.”
Nicollet Mall, the former home of the flagship Dayton’s department store and the site of Mary Tyler Moore’s famous hat-toss, has been closed to vehicles since July 2015. The construction has frustrated pedestrians and business owners along the corridor, in part because much of the early work happened underground and wasn’t visible.
City officials said throughout the process that the $50 million project, designed by James Corner Field Operations, would be completed on time and on budget. There was even an ad campaign to reassure the public, with cheeky slogans like, “We’re not out of the woods yet. We still have 244 trees to put in.”
Multiple speakers on Thursday acknowledged the frustration that accompanied the seemingly endless construction.
“Yes, we were all watching the sausage get made and at times, it does get a little bit disgusting when you’re watching that happen,” said Council Member and Mayor-elect Jacob Frey. “But the end result is going to be delicious.”
Landscape architect James Corner attended the opening celebration, and told the crowd the design for Nicollet Mall aimed to bring “simplicity, clarity, light and space” to the street.
“Even though it looks relatively simple, it’s an enormously complicated set of issues to coordinate and design and construct,” he said.
The revamp includes nearly 250 new trees, new LED lighting and the largest public art display outside of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.
Chelsea Jones, who works downtown, said she avoided Nicollet Mall for months during construction — but it was worth the wait. On Wednesday night, she said, she walked down the corridor and marveled at the new, multicolored lights.
“It was gorgeous,” she said. “It looked like a rainbow tunnel.”
The original Nicollet Mall opened to the public almost exactly 50 years ago, at a time when downtown Minneapolis was filled with bustling department stores.
City Council President Barb Johnson said she remembers what Nicollet Mall was like decades ago, when she was a teenager who traveled through downtown every day to get to school.
“Things have changed. Times have changed. Shopping habits have changed,” she said. “But our mall has adapted.”
Plans for reconstructing Nicollet Mall began under former Mayor R.T. Rybak, and continued through Hodges’ four years at City Hall. The final touches — some additional trees, for example — will be added after Frey has taken office.
Already, city officials said, the new Nicollet has attracted hundreds of millions of dollars in investment to downtown. Even the Dayton’s name is coming back with plans to redevelop the former department store building with new stores, restaurants and a food hall, plus office space and a health club.
Still, business owners along Nicollet struggled while construction was underway, losing foot traffic and prime restaurant patio season.
Patrick McCutchan pushed his hot dog cart down Nicollet on Thursday morning, ready to station himself at his old spot near Seventh Street for the lunchtime crowd. His family has operated the hot dog cart business on Nicollet since the early 1980s, he said.
“We were kicked off for the last two years,” he said. “All the food vendors were.”
Business was down the past couple years, McCutchan said, adding that he’s hopeful the street’s reopening will change that.
“It’s looking great,” he said. “I like the updated look, the track lighting, the new art.”
With a noon crowd building on the street, he smiled. It’s good to be back on Nicollet Mall, he said.