Lileks: Without vibrant downtown, civic life of the entire city pays price

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 7, 2013 - 7:46 PM

Let's say you don't work downtown or go downtown. Why should you care about downtown now, let alone what it's like in 2020?

Simple: If people think the center of the city is a bleak, sad hole filled with shabby miscreants, then the entire city suffers. Civic life is diluted. Oh, we'd love to see the Aquatennial parade, but we haven't gotten around to making our will. Maybe next year.

Mayor R.T. Rybak spoke to the Downtown Council on Wednesday, laying out a vision for downtown c. 2020. It has no Bold Sweeping Plans, which is a relief. Bold Plans result in mass destruction, like the Gateway ("Hey, as long as we're knocking down flophouses, how about some irreplaceable architectural heritage as well? Heck, the wrecking crew's all gassed up and paid through Friday. Shame to waste 'em.") Bold Plans give you doomed-to-fail Fun Complexes with brewpubs and indoor skeet shooting and a 12-story rock-climbing wall and a Nike store with lasers and robots!!! Ten years later, tumbleweeds.

As the mayor's plan has it, we need residents, workers, civic beauty and streetcars. Let's go down the list.

RESIDENTS: More housing is good, but it doesn't necessarily yield a more vital street life. It's also an inversion of downtown's traditional role. People live in neighborhoods and work downtown. No one waiting for the trolley outside of Dayton's in 1942 thought "I love my cozy home by Nokomis, but I do wish they'd turn the blanket factory into an apartment with stainless steel fixtures so I could live next to someone who doesn't get home until 8 p.m. and has no idea how much his pug barks."

Anyway. Yes, more residents. But smaller, more architecturally diverse projects will do more to bring life to the city than a half-dozen tall towers.

WORKERS: We need more business downtown. We need an enormous new skyscraper taller than the IDS. Everyone defers to the IDS, as if some ancient curse will strike down the architect if he designs something 200 feet taller. Barbara Flanagan came to me in a dream and yelled at me! Take an empty block and offer it to a developer tax free for 20 years if he'll build something gorgeous. There's nothing that gives you a lift like looking at a shining spire and thinking, Man! Seventy floors of lawyers!

That said: Seriously, we need a new skyscraper, and not just one full of empty-nesters who don't want to cut the lawn anymore.

CIVIC BEAUTY: He said the plans are in place for the overhaul of downtown's most attractive bus lane. "It's now time to do Nicollet Mall 3.0," Rybak said. "And Nicollet Mall may not even be called Nicollet Mall anymore. It will be Nicollet whatever, but it will be a great street."

I like Nicollet Whatever; it sounds full of spur-of-the-moment whimsy. I'd even support rebranding Hennepin as Whichever, with 7th street called "However" to tie them together.

This is interesting: Using municipal steam from the garbage burner to melt ice on the sidewalks downtown. "We may be able to grow palm trees on Nicollet Mall with all that wonderful steam that now goes up into the air," Rybak said.

I wouldn't play up the garbage-burner angle in the PR material. Say the heat comes from "flame-treated post-consumer material." If they can raise the ambient temperature of the Nicollet Mall to 80 degrees in January, then this will lure people out of the skyways, because people who are going to lunch have one basic subconscious priority: Do Not Lose A Toe. Palm trees are good visual cues to reassure them about this.

STREETCARS. I don't get it. You can either spend a lot of money on streetcars, which are fixed rail and require ugly overhead power lines, or make buses faster, more plentiful, more attractive and redesigned to look like streetcars. I know, I know -- people love streetcars, trust them, feel reassured when one comes along. A bus rolls up and you think: Here's the level of hell Dante never wrote about.

It would be cheaper just to dig ruts in the street and have the buses drive the route pretending they're streetcars.

jlileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858

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