Aging Nicollet Mall gets a team to make it young once more

  • Article by: JANET MOORE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 19, 2013 - 9:54 PM

The mission to bring a new sense of urban vibrancy to Nicollet Mall — “Minnesota’s Main Street” — will be carried out by a celebrated landscape architecture firm from New York.

James Corner Field Operations was selected from a group of 20 firms from around a world that offered competing plans to reimagine Minneapolis’ aging boulevard. The Corner team designed the acclaimed High Line public park in Manhattan, among other high-profile projects across the country. “We are superexcited and feel honored,” the British-born Corner said Thursday.

Nicollet Mall has served as the retail thoroughfare for downtown Minneapolis since the 1880s, having been transformed into one of the nation’s first pedestrian-transit malls in the 1960s. But in recent years, the mall has languished.

“I’m confident that we’ve chosen the right team in James Corner Field Operations to transform what is now a very good street into the greatest street in America once again,” Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said in a statement.

Corner’s vision, called “Nicollet Walk,” stretches from Grant Street to Washington Avenue and features pathways for bike traffic, woodland groves, reflective undersides to skyways, multiuse bus shelters with newsstands and coffee bars, a fire pit, and raised stages for impromptu musical and theatrical performances.

The idea is to bring a northern Minnesota landscape to the mall, along with the co-presence of urbanism of the street.

Corner’s team includes seven additional design firms, four of which are local. A linchpin to the design involves crafting better connections between downtown’s web of skyways to the streets below.

One idea, crafted by Minneapolis architect Julie Snow, involves a transparent stairway that will cascade from skyway to street in front of the IDS Center. Snow says it will give “people a reason to come down from the skyway to Nicollet.”

The committee that selected Corner’s team included architectural experts, city officials and business leaders. The group did not address how the project will be funded — the city envisions a $20 million contribution through a state bonding bill, with private businesses contributing the rest through a still-undefined assessment fee. The City Council will vote Oct. 4.

“My concern was that it’s a very ambitious project, but not a very ambitious budget,” said Christopher Hume, architecture critic for the Toronto Star, who was a judge.

Hume voted for the Montreal-based firm Daoust Lestage, one of the three finalists that unveiled their plans at the Guthrie Theater earlier this week at an event attended by several hundred people.

The third finalist was California-based Tom Leader Studio, which is already involved in the design of the $175 million RiverFirst development along the Mississippi River, north of downtown. Each team received a $30,000 stipend from the city to complete their plans.

Corner’s firm has a certain star power in architectural circles, said Tom Fisher, dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota. “He’s huge, he’s a really smart, creative guy, but what really made him a rock star was the High Line,” he said.

The High Line transformed an abandoned elevated freight rail bed on Manhattan’s West Side into public space that blends plantings with a series of long, narrow planks that form a linear walking surface.

“His firm does incredibly pedestrian-friendly, animated linear parks,” said Snow, whose firm designed the Humboldt Lofts in Minneapolis, the Warroad Land Port of Entry, among other notable projects.

Recently, Corner’s firm completed the $46 million Tongva Park in Santa Monica, Calif., work that the Los Angeles Times called “unquestionably a rare example of farsighted urban planning.”

The firm also is redesigning Chicago’s Navy Pier, which juts into Lake Michigan, and Seattle’s Central Waterfront, a massive $300 million public project.

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