Nicollet Mall renovation is worthy of state aid

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 22, 2014 - 10:05 AM

It’s much more than a street in need of repair.

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What Minneapolis business leaders concluded nearly 50 years ago holds true today: The preservation of metro vitality must start at the core. That insight inspired the Nicollet Mall, the nation’s first heart-of-a-city transitway, an emblem of civic ambition and a tourist destination — for a while, anyway.

As the Nicollet Mall approaches the half-century mark, tourists’ reviews are no longer glowing. Tripadvisor.com rates the mall 46th among 113 destinations in Minneapolis. Its online reviewers complain that the mostly concrete strip isn’t much to see, doesn’t offer much to do and is poorly connected to the skyways overhead, which are confusing to navigate.

A remedy for those ills is urgently needed, not just for the sake of downtown businesses, workers and residents, but for the whole region. Nicollet Mall is an iconic ribbon of connectivity for visitors as well as residents. The image it creates will either attract or repel convention-goers, professional sports fans, shoppers and entertainment seekers — to the gain or loss of the entire state.

That’s why the Legislature, which returns from spring break today, should seize this year’s opportunity for Nicollet Mall revival. It tops this legislative session’s requests from Minneapolis for state capital improvement dollars. The city and its business-dominated Downtown Council seek $25 million, to be matched by business contributions.

Gov. Mark Dayton backed a $20 million state share, implicitly suggesting that the city should contribute more of its own funds to the $50 million project. That’s a reasonable expectation, given all the city stands to gain from an investment originally funded entirely by business.

Less reasonable has been the project’s chilly reception by House capital investments chair Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul. Her bonding bill contains only $4.5 million for a project that’s on track for groundbreaking a year from now. (The Senate’s bonding bill has not yet been released.) Last month, Hausman implied that the project was little more than a street upgrade. “Minneapolis has never done well when they’ve asked us to fund streets because everyone has a street. When we fund something, we want to know it’s one of a kind,” she said.

But as the most recognizable corridor in the state’s biggest city, Nicollet Mall is already one of a kind. And the redesign plans selected last year go well beyond street repairs. They would make Nicollet Mall a venue for live music, theater, dance and diverse open-air markets. The mall would offer ice skating in the winter, shady groves for relaxation in the summer, and warming bonfire pits for chilly spring and fall evenings. It would turn the 20th century’s most important Minnesota retail corner, 7th and Nicollet, into a “town commons” that would allow skyways to serve as balconies for an open-air amphitheater that’s bound to attract diverse events.

Make those changes, and downtown would see 1,900 more employees and $353 million in private development within three years of the project’s completion, according to an economic analysis by Donjek and Anton Economics of St. Paul. The project itself would employ 860 workers and generate $105 million in economic activity, it added. No mere street repair could make that boast.

The Downtown Council attaches so much importance to the mall’s redesign that it ranked second only to attracting more residents in “Intersections,” its strategic plan for downtown betterment between now and 2025. That says that the state’s businesses care about this project — and that’s good, because a business push will be needed to win a generous slice of the bonding pie this session. Mayor Betsy Hodges’ personal involvement will also be important. The DFLers who control the Legislature should be loath to hand her a bonding defeat early in her mayoral tenure.

This project deserves one more visible defender. Dayton’s father and uncles likely had more to do with the mall’s construction than any other business leaders of the 1960s. More than most lawmakers, he knows the value of civic investments downtown, and has the clout to be their champion.

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