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Honk if you like this idea: Driving on Nicollet Mall

  • Article by: Jackie Crosby
  • Star Tribune
  • November 7, 2007 - 10:03 PM

Consider a Hennepin Avenue in the not-so-distant future chock-a-block with art galleries, nightclubs, movie theaters and eateries. Cars rumble by in both directions, while visitors from the suburbs as well as residents of downtown Minneapolis stroll the streets at night.

Over on Nicollet Mall, most of the noisy buses have been moved to secondary streets. Cars share Nicollet Avenue. The mall has become a retail hub, with cafes, restaurants and specialty shops such as Bose or Apple nestled between national retailers.

And the skyways? Pfft. The energy is on the street, even in January. That's because it feels safe to meander the central business district along with lots of other people under new bright lights.

Those are the high points of a retail plan unveiled Wednesday by the Minneapolis Downtown Council. The study, which some say sounds great in theory but could use a reality check, aims to reinvigorate the downtown retail core.

Many of the ideas have been kicked around for some time, and some are already in the works. But it was the first time that the plan has been presented in such detail to broader members of the business community.

"Five years from now, downtown will be a very different place," said Sam Grabarski, head of the Downtown Council and host of the breakfast event that drew merchants, building owners, developers and city officials. But the rosy picture comes with plenty of hurdles.

While the recent arrival of Brooks Brothers and Len Druskin (both on skyway levels) brings on cheers, the departures of Borders and Polo have added to the list of retailers deserting downtown.

National chains are not making nearly the sales per square foot downtown as their counterparts in the suburbs. The office vacancy rate remains high, around 16 percent, and the downtown condo market is struggling to find buyers for all the units that were built in the unprecedented construction boom.

But downtown boosters such as Macy's North CEO Frank Guzzetta are convinced that moving buses away from retail stores, adding more cars and convincing people to get out of what he called "the rabbit warrens" of the skyways is key.

"Look at Michigan Avenue in Chicago," said Guzzetta. "It's just as cold, and it's windier. But the traffic moving up and down that street begets traffic. People beget people. It makes things happen."

Other plans in the works

The Downtown Council's vision dovetails with a more comprehensive city plan known as "Access Minneapolis," a 10-year effort to reshape transportation and transit. A two-year plan to move 40 percent of the buses off Nicollet Mall and onto Marquette Avenue and 2nd Street is underway. By the end of 2009, only bicycles and hybrid buses would be allowed on Nicollet.

Mayor R.T. Rybak, who worked for the Downtown Council two decades ago, wants to reverse what he said was a mistake made in the early 1980s, when the Conservatory and Gavidae Commons were built, to position downtown as a destination for upscale shoppers.

With about 165,000 workers and 30,000 residents downtown now, Rybak said that it's vital to have a unified approach to recruiting and keeping retailers of all sorts.

"We have such a strong office population and strong residential population, we're ahead of other cities our size," Rybak said. "But we haven't done a very good job of nurturing and supporting our local merchants."

Twin Cities retail consultant Jim McComb took a somewhat skeptical view of the blueprint, in large part because his research has shown that the skyways can effectively generate sales.

"The skyway system gets a lot of bad raps from people outside the town who don't understand how it works," he said. The main challenge, he said, is "to convince new stores and specialty stores that downtown is better than one of the regional malls or other shopping areas."

Badiner's Jewelry, a family-owned business, offers a familiar challenge to city leaders. The store is closing after more than seven decades in downtown Minneapolis, because founder Ben Badiner is 89 and his son Steve, 63, wants to retire.

Steve Badiner said that falling sales also played a role in the decision.

Store traffic declined significantly eight years ago, when the business moved from its corner spot at 8th Street and Nicollet Avenue to the skyway level of the IDS Center Crystal Court, he said.

"Traffic on the skyway becomes food traffic," Badiner said. "People just walk by."

Jackie Crosby • 612-673-7335

Jackie Crosby • jcrosby@startribune.com

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