Nicollet Mall was born a half-century ago in response to an alarming shift in jobs and shopping away from downtown Minneapolis. Now the mall is being reborn to accommodate a reversal of sorts: a rekindled interest in urban living that could double downtown’s residential population over the next decade and, in the process, restore some measure of retail vigor to the old street.
As a shopping attraction, Nicollet is a ghost of its former self. Suburban malls and the Internet, among other forces, have gradually chipped away at its retail base to the point that it’s no longer counted among the nation’s top shopping streets. But even in its depleted state, the mall has helped downtown retain an impressive corporate employment foundation and a lively restaurant, sports and cultural scene. And now, an imaginative redesign should further spur a housing boom that planners believe can push downtown’s residential population from the current 40,000 to 70,000 by 2025 while reinventing a faded Minnesota icon.
Finishing touches on the new design were announced last month by James Corner Field Operations, the New York-based firm most noted for Manhattan’s highly acclaimed High Line elevated park. Corner’s latest iteration for Nicollet eliminates the pair of skyway balconies and grand exterior stairways cascading toward the 7th Street intersection. But the project retains other features that, when finished in 2016, promise to transform the 12-block pedestrian-transit corridor into a far greener space that’s friendlier and more engaging for pedestrians and more attractive to investors.
Construction of the $50 million project could begin as early as this spring if property owners can agree on assessments to match the $25 million public investment, most of it from the state. In return, the new Nicollet is expected to generate more than $500 million in tax base growth and other economic benefits, according to Donjek, the St. Paul financial analysis firm.
It’s too bad that the stairways had to be dropped. Downtown’s biggest flaw is the separation of skyway and street levels that often leaves public sidewalks barren and, for many pedestrians, threatening. Enticing more people down to street level is essential for the new mall’s success. But the stairways posed significant barriers; they blocked views, interrupted flow, impeded transit, and raised questions about maintenance and safety.
Still, overall, the concept continues to impress. The mall (or, as some prefer, the Nicollet Mile) will be split into five segments. Blocks on the north and south ends will be woodsy linear parks. Two central blocks, between 6th and 8th Streets, will form a kind of town square with an emphasis on public art. The blocks in between (from 4th to 6th and from 8th to 12th) will feature groves of trees, movable seating and sidewalk cafes pushed away from the buildings to the curbs, an alignment that should enhance vitality and public safety.
Investors appear to be enthusiastic; four developers (one proposing an 80-story tower) are competing to fill a block at Nicollet’s north end. But height on that site is less important than any new development’s ability at street level to artfully join the mall to the Mississippi River.
Taken altogether, the Nicollet redesign is far more aggressive than the uninspired retouch of 1990. Beauty and flexibility are emphasized this time. Especially if streetcars are added, the new Nicollet will have a chance to reclaim former glory and join the trend away from interior malls and toward more traditional town centers that offer the “integrated experience” of living, shopping, dining, working and simply hanging out in attractive outdoor spaces.
What’s perhaps most impressive about the current effort is the realization among the project’s many partners that even the best design cannot ensure success. Imaginative programming of events will be needed. Restaurants and other businesses must work to extend the mall’s appeal into the colder months, much in the manner of European cities. Way-finding systems connecting street and skyway levels must be dramatically improved until a workable vertical circulation system can be found.
Most important, the social ills that have overtaken the mall must be handled compassionately but far more effectively. Aggressive panhandling and loutish, threatening behavior must end. If the mall continues to function mainly as a kind of default daytime homeless shelter, then the mainstream public will not regain the confidence it needs to return to street level — no matter its beauty. Stronger anti-loitering ordinances may be needed, as well as better enforcement and more assertive social programs. Without those efforts, the new Nicollet, however impressive, is likely to fall short of its potential.