Shuttered offices, canceled events and unease about crime threaten to unwind a decade of development that kept downtown Minneapolis bustling day and night.
Nearly six months into the pandemic, downtown remains largely empty with at least 85% of the area's workforce still at home. The throngs that once spilled out of restaurants for lunch and happy hours are gone. The theaters, nightlife and sporting events that lured thousands to visit downtown have largely shut down in recent months — some don't plan to resume normal activities until next spring.
All of that has left fewer eyes on the street and growing worries about safety in the city's core. Those concerns boiled over last week after rioters broke windows and looted businesses along Nicollet Mall, following false rumors police had killed a Black man downtown — the death was later confirmed a suicide. In interviews, many residents reported feeling unsettled even as statistically, crime is down from last year in the two downtown neighborhoods.
Vanessa Rybicka once enjoyed living on the edge of downtown Minneapolis and walking to her office, stores and restaurants. But in recent months she has seen fewer cops, more harassing pedestrians and fights breaking out daily on Nicollet Mall. She now shops in the suburbs.
Others in her Loring Park building are moving out. Rybicka is ready to follow.
"I'm moving my business out to the suburbs," said Rybicka, who owns a professional services firm. "I can't deal with it."
The success of remote working may also test the longstanding expectation that office workers commute into a downtown skyscraper five days a week.
During Steve Cramer's tenure presiding over the Downtown Council, the number of downtown workers has been steadily increasing — to more than 215,000 people. But he expects that number to diminish in the future, which will have ripple effects on the downtown economy.
"Realistically when we come out of this condition that we're in … I just think there's going to be a new lower baseline of economic activity for downtown," Cramer said. He added that he expects it will remain the state's economic and commercial hub, however, as workers return and people again converge for major events.
The normally hot downtown housing market is already taking a hit. Last year condos often sold before they were on the market, but this summer there are more of them available, they're taking longer to sell and price gains are easing. The number of condo listings that hit the market during July was up 32% across the metro and 46% in Minneapolis compared with last year, according to the Minneapolis Area Realtors.
The rental apartment market downtown is also softening because of weaker demand and increasing supply. At 6.4%, the average vacancy rate in the area is above the metro average and — except for downtown St. Paul — is among the highest in the metro, according to a second-quarter report from Marquette Advisors.
Public affairs consultant Mark Oyaas, who works with many firms in the downtown area, said he's been getting a lot of concerned calls from clients about the future of downtown.
"How is the city going to make returning to work safe, both from COVID and more importantly public safety?" Oyaas said his clients want to know. "What is the city going to do to make people feel safer?"
William and Suzanne Bengtson have felt isolated as the businesses they normally patronize are closed and a tent encampment sprouted in Loring Park near their residence. They've seen a rise in homelessness and crime downtown.
"We love downtown because we love the restaurants, we love the theater, and that's all shut down because of COVID and the riots on top of that," William Bengtson said.
They watched the looting unfold Wednesday night from their high-rise in dismay.
"It's heartbreaking to hear the helicopters. It's heartbreaking to hear the sirens day in and day out. It's heartbreaking to see people who look like you not have access to what everybody else has access to," said Suzanne Bengtson, who is Black. "It's been hard to be downtown."
Alarmed over reports of robberies and other crime recently, Iliyah Johnson made plans to move to south Minneapolis in September as her lease came up for renewal.
She was with her 3-year-old and 8-month-old daughters Wednesday on Nicollet Mall when they saw what would become the instigator of the riots: a man shooting himself as police closed in.
"It's too violent here in this area," said Johnson.
Jon Hopeman continues to come to work downtown, but said most of the employees at his firm don't feel safe enough to come in anymore. If the company's lease is up, he said, he'd recommend moving out.
"Nobody's down here," said Hopeman, who's been working downtown for 50 years. Gesturing to the crowds gathering to take in the damage Thursday, he added, "This is the most people I've seen down here in months."
Council Member Lisa Goodman, who represents part of downtown, said that her constituents believe that there needs to be police reform and that systemic racism is real. But she decried looting that damaged many small businesses.
"We are at a turning point with our downtown," Goodman said at a news conference following the looting. "Where we don't realize that we are ripping away at the whole fabric of the city by this lawless behavior and we should not stand for it anymore."
Downtown buildings have implemented stringent new cleaning and sanitizing protocols, said Kevin Lewis, president of the Building Owners and Managers Association of Greater Minneapolis (BOMA).
But only about 10 to 15% of workers are heading into the office, which is comparable with other cities nationwide. The likely timeline for workers returning keeps getting delayed.
"I'm surprised at how gradual it has been," Lewis said. "The buildings are ready."
And there are "chicken and egg" problems. Transit and restaurants operating at reduced service want workers in order to ramp up again, but workers want transit and restaurants to return downtown.
Ravinder Chahal moved into the City Club Apartments CBD last October, hoping to take advantage of the nightlife and frequent social events. Then COVID-19 hit and downtown quieted down. The looting was scary, she said, but she just renewed her lease.
"I don't want to move, because it's a pandemic and moving is stressful," said Chahal, a business analyst.
Downtown resident Gregg Fleck walked outside Thursday morning with a broom to help clean up his regular coffee shop, Caribou Coffee, and other businesses damaged in the looting on Nicollet Mall.
"This is the heartbeat of the Twin Cities and we've really got to keep it pumping," said Fleck, who moved downtown two years ago from Toledo, Ohio. "We can't let it die."
Staff writers Liz Navratil and Jim Buchta contributed to this report.