It was noon, the sun was shining, and downtown Minneapolis smelled like tacos.
Nothing, absolutely nothing, was going to keep the 200,000-strong downtown workforce from Lunch Outside.
Even though outside isn’t necessarily downtown’s best side.
In concrete canyons crowded with food trucks, people carried their lunches to the nearest sunbeam. They leaned against walls or sprawled on lawns or sat in flower planters and squashed the petunias.
It was a city full of people who wanted to sit back and enjoy it — if they could just find a seat.
Minneapolis is trying to build a more user-friendly downtown. And it’s doing a lot of things right, said Prof. Thomas Fisher, director of the Minnesota Design Center at the U.
Multimillion-dollar construction projects are turning cramped sidewalks and featureless gray streets into broad, tree-shaded boulevards lined with outdoor cafes. All summer long, the downtown core will host farmers markets, sidewalk pianos and free outdoor movie nights in parks that used to be parking lots.
For a long time, Fisher said, city planning was more about streets than sidewalks. When your main focus is how to move cars quickly in and out of the city, you can lose track of what people need after they park.
“It’s the fine-grain details of human experience on the street that nobody thinks about,” Fisher said. “What are you going to do with that sandwich and bottled water you just bought at the food truck? Why isn’t there a place to sit?”
You can find a seat downtown, if you know where to look. The sidewalk cafes and colorful chairs that line Nicollet Mall are the best part of the $50 million renovation that turned the street into a concrete squiggle where trees go to die. Peavey Plaza will reopen this month, after its $10 million face-lift, with seating galore.
You just have to navigate blocks of seatless streets and charmless plazas to get there.
Maybe you’ll carry your lunch to the Commons, the park where the Star Tribune once sat, where you can sit and watch Minneapolis’ skyline and songbirds reflect off the Vikings stadium. But to get there, you’ll have to cross the brick hellscape of the Hennepin County Government Center plaza, and that’s probably going to kill your appetite.
The challenge for Steve Cramer, president of the Minneapolis Downtown Council, is to make being outside more uniformly pleasant for everyone downtown.
Downtown Minneapolis has tranquil greenways and lovely pedestrian walks and public spaces that don’t suck your soul out through your eyeballs like certain county government plazas.
But those pleasant places and pedestrian boulevards “are not evenly distributed” downtown, Cramer said.
“The thing we’re working on is to try to make that pedestrian street-level experience more uniform and more inviting across all of downtown,” he said. “We’ve got some great places now, but we could always use more, and we can work to distribute those more evenly across downtown.”
While you’re searching for seating, the city is slowly rolling out street enhancement projects. There are big, splashy efforts, like the massive reconstruction underway on Hennepin Avenue and the theater district. In between, Cramer said, the city will roll out smaller streetscape improvement projects — more trees and flower beds, wider pedestrian-friendly sidewalks.
All to make outside feel like the sort of place you’d like to be.
If you want to spend some down time downtown, check mplsdowntown.com/events.