"Value engineering."

For those unfamiliar with the term, it's when architects and landscape architects go into cost-cutting mode, a Jenga-like exercise of eliminating features and/or replacing them with more affordable alternatives, hopefully without undermining the project's function and appeal.

The new Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis was value-engineered. Boy, was it ever.

Remember those persuasive images that James Corner Field Operations used in its sales pitch for the project? They showed a richly textured and patterned "floor" fashioned from a variety of pavers, staircases making direct connections from skyway to sidewalk, skyways tricked out with shiny mirrored underbellies, curvaceous bus shelters, winter-conscious fire pits and other we've-made-it-after-all amenities.

In other words, it was the High Line (Corner's world-famous pedestrian remake of a New York City elevated rail line) on the street level. And it was as seductive as all get-out.

Several seemingly endless years of construction and $50 million-plus later, the tepid results don't exactly line up with those renderings.

From the looks of it, the lion's share of the budget appears to have been funneled into unseen infrastructure. Which seems weird, since the two previous mall construction projects, in 1967 and 1991, also had their share of underground improvements.

"All three were full-blown reconstruction projects, from building face to building face," said Don Elwood, director of transportation engineering and design for the city's Public Works Department. "But the amount of underground work was greater this time around. There's more development near Nicollet, which means that the demand for utilities — sewer, water, gas, telecommunications — is far more intense."

Makes sense. Still, the biggest change to Corner's proposal — replacing custom-made pavers for bland pavement — feels like a second-rate compromise.

Not that anyone was going to shell out an additional $24 million (the result of a ridiculous budget miscalculation) to cover the cost of those pavers. But the solution, a 12-block "floor" of poured concrete, has left an overwhelming sense of flattened, washed-out gray, everywhere.

Etched patterns and some tinting (in charcoal, slate and other like-minded tones) helps, but only slightly. The sweeping visual tedium is only reinforced during our dreary winter months, when "snow" and "overcast," two of the season's predominant colors, match the pavement's gray sullen moodiness.

There is an upside. That neutral palette — and the streetscape's intentional spareness — is most successful when programming and mall tenants take charge. Thursday's bustling farmers market is an ideal example. Ditto the block between 9th and 10th streets. It's home to five well-appointed sidewalk cafes, and when they're going full-tilt, the stretch becomes one of the state's liveliest and most urbane outdoor spaces.

Mature trees, arresting art

Fortunately, there are trees. Tons of them.

This Nicollet is greener, boasting nearly 250 trees, almost twice as many as the 1991 incarnation. And they are no flimsy saplings. When planted last fall, most fell in the 8- to 14-year-old range, instantly imparting a lived-in maturity that new projects usually lack. Well done.

(Yes, about two dozen are wilting or have died. They're under warranty, and will be replaced.)

The mall's art collection is another asset. If only there were more of it.

The great success story is the restoration of the sole surviving element from the 1967 mall, Jack Nelson's elegant and eccentric "Sculpture Clock." It's at 11th Street, but it should have been returned to its original, more prominent address, two blocks to the north, outside the Young Quinlan building.

Among the newcomers, Ned Kahn's "Prairie Tree" is a standout, but the wind-animated sculpture looks wedged against WCCO TV, one of Nicollet's more architecturally distinctive edifices. Kahn's dynamic work deserves more breathing room. Perhaps across the street, where the Sculpture Clock currently serves as Peavey Plaza's de facto greeter.

Two significant artworks have been delayed but should debut this fall. Tristan Al-Haddad's gravity-defying "Nimbus" is bound for prime real estate in front of the Minneapolis Central Library, and George Morrison's "Tableau," a granite pavement mosaic and a holdover from the 2.0 mall, is slated for installation near the Loring Greenway entrance. (That's another odd placement, since Morrison intended his work to be viewed from the skyway system.)

Other welcome veterans include Kate Burke's 92 quirky cast-iron manhole covers and Stanton Sears' sexy "Stone Boats" benches, sculpted from Minnesota-mined gray granite.

But not all the artworks, well, work. Blessing Hancock's "Nicollet Lanterns," a series of lamp-like metal spheres, illuminated from within, have a decidedly Pier 1 Imports vibe to them; file them under "L," for Looked Good on Paper.

Far worse is the tacky "Light Walk," Corner's pergola-esque array of overhead mirrors, angled to reflect the clouds above or the people below. It's flimsy and gimmicky; as always, wouldn't trees be more inviting? Even worse, half of this two-block-long faux toaster oven has the temerity to exist next to the modernist masterpiece that is the IDS Center.

Where's the water?

Another disappointment: the new Nicollet is a fountain-free zone, and, no, the clunky yet oddly endearing brick ziggurat just south of 12th Street doesn't count. That's part of the Loring Greenway.

Fountains in weather-challenged Minnesota are tricky.

But Lawrence Halprin, the San Francisco-based landscape architect responsible for the groundbreaking 1967 mall, understood that the frazzled urban psyche benefited from the sight and sound of splashing water, which is why he incorporated more than a half-dozen fountains into his design. While most weren't exactly graceful ("horse troughs" were a common and not inaccurate description), they served their purpose.

The absence of any water features underscores what is clearly a primary goal for Nicollet 3.0: low maintenance. That budget-conscious message is telegraphed loud and clear.

Try, for example, to find a flower, anywhere (sidewalk cafes don't count). Visit Chicago in May, and Michigan Avenue's wide planters are filled with more than 100,000 tulips, transforming the public realm into a gasp-inducing rainbow.

Meanwhile, Minneapolis' main street is a cheerless sea of concrete, the monotony broken only by dozens of brightly colored, randomly scattered chairs.

Custom designed in a handful of styles and done up in cheery hues of yellow, green and blue, they're reminiscent of the place-making versions at the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris and, closer to home, the always-packed lakeside terrace at the University of Wisconsin's student union in Madison.

They're great, especially since they subversively rub against the grain of the unyielding Midwestern work ethic: What do you mean, you're going to just sit there? During the workday? In the middle of the city?

Sadly, beyond those chairs, the mall is primarily a two-dimensional landscape. Artworks and some crisply designed kiosks aside, little is fixed to the sidewalk, or rising off it; no benches, no planters, no flower pots, nothing. Easy snow removal, yes. Beauty and whimsy, not so much.

Night lights

The collection of department stores and specialty shops that once earned Nicollet its "Fifth Avenue of the Upper Midwest" moniker is long gone. (Window shopping, what a quaint notion, right?)

That absence of a retailing critical mass — and the energetic pedestrian ant farm that it yielded — has muddled Nicollet's place in the life of downtown Minneapolis.

What is Nicollet now, since this latest incarnation appears to have lopped "mall" off its name?

Corner & Co. wisely understood the new world order and channeled these implications into their design, segmenting the 12-block thoroughfare into a series of zones featuring design components that reflect different uses.

The most successful are the "Woods" at the northern and southern ends, where the emphasis on greenery is a boon to the region's ever-growing number of residents.

Yes, the curbless intersections are a smart idea. The only issue with the slick-looking bike racks is that there aren't enough of them. The glass bus shelters — spaced approximately every other block — are attractive and actually sheltering (and, no, those annoyingly loud buses aren't going anywhere).

The nighttime illumination, from both above and below, is effective and nuanced, a welcome change from the glaring prison-yard aesthetic of so many city streets.

Still. Halprin crafted timeless street lamps and scaled them for the mall's primary users: pedestrians. In contrast, Corner flanks Nicollet's west side with towering 49-foot masts (painted gray, of course), seven or eight per block. They're equipped with flexible spotlights that illuminate from far above, and topped with a wandlike LED beacon.

They form the so-called "Light Ribbon," programmable lights intended to visually accentuate the slight C-curve in each block's roadway. Cool idea. Unfortunately, the six skyways spanning Nicollet block that vista.

Replacing Halprin's original Nicollet Mall was an act of Teardownapolis hubris rivaling the demolition of the Metropolitan Building. The second version was as generic as they come. This third iteration has corrected many of its predecessor's deficiencies, so we should be thankful for that.

Still, given all the time, effort and expense, it's not unfair to ask, "That's it?"

Followed by, "Would it be so difficult to plant a few geraniums?"