James Corner Field Operations tapped to redesign Nicollet Mall

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September 19, 2013 // UPDATED 9:48 am - September 23, 2013
By: Ben Johnson
A view of what Nicollet Mall might look like during the winter
James Corner Field Operations
Ben Johnson

The planned $40 million makeover of Nicollet Mall passed another milestone Thursday, when a team led by James Corner Field Operations of New York City was chosen to design the project.

Corner presented his team’s vision for the new Nicollet, dubbed “Nicollet Walk,” along with two other finalists Tuesday night at the Guthrie Theatre.

His plan divided Nicollet into three sections called Live, Work, and Play, over a 12-block stretch running from Grant St. to Washington Ave.

“We tried to think of how we can treat [Nicollet] in design terms with paving and planting and furnishing and lighting to create a unified street, but give slightly different thematics to three areas,” said Corner during his 30-minute presentation Tuesday.

 A bevy of flashy amenities were shown or discussed Tuesday, including mirror-bottomed skyways, fire pits, rows of tall lighting masts, bus shelters with a small shop attached, moveable furniture, a dedicated bike track and a small stage surrounded by seating and shaded by trees, which the British-born Corner called “Theater in the Round.”

“The panel was very drawn to the Corner team’s ‘flexible framework’ approach, in which they would opportunistically place ammenites along the way as underground utilities and other existing infrastructure would allow,” said David Frank, Minneapolis’ Director of Transportation and selection panel member.

Frank also cited Corner’s ample prior experience dealing with skyways, existing utilities, firm budgets, community engagement and public/private partnerships as reasons for the panel’s “strong consensus” in choosing his team.

Corner has been involved in dozens of high-profile urban projects spanning the globe. Arguably his most famous project is High Line Park, a mile-long greenway built on an abandoned elevated railway in New York City.

City staff toured High Line with Corner over the summer after taking his staff on a tour of Nicollet Mall July 12.

The three finalists – the other two teams were headed up by Daoust Lestage of Montreal and Tom Leader Studio of Berkeley, CA – were each paid a $30,000 stipend for its proposal and each had an hour and a half to present to the selection committee on Tuesday.

The presentations included a duplicate of the half-hour presentations the public saw, followed by an hour of question and answer.

The selection panel deliberated for two hours on Wednesday before arriving at its decision.

Corner’s team includes seven other firms, four of which are based in Minnesota.

Funding not yet secure

The city of Minneapolis and the Downtown Council have continued to press forward with the ambitious project, confident that the state will come through with $20 million in bonding money next spring.

“[The Nicollet Mall project] is Minneapolis’ number one bonding priority and we expect it to be a strong candidate next spring,” said Frank.

Last week Mayor RT Rybak admitted he thinks a stronger case can be made for the project with a design team selected and conceptual renderings to show off.

Last year $25 million was included in the initial Nicollet bonding bill, but that was reduced to $20 million in committee. The reduced bill was included in Governor Mark Dayton’s bonding proposal, but it didn’t make the final cut.

“The final [bonding] bill was meant to make sure that they could continue to move forward with the renovation of the capitol, which was already underway,” said State Rep. Raymond Dehn, who sponsored the Nicollet bonding bill this year, and plans to do so again next year. “The projects that were included [last year] were ones that would’ve been in a tough spot if they did not receive bonding money.”

The city and the Downtown Council have budgeted $1 million to fund the project through next May. Those funds were used to run the design team selection process and will pay for concept design, preliminary images and community engagement, according to Frank.

If all goes according to plan and Minneapolis is awarded $20 million in the spring, the next step will be securing the remaining $20 million from private contributions.

Betsy Buckley, the interim Downtown Council president, said her staff is exploring many different avenues to raise that money. An assessment on the businesses that line Nicollet – including the behemoth corporate headquarters of Target and US Bank – will most likely be utilized, but probably won’t be the exclusive source of the private share.

“Assessments are the old way to do something like this, but we live in a world that is much more connected,” said Buckley. “We’re really looking at creative, innovative financing so that it’s done in a way that benefits all, and gives all an opportunity to contribute.”

Buckley mentioned donations from family foundations, heritage legacy gifts, and contributions from residents that live downtown as examples of alternate revenue streams.

On September 24 City Council will decide on the “locally-preferred alternative” for the route streetcars will take through downtown, if that project secures full financing. It’s expected that the locally-preferred alternative will include a route that travels down at least some of Nicollet.

 On October 3 City Council will have to approve the selection of Corner’s team. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2015 and the project is scheduled to be completed in 2016.