Quiet Nicollet Mall a boon to diners ?? but hurts some businesses

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April 25, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

Restaurateurs want a permanently bus-free street, but the hurdles are formidable

With the buses temporarily gone, Nicollet Mall belongs to the bikers and pedestrians.

Pleased by the new Mall aesthetic, some restaurateurs have called for buses to be re-routed to other Downtown streets from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The diesel fumes detract from the summer dining experience, they say.

However others miss the buses -- and the customers it brings them.

For instance, management at the Walgreens Drug Store at 413 Nicollet Mall, has cut workers' hours because the customer traffic has slowed to a trickle, a staff person said.

Dawn Hansen, 33, a Walgreen's clerk, said she has had her hours reduced since the strike began March 4.

"It's been bad," she said, sitting outside the store on a break.

She estimated business has dropped 50 percent as a result of the strike.

To add insult to injury, these workers depend on the bus to get to work. Hansen, a bus rider who lives in the Phillips neighborhood with her husband and two children, must get rides from her father and husband.

For bikers and walkers along the Mall, the bus hiatus has made life easier.

On March 19, the City Council passed 11-0 a motion introduced by Councilmember Lisa Goodman (7th Ward), who represents portions of Downtown, including Nicollet Mall, lifting the daytime ban on biking during the workweek. The new rule went into effect March 22.

During the strike, bicyclists are allowed on the Mall and Downtown bus lanes. When the bus strike ends, the biking restriction will go back into effect.

Bike traffic noticeably increased on Nicollet Mall when the strike started March 4.

One of the Mall bikers, Pamela Caserta, 22, used to depend on the bus to get to work. Now she rides her 1970s-era Raleigh 10-speed to get around.

Caserta works part-time in public relations at the Walker Art Center and was on her way to her first day of work as a wait assistant at Goodfellow's, 40 S. 7th St., on a recent afternoon.

"I would have dressed up if I could have taken the bus," she said. "Instead, I'm wearing jeans."

The restaurants along Nicollet Mall perhaps appreciate the respite from the buses more than other merchants -- though for some, it's a mixed blessing.

Staff members at the Newsroom, 990 Nicollet Mall, plan to petition the Metropolitan Council to keep the buses off the Mall from May to September.

Kristopher Gillis, the Newsroom's general manager, said the buses are a huge turnoff to customers and workers.

"To sit outside if you're a customer on a nice patio, on a nice sunny day, and you're drinking a glass of wine, and then this huge bus rolls up -- the temperature skyrockets 15 to 20 extra degrees because of the heat of the engine and then there's the smell, the fumes," he said. "It's probably one of the most disgusting things you'll sit through while you're eating."

Gillis said he'd like to see the buses moved to Marquette or Hennepin avenues. Keeping the buses away would reduce the need for maintenance, he pointed out.

Connie Halverson, a manager at McCormick and Schmick's, 800 Nicollet Mall, said she supports the Newsroom's petition, although the restaurant hasn't formally signed on to it.

However, she has mixed feelings about the buses. She depends on them to get to work and notes that some stores on the Mall, such as the Target Store, 900 Mall, appear more deserted.

Nicollet Mall is a city-designated special services district, meaning property owners pay higher taxes for capital improvements and general upkeep. Property owners have recently taken on additional responsibilities for housekeeping, freeing city crews to focus on bigger projects, like repairing cracked pavement on the sidewalks, among other things.

Goodman said it's premature to talk about a summer reroute with bus drivers still on the picket line. Before considering a Mall without buses, she wants to evaluate the impact of the Circulator, a low-polluting hybrid diesel-electric bus traveling on Nicollet and Hennepin. It was to be unveiled in connection with the opening of the light-rail transit (LRT) line April 3. The strike has indefinitely delayed LRT's launch, so the Circulator is on hold.

Metro Transit officials are quick to throw cold water on the reroute idea.

Moving buses off Nicollet Mall poses logistical hurdles, said Bob Gibbons, Metro Transit's director of customer services. The street handles 1,000 bus trips a day, he said, and Hennepin and Marquette avenues don't have the capacity to handle that many buses.

Further, Gibbons notes that Nicollet Mall was built by federal dollars expressly to create a transit corridor.

"It's the busiest transit street Downtown. It was designed to be that," he said.

John Cosgrove, a pub manager at the Local, 931 Nicollet Mall, an Irish hotspot across the street from the Newsroom, said he'd like to see what kind of impact the reroute would have on commuters before signing on to the idea.

"You have to look at the big picture," Cosgrove said.

As for the strike's impact on the pub's business, Cosgrove said there was a "little drop off" in customers initially, but sales have since returned to normal levels.

Other businesses along Nicollet Mall reported few impacts to business, other than the obvious -- it's much quieter now.

At James and Mary Laurie Booksellers, the bus-deserted Nicollet Mall made perusing for books inside the bookstore more serene.

James Laurie, who co-owns the 921 Nicollet Mall store with his wife, Mary, said he hadn't noticed any changes in business since the buses stopped running but said his wife has observed more customers lingering in the store in the evening.

"I like the quietness and the smell being gone," he said.