Nicollet Mall can live up to its potential

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January 29, 2014
By: Sam Newberg
Sam Newberg

If we really are sincere about making Nicollet Mall a premier must-see destination, and one of the most vibrant public spaces in America, a few things must happen. Whether or not we spend $40-plus million to rebuild the street and then more to route a streetcar down the middle, we should completely overhaul the zoning code for buildings fronting Nicollet – we need a form-based code for the buildings and the street. And we should consider tearing down the four skyways that cross Nicollet between 5th Street and 10th Street.

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Before you shoot a million holes in this idea, hear me out. The website for the Nicollet Mall Project explains that Nicollet Mall has been “steadily deteriorating” and the goal is for Nicollet to become “one of the most vibrant, efficient and appealing public spaces in America.” One of the ten goals in the Downtown Council’s 2025 Plan is to ”transform Nicollet Mall in to a ‘must-see’ destination.” The designer of the Nicollet Mall Project, James Corner Field Operations has an impossible task – to save us from ourselves. They cannot do it alone.

This sounds like the last time we were mulling a reconstruction of Nicollet Mall. It was 28 years ago, when the committee tasked with making recommendations to the City Council invited Fred Kent of Project for Public Spaces to come and present his opinion. Coverage of his talk in the Skyway News reveals he pointed out lifeless storefronts, minimal vendors, dark, cold bus shelters, and that most outdoor seating was made of stone and uncomfortable. He also recommended getting rid of skyways. “You want to reinforce Nicollet as a main street, but if you put in more skyways, no one’s going to be on Nicollet.” He also said our buildings were “not related to the street,” and that more retail shops should face Nicollet, and we should have more retail and food vendors.

That was 28 years ago, and luckily we’ve made a fair amount of progress, although we still struggle with how to make Nicollet “one of the most vibrant public places in America.” The reconstruction of Nicollet that came out of that process 28 years ago resulted in arguably better bus shelters, a little more seating (although still made of stone), and a few more vendors (food trucks on Marquette are also worthy of mention). As well, better building design standards like the Target store and headquarters frame the street well and have added restaurant patios, adding valuable life. We’re also lucky that Macy’s hasn’t closed and that 150,000 or so souls still work in the downtown core and populate Nicollet. We’re getting some of this right.

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However, we did build new or replace skyways, and we have fewer retailers that front Nicollet (that’s how the street has been “steadily deteriorating”). To be sure, new restaurants and their patios have helped, but we still allow office and private uses to front the street, and that’s a shame. Recall that where Let it Be, Sawatdee, Key’s, and the Christian Science Reading Room used to be there is not a single retail door facing Nicollet Mall that a member of the public can use. Sure, Target has a private playground in the space, but it’s like a fishbowl and that block is devoid of public life, not “vibrant” nor “must-see.” Keep in mind that the most vibrant block faces with the most retailers are found along the east side of Nicollet between 8th and 10th Street – primarily in buildings that pre-date skyways. We can learn from the past, and a form-based code can help maximize the number of retailers facing Nicollet in the future.

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It is also worth noting that, at least as of three years ago, a pedestrian count revealed that Nicollet Mall was the most well-traveled footpath downtown, beating any skyway. That is great, as a combination of events like the farmers market, a couple food vendors, restaurants, and yes, nice weather, draw people outside. But just imagine if skyway connections across Nicollet were gone? Those 14,915 pedestrians per day between Gaviidae Common and City Center, for example, not to mention three other skyways, would instead access Nicollet at street level, greatly increasing the vitality and retail potential for downtown’s main street. You see, in many respects, because skyways exist, we have to bend over backwards to get people down to street level, instead of it naturally occurring. If roughly half of the foot traffic across and near Nicollet is still suspended on the second level, we’re missing out on significant street level potential. At least the Downtown Council has acknowledged that skyways are both a gift and a curse, but it’s a shame if another generation passes before we do something about them.

What have we learned since we last rebuilt Nicollet Mall? Hard to say. Cities are great when they have beautiful streets, buildings that interface well with those streets and when there are people to activate that space. From that perspective, Nicollet Mall is like a three-legged stool with two weak legs and a third in need of repair (and it’s still a nice street! Just think if we strengthened all three legs!?). The skyways succeeded in their original charge, which was to take people off the sidewalk. We then constructed buildings that hardly addressed the street at all, and have tried in recent years to correct the latter while still struggling with the fact that skyways continue to keep people off the street.

So what are we supposed to do? We could bring Fred Kent back, but we know what he’ll say because he told us 28 years ago. The ribbon cutting in 2016 will be a great event for elected officials who hold out hope that a cosmetic facelift of Nicollet Mall will magically transform it. Unless we implement a form-based code so buildings relate better to Nicollet Mall and seriously consider removal of at least a couple skyway connections to better populate that street, our well-intentioned efforts to make Nicollet Mall one of the most vibrant public spaces in America will remain seriously hobbled. Start with one example – remove the skyway between Gaviidae Commons and City Center, put in five retail front doors in City Center facing Nicollet Mall (find retailers or temporary art galleries), add some moveable chairs, another vendor or two and that outdoor fire pit on the sidewalk and see what happens. I guarantee we’ll like the result.

Sam Newberg writes about urban design/planning issues at joe-urban.com. This was crossposted at streets.mn.