Nicollet Mall Redesign and the Failure of Planning

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” – Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

The biggest impediment to improving Nicollet Mall is not the aesthetic of the street, but the buildings themselves and their poor frontages. This fact is apparently lost among the Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District’s Board of Directors, a self-selected group of downtown building owners, property managers, and corporate stakeholders.

The irony of their push for a publicly-subsidized Nicollet Mall redesign is that the single biggest problem with the street are the buildings themselves. Those advocating for urban improvements are precisely the one’s who are creating most of the problems.

The Downtown Improvement District (DID) driving the Nicollet Mall process is the same group who gave us the universally disdained $6 Christmas Market. This matters because it’s an organization composed of people with a disproportionate amount of power who are disconnected from everyday urbanism and what it takes to make a great place.

In the planning profession, we spend a lot of time talking about the virtues of Jane Jacobs’ works, but pay her little respect in practice. Our planning projects, and the leadership that supports them, still hold to modernist planning practices that have been long criticized. Our leadership, despite good intentions, continues to develop projects that accommodate those who do not live in the city all while paying lip-service to public input, diversity, and the little slices of chaos that make places great.

In a nutshell, here’s how a top-down Nicollet Mall redesign / Robert Moses system works:

The city starts the process by hiring the best outside ‘star’ consultant to tell us the things we already know. They draft renderings with the best design software money can buy that includes the finest superimposed human silhouettes unpaid interns can draft. Minimum engagement requirements are hit by having people fill out online surveys while business and political insiders, not the countless thousands of daily users or small business owners, drive the process forward.

Where projects are funding from State and Federal sources, local input is limited to ensure the process goes as quickly as possible. Local political leaders go along with the process, despite it’s flaws, because it isn’t local money. It is something for nothing, and something is better than nothing.

It begs the question: Are we still in the era of top-down modernist planning?

I think the answer is “sort of”. We have made improvements, learned from our mistakes, and we certainly aren’t tearing down entire neighborhoods for freeways. Yet, in many ways the same general mentality still holds true.

The big-budget process of creating most places are little different than the works of Robert Moses. And, as we historically seen, these top-down approaches tend to give us sterile places. For example, the new Nicollet Mall renderings more closely resemble the Mall of America than that of a real city street. It is not the beautiful chaos nor the street ballet urban dwelling humans crave.

We think we’re doing the right thing. We create neighborhood groups and then gave them limited power. We let them create their neighborhood plan, then we immediately ignore them. In the end, lobbying their local City Council member might be their most powerful tool. We’re better than we once were, but that’s not saying a lot.

Most of our buildings and street designs in our central cities fail to pass even the most basic Jane Jacobs litmus test. There is nothing wrong with Nicollet Mall that can’t be fixed by a small land use tweaks and removing some parking lots. When you traverse Nicollet Mall, you’ll quickly notice that building don’t always address the street frontage in a responsible way. That is the main culprit. As a pedestrian space, it’s already really good.

There is certainly a brick that needs to be fixed here and there. Add some climate-appropriate tree. The sidewalk heating system might need some updates and some fountains re-tooled. The Mall was reconstructed in 1991. At the time, a sidewalk heating system was installed – and it’s not worked since. And guess what? It doesn’t matter – the Mall still works because snow shovels still work (and they are much cheaper).

The main problem is that the buildings need to do a better job of addressing this pedestrian elements of the Mall. It needs more cafes, more food trucks, and more informal activity that integrates with building programming. If anything, Nicollet Mall needs more small storefronts, more diversity, and a little more chaos. It’s as simple as that. It adds to the diversity of the environment and gives people something to enjoy. Large monolithic towers may look good from afar, but often do little for the street.

I once wrote that Nicollet Mall was the heart of downtown Minneapolis and has history of being the Minneapolis’ Main Street. As time passes, I have changed my mind. Nicollet Mall is Minneapolis’ Mall of America. Lake Street and Central Ave are it’s Main Streets, and the countless other more urban streetscapes.

Nicollet Mall is a good pedestrian space, but its far from the heart and soul of Minneapolis. If it ever wants to be something else, it’ll need better building frontages, more doors, more windows with stuff in them, more small businesses, activated laneways (alleyways), smaller adjancent running streets, food trucks all the time, and more residential buildings.

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ATTN: BOARD MEMBERS: If you are a Board Member (or work for DID), fill out my personal website’s contact form, and I’ll send you a free copy of The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs.

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