Imagine a Nicollet Mall where pedestrians are free to roam past shops and restaurants without having to contend with city buses. Oh, and a number of them have drinks in hand.
That's a future Mayor Jacob Frey's task force proposed Tuesday, with the mayor saying the time is right to bring new life to downtown Minneapolis through one of the city's most famous thoroughfares.
The report from the "Vibrant Downtown Storefronts Workgroup" — presented outside the Dayton's Project — said the city should envision Nicollet Mall as a "pedestrian-only zone" and "explore alternative options for transit service elsewhere through downtown," meaning that at least initially, buses would no longer run on the street.
The task force also said the city's intergovernmental relations team should lobby the state to loosen liquor laws around temporary outdoor uses, explore legislation to allow open containers on Nicollet Mall during events and lighten up on the signage restrictions that essentially prohibit businesses from making the mall look anything like Times Square.
That vision piggybacks on the vibrancy in places like the adjacent North Loop neighborhood, where shops and restaurants overflow and parking is often difficult to find.
"This is really an important point in time," said Frey, conjuring the image of the bustling walking streets that have become destinations in many cities. "We have the opportunity to be on the cutting edge to change the trajectory of where our downtown's going, and we don't want to take anything off the table here."
The effort comes at a critical time for downtown Minneapolis, which for years has struggled to attract and retain retailers. Stores like Macy's (formerly Dayton's), Neiman Marcus, Barnes & Noble, and more recently, Nordstrom Rack and Marshalls have been shuttered.
Retail observers blame a lot of that change on a decades-ago shift in shopping preferences away from downtowns to sprawling suburban shopping malls with free parking. But the pandemic and civil unrest after the police murder of George Floyd only exacerbated downtown Minneapolis' situation.
Restaurants shut down, as did music and sports venues, and stores closed shop or limited their hours. The number of workers who have returned to their downtown offices has grown significantly since the start of the pandemic, but sidewalks and skyways are still far from their pre-COVID levels.
"The days of Nicollet Mall serving as a regional shopping destination with multiple department stores are long gone," the group said in the report. "Retail trends continue to challenge brick and mortar businesses ... and have taken a toll on the remaining retailers."
Dana Swindler, a North Loop retailer and task force member, said the effort to make Nicollet Mall more pedestrian is a good first step.
"[But] it's not going to happen overnight," he said, recalling the slow but steady evolution of the once-derelict North Loop.
Bob Greenberg — who has owned the Young-Quinlan building at South Ninth Street and Nicollet Avenue for nearly 40 years and participated in previous mall committees — isn't a fan of the recommendations.
For the mall to attract retailers, he said, it should be open to not only buses but also cars so that there are no challenges for people who want to shop and eat there.
"If I had a magic wand, I would put cars back on the mall," he said. "Things like parking and street access that bring bodies and bring use and bring activity to the area are hugely important."
At the same time, he said, that doesn't prevent the city from closing the mall from time to time to host events.
Swindler and other business owners cited a litany of challenges in recent years for the mall, including a multi-year construction rebuild. Others are regulatory, so the workgroup suggests re-evaluating licensing and zoning guidelines to allow for different types of businesses. It also suggested the city should understand how to better meet the needs of residents like Diane Fischman, who has lived in an apartment just a block off the mall for several years.
She doesn't own a car but can walk to Target, Trader Joe's and Whole Foods. And she can even have Costco delivered. But what she really misses are places to eat and gather with friends.
She's especially excited about the prospect of being able to dine out, like she does at Zelo on the mall, without having to hear and smell buses.
"I'm a fan of the plan because I think [bars and restaurants] are the only kind of retail you have on Nicollet Mall," she said, adding that similar areas in cities like Nashville and Kansas City have thrived.
For some of these plans, the task force recommended the mayor should include in his budget an investment of $75,000 in the back half of this year, which the Minneapolis Downtown Council/Downtown Improvement District would match. In 2024, the task force suggested the city's investment reach $750,000.
Last December, Frey announced the formation of the task force, made up of downtown business owners, city council members, real estate brokers, city boosters and others. The workgroup's recommendations go to the mayor, who will ultimately decide which suggestions to pursue. While the City Council won't vote on the recommendations, some might need council approval for full installation.
In the short term, the mayor said portions of the street could close to buses for a week or two at a time as an experiment.
"We're going to hit the ground running," Frey said. "We're going to quickly move toward implementation."