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Two weeks, they said. No one thought it would be a year and several months before downtown workers returned to their towers.

If you're one of the people who have been away from downtown Minneapolis since the pandemic began, you might have some questions about what it's like now. I've been downtown several times a week since April 2020. Let me see if I can provide an update on the current state of the city.

Q: Are there people downtown?

A: Yes, and I'm one of them. It's not at pre-pandemic levels, of course. But it's much, much better than it was. For the past year, downtown has been depressingly underpopulated. You could've set up bowling pins in the skyway and played a few frames at high noon without hitting anyone.

Now, many buildings have something that's been sorely lacking: the sound of conversation. For a long time, it seemed that people moved silently and alone. These days, there are duos and trios laughing and chattering away. It's a small thing, and it's the most ordinary thing in the world, but when you hear it again, you realize how long it's been.

Q: Will it be weird if I wear a mask?

A: Not at all. Some do, most don't.

Q: Are the streets safe during the day?

A: If I say yes, you can guarantee there'll be a fistfight today on Nicollet Mall. But I haven't witnessed any problems in 14 months of downtown visits. The more people there are downtown, the safer it will feel.

Q: Are there any restaurants and shops left in the skyways?

A: I have to tell the truth: It's rough. One week, I'd be walking through a skyway, thinking "There used to be a Caribou, a DQ, and an Au Bon Pain. Well, at least the cellphone store's still here." And the next week the cellphone store has the grate down, and the employees are boxing up the shop.

Turns out that when everyone works from home for a year, the places that rely on workers can't make enough money. Oddly enough, the banks are still there. In fact, it seems like there are more banks in the skyways, including Chase and Bell, with branches in City Center. Some convenience stores have held on, too.

Restaurants may not have fared so well. The entire Northstar Center food court was empty at one point, except for Walkin' Dog owner Dave Magnuson, who kept slinging red-hots. Some restaurants have cleared out, some have just shut their doors, so it's hard to tell which will reopen and when.

Still, there are places to eat in the skyways. Hamburgers? Salad? Falafel? Pizza? Asian? You can lunch at a different place every day and not run out of options for a while.

Retailers seem to have struggled, as well. Banana Republic pulled out of the IDS. Saks Off Fifth sprang to life a month ago, but only to perform last rites. After a week the only thing left were some silver mannequins piled on the floor. Even they're gone.

Let's hope that as more workers return, more places will open.

Q: Is there any good news downtown?

A: Yes. The IDS Crystal Court is getting a makeover, which includes new trees. Big ones. And they'll get bigger — 24 feet tall at maturity. There's also a new fountain under construction.

Q: Anything else?

A: There's a new skyway. The Minneapolis Public Library is being connected by skyway to the 365 Nicollet condo tower across the street, when it's opened later this summer. This is the first time the library's been accessible by skyway.

Q: Has the city changed?

A: If you've been gone for a while, you may be surprised to see several new buildings under construction. The RBC Gateway tower, at Washington and Hennepin avenues, has risen more than 25 of its planned 37 stories. And there's a new 22-story apartment building across the street at 270 Hennepin Av. S. (aptly named 270 Hennepin). And Hennepin Avenue itself is getting a redo.

There's also the new Larking apartment tower, now getting its brick facade, at 8th Street and Portland Avenue S. Nearby, at 1400 Park Av. S., the massive Gatsby apartment building is adding to the denser character of the neighborhood. In the distance, the classic prewar shape of the 11, a 41-story condo tower, is rising like a sentinel on the edge of downtown.

Q: Is there one highlight?

A: Yes. The Public Services Building, across from the Hennepin County Government Center. Architecturally speaking, it's one of the best additions to downtown in decades.

Inside, it offers plenty of public art. The skyway-level walls are punctuated with stained-glass windows depicting Indigenous American motifs and ideas, as well as an abstract that tracks the changing demographics of the state over time.

The main lobby has a sculpture hanging from the ceiling, a series of interconnected loops of blue and light blue, summoning the spirit of the water and the sky.

The lobby also has broad glass windows where you can sit and look out at the Government Center plaza and its fountain, as well as the respectable bulk of City Hall.

The site that houses the Public Services Building had been a parking ramp. No one tarried here with a cup of coffee to chat or just enjoy the view. Now you can, and while the sight is familiar, it somehow feels fresh and bright and open.

In some places, downtown is a bit worse. In some places, it's a lot better. But it's coming back: storied, unique and ours.

One day, it may be like no one ever left. That day can't come soon enough.

James Lileks • 612-673-7858