Photo by Caitlin Abrams
Nicollet Mall’s makeover is long overdue. The public fixtures on the street, from bus shelters to flower planters, are badly designed, dated, and uninviting. It is only at the south end of the mall, where outdoor cafés give Nicollet real life, that it seems to reach its potential.
The hiring of James Corner Field Operations—the clunkily named firm that helped create Manhattan’s High Line—to revitalize the street was an exciting sign, but the plan the firm has created begs several key questions about what we can really expect from a revitalized Nicollet.
Field Operations’ best idea is creating direct connections between several key skyways and the street, basically forcing the glass vacuums that suck up so much pedestrian traffic to disgorge some of it as well. Other aspects of the plan, such as the wooded piazzas shown in renderings, seem less likely to attack what ails Nicollet: a distinct lack of activity too much of the day, too much of the year.
Field Operations’ before/after renderings were telling, using the same cheap techniques used in pimple ads. In the “before” photos, the trees were bare, the spaces empty. In the “after” drawings, everything was in bloom and teeming with people.
Let’s be honest with ourselves, downtown denizens: On a temperate spring/summer/fall day, Nicollet Mall is mighty inviting despite its current flaws. But making parts of it feel like Ely in July isn’t going to change the fact that the mall is inviting about 20 percent of the year. The rest of the time it’s too cold or hot or windy or wet, and given the alternative we almost always choose the skyway.
Outside lunch hour or rush hour, there’s another problem. The bus stops at Fifth, Seventh, and Ninth streets are magnets for people with nothing to do and nowhere to go—people who deal drugs, commit petty crimes, and glower at and harass passersby. They are frequently drunk, high, or mentally ill. Every city has these folks, but many hours of the day they are a majority of the people on Nicollet.
We can replace the bus shelters with frameless glass ones like they have in Vienna; we can create nooks where people can sip their lattes amid birch trees and chirping birds. But until we change our climate, tear down the skyways, and clear the streets of loiterers by vacating the bus stops, Nicollet Mall’s most permanent residents will probably remain the folks who do nothing but make other people feel unwelcome.
The solution? I wish I had one. I use Nicollet every day because I’m a bus rider. I love it at its best, but I see it more often at its worst. Tearing open some skyways will make a difference, I suspect. But the rest of Field Operations’ plan for Nicollet Mall seems destined to lie stillborn in a pile of icy snow littered with liquor bottles and cigarette butts, which most of us will view with disdain from 20 feet above.
Adam Platt is the executive editor of Twin Cities Business Magazine and formerly held the same post at Mpls.St.Paul Magazine. City Centered is his monthly column in Mpls.St.Paul Magazine that examines the cultural climate of the Twin Cities.