Downtown Voices will be publishing essays about downtown from candidates in the Ward 7 City Council race, which people are voting on now through November 7th. You can find information on how to vote here. Ward 7 includes Loring Park and the majority of the downtown core. If you want more coverage of City Council races, you can read candidate interviews and coverage of debates from Southwest Voices, or catch up on our elections partnership with MinnPost, including a voter guide and a campaign mail tracker.
Downtown Minneapolis is the economic, cultural, and social gathering center of Minnesota. Last year 8.6 million people visited. While this is encouraging and indicates recovery from the pandemic, it is still down from the 9.4 million visitors in 2019. The emphasis on efforts to attract visitors makes it easy to overlook that downtown itself is a neighborhood of 50,000 people, including 5,000 new residents since 2020. Based on thousands of conversations with everyday downtown neighbors and the myriad business interests, I see the future of downtown as an inviting neighborhood that balances residential and commercial needs, with an emphasis on entertainment and cultural vibrancy.
As an Urban Planning and Law consultant at the United Nations, I helped cities around the world plan and implement municipal policy. The challenges of shifting our built environment downtown to accommodate residents and visitors in the 2023 context is not unique to Minneapolis. Many cities face this challenge, and we can look to and connect with other cities for examples of success.
If elected as City Councilmember, I will prioritize centering the livability of residents while ensuring downtown comes back as a destination for visitors. Downtown residents deserve safe and walkable streets, affordable housing, retail, amenities, and a high quality of life whether you are a family with young children or an elder who lives car-free in an apartment, condo, or public housing. We need to be building a downtown that meets the needs of diverse residents.
While we commit to expanding our comprehensive public safety system, I will work on downtown solutions for belonging, sustainability, and vibrancy. My plan for downtown revitalization includes 5 main solutions:
- Convert offices to housing. We have high office building vacancy rates in downtown and an affordable housing shortage. Developers and unions are ready to work together on converting office buildings to housing and I will help create government incentives to make it happen. Office building layouts, with concentrated bathroom and piping infrastructure, are well-suited for conversion to Single-Room Occupancy (SRO) housing which is a unique form of deeply affordable housing with shared bathrooms. Nonprofit developers are well situated to manage these buildings, keep them secured, and provide wraparound services for the residents.
As the urban heat island effect impacts downtown, residents will suffer from hotter summers for decades to come if we don’t employ cooling solutions. During building conversions, we will need to deploy our green workforce to have fully electric buildings (as in, eliminating fossil fuels) that include green roofs and resilient outdoor greenery to mitigate and withstand climate change. I will work to ensure residents are able to stay downtown as we adapt to a changing environment.
- Fill vacant commercial spaces. The Downtown Council and Downtown Improvement District (DID) created a landmark program called Chameleon Shoppes to provide affordable commercial rental spaces for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color entrepreneurs to set up shop downtown. I interviewed Mary Taris, the owner of Strive Bookstore on Nicollet Avenue, whose shop provides a beautiful retail destination on the ground floor of Nicollet Avenue. I will work with the public-private partners to scale this program up. We need more incentives for building owners to lease out the ground floor for food entrepreneurs, daily retail needs like hardware stores and pharmacies, and creative and nonprofit community spaces.
With amenities on the ground floor, building owners and managers will have an easier time filling the higher floors as well. DID is currently working to document retail by location, type, and square footage. Collecting data helps us advance evidence-based approaches.
- Humanize our public spaces. Many residents have told me of their ideas to create concert series, pop-up art galleries, and food businesses. Let’s make it possible for them. And with public spaces that are green and host amenities like water fountains, seatings, and bathrooms, we can meet and share space downtown. Globally, great downtowns have bustling outdoor markets, street food, and events programming. We have had a great summer of programming, but our public spaces can operate this way more organically and sustainably year round if we allow for it. While we’re at it, how about opening up the skyways and providing signage to indicate what’s up there? Let’s invite everyone to experience the full breadth of downtown.
- Invest in arts and culture. Downtown is an entertainment district. Our local artistic talent is endless. I will work on expanding support for our venues, artists, and nonprofits. I’m excited about Minneapolis’ first director of the recently created Department of Arts & Cultural Affairs, Ben Johnson, and his commitment to supporting LGBT+ artists in Loring Park, working with cultural nonprofits in downtown facilities, and saying “Why not?” more often to creative ideas. By uplifting the local talent we have here in our own city, we’ll bring vibrancy that lasts, and connect in a deeper way with our own diversity, stories and communities.
- Establish a tourism improvement district. Last legislative session the state enabled Minneapolis to establish a tourism improvement district modeled off of several other cities, such as Chicago. If elected as Ward 7 City Councilmember, I would serve on the Meet Minneapolis Board and work with the 40 plus hotels downtown to agree on a rate of contribution to the program. I will ensure that expenditures benefit our all-season visits to conventions, concerts, sporting events, and other large social gatherings. Additionally, I am endorsed by our local hospitality union, Unite Here Local 17, who are improving working conditions for our hospitality staff. We need to both be creative in providing critical revenue to an industry hit hard by Covid-19, and have hospitality staff at the table. I am committed to making Minneapolis a more vibrant space for residents, workers, visitors alike.
Over the course of my campaign, I have connected with over 5,000 downtown residents in the Loring Park and Downtown West neighborhoods. Many stress that they have felt left out of development decisions. They feel the focus has been on attracting office commuters and local tourists, while their needs aren’t considered. I will lead by continuing to seek input from my neighbors and inviting them to the table in downtown development work groups.
New decision makers who are attentive, creative, and responsive are needed at the table for a future-facing downtown. I will be a connector on the City Council that says “Yes” to the great ideas of residents, entrepreneurs, artists, and community-oriented developers. Together we can build a brighter future for downtown.