This is a post about downtown Minneapolis. But when thinking about downtown Minneapolis, recently I’ve also been thinking about Dublin, Ireland.
Dublin has a reputation as a nice place where lots of other people travel. According to Mastercard, it is the 25th most visited city on earth. It is one of 32 cities for which Lonely Planet has a city-specific guidebook. If you’ve been, you’ll know that the reputation is deserved. It’s a lovely town.
But what is striking about Dublin’s status as a tourism hub is that the city lacks a lineup of globally famous destinations. Paris has the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. New York City has the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building. How many people can name even one landmark in Dublin, let alone one of similar international fame?
Often people fall into a simplified way of thinking about tourism that is centered on the idea of “attractions.” But the example of Dublin demonstrates that “attractions” are not necessary to draw in the attention and money of people from near or abroad. Simply being a nice place is more than enough.
I think this rule applies everywhere, even places like Paris or New York. Do people visit the City of Light to see the Arc de Triomphe? Do they travel to The Big Apple to gawk in Times Square? Certainly these are things that people do once they are already there, but for how many visitors are these points of interest the decisive reason for their travel?
Great cities are not collections of attractions, they are packages of something larger; a way of living. More than checking specific sites off a list, visiting Paris is about sitting in the wicker seats of a café, sipping a coffee served by a rude waiter, and watching people walk down the Hausmannian boulevards. Visiting New York is about falling into the hustle and bustle of the sidewalks, craning your neck upward at the forest of skyscrapers, and grabbing a bagel or a pizza prepared by someone who barely gives you a second glance. Visiting these cities is ultimately about pretending, for a period, that you are living the (highly idealized) life of a Parisian or a New Yorker.
This is also how I think about Dublin, a major tourist city without major tourist attractions. People go to Dublin to enjoy the experience of being a Dubliner. They wander around like a James Joyce character, they stop for a Guinness in Irish pubs, and they seek shelter from intermittent rain in cute cafes and shops. Dublin is a place where people want to live, ergo Dublin is a place where people also want to visit.
I think this lesson can teach us something about downtown Minneapolis.
WHO IS DOWNTOWN FOR?
Even before the pandemic there was a lot of frustration over the state of downtown Minneapolis. The enforced work-from-home period and a wave of anti-social behavior has only turbocharged this angst. Office tenants and commercial businesses are all reevaluating their place in the city’s core and nobody seems to have an especially clear idea how it’ll all shake out. The only thing that seems certain is that the 9-5 office-dominant downtown of the pre-pandemic period is gone for good—and many people weren’t even particularly thrilled with that iteration.
Just about everyone is in agreement on this. Downtown has been recently the subject of intensive working groups and feature profiles in the Star Tribune. There is a widespread acknowledgement that reinvention is necessary to some extent and latent motivation to make this reinvention happen—if only someone can provide clear direction.
But people also have plenty of prosaic concerns. At a neighborhood meeting this winter to discuss the long-term future of downtown, I listened to residents of Loring Park air a plethora of more immediate grievances. People wanted the Target at 9th and Nicollet to be open later than 6 pm (mission accomplished). People wanted a hardware store and some different clothing shops. People wanted the skyways to be better marked and open at consistent hours.
The dichotomy between short-term quality of life issues and longer-term economic issues is not exactly being ignored. But I think the complaints raised at this meeting should serve as a check on the predominant way that a lot of decision makers think and talk about downtown. A remarkable amount of attention is paid to big ticket ideas and one-off events to “activate” the area. A collection of well-entrenched groups maintain a steady effort to attract various sports spectacles and conventions. There is a constant hum of fretting about what suburbanites think about downtown and what types of goodies might lure them back.
This point of emphasis is not completely senseless. Downtown is the one part of any metro area in which the most people feel they have a stake. It is the one part of town that is uniquely suited to big ideas, big transformations, and big events. But I worry that this is the same surface-level thinking that sees tourism as a function of “attractions.”
One-off events do not represent a sustainable strategy. In and of themselves, they are attempts at a kind of downtown revival bank shot, an attempt to bring people to downtown permanently by bringing them to downtown temporarily. But downtown must have more to offer than food truck fairs. Outdoor yard games are not the basis for a going concern.
These initiatives cannot be successful unless they build upon a solid foundation. That foundation is the same foundation that underpins the success of cities like Dublin, Paris, or New York. In order for downtown Minneapolis to recover and reinvent itself, it must start by being a place where people want to live. If you focus on making downtown Minneapolis a place where people want to live, then the visitors will follow.
HOW DOES DOWNTOWN WORK TODAY?
Sometimes it is hard to place the highs and lows of downtown Minneapolis in a context that is untainted by both nostalgia for times gone by, and for what-ifs that never came to pass. But a strong case could be made that in spite of what you’ve read in the paper or heard on local news, downtown is stronger now than it has been at any point in a long, long while. It’s just about how you define “downtown.”
Look beyond the office towers and you’ll find plenty of places where people already want to live, and consequently where people already visit in numbers. Downtown’s population has been steadily growing for years and seems set to continue doing so. In the past decade, 11,982 units of housing have been approved within the area bounded by the freeway loop and the Mississippi River. As of this writing (and by my count), at least 1,993 units of housing are currently under construction downtown. This is a tremendous and ongoing success story that seems underappreciated.
Downtown has also not lacked for public investment. In the past decade it has added a new light rail connection and three new bus rapid transit lines. Taxpayer money helped build a new football stadium, lay out a new public park, and renovate several other public gathering spaces. The upshot is that it is easier to get to downtown from far away than it has been in decades, and there is no shortage of entertainment options when you get there.
Yet the perception of malaise is persistent and the reason is because this success is spatially uneven. Looked at in the aggregate, downtown is doing fine. Assessed separately, only the Mill District and the North Loop are thriving. Loring Park and Elliot Park are treading water. And the central business district, especially along Nicollet Mall, is in a deep recession.
This pattern of unequal growth and vibrancy is a critical clue to what has ailed downtown long before the COVID pandemic, and what hinders its bounceback. Downtown is not a unified whole, in which success in one area can easily be transferred to another. In particular, there are four key divisions that have long made (and continue to make) the core of Minneapolis less than the sum of its parts and less resistant to shocks:
- Land uses downtown were deliberately separated for decades, creating areas of office monoculture that were active only at specific times of day, and struggled to support activity outside of these times, even before the pandemic shaved 30-40% off the weekday working population.
- There is a lack of connection between different areas of downtown. These faults in the streetscape help exaggerate and accentuate the feeling of relative decline and isolation in the core. Instead of being linked by unbroken corridors of all-day activity, these areas of downtown are separated by blank walls and commercial dead zones.
- The skyways bifurcate pedestrian traffic in the downtown core, creating a class of businesses that open only for lunch and are accessible only to those who know the system. At the same time, few businesses outside of destination restaurants cannot operate profitably at the ground floor.
- The highway moat around downtown makes it impossible for the core of the city to support, and be supported, by adjoining neighborhoods. In contravention of basic economic logic, the periphery of downtown and the closest parts of the city’s adjoining neighborhoods are among the least valuable land in the city. This represents a massive deadweight loss, which is especially notable given the expected future decline in city revenue as the value of downtown office buildings decreases.
Given these four divisions, is it any surprise that the most vibrant parts of downtown are the ones that offer corresponding solutions? The North Loop and the Mill District are (1) mixed use, (2) connected to parks and trails (in lieu of other neighborhoods), (3) not served by the skyway system, and (4) comparatively less injured by the highway trench.
It is nearly tautological to say that what makes a place vibrant is the density of human connections. It’s this vibrancy that draws people to the pubs of Dublin, the cafes of Paris, and the sidewalks of New York. But too much of the physical landscape of downtown Minneapolis makes those connections harder, by senselessly dividing the places where people want to be. For downtown to emerge better than it was before the pandemic, this is the fundamental issue that must be addressed.
WHICH IDEAS MAKES SENSE FOR DOWNTOWN?
There is no magic bullet for downtown, just a lot of disparate thoughts coming from every corner of the metro and jostling to be heard. Some of these are good, some are bad, and many are more useless than anything else. What is needed most of all is a set of heuristics with which we can evaluate one proposal and compare it to another. Here are two questions I’d ask about every new idea for downtown Minneapolis:
First: How does this benefit residents?
Residents of downtown Minneapolis generate permanent vitality. They walk the streets and they patronize the businesses. Visitors generate borrowed vitality. They walk the streets, they patronize the businesses, and then they go home somewhere else and walk the streets and patronize the businesses over there. You can’t guarantee that you’ll get them back, and you have to work harder to do so.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with one-off events or pop-up festivals, but every idea for downtown that is worth significant investment must be targeted first and foremost towards the people who live there. If it improves the liveability of downtown for those people then the rest will take care of itself. This is the difference between something like temporarily closing streets for lunch events (for example) and permanent pedestrianization or annual seasonal amenities like farmers markets and ice rinks.
This same question applies to more intangible items, like press releases or news coverage. So much discussion of downtown Minneapolis is written by—or about—people who don’t live there. Yet tens of thousands of people are still living downtown or trying to move there, and the voices of these people, just like their daily needs, are given strangely little attention.
Second: How does this connect across one of downtown’s four divisions?
The barriers that keep downtown Minneapolis from growing and thriving as a unified area need to be identified and specially targeted. Every initiative in the city core should be judged by how it breaks down these walls and helps connect different uses, people, and places. By clearly diagnosing the faults upon which downtown’s halting prosperity is imperiled, we can take explicit steps to address them.
The conversion of office space into housing, especially in the central business district, could be incentivized through tailored permitting reforms and state tax incentives. Parcels at key locations for the streetscape could be more aggressively publicized, marketed, and master planned (the Gateway Parking Ramp is Exhibit A). Substantially more attention might be paid to getting better landscaping downtown, especially on interstitial streetscapes.
It might be too much to hope for the abandonment of the skyway system or the filling in of the highway trench. But the spread of the skyways could at least be arrested before it corrodes the street life of further areas. More visible connections could be made between the street and the second level. The intrusive and largely unnecessary highway ramps from I-94 and I-394 could be scheduled for removal. This is the time to think bigger about how downtown could be better.
WHAT DO WE WANT DOWNTOWN TO BE?
There’s no one idea that is a panacea for downtown. But there is, as I’ve tried to argue, an outlook and approach that downtown needs in order to recover. It’s a cycle that starts and ends with becoming a place where people want to live. People want to live in places where they can make connections with other people, even if just by watching them pass by. This momentum can build on itself and grow, bringing in more people to live and more ways to connect. This is the trite summary of how cities develop in the first place and what part of a city is more itself than the downtown?
The good news is that downtown Minneapolis has most of the ingredients it needs. Downtown is already further along on the path to repair—not just the damage wrought by the pandemic, but also the damage wrought by mid-century urban disinvestment and demolition—than many people know or will acknowledge. But it also needs these ingredients in larger quantities and it needs them to be in different places.
The process of recovery can go faster or slower, depending on how we approach it. The temptation to fall back on old and comfortable ways of thinking is strong. I am not really worried that misguided priorities will throw downtown Minneapolis into a “doom loop.” But there is a certain attraction to stagnation, because it is comfortable. I’m still worried about that sometimes.