Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Downtown Minneapolis Salvation

Dateline: 4:20 pm November 16, 2017 Filed under:

Alright, I’ll bite. Nick Magrino’s recent post in the City Pages, One Weird Trick to Fix Downtown Minneapolis, got me thinking. While I’ve advocated for (and been criticized for) skyway removal, my ultimate goal is the same as that of many Minneapolitans, that I just want to see a vibrant downtown Minneapolis street life, with ground floor retail spaces buzzing with activity. I say remove the skyways. Nick Magrino suggests banning skyway level retail. Let’s consider this.

The Sidewalk in Front of Brit’s Pub – Not a Skyway in Sight

Early in my career I was a commercial appraiser, working downtown. One comparable retail space table stands out in my mind all these years later – a single line that compared daily foot traffic, and that direct correlation with value. Skyway level retail spaces with the highest foot traffic, typically in the very core of downtown in and around the IDS and Crystal Court blocks, generated the highest sales and per square foot rents. In other words, businesses follow foot traffic. This makes perfect sense.

Nick Magrino’s comparison of today’s street level conditions with superimposed vibrant retail is effective, and not so far-fetched. It’s the time-tested visual preference survey, and who in their right mind favors blank walls and empty storefronts over a vibrant city? Regardless of how we get there, the visual preference survey works for me. I want to see downtown Minneapolis once again vibrant at the street level, with people on the sidewalks, walking and shopping.

Keep in mind Mr. Magrino isn’t trying to solve the problem of how to attract more retailers downtown. He’s just showing how existing skyway level retailers would appear if they were on the ground level, like any normal city. It’s really not that far fetched when you think about it. Want a cup of coffee? Walk down the sidewalk to get it. This isn’t rocket science.

My own rationale for removing one skyway per year is all that foot traffic would eventually move to the sidewalk and retail business would follow. Mr. Magrino’s argument in his piece is businesses will be forced out of the skyways to street level, and customers will have to follow if they want coffee, lunch or whatever people still shop for in person these days. I’m not sure which one of us are more delusional.

So how do we implement Mr. Magrino’s plan? He is, after all, on the Minneapolis Planning Commission, and perhaps that’s the place to start. A zoning code change that forbids all second floor retail uses, including bank tellers and tax advisors, not just restaurants and coffee shops. Doing so will instantly make all existing retailers nonconforming, and I’m not sure exactly what the ramifications would be, except for lawsuits. But I reason that, because no new leases could be signed, it would take five to seven years (or however long the longest lease is) for all retailers to disappear.

I know, existing retailers will not go quietly. And why would they? After all, if there’s more foot traffic in the skyways, why open a ground floor space unless you have to? That’s why I advocated for simply removing skyways; then people wouldn’t have a choice but to walk on the sidewalk (the torture!). Mr. Magrino takes the opposite approach, sort of the chicken versus egg, although I cannot identify which is which in this scenario.

If the vision is for a downtown Minneapolis with a vibrant public realm and active sidewalks, there are two ways to achieve this: ban skyway level retail or tear the skyways down. Either one could work, and both are extremely difficult to achieve, but since I believe any city worth its salt should in fact have a vibrant public realm and active sidewalks, then something has to be done. Besides, clearly the status quo isn’t working. Nick Magrino, you are howling at the moon. But I got your back. I say bring it on: ban skyway level retail.

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