Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

How to Make Nicollet Mall More Friendly

Dateline: 6:58 pm October 8, 2013 Filed under:

I’m encouraged that the City of Minneapolis largely stood up to CenterPoint Energy on their request for a variance to reduce retail frontage facing Nicollet Mall from 60% to 20% of the building face. As reported in today’s Star Tribune, Minneapolis pushed back, and CenterPoint (and developer United Properties) have withdrawn their application for the variance on the 501 Nicollet Mall building (former Neiman Marcus store), and although retail will only occupy 20% of total floor area, at least the frontage of Nicollet Mall will include 60% retail space. Still, I can’t help but think this sets a precedent that leaves Nicollet Mall woefully short of retail frontage required for a truly active urban street.

centerpoint 501 NIcollet

Danish urbanist Jan Gehl, in his 2010 book Cities for People, indicates a truly active urban street frontage has 15 to 20 doors per 100 meters (328 feet) (10 to 14 doors is considered “friendly,” 6 to 10 a “mixture” (let’s be nice and say “semi-active”), 2 to 5 “boring” and less than that “inactive”). Considering downtown Minneapolis and Nicollet Mall blocks are just over 300 feet, this is easy to measure. With Neiman Marcus, Talbots, Caribou and the entrance to Gaviidae, the block face recently included just four doors, making it “boring” in Gehl-ese. The new plan appears to include a retail door at the corner of 5th and Nicollet, and an employee entrance for CenterPoint, and what looks like better and bigger windows. Assuming Caribou and Gaviidae entrances remain, the doors still number four for the block, though, leaving it still “boring.”

centerpoint 501 NIcollet rendering

Hmmm, so how are we doing on the rest of Nicollet Mall? City Center has just two entrances, one to Marshalls (located underground) and one for the “mall” itself – boring. The 601 block of Nicollet is “semi-friendly” with seven doors. The 801 block (Barnes & Noble, Walgreens, crepes) has eight, better, but still a “semi-friendly.” Even the 901 block (Dunn Bros, Barrio, The Local) has just seven. The newer blocks at 900 and 1000 with Target store, Retek and Target HQ are good but still “semi-friendly.” The Brits block – still just “semi-friendly.” The city allowed Target to reduce the doors in the old Let it Be Records building from five to one, from “kind-of semi-active” to “inactive.” Nice big windows, but inactive nonetheless.

Damn you Jan Gehl! How dare you determine none of my city’s best street is even “friendly?” Unless I’m missing something, not a single block face along Nicollet Mall is even considered “friendly,” much less “active.” That is interesting, because I find most of Nicollet from 8th to 12th Street to be pretty pleasant, with few exceptions. Perhaps Minneapolis isn’t asking enough of its code. What is galling to me is how many small retailers populate the skyways, making for many “friendly” sections of tubing on the second floor of my downtown (walk the second floor of the Baker Building from 7th to 8th Street and you pass 13 retail doors on one side – “friendly”). Of course, Gehl cites variation in function, transparent storefronts, façade relief and good architectural detail as other components for active and friendly streets, but doors are critical. Even stretching the definition a bit nets us only two “friendly” blocks – the 801 and 901 blocks. (Food trucks, while not having retail doors, do make the street more friendly wherever they park.)


A few observations. 1. Big sit-down restaurants are the primary reason Nicollet Mall is as friendly and active as it is. But we can’t rely on big restaurants with sidewalk tables to make all of  Nicollet great – there must be more small everyday retailers lining the street. 2. Arguably, the best frontages are those that were built around 100 years ago (see above). 3. The best storefront downtown is La Belle Crepe (below), but there is finite demand for crepes!


What is going on? Is Gehl’s Rule unfair? Are European stores smaller than ours because they consume less? Can we cut ourselves a little slack? Maybe. We can certainly do better. A common small store needs an average store width of 20 to 30 feet with a bay depth of 60 to 80 feet – your coffee shops, small convenience stores, barbers, and sandwich/lunch shops. Some can be smaller, but even at an average width of 30 feet, we could squeeze in 10 stores per 300 feet of our block faces, barely making the threshold of “friendly.” Actually, this is physically possible over time, is a worthy goal, and would be a huge improvement, but it will be exceedingly difficult for reasons I’ll get to.

I’ve asked before why we’re spending $40 million to “revitalize” Nicollet Mall, when simply adding more doors and paving the sidewalk in simple concrete would do far more to make the street friendly and active. It’s like we’re trying to run before we learn to walk, or trying to fly with just a jet engine – we need an airframe and wings first, then choose the right engine. Before we hire an expensive design firm, rebuild Nicollet Mall with fancy pavements, public art and tree groves, and expand the geography of the pedestrian-friendly corridor, we need to get the basics of the street right – more doors and windows.

If three simple things were to occur, Nicollet Mall would be much more friendly: 1. A form-based zoning code that required Nicollet Mall building frontages to have at least 10 doors (fire escapes don’t count, underground stores do) and related articulation, function and transparency, achieving the minimum threshold of “friendly” in Gehl’s world: 2. skyways didn’t exist and demand for coffee, convenience and lunch migrated to the street level because that’s where the foot traffic shifted; and 3. a ban on private corporate functions like WCCO, Target’s Plaza Commons and office space by the likes of CenterPoint or Xcel Energy – there is plenty of space downtown for these functions on the second to 57th floor of buildings, but they don’t belong fronting on our most valued pedestrian-friendly street. Using the airplane analogy, lack of a good code is like having wings that are too short and no ailerons, flaps, rudder or elevators to better control the plane, skyways are like flying in a storm with a huge downdraft (actually, an updraft that sucks life off the street to the second floor), and office and corporate space without doors are like missing pieces of the fuselage – they cause drag and affect the plane’s performance.

Today’s news about CenterPoint represents status quo for Nicollet Mall, and when we are competing against global cities, status quo is actually one step forward and two steps back. This is especially true when we’re doing contortions to rebuild the mall with all sorts of bells and whistles while not improving the frontage facing it. If that’s the bar we set for the block nearest a light rail station, I don’t know how we can expect the rest of Nicollet Mall to become a better place, day in and day out. Make no mistake, the farmers market and Holidazzle are terrific events, but they don’t happen every day. Skyways will continue to hobble our efforts to make great streets (we’re all grieving in various stages; I’m in denial while others are in acceptance). What buildings face the street and how they interact with it are critical and just as important as what is on the street itself. Until we get these basics right we may always be frustrated with outcomes on Nicollet Mall. We can do better, but this requires the city carefully addressing its priorities about what makes a great city.

1 Comment »

  1. This was the first transit mall in the United States, and it inspired the creation of transit malls in other cities, including Portland, Oregon and Denver, Colorado .

    Comment by Iris W. Trujillo — October 17, 2013 @ 4:56 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

Line and paragraph breaks automatic, e-mail address never displayed, HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>