Today’s Nicollet Mall may not inspire an impulsive, Mary Tyler Moore hat toss.
Decades after the TV star first excitedly threw her hat in the air at 7th and Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis (there’s a statue to commemorate the gesture), the city’s most famous street is ready for a new look.
Built in 1968 during the height of transit mall popularity in North American cities, Nicollet Mall runs through the downtown portion of Nicollet Avenue. The only motorized vehicles allowed to travel on it are buses and taxis. The look of Nicollet today dates back to its most recent redesign, in 1991, and it shows through period-appropriate sidewalk and landscape design that, in 2014, appears rather dull. But the mall, surrounded by shops, restaurants, and office towers, is still the heart of downtown Minneapolis.
Architects from James Corner Field now hope to give Nicollet a more contemporary appearance in an era when cities expect their car-free oases to be more than just a simple separation of uses.
“We want to repair its dated nature but also help it become more of a gathering space,” says Lisa Switkin, James Corner Field’s principal in charge of the project. The new look will come with a new name, the “Nicollet Mile.”
The same architects behind Manhattan’s High Line, the former elevated railway-turned-instantly popular greenway, are facing the opposite challenge in Minneapolis—adding life to a street that’s surrounded by a popular, above-ground pedestrian skyway.
The skyway’s importance to a typical downtowner is hard to ignore. Pull up a seat inside the IDS Center's atrium during morning rush hour and you’ll see thousands of workers zoom above you in all directions on their way to work. A privately run network of indoor bridges, the system also connects to an impressive number of places to eat or run errands.
Unquestionably practical for a city with brutal, lengthy winters, no outdoor streetscape could compete with the skyway year-round. But even when the weather turns warm and downtowners find any excuse they can to go outside, some buildings have their backs facing the mall, creating dead space along what is otherwise a destination street.
Switkin and her group think there’s a better way to connect the two. A new space known as “The Island” would see the pedestrian bridge that connects the IDS Center to Macy’s spill out onto a new pedestrian area in the middle of the street. Still in the design phase, the architects envision a multi-level addition that provides not only more street-level retail, but a wide stairway that serves as an informal gathering space.
While “The Island” addresses the heart of today’s mall, the “Nicollet Mile” will be bookended by what Switkin calls “intense greenery.” From “Mississippi Woods” in front of the Central Library on the north end all the way to “Loring Woods” on the south, the nature-focused design will give a better sense of finality to both ends of the corridor. “People wanted the mall to create a better link to the Mississippi River and Loring Park,” says Switkin. “Now it will almost disappear.”
Construction is expected to start next year and finish in 2016. The entire project is estimated to cost $50 million, with $21.5 million in state bonds secured, $3.5 million coming from the city, and an additional $25 million from assessments on downtown property owners. Some, however, argue that Nicollet Mall, while imperfect, hardly needs such an expensive redesign.
Twin Cities transportation planner and blogger Nathaniel Hood argued in the Star-Tribune last year that poor building frontage is “the main culprit. As a pedestrian space, it’s already really, really good.” Hood would rather see the money spent on reconnecting Nicollet Avenue south of downtown, where it currently reaches a dead end at a K-Mart before resuming at E. Lake Street.
But the most visible pieces of a city’s infrastructure often receive the most attention. Nicollet Mall is still the face of Minneapolis’ downtown and the city is ready for its makeover.