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10 Ambitious Ideas That Might Actually Save Downtown Minneapolis

No losers allowed in this batch of winning ideas.

Meet Minneapolis |

Watch out for buses!

Downtown Minneapolis has endured a rough oh, let's say, 70ish years.

As highway construction began encroaching in the '50s, the Gateway District—a 25-block stretch that once formed the heart of downtown—was largely paved over in the name of urban renewal. Around that same time white flight began hollowing out the area, and mixed-used developments aimed at winning folks back, like City Center and Gaviidae Common, landed with thuds in the '80s. The grand plan for Block E, circa 2001? Knock it down and replace it with novel attractions that'd surely lure foot traffic back to Hennepin Avenue: Hooters, Borders, AMC, Applebee's, et. al. (It predictably failed.) Today, the much-ballyhooed Dayton's Project does not appear to be in great shape. And the historically abysmal performances of our MLB, NBA, and NFL teams haven't helped things, either.

One constant through the decades has been the downtown workforce, desk jockeys whose eight-hour marooning downtown ensured office developers, retail businesses, and restaurants a captive audience providing steady cashflow. Then, of course, the pandemic happened. Workers with phony-baloney computer jobs (I include myself in this definition, calm down), summoning a combined sense of agency and pragmatism, realized: You don't need to suffer commutes, $100+ parking contracts, boss monitoring, expensive lunches, and missing your family to thwack away at keyboards all day.

This newish work-from-home normal continues to be a source of anxiety for execs and their managerial underlings—how are their jobs justified if they can't watch you work? Simultaneously, the major movers of capital—commercial real estate firms and developers—have watched their prospects dim. All of those forces culminated yesterday with a Minneapolis Downtown Council rally at The Armory, when the subservient face of downtown revitalization, Mayor Jacob Frey, told his friendly, biz-minded audience that those who opt to work from home are "diddling" "losers." He'd punctuate that with, I shit you not: "We're winners! We're winners!" (Frey later said the remarks were a joke, to which we'll, um, sure, also joke: If that crowd is seeking true losers, we suggest they turn inward.)

In any event! No amount of bullshitty mandatory fun initiatives ginned up by HR- and Downtown Council-types are going to "move the needle" (to borrow one of their favorite jargons) on making downtown a desirable destination. But ambitious, creative, people-centric plans that require actual investment? Seems worth a shot!

Here's our best batch of ideas, though please, do sound off in the comments.

Public Restrooms

A stinky wakeup call appeared last year when funk-rock legend Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers nearly shit himself in downtown Minneapolis. "I made it by the skin of my teeth to a restaurant a few blocks away," he offered, unprompted. We asked Lezlie Lowe, who literally wrote the book on this issue, 2018's No Place To Go: How Public Toilets Fail Our Private Needs, how to solve it. "[Municipalities] need to start thinking about bathrooms more as if they are part of the basket of goods people need to use the city properly," she told us. We know our man Flea agrees. The value-add here, of course, isn't just for those needing to piss; not having to see or smell other people relieving themselves is its own gift to the public square.

Turn the Post Office Into a Riverside Attraction

The moderne art deco post office at 100 S. First St. is perhaps the most stunning structure found in downtown Minneapolis. Completed in 1934, the riverside building stretches for almost an entire block along the most desirable real estate in the city. "A very good art deco building in a very bad place," architectural historian Larry Millet once wrote of it. Though the U.S. Postal Service still operates out of the place, Minneapolis leaders have speculated for years about turning the historically protected marvel into something the public can engage with. In 2015, Frey himself suggested it could become a food marketplace akin to Midtown Global Market, but those grand visions have apparently diminished.

Erect a "Bean"-Like Landmark

The best ideas are stolen, and Chicago arrived at a doozy with its giant, gleaming sculpture "Cloud Gate"—aka "The Bean." Let's crowd-source what our 110-ton metallic monument should depict in the comments.

Update: It has been widely pointed out that Minneapolis already has Spoonbridge & Cherry, which is not technically located downtown but, still... good point, good point. As such, the author will make the cowardly amendment that this spot now belongs to: converting unused office buildings into housing. (In the author's defense, the "Bean" suggestion was written moments before publication to pad this puppy up to 10.)

Build a Park That Doesn't Suck

I have grim memories of eating food truck lunches on the concrete blocks outside of U.S. Bank Plaza. Downtown Minneapolis might not have the space for a Central or Prospect Park, but goddamnit, we gotta do better than The Commons. That sad, treeless expanse of grass that sits above the ol' Star Tribune site is pathetic; it doesn't even have a pedestrian foot bridge connecting it over Portland Avenue! Things improve if you scoot over to the West River Parkway, but a large, centrally located, amenity-packed public green area for lunching and playing is a must.

Oh Yeah, Generally Beautify the Place!

Ex-Strib food critic Rick Nelson often tees off on the sorry aesthetics of Nicollet Mall. He ain't wrong!

Turn Nicollet Mall Into an Open-Container Pedestrian Mall

Credit again to the mayor: He floated the removal of buses from Nicollet Mall last summer, and even went as far as suggesting a Beale Street-esque provision that would allow open-air alcohol consumption. Again, we've not seen any progress. "Is this a cop-out instead of calling corporations back? Are we afraid to do that?" restaurateur David Fhima responded to the Strib. It seems the downtown booster club only knows one note...

Publicly Fund a Nice Ride Replacement

It's frankly embarrassing that a city of almost a half-million people depends on the philanthropic whims of an insurance giant ghoul to fund bicycle rideshare. When Blue Cross Blue Shield eliminated funding last year, Nice Ride disappeared and civic leaders exhausted themselves to come up with... nothing resembling a full-scale replacement. The city did roll out a half-baked constellation of racks to accommodate rentable Lime and Veo bikes. Just don't try and park 'em anywhere.

Explore Free Parking, Enact Free Transit

Until 2016, St. Paul offered free metered parking after 5 p.m. from Monday through Saturday (Sunday parking remains free to this day). City leaders understood their downtown became a ghost town after dark and, for a time, offered a no-nonsense perk to make getting there easier. Minneapolis must accept this, and deactivate those meters during event-free evenings; open up the city-owned ramps, too. On the public transit front, Metro Transit already promotes "Downtown Zone" fares of 50¢, in addition to a couple downtown-spanning bus routes that are outright free. Let's take that several leaps further and mimic what Kansas City, Olympia, Tucson, and other cities have enacted: free public transit.

Sure, Whatever, Pickleball!

This idea is widely mocked as a trendy, low-hanging solution trumpeted by imagination-less suits. But ya know what? Pickleball rules, and what if downtown Minneapolis became a pioneer by replacing surface parking lots with a vast network of free public pickleball courts?

Pay Workers to Commute

Workers aren't going to voluntarily suffer in order to serve the misguided notion of some Greater Public Cause, as some are suggesting they should. Workers don't owe their employers anything, and the bad bets that delinquent landlords placed certainly aren't their problem. Really, really, really want worker butts back in their downtown Herman Miller Aeron chairs? Target Corp., Wells Fargo, Xcel Energy, and the rest can fully subsidize transportation/parking in addition to paying per diems to workers they insist upon viewing IRL. Is that already happening? I wouldn't know. This diddling loser is working happily from his living room.

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