With fewer commuters coming to the office, downtown Minneapolis must reimagine itself. Photo by Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer.
The Dayton’s Project was announced to great hoopla in 2018, promising to bring life to one of downtown Minneapolis’ most iconic properties. A developer team was going to rehab the 120-year-old building into a mixed-use office, retail and food hall, marking a resurrection for the mothballed department store. It was welcome news because Dayton’s holds a totemic place in the hearts of many Minnesotans. During the annual Christmas pilgrimage to its 8th floor displays, families trekked up the endless escalators into the window box wonderland of sugar treats and children’s stories.
The food hall renaissance has failed to materialize, another victim of rapidly changing circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. Visiting one recent Wednesday afternoon, vendors at the interim market place looked awfully lonely among the various artisanal kiosks. Even with new tenants like Unilever and Ernst & Young moving into offices upstairs, most salespeople had little to do.
“You should have been here at Christmas, it was non-stop,” one cashier told me as I commented on the lack of shoppers.
A lot has changed in downtown Minneapolis since the pandemic broke out in Spring 2020. One day, downtown employees were commuting to the office, eating in skyway restaurants and buying anniversary gifts on their lunch break. The next day, they weren’t.
Like a table flipping over, the pandemic upended assumptions about American downtowns, exposing a fundamental flaw with places that have, over the past few generations, become synonymous with white collar, nine-to-five office workers. After those folks disappeared overnight — over 150,000 in Minneapolis and about 50,000 in St. Paul — normally-bustling downtown streets became eerie in their emptiness.
As the pandemic dragged through 2021, hundreds of businesses predicated on everyday workers immediately lost their revenue streams, and safety on public streets became precarious without a critical mass of people around. The truth is that most security depends not on policing or technology, but “eyes on the street,” — folks walking around, eating lunch, and smoking on work breaks. The perception and reality of public order quickly frayed.
Even today, there’s no going back for key parts of the downtown landscape in both of the Twin Cities. Target Corp, downtown Minneapolis’ most important employer, announced that its 5,000 downtown workers would adopt hybrid schedules permanently. Similarly, much of the state workforce that would normally populate downtown St. Paul and the Capitol campus will also remain hybrid, at averaging at most two days a week at the office. That’s a huge, permanent cut to everyday workers in both Twin CIties’ downtowns, and a lot is likely to change.
“Pandemics accelerate us into the future by giving us a taste of what future life might be like,” explained Thomas Fisher, the former dean of the University of Minnesota School of Architecture, when I asked him about how COVID-19 affects downtowns.
It turns out that this future offers risk and opportunity for downtowns. The risk is that office vacancies decimate the tax base, pushing city costs onto residents. The worst case scenario means a vicious circle of higher taxes and declining services. But with creativity and foresight, this moment of urban tumult offers cities a chance to reimagine themselves, to transform boring office districts into vibrant places where people live, and to ensure that downtowns thrive in the 21st century.
‘We don’t have to do any of those things’
“For this pandemic, I argue it has really been a transition in the relationship of the physical to the digital world,” Tom Fisher told me. “We have had this technology — smartphones, internet, digital platforms — but they were still relatively marginal. You still had to go to work, commute to the office, go out to shop. You still had to drive to the store and go to school to learn. What this pandemic showed is that we don’t have to do any of those things.”
Fisher now heads the Minnesota Design Center, and has written a new book on the history of cities, architecture and pandemics. He describes how the 1918 flu pandemic, for example, triggered urban decentralization that helped launch American suburbia.
He says COVID-19 catalyzed a transformation in downtowns that were never all that stable in the first place. Two years of changes are merely the latest chapter for downtowns that have always been reliant on booms and busts, reactions and over-reactions, and a low-key class struggle over space.
“The morning commute in particular has changed,” Fisher said. “The old 9-to-5 idea of office work has largely changed. We may discover our infrastructure is overbuilt after this pandemic disappears.”
For commutes, the data are clear: Peak-hour driving in the Twin Cities is down 20% while commuter transit is down 75%. In-person dining, hotel and office occupancy are lingering at half of their 2019 levels, and vacancy rates for some regional office space have reached 30%.
These trends mean that planners at agencies like the Metropolitan Council and the Minnesota Department of Transportation ought to be crumpling their long-term plans and tossing them in the nearest recycling bin.
Unless they can be used flexibly, billions of dollars of infrastructure and architecture will become functionally obsolete. This list could include shopping malls, downtown-to-suburb bus systems, freeway onramps, paid express lanes, municipal parking ramps, convention hotels, and even perhaps the skyway system itself, which relies on attracting a critical mass of daily workers.
If you ask Tom Fisher, without a consistent density of workers coming downtown every day, even the iconic 20th century skyscraper might be a thing of the past, to be replaced by the kind of condos and mixed-use buildings you’re more likely to see in Minneapolis’ North Loop.
“The office is a relatively recent building type, a product of the 19th century,” Fisher said. “Before that, most people had offices at their homes. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be offices in the future, but rather that the office is now competing with the convenience of staying at home and working remotely. Offices will change in their nature, becoming more home-like just as home is becoming more office-like.”
What’s missing? Vibrant street life
The downtown shift might be a tough pill to swallow for building owners and city leaders retaining an older vision of downtown success. Like most major U.S. cities, Minneapolis boasts a tight-knit business community that’s trying hard to reinvigorate the downtown. But these days, what does that even mean?
“Part of the downtown economy is doing fine, especially the sporting events, theaters and great restaurants,” said Steve Cramer, the long-time head of the Minneapolis Downtown Council. “Meetings, conventions and business travel have been lagging, especially business travel. I don’t know what to think about whether that’s ever going to come back.”
Cramer’s Downtown Council dates back to the 1950s, when the exodus of companies like General Mills and the opening of Edina’s Southdale Center (the world’s first indoor shopping mall) put property owners into crisis mode. Compared to pre-pandemic life, today’s changing tides might be just as sweeping.
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That’s one reason why the group recently launched a page it calls “Downtown Reanimation,” which cheerfully tallies the number of businesses, workers, jobs and activities that have returned to downtown.
Though the name invokes the image of a Dr. Frankenstein reviving a corpse, the reality on the downtown streets isn’t quite as morbid. Baseball games are back at Target Field, First Avenue is sold out most weekends, and rents for downtown apartments are back past their 2019 levels.
The same holds true in downtown Saint Paul, ten miles east. Because it’s smaller than Minneapolis, St. Paul city leaders are looking for new ideas for bringing life to downtown streets.
“There’s the old model of downtown being a central-business district, and an entertainment district,” said Joe Spencer, the head of the St. Paul Downtown Alliance. “We’ve been moving away from that model, pre-pandemic, to a 24/7 downtown: People who live there, people going to work and people coming to visit all on the same block.”
Spencer’s Alliance is the St. Paul counterpart to the Minneapolis Downtown Council, though with a much smaller budget. They’ve spent years reinvigorating the downtown streets, something that’s been a struggle in every U.S. city, since the downtown zenith of the 1950s.
The pandemic accelerates the downtown transition. For both Minneapolis and St. Paul, shifting workplace patterns mean re-thinking the balance between office space and other uses for downtown land. One obvious step — especially amid a housing shortage — is to encourage more conversions of Class B and C office space into residential homes, like the recent proposals for the Minneapolis 1960s-era Northstar Center or St. Paul’s 1980s Landmark Towers.
More flexible, mixed-use and resident focused downtowns represent a shift from 20th century planning ideals. In the past, the urban growth coalition of boosters, building owners, elected officials and business people preferred single-use downtown districts predicated on attracting big corporations like Target or Wells Fargo, around which an entire office economy would emerge. These cores were often flanked by centralized, large-scale institutions like convention centers and their associated hotels.
Then there was the chimeric red herring: a downtown shopping mall, the long-held goal for city planners. In almost every case – City Center or Block E in Minneapolis; Town Square or Galtier Plaza in St. Paul – these large-scale projects made downtowns less adaptable and resilient to disruptions like COVID.
Another challenge the post-pandemic normal is that U.S. downtowns perform terribly when it comes to small business vitality and vibrant public space, and Minneapolis and St. Paul are no exception. Almost any European or Asian urban core has more street life in one block than entire square miles of American cities.
There are a lot of reasons for this, most having to do with the dominance of the automobile. But on top of that, there’s a deeply rooted anti-urban streak in national politics, where few things predict political affiliation better than the distance one lives from neighbors. It’s no surprise that, in Minnesota, the urban/rural divide has become the defining touchstone of partisanship. Especially in Minneapolis, where the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers touched off a wave of demonstrations, anything having to do with downtown becomes highly politicized.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, who was re-elected last year, is at his best when he’s acting as a downtown booster, cheerleading economic development or a big event like the 2019 Super Bowl. His leadership on public safety issues, by contrast, has fractured the city. Downtown interests that are generally supportive of police funding are often pitted against neighborhoods and constituents demanding police reform. The long-term problems around policing and racial justice have polarized the City Council, often sucking up all the oxygen — and rightfully so — of the political environment. Which in turn deprioritizes what might otherwise be key political priorities like downtown evolution.
Over in St. Paul, the downtown has been in rough shape, with state employees still largely absent from the offices around the State Capitol. Long-time businesses like the Black Dog Café, Tin Whiskers Brewery and Black Sheep Pizza announced their permanent closing in 2022. According to Joe Spencer, without workers, the entertainment, sports, and music venues have been largely carrying the downtown businesses.
The pandemic illustrates how, for both downtowns, the real goal is to add housing. Only with a larger population will the area be resilient to sudden changes like that brought on by the pandemic. Spencer of the Downtown Alliance says the residential population has doubled in the past decade to 10,000 people, but it remains low compared to other cities. St. Paul hopes to triple that number in the next few years.
“Ideally, we’d also grow the number of jobs from 55,000 to 75,000 jobs that would be the kind of density and intensity of use that would throw off the most vitality for years,” Spencer told me.
Minneapolis suffers the same problem, but on a larger scale. Downtown has certainly been adding housing, with areas around the central core like the North Loop, Loring Park and Washington Avenue replete with construction cranes. The ultra-expensive Eleven condo tower is now selling million-dollar downtown views, while the North Loop Green, a 36-story mixed-use housing tower, is currently under construction next to Target Field.
Whatever their struggles, anyone who says downtown is dead or doomed or obsolete is fooling themselves or selling something. The supposed flight out of downtown during COVID-19 was largely exaggerated; recent data shows that downtown population grew by over 5% in 2021, and downtown Minneapolis’ population is larger than all but a handful of Minnesota cities.
This spring, the 37-story RBC Gateway tower, the city’s tallest skyscraper in decades, has been completed on a key spot next to the once-infamous Gateway Park, the epicenter of the largest bulldozing and so-called urban renewal project in city history. It’s a gleaming symbol of the future.
In a denser future, efforts like the Dayton’s Project — a hub boasting of both diversity and small-scale retail — might actually be perfect for a more mixed-use downtown Minneapolis. But like every downtown business, it will have to reduce its expectations of tens of thousands of white-collar workers eating lunch every day.
The Minneapolis Downtown Council recently placed ads throughout the skyway system aimed at keeping people coming back downtown; one tagline reads “the best part is you.” That’s certainly true, as downtowns have always been the most vital parts of cities, the only places where everyone crosses paths.
With some creativity, and the ability to ditch old ideas and embrace change, the Twin Cities’ two downtowns will keep thriving in an era where office workers are not the keystone of the social world.
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