Downtown Minneapolis isn’t what it used to be – but that’s okay
Maybe downtown Minneapolis will never go back to how it was before the pandemic.
Maybe that’s a good thing.
Maybe we don’t have to cram workers into cubicles for a thriving downtown. Maybe in a work-from-home world, people are looking for more downtown than office towers and parking ramps and a cobweb of skyways designed to get people to work and then away to the suburbs.
Minneapolis planners, makers and dreamers came together to talk about it last week, at the first of three community forums co-sponsored by the Minneapolis Foundation and the Walker Art Center. People who love Minneapolis, talk about what they would love for Minneapolis.
This isn’t the first pandemic to shape and reshape downtown Minneapolis, said Thomas Fisher, director of the Minnesota Design Center at the University of Minnesota’s College of Design.
Cholera epidemics in the 1860s prompted cities to build water and sewage systems. Indoor plumbing sparked the industrial and construction boom that made Minneapolis a metropolis.
Social distancing during the 1918 flu pandemic sparked a century-long push into the suburbs. Downtown Minneapolis began to function more as a workplace than a living space.
After each pandemic, cities have changed and cities have survived, said Fisher, whose most recent book is “Space, Structures and Design in a Post-Pandemic World.”
“There are huge opportunities emerging as a result of pandemics,” he said. “We must not be discouraged. … We must prepare for transformation.”
Maybe some downtown commercial space will become housing instead. Perhaps the workplaces that remain will become more flexible, comfortable and user-friendly spaces with childcare facilities.
Maybe Minneapolis will open the door to artists, creators and entrepreneurs. Maybe the downtown of the future will be a place where families want to live and can afford to live.
The pandemic has changed the way Americans work, shop and live. The abundant cities narrative presents this as an opportunity. And as a chance to fix things in this town that were broken long before COVID.
Artist Gabrielle Grier wants to make sure there are more seats around the table for that conversation.
Grier, one of Wednesday’s panelists at the Walker Art Center, wants to make sure conversations about the downtown workforce include everyone who works downtown.
“I don’t know if we’re talking about the nurse working 14 hours downtown,” said Grier, who runs Juxtaposition Arts in north Minneapolis. A worker like that “must think about the journey, where he is going to eat, the possibilities of having to bring his family to these spaces”.
It’s time to bring these workers into the conversation, she said, “and not just people who live in the suburbs.”
If anyone yearned for the old downtown, former Minneapolis mayor RT Rybak offered a reality check.
Years ago, when Dayton was Dayton’s, Rybak stood atop the IDS Tower to show off his city to a visitor.
“Here it is,” Rybak said, waving to the view through the floor-to-ceiling windows.
The visitor admired the cityscape – the barren stretches of asphalt around the Metrodome, the industrial ruins looming along the riverbank – and asked, “Where is that?”
In retrospect, Rybak said, the bustling downtown he was trying to show covered only about seven city blocks. The same view today would show billions of dollars in residential and retail around the new stadium. The old riverside warehouses have become the bustling shops and lofts of the North Loop.
Downtown is home, office and entertainment for tens of thousands of people every day. And it is home to shuttered storefronts, half-empty office towers and homeless people suffering on half-empty sidewalks. Downtown isn’t what it used to be. Downtown is not what it could be.
Abundant Cities will host two more free public forums in April and May. Those who attend will have the opportunity to share their own ideas for a Minneapolis where everyone belongs, everyone is valued, and everyone can afford to live. A place where people who don’t need to go downtown still want to be downtown.
“Downtown is the center of a city,” Rybak said. “How we fill out the rest of the story is up to us.”
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