Last spring, the Brookings Institution published an article examining how downtowns across the nation are weathering the pandemic—the ultimate stress test for business readiness and resilience. It observed that “in order to remain vibrant and maintain a strong market position, some downtowns were rethinking their purpose before the pandemic—not only as a business district, but as a place where people can live, work, and play in diverse, creative ways.”
Downtown Greenville, South Carolina, for instance, turned its main street, formerly a four-lane thoroughfare, into a two-lane, tree-lined promenade with shops and restaurants dotting the landscape. Nashville and Austin have both placed a strong emphasis on local artists and cultural organizations, which are helping their core cities build a sense of place and community pride. These growing metropolises are also strong proponents for mixed-use developments, which, by virtue, help to create convenient, walkable, and transit-oriented communities.
And while the downtowns of the Midwest weren’t examined at length, the write-up suggests that the cities that were undergoing similar revitalization efforts before and during the pandemic have the muscle and capacity to come back stronger than ever in our post-pandemic society.
Thinking Boldly and Inclusively
This calls to mind the mpls downtown council’s Intersections: The Downtown 2025 Plan, introduced in 2011, which, among its 10 forward-thinking initiatives, pledged to create and sustain green infrastructure (e.g., showcasing the riverfront), build a Gateway area designed to create pedestrian connection between Nicollet and the riverfront, lead the nation in transportation options, and double downtown’s residential population.
Check, check, and check.
“Investment in our downtown community remains strong with projects like RBC Gateway, Eleven condos, and The Dayton’s Project,” says Leah Wong, vice president of external relations for mpls downtown council. “Those initiatives are not only adding more office space and residential housing, they’re also going to help with building community.”
Since 2006, downtown has seen a 66 percent increase in its residential population—the backbone of downtown—with 53,093 residents. And while the traditional office model continues to shift to meet the needs of the changing workforce (and an ever-changing society), there have been no signs of a so-called urban exodus. Even when restrictions were first imposed last year, occupants were falling back on downtown’s array of wide-open outdoor spaces, like The Commons, Peavey Plaza, and the new Nicollet, along with socially distanced activities.
“Everything we’re dealing with … is being experienced by downtowns [everywhere].” Steve Cramer, president and CEO, mpls downtown council
This year, residents and visitors alike get to enjoy the completion of the hotly anticipated Water Works project along the Mississippi riverfront. The six-acre redevelopment along West River Parkway was conceived as a place to express embedded histories, with storytelling brought to life through the mill-embedded pavilion, tree-sheltered city steps, and a naturalized play space. The Sioux Chef will manage a four-season dine-in and takeout restaurant and be at the helm of elevating Indigenous voices.
“We continue to be focused on helping local and minority-owned businesses thrive and move forward,” says Wong. “With the help of corporate donations, our mpls downtown small business grant program provided a total of $1.5 million to over 100 local small businesses supporting the vibrant ecosystem of downtown.”
Reanimating the Public Sphere
Steve Cramer, president and CEO of mpls downtown council, says that as event programming resumes and employees continue to transition back to the office or a hybrid model, this collective energy will go on to help recreate a new, post-COVID downtown. Whether it’s a show at First Avenue, nabbing tickets to Broadway on Hennepin, or attending a Twins game, each individual transaction, engagement, and interaction counts toward a reanimated, reenergized downtown. And it’s the community’s collective job, Cramer says, to make that homecoming as safe and positive as possible: improving the appearance and cleanliness of the streets, collaborating with a wide array of entities to create a safe environment for all, and heading up a fleet of animation commitments.
“Everything we’re dealing with right now isn’t unique—it’s being experienced by downtowns across the country, across the world,” he says. “We’re all in this process of reanimation together. Maybe we’re at different stages of it, but the general challenge of accomplishing reanimation and reinvention faces every downtown in America right now.”
Wong adds that reanimation metrics are being tracked via transit use, pedestrian count, building occupancy, seated diners, participation in sporting events, arts and entertainment events, overall downtown sentiment, and more.
“These metrics will help us better understand our landscape and complete research to learn the factors people are considering as they plan to spend more time downtown,” she says. “And currently, we know that approximately 300 restaurants, bars, and retail locations are open, with more planning to open throughout the summer. These businesses are an important and vital part of our downtown community—and they are ready to welcome more patrons.”
In addition, Wong says that a big part of downtown’s vibrancy comes from concerts and events of all sizes within downtown’s landscape of celebrated, world-renowned venues. The Save Our Stages Act, signed into law last December and championed by Senator Amy Klobuchar, is slowly but surely reviving our community of independent venues and institutions.
“Our events and venues are a critical piece of our downtown experience. We expect more events to happen downtown this summer, especially outdoor events and festivals,” says Wong. “With leadership from not only Senator Klobuchar but from First Avenue owner and CEO Dayna Frank, this bill is helping our small venues maintain their businesses and finalize rescheduled (and new) shows for this coming year. It’s exciting to hear music from these iconic spaces once again.”
All in a Day’s Work
For more than a year, the mpls downtown council has been working overtime connecting with stakeholders to discuss the future of downtown, back-to-office plans, and preparations for its series of reanimation efforts. Wong says this includes regular meetings with HR leaders, the downtown restaurant and hospitality community, local sports teams, arts leaders, and more.
“Since the stay-at-home order was first initiated, we’ve been having regular calls with board members who represent many of the employers downtown,” says Cramer. “I would say in the most recent calls we’ve had, a pattern is emerging where more companies are inviting their workers back on a voluntary basis—we’re ready for you if you’re interested in coming back. Policies like working in the office on designated days of the week will be fashioned around a fall time frame, in which we’ll see another wave of people coming back.”
Small and midsize companies have been leading the return back to the office. Larger downtown employers (like Target and Wells Fargo) are scoping out a fall return as many balance a nationwide approach for their employees. “We know that the next season of working in office will look different, but collectively, our downtown leaders are committed to returning employees to downtown offices in some fashion of a new future-of-work model, including hybrid options for employees,” says Wong. “There is a growing opinion that there is no substitute for being downtown—the energy, the ability to make connections and meet in person, the shared experience. Data shows us that more employees are ready to return to in-office experiences in some capacity.”
While summer of 2021 may have a different vibe to it, it’s far from cancelled. Among downtown’s menu of activities, expect the weekly return of both the Nicollet Farmers Market and Makers Market with enhanced offerings on Downtown Thursdays. Pianos on Parade will be making a melodic comeback from June through August, where artist-painted pianos will be sharing the gift of music through scheduled and impromptu performances. Peavey Plaza, the ideal lunch break spot with its fountains and water basin, will be a public vessel for fitness classes, games, and other programming. And downtown’s signature event, the Minneapolis Aquatennial, will be celebrated in person July 21–24. Those in-person experiences that just can’t be replicated are back.
“Planned and unplanned experiences await, and not only will you find the sights and sounds of yesterday, you’ll have an opportunity to discover new experiences, too,” says Wong.
This article originally appeared in the June 2021 issue of Mpls.St.Paul Magazine. Read more on downtown Minneapolis, 2021 summer-style, sponsored by the mpls downtown council, here.