Nicollet Mall Part 1: The Public-Private Partnership Business Model
Nicollet Mall has long been the heart of downtown Minneapolis’ central retail and business district. Its transformation to a pedestrian transit way in the 1960s was shaped in part by Post-World War Two suburbanization and decentralization—trends occurring in cities across North America. Nicollet Mall was developed through a public-private partnership of businesses and municipal groups with the landscape architect Lawrence Halprin. While its aesthetic has changed, Nicollet Mall is arguably one of the few successful remaining pedestrian malls in the country. This blog post series serves to reveal Nicollet Mall’s history and define its 1960s design as an intersection of a particular set of circumstances at the metropolitan, state, and national scale. Framed in the context of Post-World War Two retail and urban planning, these posts will speak of the way downtown business, government, and community collaborated to thwart retail competition in the suburbs and bolster civic spirit. More so, the 1960s collaboration between the public and private entities initiated an on-going tradition to maintain Nicollet Mall’s visibility downtown despite dramatic shifts in economy, demographics, and popular culture. In 2015, construction will begin on a redesign for Nicollet Mall. With major changes imminent, this blog post series hopes to capture a process of decision-making and design that can help people learn from Nicollet Mall’s past to perpetuate vital urban public places for future generations.
The Public-Private Partnership Business Model
In 1955, Minneapolis assembled a public-private partnership, the Downtown Council of Minneapolis, to address the threat of suburbanization and decentralization of the city’s central retail and business district. The freeway system facilitated movement out of the city to newly developed suburbs, sprawling business campuses, and the newest form of retail—the enclosed shopping center. In response, a conglomerate of 200 individuals from both private and public sectors became the powerhouse to respond to decentralization and maintaining a healthy economy downtown.
Like other cities across the nation, these private-sector groups wielded the necessary power and financial status to work in coordination with the mayor and the public sector. Minneapolis’ private sector group came exclusively from the central business district and held a notoriously important position in the development stages. This public-private partnership, “rested on the shoulders of prominent citizens who preferred not to join the stampede to suburbia.” 
Many of the representatives of the Downtown Council were executives from significant businesses along Nicollet Avenue including Northwestern National Bank, Baker Properties, Minneapolis Federal Savings & Loan Association, Northern States Power, Bank of Minneapolis & Trust Company, and Dayton’s. (Donald Dayton’s role, the president of Dayton’s at the time, was of great importance, but his involvement will be saved for a later post.)
One businessperson in particular, Leslie Park of Baker Properties, expressed his concern for the health of downtown in 1956, by submitting a proposal to the City of Minneapolis for a “Nicollet Plaza,” which was to be an elevated, covered, heated and air-conditioned mall between Fifth and Ninth Streets, the densest commercial sector of Minneapolis. His proposal called for a second-level skyway system to alleviate foot traffic on Nicollet Mall and increase movement between offices and retail.
Park’s proposal was the impetus for the Downtown Council to join the nationwide trend of creating its own pedestrian mall to combat the pull of the suburbs. Subsequently, they hired the planning firm Barton-Aschman Associates to assess its implications on Nicollet Avenue. Barton-Aschman Associates’ objectives, outlined in A Plan for Nicollet Avenue in Downtown Minneapolis, were: “to improve circulation facilities for patrons, to create new opportunities for effective promotion of retail as a whole, [and] to add new attractiveness in terms of beauty, excitement and interesting features.” 
As Frederick Aschman, partner of Barton-Aschman Associates, reflected, the Downtown Council of Minneapolis was formed in 1955 not to “’save a declining area’ but to expand, enhance, and conserve a strong asset.” Minneapolis’ proactive response was also heralded in Fortune magazine:
The latest venture of that kind, though, comes in a city that has not waited for deterioration to set in before taking action. In Minneapolis the downtown retail stores have maintained a firm grip on shopping habits and pocketbooks. But the businessmen of Minneapolis, rightly anticipating trouble, have already joined with the city in proposing and bringing to fruition a plan for revitalization.
Another major objective of the Downtown Council and Barton-Aschman Associates was to determine how to finance the Nicollet Mall project. This enterprise would later become the nation’s most costly pedestrian area project. Financing the project was important because, unlike other federally funded urban renewal projects in the city, the federal government contributed a $483,000 Beautification Grant and a $384,500 Mass Transportation Demonstration Grant while the local business and property owners shared the remaining $2.8 million cost.  Because the taxes would be assessed over the next twenty years, the business community was making a long-term investment in the future of the Mall.
The business community’s willingness to accept the project was not without debate, however. Correspondence among Mayor O. D. Gay, Lawrence Halprin’s firm, and Barton-Aschman Associates highlights the need to “convince the property owners and choose who will pay the tab of the quality of the job to be done. Just to go far enough to give that assurance.”  Furthermore, the largest retailer on the mall, Dayton’s, had a stronghold on the design process. In a letter from Barton-Aschman Associates to Lawrence Halprin & Associates, George Barton writes: “It is excellent you [Richard Vignola] and Larry [Halprin] are keeping in direct touch with Donald Dayton. If you satisfy him, half the battle is won.” It took four years after Halprin was retained as architect before the finances were settled.
The first tax assessment proposal to fund the project, based on frontage, parcel size, distance from Nicollet Avenue, and land and building value, was met with much dispute. Thirty or so property owners along the mall supported the project but objected to the assessment, stating they were unfairly proportioned.
A second tax assessment formula was later prescribed without accounting for building value or size, the strongest contested variables among downtown property owners.  One business owner, Pat Murray, proprietor of Murray’s Restaurant, said there were some “big fights.” He remembered the owner of a shoe store who fought the plan “tooth and nail because he was afraid of what it would cost him. He found out that after the Mall was put in, it did nothing but make his business boom. He became a Mall believer.”  This anecdote, published by the media, served as fodder for the belief that Nicollet Mall was a success.
Finally, the City Council’s long-awaited approval of the tax assessment appeared in a newspaper article on April 7, 1966, reporting a unanimous vote—major news after progress had stalemated for several months. For the public reading about the mall in subsequent years, the economic success of the project seemed uncontested. Only a year after the construction of Nicollet Mall was complete, retailers’ business increased by fourteen percent.  Of course, this number was certainly an aggregate of all retailers both large and small, but it stood as evidence of economic success for Nicollet Mall backers. Furthermore, within five years of completion, the Mall spurred an additional $49 million in new construction and rehabilitation projects. 
A testament of the Downtown Council’s success is that Minneapolis won its second All-American City Award in 1963, a recognition given to U.S. cities that had shown significant community cooperation to accomplish civic and social projects.  This program honored the innovation and impact of collaborative civic engagements and noted that because of these “unabashedly optimistic” community projects like Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis gained a reputation of being progressive and risk-taking.  Most importantly, the optimism in Nicollet Mall’s success was largely the result of cooperation in the public and private sector with their attention to both economic and social renewal.
A look at how Lawrence Halprin mediated the needs of all parties involved with the mall and how that resulted in a revitalized shopping street.
Note: These posts are extracted from a more comprehensive history of the 1960s design for Nicollet Mall, from an undergraduate thesis from the University of Minnesota, School of Architecture.
- Bernard Frieden and Lynne Sagalyn, Downtown, Inc.: How America Rebuilds Cities, (Cambridge, MS: The MIT Press, 1989) 18.
- Minneapolis Collection (subsequently MC) [Streets-Nicollet Mall]. “Nicollet Mall: A Look Back on Early Years,” Skyway News, October 13, 1987.
- MC. Barton-Aschman Associates, “A Plan for Nicollet Avenue in Downtown Minneapolis,” (Evanston, Illinois: 1961).
- Lawrence Halprin Collection (subsequently LHC) [014.I.B.2978]. Barton-Aschman Associates, Planners Notebook 1(6), 1971, 2.
- LHC [014.I.A.4332].
- Kate Christianson, “Nicollet Mall Redux,” Inland Architect 35(2)(1991).
- LHC [014.I.B.2978], [014.IV.A.107].
- LHC [014.I.A.4330]
- LHC [014.I.A.4331]
- LHC [014.IX.A.005].
- Patrick Boulay, “Mall II Money Matters: History Repeats Itself,” Skyway News (October 13, 1987).
- MC [Streets-Nicollet Avenue (Pictures, Publications 1967-74)]. “Minneapolis: Nicollet Mall,” Display World (1971).
- “Downtown Minneapolis’ Urban Renaissance,” Grounds Maintenance (1968).
- Judith A. Martin and Antony Goddard, Past Choices/Present Landscapes: The Impact of Urban Renewal on the Twin Cities (Minneapolis: Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, 1989).