Nicollet Mall Part 2: A Collaborative Design Response
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.
Don’t miss the first post in our series about the Nicollet Mall, The Public-Private Partnership.
Collaborative Design Response
While any large-scale revitalization project requires coordination among civic, technical, and legal entities, the Nicollet Mall project received recognition nationwide as being a particularly successful project due to its collaborative design model. As the president of the planning firm Barton-Aschman Associates, Frederick Aschman, wrote, “Achieving the necessary consensus and cooperation of all necessarily involved parties is as important as any design concept for a Mall, as this is what actually gets it designed and implemented.”  His case study report of the Nicollet Mall recognized that this project was part of a comprehensive planning program for Minneapolis, and that it helped bolster a collaborative tradition for future developments in the city. Roberto Brambilla, an expert on pedestrian malls in urban centers, also attributed the success of Nicollet Mall to the collaboration among Halprin, City Planning Director Lawrence Irvin, and Barton-Aschman Associates. 
The early creation of the Downtown Council in 1955 set the standard for a collaborative approach to redesigning Nicollet Avenue. The Downtown Council and its subcommittees—the Nicollet Mall Task Force, Nicollet Mall Advisory Board, and Nicollet Mall Creative Group—published progress reports, pamphlets, and memos to keep the public abreast of the news involving the design process and completion. The material of these publications was used to bolster civic pride and encourage the public to see downtown as a still-thriving place to socialize and shop.
The Downtown Council was responsible for retaining the planning firm Barton-Aschman Associates and landscape architecture firm Lawrence Halprin & Associates. When Lawrence Halprin was retained by the City of Minneapolis on July 30, 1962, he also continued the collaborative spirit among the stakeholders. Especially telling was a visit to the Mall that September. Amid sketches of skyways and canopy covers was a list of his meetings for the day, which included Leslie Park (Board of Directors, Downtown Council of Minneapolis), the Beautification Committee, and Donald Dayton (Dayton’s Corporation).  Halprin was conscientious of the business community’s involvement because they were the ones who were financing the project. In a correspondence to Thomas Thompson, director of the Department of Public Works, Halprin stated that:
We know that the real reason for the whole project and that which is the concern of the businessmen who are putting up the bulk of the capital is quite a different one. The prime concern is simply the visual quality of the new street—the environment that will attract the shoppers downtown again and create the qualities of urbanity and interest, which a central city needs to compete with the attractive suburban shopping facilities. 
Halprin bridged the mall’s various interest groups to ensure that the program of particular stakeholders was integrated into the built environment. He understood that in order for the project to be successful, the design would ultimately have to serve the retail market, which consisted of downtown employees and visitors, residents, and regional shoppers.
Halprin also recognized the intrinsic links between business and the arts and between the Downtown Council and the broader Minneapolis community. For Nicollet Mall to thrive, it would have to be more than just a destination to shop. In a letter to Council Member Harmon Ogdahl regarding the Nicollet Mall dedication, Haprin told him, “it would seem to me extremely desirable to consider inviting people in the cultural life of the community” such as representatives of the Walker Art Gallery, the Tyrone Guthrie Theater, the President of the University of Minnesota, etc to “emphasize the true interrelationship between business and the arts.” 
Most importantly, perhaps, is that Halprin recognized that his design for revitalization of the street would inevitably change over time 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. Buildings and materials are subjected to weathering, evolving styles, and the turnover of tenets. As Halprin stated in his dedication speech, he wanted to bring the life back to the street, but “Nicollet Mall alone cannot make your downtown…Its life and character, its quality and vitality come from its people.”
A look at how Donald Dayton, president of the largest retailer downtown, influenced the design of Nicollet Mall.
- Lawrence Halprin Collection, University of Pennsylvania Architectural Archives (subsequently LHC), [014.I.B.2978] Frederick T. Aschman, “Nicollet Mall: Civic Cooperation to Preserve Downtown’s Vitality,” Planners Notebook 1(6) (September 1971) 9.
- Roberto Brambilla, Banning the Car Downtown: Selected American Cities, edited by Gianni Longo. (New York: Institute for Environmental Action, 1976).
- LHC “Lawrence Halprin Notebook #19.”
- LHC [014.I.A.4332]. Harmon Ogdahl to Lawrence Halprin, October 27, 1967.
- LHC [014.I.A.4332].
- LHC [014.I.A.6048]
Note: These posts are extracted from a more comprehensive history of the 1960s design for Nicollet Mall, from the author’s undergraduate thesis from the University of Minnesota, School of Architecture. Please contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions or comments.