Nicollet Mall Part 5: Pedestrian Malls - Past and Present
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 earlier posts in our series about the Nicollet Mall, The Public-Private Partnership (1), A Collaborative Design Response (2), Donald Dayton's Nicollet Mall (3), and The Original Nicollet Mall Design (4).
Pedestrian Mall: Past, Present and Future?
Based on urban planning trends across the country, Minneapolis developed their redesign of Nicollet Avenue around a pedestrian mall. The goal of their pedestrian mall was to rival, and hopefully outshine the recently built Southdale Shopping Center in suburban Edina. The draw of Southdale Shopping Center was the ease of parking, no automobile traffic, and navigating the stores on foot in a climate-controlled environment. Minneapolis’ solution on Nicollet Avenue would need to address all of these issues to keep shoppers, and ultimately their dollar, downtown. Nicollet was, after all, Minneapolis’ retail center and business hub.
Scholars and experts in urban planning, such as Harvey Rubenstein and Roberto Brambilla, noted that cities saw developing pedestrian malls as their way to survive the draw of suburban shopping. Pedestrian malls kept the automobile on the periphery and allowed the consumer a safe, yet vibrant and activated, shopping experience. Minneapolis developed a hybrid solution, a pedestrian transit way that allowed two lanes of public transportation and much broader sidewalks. (For the sake of clarity, a full pedestrian mall is one that completely restricts any sort of motorized traffic, while a pedestrian transit way—like Nicollet Mall—gives priority to the pedestrian but still allows lanes for public transportation. Nevertheless, Nicollet Mall is still regarded as a pedestrian mall, the umbrella term for pedestrian-oriented streets.)
Minneapolis’ plan for a pedestrian mall was developed towards the beginning of the twenty-year trend. As records in Brambilla and Longo’s book indicated, the pedestrianization trend was predominantly from 1959 to 1979. In these twenty years, 200 cities across North America built some manner of a pedestrian mall in their city centers. The graph illustrates the rise and fall of data collected on 100 pedestrian malls in North America. Most malls built during this period were developed to try to combat issues such as suburbanization and retail decentralization. As seen in the decline after the 1980s, all but about 24 have been removed; Nicollet Mall is one of the survivors. This fact alone warrants further examination about what has helped Nicollet Mall endure the dramatic shifts it has experienced in economy, demographics, and popular culture. While the first pedestrian mall to eliminate traffic was in Kalamazoo, Michigan, many believe that Minneapolis perfected the pedestrian mall form by allowing urban transit to use the street. 
Many other cities mimicked suburban malls and closed off portions of downtown streets to create an urban shopping center. Unfortunately, due to lack of study and planning, the cities that tried to replicate suburban malls downtown often failed, and critics blamed this failure on standardization, repetition, and poor imitation. As proof, some fifty cities between 1957 and 1962 closed off a portion of a downtown street and landscaped them after low-cost suburban malls. Within a few short years, most cities quietly removed their failed malls.  During the Nicollet Mall planning phase, the businesses on the Downtown Council of Minneapolis noted the failed pedestrian mall models and sought a different design solution. Most notably Donald Dayton of Dayton’s Corporation vehemently declared that Nicollet Mall would be designed to the highest aesthetic degree possible or not come to fruition at all.
Perhaps Minneapolis fared better than most American cities during the pedestrianization era due to its extensive feasibility studies, comprehensive development plans and renewal programs, and the fact that it also had one of the most compact retail districts in the nation. As an article from Grounds Maintenance (1968) points out, more than 80 percent of retail space and almost 90 percent of urban shopping goods stores were found on Nicollet Avenue.  With this concentration of the urban retail market on about four blocks of Nicollet Mall’s eight blocks, the Downtown Council of Minneapolis felt optimistic that their implementation of a pedestrian mall could rival the competition of the suburban shopping mall.
As history records, Nicollet Mall is the first example of a pedestrian transit way, a hybrid of a traditional pedestrian mall and a road for buses and taxis. In fact, in Brambilla’s case study of Nicollet Mall, he noted that “legislation to restrict vehicles and special laws to assess benefitted properties for mall financing did not exist when Nicollet planning started. The State legislature had to pass a law to enable its cities of the first class to implement a mall.”  This legislation still exists and is part of the zoning overlay district in downtown Minneapolis.
Brambilla also determines that the success of a pedestrian mall is the result of the “degree of pedestrianization.”  This meant that the amount of street engagement and designed elements for the pedestrian would yield a more successful mall. The extent of publicizing and promoting the pedestrian mall through boosterism and crowd pleasers were some of the motives that propelled other cities’ decisions to build downtown shopping malls. 
Nicollet Mall was seen as the poster child of the pedestrianization era, and the collaboration between public and private entities was regarded as successful. Lawrence Halprin, the notable designer who came to the conservative Midwest brought additional attention, and Nicollet Mall soon became the most mimicked pedestrian mall in the country. As such, Minneapolis took great efforts to publicize its city jewel. The community strived for a “small town” atmosphere, achieved in part because many businesses had a long history in the area.  Promotional activities included fashion shows, parades, special shoppers’ nights, and sidewalk fairs. These promotional activities continued the cooperative attitude among the local businesses and government surrounding recent projects including the mall, the skyway system, and other redevelopment projects.
Nicollet Mall drew a nationwide reputation for the Twin Cities when First Lady Johnson visited in September 1967 to see the uncompleted Mall. At a banquet in her honor, she responded to a toast saying, “Music, the theater and the arts have always been part of my fabric of happiness,” and praised the Twin Cities for “setting a high example of cultural enrichment.” 
The resounding impact of Minneapolis’ revitalization of their city center garnered national and international attention through the media, the government, and civic leaders. “There were literally city and civic leaders from all over the United States and the world coming to see Nicollet Mall,” said John Burg, staff coordinator of the Mall Implementation Board.”  Publications across the country announced Minneapolis’ renaissance with headlines such as “Excitement in Minneapolis,” “Minneapolis Mall Most Modern Street in the US,” “Minneapolis—City With A New Look.”  Nicollet Mall was recognized as a collaborative project worthy of a national spotlight.
The popularity of the mall extended beyond Minneapolis in due part to media and television. Three years after the Mall was dedicated, on September 19, 1970, The Mary Tyler Moore Show premiered on CBS highlighting the Mall in the opening credits. The show thus introduced millions of Americans and international followers to Minneapolis’ retail gem, and the Mall soon became an icon of Americana. Thus, Minneapolis’ progressive social image was manifested across the world.
Just how long did the novelty of the mall last? History doesn’t reveal a clear answer, but current plans to give Nicollet Mall another facelift suggests that Minneapolitans still have a nostalgia for the street it once was. Maybe the newspaper article from the 1960s still resonates today: “For those who love cities, and believe that they must endure if civilization as we know it is to be perpetuated, Minneapolis offers more than a model. It offers hope.” 
Now the responsibility of perpetuating Minneapolis’s iconic street lies with James Corner Field Operations. Field Operations will be collaborating with the City of Minneapolis and the Minneapolis Downtown Council to meet the needs of the city’s current and future businesses, residents, commuters, and visitors. Let the legacy of the Mall live on.
Rosten Woo and Meredith TenHoor, Street Value: Shopping, Planning, and Politics at Fulton Mall (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2010), 177.
- Bernard J. Frieden and Lynne B. Sagalyn, Downtown, Inc.: How America Rebuilds Cities (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1989), 77.
- LHC [014.1.B.2978].
- Roberto Brambilla, Banning the Car Downtown: Selected American Cities, ed. Gianni Longo (Washington, D.C.: Institute for Environmental Action, 1976), 38.
- Brambilla, Banning the Car Downtown, 100.
- Frieden and Sagalyn, Downtown Inc., 280.
- Richard Edminster, Streets for Pedestrians and Transit: An Evaluation of Three Transit Malls in the United States, ed. David Koffman and Center Transportation Systems (Cambridge, MA: Dept. of Transportation, Urban Mass Transportation Administration, Research and Special Programs Administration, Transportation Systems Center, 1979), 60.
- LHC [014.IX.A.008].
- Patrick Boulay, “Mall II Money Matters: History Repeats Itself,” Skyway News, (October 13, 1987).
- LHC [014.I.A.4352].
- MC [Streets-Nicollet Mall (Misc Folder)]. “Nicollet Mall Backgrounder.”
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.