4.2 A Little Story

In 2014, the project team responsible for the redesign of Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis was confronted with a difficult – and potentially explosive – political problem related to a small group of very important stakeholders. The problem had to do with a key design element that was, in many ways, the most visible part of the concept design – and they did not like it.

Image of a stairway in front of an office building in downtown Minneapolis.
Figure 41. The stair in front of an important office building, from the winning Nicollet Mall competition entry. JCFO.

The design team was selected through a competition process (see chapter two). The winning team had included in their design vision a grand stair from the street up to the skyway level of an important office building. Once the competition was over and the team had been selected, it was time to actually start doing the real concept design – the work of applying the ideas from the winning competition entry to the actual conditions on the street.

The process started with a large number of stakeholder meetings involving different interest groups. These included meetings with different types of property owners (actual owners as well as building managers) and other meetings with different types of businesses (bars and restaurants, hotels, retail stores, non-profit institutions, and government). The team also held “block by block” meetings, inviting all of the stakeholders from one block to the same meeting. They did not all come but many did and there was a mix of interests in the room at each of those meetings. The block-by-block meetings were very helpful to the design team in the early days because each block had its own unique features, qualities, and character, and learning about and accommodating those differences was important.

Details matter, so the challenge was how to take a design concept that has been generally applied over a twelve-block, mile-long street and adapt it to reflect the actual conditions at the doorway to one small restaurant on one block, and then the next one, and the next one, and the transit shelter, and the entrance to the office building, and the entrance to the parking ramp, and so on.

Image of a stair way rising up to meet the skyway in downtown Minneapolis.
Figure 42. Island scheme with relocated stair rising up to meet the skyway. JCFO.

Not surprisingly, in the early meetings the team learned that the owners of the big building did not like the design with the stair going up to their building. It is easy to understand why – it would have blocked an important strip of retail frontage and changed the entrance to the building lobby. The project team leaders were not too worried and assumed that this feature would go away after the competition was over and once detailed design had started. And it did, sort of.

After learning of the building owner’s displeasure with the stair, the design team came back with a proposal that became known as “the island.” This was a scheme where the two traffic lanes (one each way for bus traffic only) would split for two blocks to create a big traffic island and from this island two grand stairs (one on each of two blocks) would rise up and connect directly to the two skyways on these two blocks rather than connecting directly to any of the buildings themselves.

But still, those key stakeholders did not like it and they could not seem to tell us why. The owners of the four big buildings that each take up one whole block face between 6th and 8th streets began meeting and talking and so the project team leaders met with them, showing them different versions of the new design, modified to address the issues raised in the previous meeting. The property owners expressed a variety of concerns about safety, security, and livability as well as perceived safety on the stairs, how the public stairs would connect with the privately-owned skyways, and issues from snow removal to the potential for homeless people to sleep on the stairs. These meetings took on a kind of “Goldilocks” quality, where nothing was ever quite right, as the project team leaders and designers tried to modify the drawings to address their concerns.

Finally, in a small meeting, two project leaders pressed the one property owner hard and came to understand the magnitude of the problem: That property owner was completely opposed to the design and no design modifications would change their position. The closing statement was “we will sue the City if the design goes forward.” It took longer than it should have to get to the answer, but at least the project team now knew exactly how that property owner – and the other three – felt and the lengths they were willing to go to oppose the feature.

This presented several problems. First, a big, image part of the design was at stake and it was something that had received a lot of publicity and a lot of people liked it – it looked cool. In truth, it had some flaws and some members of the team were genuinely and rightly concerned about pedestrian safety and bus operations with a divided road and a big island with cars and buses on three sides. Second, and more important, the four biggest commercial office buildings – which together would be contributing a very large share of the assessment required to pay for the project – were unanimously opposed to the main element that was going to affect their buildings on their blocks. But at a higher level, the whole unified public-private partnership was at stake. Until this point, the business community and the major property and business owners on Nicollet Mall, along with the City leaders, had all been generally happy with the process and the design. Now the team faced a choice – try to ram it through or change it.

The City did briefly consider the implications of pressing forward, using its leverage over the property owners on several technicalities. For example, the skyways are actually privately owned by the buildings (half of each is owned by each of the buildings on the two sides of the street) but they are allowed by the city, which grants air rights over public Right Of Way (ROW). So, the city could have moved to revoke those air rights and threatened to make the building owners tear down the skyway. But imagine how that would actually turn out. The property owners would lobby the elected officials, they might still sue, the public would hate the idea, the City would look like the bad guy, and little good would come of it.

More important, the value of a unified group of property owners and business leaders was immeasurable and the project team could not afford to lose that. Particularly because at the same time the team was busy lobbying city leaders and, more important, key members of the Minnesota legislature as well as key house and senate capital committees. In fact, a Minnesota state representative – the former DFL minority leader and former Speaker of the House, whose support was required to obtain the grant, had offices in the most important building.

So, instead of going head to head with the big property owners, the project team leaders decided to redesign. They called the lead designers, told them the island and stairs were out for good, and asked them to take the weekend off, bring a big box of donuts to work on Monday, lock themselves in a room, and develop two or three new ideas for a major feature on those two blocks. It was hard on the design team because they loved that design element and many people had memorized the image of that stair – indeed, people still ask when the stairs are going to be built. But the whole project could have failed over that. Instead, the team quickly re-tooled, and redesigned the street for those two blocks.

Some people feel that the final design is less dramatic and that may be so, but on the other hand, one could argue that the first design was too dramatic and perhaps not realistic. Still, it was so compelling that once the rendering had been published and broadcast to the public, it was impossible to get the genie back in the bottle. In other words, the idea helped with the competition but it may not have been viable.

The change in direction cost about four months on the project schedule and additional design fees. On the other hand, the project team successfully dodged a big bullet. Rather than fighting for a design feature, the team focused on keeping the coalition of stakeholders together. Indeed, that decision ultimately strengthened relations with those property owners, who understood what it cost to make that change in mid-design and also appreciated the respect shown to them by a project team that listened.

And in the end, even if the team had proceeded with the stair and island and found a way to keep that fraying coalition together (doubtful), it seems in retrospect that those stairs would have been very expensive and would quite likely have pushed the project over budget – so perhaps it all worked out for the best.


Producing the Urban Public Realm: Field Notes on Project Implementation Copyright © by Peter Hendee Brown. All Rights Reserved.

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