City leaders making push for Nicollet Mall makeover

When the surface of Nicollet Mall cracks, water gets down into the bed of the walkway where it freezes and thaws, rocking the expensive granite pavers above until they crack.

The problem has gotten so bad that the Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District estimates it will spend more than $1.3 million over the next three years repairing the granite pavers.

The disrepair of Nicollet Mall has led both the city and the Downtown Council to name a renovation of downtown’s high-profile walkway as their top request of the state Legislature when it puts together a bonding bill during the 2012 session.

“It’s beyond the point of repair,” said Beth Shogren of Minneapolis DID.

Downtown leaders hope that the Legislature will act quickly, as business owners are paying millions to continue to repair the pavers every year. Often, Shogren says, the DID will have the pavers replaced, only to find they are cracked again a year later.

“The Mall is in such disrepair that we can spend $500,000 per block over the next few years only to have that be remedial and torn up in the new design process,” said Downtown Council President and CEO Sam Grabarski. “No one wants to waste several million dollars by waiting. We’d like to get started.”

Grabarski pegged a rough cost estimate of the project at $50 to $60 million. The city is asking the state for $25 million in bonding money, and Grabarski said the remaining funding would come from the private sector and the city.

“The business community would be pretty willing partners, so long as the design is far-reaching and is a signature element of what the city is reaching for in terms of its international image,” he said.

State Sen. Linda Higgins (DFL-58) represents part of Downtown and also sits on the Senate’s Capital Improvements Committee that works on bonding bills.

Generally, even-numbered years are considered bonding years in the Legislature. The Governor proposes a list of projects throughout the state, and then the Legislature makes changes to that bill before voting on its approval.

Higgins says the Legislature, in recent years, has shied away from local projects like Nicollet Mall. But she’s supportive of the $25 million request and says it may have a decent chance to be included in the final bill because the state would be paying less than half of the project’s cost.

“One of the things that will get you ‘points’ around here is if you have matching money,” Higgins said.

What will it look like?

Grabarski says a lot has changed since Nicollet Mall was paved back in 1991, and there are still many questions about how the mall should look in the future.  

“So much has changed, that we’re trying to anticipate what the experience should be for commerce, for visitors, for conventioneers in the future, and the mall functions so differently now,” he said.

The city is the process of studying a potential street car system that would run down Nicollet Mall, connecting northeast and southwest Minneapolis.

Downtown stakeholders often beg for more trees, small parks and grass in the city’s center.

What a renovated Nicollet Mall would look like is still relatively unknown. Grabarski said the design process will likely follow typical city process for similar projects, including a steering committee and public and stakeholder input.

“There has to be more input than from just the business community,” he said.

If approved for funding next year, Grabarski said he’s hopeful that crews could break ground within 18 months of a bonding bill.

“That’s a tall order when you think of all the construction drawings and final design elements would have to be created,” he said.

Reach Nick Halter at [email protected]