A Lesson from Minnesota’s Small Towns: Commercial Density > Residential Density.

While Minneapolis does have a number of major downtown streets that have a bit of hustle and bustle there are still many more that have few people out and about which gives off that “cowtown” vibe which tends to plague Midwestern cities and re-enforce coastal stereotypes about our inland cities. There are bare streets in our downtown for the simple reason that there’s little reason to visit them: a block given over to offices and parking lots tends to do that. Even so, people seem to be baffled that we’re very close to breaking the 30,000 mark for downtown residents, yet we don’t have more people and places all over our downtown streets instead of a select handful. Typically, the analysis I see is that clearly this must mean we don’t have enough people Downtown: we need lots more apartment mid-rises and towers before we can even think about Minneapolis having a bustling 24/7 downtown.

The truth of the matter is that we’re wayyy to hung up on residential density. It’s important, but only up to a certain point. You could cover every single last remaining parking lot with an apartment tower and that still wouldn’t guarantee a vibrant downtown: not one bit. The reason being that a vibrant downtown requires a myriad of draws for residents and tourists, in other words, a “critical mass” of commercial density, to steal a term commonly used almost exclusively for the needed number of downtown residents to magically results in streets full of people every hour of every day and night: just like in a real city. We can look in our own backyard for the answer to why large chunks of Downtown are dead even today in the face of a large downtown population that dwarfs even those of other larger American cities like Portland and Boston.

Just take a look at Bemidji: or Northfield, or Winona and the list goes on. Notice a common theme in these downtowns? There are numerous blocks which hold around a dozen businesses each: nowhere even on our signature Downtown showpiece of Nicollet Mall do you find any block approaching that kind of commercial density: you’re lucky to reach half that.   Hennepin can’t compare either, nor can the denser blocks of 1st Ave. Cities only a small fraction the size of Minneapolis not only offer a short block full of a dozen storefronts or so, but several while Downtown Minneapolis can’t even offer one. That is not only pathetic, but that should be a huge embarrassment to all Minneapolitans, especially city leaders that small towns only 1/27th our size (in the case of Bemidji which was the smallest one cited) dwarf us by far in commercial density. This is why our downtown is lacking in 24/7 vibrancy despite being the largest city by far in the state and with the highest number of visitors and tourists.

Addressing this grand canyon-esque gap between us and them is 100% necessary for any chance to be a real city in every sense of the term. By not offering blocks chock full of small businesses we have effectively opted out of utilizing the big city ambitions of urban entrepreneurs in dense blocks full of varied businesses right Downtown in ways that you would almost never see in our small towns. However, local entrepreneurs aren’t able to pursue such dreams Downtown due to there being nowhere for such a synergy to occur, let alone be able to afford existing retail spaces that command high prices due to encompassing what could easily hold 3-4 smaller businesses in the same space.

So I’m left wondering why, if small town Minnesota can do it and do it over and over and over again for several blocks in many instances (even with on-street bike parking, which is unheard of in our downtown), then why can’t we even manage one such complete block?

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