Back to the Office!
TCB already publishes a column called “Open Letter,” so this is not an open letter, but perhaps consider it an email. Marked urgent.
You were taking no chances, waiting on the vaccines, worried about the variants, about employees whose kids weren’t in school or had new pets to manage. I get it. But two very good things happened in recent weeks: the CDC deemed the Covid-19 vaccines highly effective even against variants, to the point it no longer suggests the vaccinated wear masks indoors, even at the notoriously skittish Trader Joe’s. And the Derek Chauvin trial ended in a decisive conviction.
We know you wanted to wait until the trials ended, until there was no chance of urban chaos, but now trials will go into 2022, perhaps deep into the year. And realistically, there is going to be risk of unrest in cities like Minneapolis for years to come; law enforcement reform is just the tip of the iceberg. But it’s merely a risk, and as long as justice is done and society moves forward on the many initiatives underway, civil unrest is not inevitable.
And here’s the thing—every month of delay pushes downtown deeper into a malaise it will be hard-pressed to shake off. I talk to people regularly who live downtown but now are too skittish to go to the Nicollet Mall Target or ride public transit.
We know the great unspoken reason downtown Minneapolis remains one of the most shuttered city centers in America is its perceived lack of safety. Unfortunately, that perception is likely to outlive this pandemic. Riots, drag racing, general street chaos—everyone has an example of what was the last straw for them. There’s also a sense that the cops are perhaps not as motivated to strictly enforce laws as they once were.
Let’s face it, many of our office teams, friends, and neighbors are more afraid of downtown than of Covid. But we’re not going to police our way into making downtown safer; that sort of “broken window” policing is untenable right now.
What will make downtown feel safer is people. Thousands of them. The knowledge you aren’t the only person on a street or in a skyway.
It was ever thus. Busy places are safer because there is safety in numbers. And though we’ve had baby steps, with the Twins home season and other small-scale venue reopenings, it won’t begin in earnest until offices unlock and some fraction of those 200,000 office workers from 2019 show up. Restaurants and stores will follow, though small retail won’t go further into the red to set an example. But big businesses, which are already paying rent and salaries, must return.
I talk to people regularly who live downtown but now are too skittish [about safety] to go to the Nicollet Mall Target or ride public transit.
This summer marks the 40th anniversary of my arrival in the Twin Cities, and for every one of those years, we’ve been trying to energize our rather low-energy downtowns. Covid has the potential to depress the downtown worker population by 100,000 people on a permanent basis. And that would be a tragedy after so many decades of enormous effort.
Minneapolis’s corporate community can’t compound that tragedy by messaging to its workforce that coming back is unsafe, or delaying it based on benchmarks that may take years to reach and are predicated on the corporate community’s return.
Let’s remember, this is a heavily suburbanized metropolitan region. There is an enormous reservoir of indifference about the core cities as close as adjacent suburbs, and even many Minneapolis residents view downtown as a competitor for resources with their neighborhoods. Meanwhile, many other metro residents use downtown tentatively and infrequently (one Broadway play a year, a Vikings game), quickly in and out on those enormous freeway ramps.
The people who will save downtown are its 50,000 residents and some of those 200K commuters—but many of the latter can’t act, no matter how civic-minded they are; my wife, for example, can’t use her downtown office until her employer decides to reopen it.
It’s time to do more than end prohibitions, and incentivize workers’ return. When the pandemic struck, businesses worked hard to normalize remote work. Now it’s time they work just as hard to make coming downtown pleasant again.