Reimagining Downtown Minneapolis
Dayton’s Project private lounge for office tenants. Photograph by Caitlin Abrams

Reimagining Downtown Minneapolis

Don't just bring it back. Let's make it better.
Dayton’s Project private lounge for office tenants. Photograph by Caitlin Abrams

“It’s nice to gather for good news,” Gov. Tim Walz proclaimed as he swept into the 801 Marquette building—and up to a raw third-floor space that will soon become the new downtown Minneapolis headquarters of Deluxe Corp.

Founded in 1915, Deluxe Corp.—which invented the checkbook—is leaving its longtime home in Shoreview for new digs that embody its transformation into a modern “tech-enabled solutions company.” The move plucks more than 500 employees from the east metro suburb and places Deluxe in the heart of Minneapolis’ central business district.

This is exactly the time for big, audacious ideas.

“This is something we can build on in our recovery and healing,” Walz said at the press conference announcing the move. One by one, city boosters, including Mayor Jacob Frey and Minneapolis Downtown Council president and CEO Steve Cramer, took to the podium to echo Walz’s sentiments. The Deluxe move is a vote of confidence in downtown Minneapolis, a shot of adrenaline the city badly needs to bounce back from Covid-19 and a turbulent summer.

Afterwards, as I stepped onto an empty Marquette Avenue at 2 p.m. on a Monday, I wondered: Post-Covid, will downtown represent the modernization Deluxe was seeking when it started planning for this move before a global pandemic?

Let’s hope so. I choose to focus on the acceleration theory senior writer Burl Gilyard lays out in his cover story on downtown Minneapolis. (With all due respect to St. Paul, for this story we focused on the state’s largest and most critical example of the pandemic disruption that threatens urban areas across the country.) Gilyard spoke with Tom Fisher, director of the Minnesota Design Center at the University of Minnesota, who points to past pandemics as catalysts for change.

Maybe this disruption is exactly what downtown Minneapolis needs. Because, let’s be honest: It was far from perfect even before Covid-19. When TCB’s staff left our downtown office in March (never to return to that building, as it turns out), we were finishing a May cover story on the downtown vibrancy conundrum. Executive editor Adam Platt wrote that downtown advocates have long said what we needed to make everything click was 50,000 downtown residents. But the city reached that critical mass, and still felt ho-hum on a Saturday night. Little did we know then what “empty” really looked like.

It’s unfortunate that Covid derailed the Dayton’s Project opening, but the truth is, leasing that premium retail and office space (and, man, is it a wow!) was already slow going, pre-pandemic. Minneapolis can’t escape its embarrassing record of losing more retailers than it has attracted over the past 20 years. Despite the staggering $50 million poured into “revitalizing” Nicollet Mall, it’s still not a destination for suburbanites. Especially now.

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I got a call recently from a woman who is working on a history of the Minneapolis skyways and their impact on culture and business. She came across some articles I’d written on the topic. Back before the Dayton’s Project took shape, I challenged Eric Dayton to buy back the department store building his great-grandfather built; he replied, “Only if you tear down the skyways first.” That was late 2016—which seems forever ago, and so trivial in the midst of a global pandemic.

And yet. This is exactly the time for big, audacious ideas.

It’s good news for the city that Deluxe is moving in. It’s fortunate that Thrivent’s new headquarters was far along when the tumult hit. I’m relieved every time I drive down Hennepin Avenue and see the crews still at work on the new Four Seasons hotel.

But we need to spend more time imagining what we want our city to look like when that fancy tower opens in 2022. And what can we do in the interim? Mall of America offered temporary space to small businesses displaced by damage around the cities; why aren’t downtown landlords doing the same? What about inviting people who don’t feel comfortable meeting in closed boardrooms or cramped coffee houses to utilize the airy lobbies of downtown buildings? How about letting food trucks set up tables in the middle of deserted downtown streets, or inviting fitness instructors to host workouts on Peavey Plaza? These aren’t long-term fixes, but they’d still give us reasons to come downtown.

It’s time to rally our best creatives to help elevate this city center. Heck, let’s put the challenge out to college students and professors. Let’s turn this awful year into the tipping point, when the future grew brighter for downtown Minneapolis.