The message from commercial real estate pros was a simple one during Minnesota Real Estate Journal’s Downtown Development & Lake Street Summit: The future of downtown is bright, and political leaders across the state need to work closely with corporate leaders to make sure that brighter future arrives sooner rather than later.
It was a message of hope that’s needed today. Like many urban centers, downtown Minneapolis is struggling today. The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting business shutdowns already sent workers out of the downtown and caused businesses and restaurants to close their doors. Then came the May 25 murder of George Floyd and the protests and rioting that followed throughout downtown Minneapolis.
This combination has left a much quieter downtown, one with fewer people and struggling businesses.
This was the topic during the Oct. 9 summit held at the Radisson Blu Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota. And while speakers were realistic about the state of downtown today, they were also hopeful, with many pointing to a brighter tomorrow.
The keys for that brighter tomorrow? The pandemic must loosen its hold on the city, and government leaders have to lessen restrictions on business owners, speakers said. Reform must occur in the Minneapolis police department, with speakers empathizing that they are looking for reform, not anything near an abolishment of the department.
Most important of all? People need to feel safe again in downtown Minneapolis, they said.
“Downtown’s future is bright,” said Bob Lux, principal of Minneapolis developer Alatus. “We’ll get through these problems. People still want to live in downtown Minneapolis.”
Lux said that downtown Minneapolis is now at a key tipping point, saying that the area’s civic leaders, city council members and mayor are all well-intended. They all want to see a better Minneapolis, he said.
The challenge is that solving the problems exposed by the pandemic and issues of racial justice is no easy matter, Lux said.
“We are being faced with issues that are incredibly difficult to deal with,” Lux said.
Lux said it is time for corporate leaders and the mayor to work together. The city needs more affordable housing, he said. And workers need to get back to their offices in downtown Minneapolis.
“Our corporate citizens and mayor need to work together, respect each other and acknowledge that we have social issues in our community,” Lux said. “We have to deal with these issues. We can’t just police our way out of this. We have to get people back to work sometime. That might not be today and it might not be next month. But it is important to pick a date. Let’s try to get a portion of the workforce back in downtown.”
Chris Carr, director of security with the Minneapolis office of security firm G4S, said that the last several months have been challenging ones for downtown Minneapolis. The challenge, he said, is that peaceful protests have been exploited by those who are more interested in looting and damaging property that they are social issues. Images of shattered store windows and burning buildings have kept many people away from downtown Minneapolis. That, in turn, has led to a perception that the downtown isn’t safe right now.
Carr said that with fewer workers in downtown Minneapolis, the number of homeless people in the city’s center now seems even larger. That, too, frightens people away from the center of the city. Carr said that the city needs to address the problem of homelessness and boost its supply of affordable housing.
“The pandemic has highlighted the lack of resources for people who have been experiencing homelessness,” Carr said. “How do we address that? Then there is the fact that there isn’t a lot of activity going on in downtown right now. There has been a withdrawal from companies in downtown. There aren’t people commuting into downtown. When you have a reduction of that activity, some of the things you might not otherwise see are more visible.”
Carr said serious crime in Minneapolis is actually down now when compared to the same period a year ago. The problem is that the crime and violence that does exist is more visible today.
“It feels less safe today,” Carr said. “But it’s important to know the real story. There are percentages and statistics that we can communicate.”
It’s important, too, to protect businesses from looting while protecting the rights of protesters, Carr said. That’s where public-private partnerships such as RadioLINK, a communications network between private security agencies and the Minneapolis Police Department, can help, Carr said.
“As we navigate civil unrest, we have to be able to differentiate between the First Amendment and advocacy work that is happening and the exploitative and destructive element,” Carr said. “That’s where partnerships between the private and public sector come in. We want to get at these issues before they become a problem.”
Jonathan Weinhagen, president and chief executive officer of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce, said that he is bullish on the future of downtown Minneapolis. As Weinhagen said, before the COVID-19 pandemic and the riots, people waned to live in downtown. Businesses wanted to open offices there, and restaurants and retailers wanted to open locations in the city’s center.
Today’s challenges are real, Weinhagen said. But they are also not permanent. There will be life after the pandemic, and businesses will be allowed to operate again at full capacity.
When will that happens? That’s still unclear.
“We can’t just flip a switch and get people back downtown,” Weinhagen said. “Our governor’s executive order is one of the five most stringent in the country. If you can work from home, you must. We don’t know yet at what point we can turn the dial so that more companies if they want to can get more people back into the downtown core.”
Weinhagen, though, said that he doesn’t expect people to flee the city in droves. Some people and businesses will leave. But long-term, businesses and people want the amenities that come with living in downtown.
“The notion that there is a mass exodus out of concentrated urban areas, I would tell you, is patently false,” Weinhagen said. “We are six months into a pandemic. Companies don’t make decisions like that on a dime. Business and activity is going to come back to downtown.”
Weinhagen agreed that the key today is safety. People will return to downtown if they feel safe there.
“We are realizing that it is a lot more complicated than just saying ‘defund the police,’” Weinhagen said. “The business community has a positive relationship with the police department. But there are challenges there. What happened to George Floyd should never happen to anyone. It happened in our department and it has happened in departments across the country. We should be pushing for reforms to create a more just department. But we do need a police department.”
Dan Collison, director of downtown partnerships for the Minneapolis Downtown Council, focused on one of the reasons for hope in downtown: the advancement of The Root District.
The Root District includes about 30 acres of land in the North Loop neighborhood. The land, anchored by the Minneapolis Farmers Market and adjacent to Target Field, is slated for future development focusing on food, art and culture.
“There hasn’t been a lot of development interest for years in this area,” Collison said. “There is so much potential here.”
The city owns 30 percent of the land in the Root District and is interested in seeing private investment in it.
“We are going to activate this place and draw people and energy to it,” Collison said. “This district is one of the key pieces as pivot to the feature.”