The corner of Lake Street and Nicollet Avenue is the sort of place that can thrill an urban street designer. This reaction has nothing to do with the intersection’s existing configuration—to the contrary, few would deny that it presents, at best, a utilitarian landscape. A strip mall, a parking lot, and a nondescript apartment building occupy the south side of the intersection. To the north, Nicollet terminates at Lake, and where it would otherwise continue sits an expansive asphalt parking lot with a K-Mart and a supermarket at its far end.

The intersection is busy—route 21 buses stop regularly; shoppers arrive and depart by foot and by car; and Nicollet-bound traffic completes its awkward circuit around the interruption created by the K-Mart. But the bustle does little to offset the pervasive sense that this place lacks a connection to the surrounding community, much less its own rich history.

It is this very soulnessness that excites and inspires those seeking to reinvent the Lake Street/29th Street Corridor. As the intersection of Minneapolis’s historic main street and one of its oldest commercial corridors, the corner of Nicollet and Lake possesses unique and remarkable potential for meaningful redevelopment. Perhaps this potential will not remain unrealized much longer, for plans are already underway to return the intersection to its rightful role as a vibrant commercial crossroads at the center of a thriving community.

Birth of a Commercial Crossroads
The history of development along Nicollet and Lake predates the city’s formal annexation of the area. In the 1880s, development sprang up along a steam-powered, interurban railroad line that extended along Nicollet to 31st Street, and then west to Lake Calhoun and Lake Harriet. Beginning around 1890, the construction of mass transit along both Nicollet and Lake, in the form of electric streetcar lines, resulted in ever more rapid real estate development. By the early 1900s, the intersection was well established as a bustling commercial center that served both transferring streetcar passengers and, increasingly, automobile drivers.

Baseballs on Nicollet
The corner was home to many shops and businesses, but perhaps its most notable institution was the Nicollet Ball Park, which sat at 3048 Nicollet from 1896 until its demolition in 1955. For more than fifty years, baseball fans traveled to Nicollet Park to cheer their beloved Minneapolis Millers. Described by former Minneapolis Tribune writer Dave Mona as “soggy, foul, rotten and thoroughly wonderful,” the Park was rustic by any standards. It lacked parking facilities; the dressing rooms housed termites and were barely heated; the bleachers delivered slivers to the unwary; and the press had to stand up and lean forward to see the field from the press box. The Park’s shallow right field measured only 279 feet to the fence, which meant that players regularly hit balls into the street, shattering the plate-glass windows of Nicollet Avenue businesses far more often than league records.

But the physical limitations of the Park could not dampen residents’ deep and abiding affection for this community landmark and the hometown team it housed. For Millers fans, baseball at the Park was always fine, even during losing seasons, and every now and again, the baseball was transcendent. In 1938, for instance, fans witnessed the first remarkable season in the career of a 19-year-old outfielder by the name of Ted Williams. And for one glorious month in 1951, Willie Mays batted .477 during 35 games with the Millers, before departing for the New York Giants and baseball history.

A Season of Decline
The Millers played their last season at Nicollet Park in 1955 before relocating to the newly built Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington. They departed with a bang: as they had in their first season there in 1896, the Millers won the pennant that year. Shortly thereafter, the ballpark was demolished and the Northwestern Bank building (now Wells Fargo) was constructed on the site.

The ballpark’s demolition was just one of several harbingers of the decline that was to occur at Nicollet and Lake over the ensuing decades. Just one year earlier, in 1954, the metro area’s first suburban shopping centers opened and the city ceased operation of the streetcar lines. The seeds were also sown in the 1960’s for a second major blow to the area’s role as a commercial center when the Interstate freeway system excluded southbound access to Lake Street from I-35W.

Early Efforts at Revitalization:
The Closing of Nicollet Avenue

The loss of baseball and the streetcar lines, the lure of suburban shopping centers, and the failure to include I-35W access to Lake Street all combined to erode the commercial viability of Nicollet and Lake. By the early 1970s, the situation had deteriorated sufficiently to demand the City’s focused attention. The proliferation of abandoned buildings, adult bookstores, and massage parlors prompted the City to establish the area as the Nicollet/Lake Economic Development District in 1972.

The City solicited and received a number of proposals for redevelopment in the district, but several years passed without forward movement on the project. Robert Stewart, then vice-president of Northwestern National Bank, worked with several Lake Street business organizations to foster development proposals for Lake and Nicollet during this era. “The project was continually grounded because of the difficulty the City encountered in finding a large retail tenant to anchor the development,” recalls Stewart. “First Dayton’s declined to build a Target store; then Herberger’s opted out. K-Mart stepped in just as we were beginning to lose hope that the project would ever get off the ground.”

In exchange for K-Mart’s commitment, city officials agreed to close Nicollet Avenue, creating a two-block parcel on which to construct an 84,000 square-foot building to house the

K-Mart and a grocery store. Despite bitter protest from neighborhood residents and Nicollet Avenue merchants to the north, plans moved forward, and K-Mart opened its doors in 1978.

Documents from the era make clear that the closing of Nicollet was part of a well-intentioned economic development strategy for the area. The strategy was partially successful—the K-Mart soon became one of the company’s most profitable stores, and it continues to provide a much-needed discount retail service to area residents. But the project’s design problems were immediately apparent. As constructed, the facility catered to automobile traffic in a manner that was incongruous with the high level of pedestrian traffic and transit service at the intersection. Moreover, the rerouting of traffic undermined the residential character of neighboring streets. Finally, the closing of Nicollet strangled the flow of consumer traffic along that street, with particularly hard-hitting consequences to Nicollet businesses to the north.

The last few years have seen a wealth of positive development along this northern stretch of Nicollet, which has evolved into Minneapolis “Eat Street,” a pedestrian-friendly streetscape that is home to over fifty small, locally-owned restaurants and grocery stores that celebrate the City’s ethnic diversity.

Coming Full Circle: Reopening Nicollet Avenue
Nicollet Avenue could be open again, if plans move forward for the Lake & Nicollet Commons project proposed by Sherman Associates, Inc. As Loren Brueggerman, Sherman Associates’ vice-president of development, explains, “Our goal with Lake & Nicollet Commons is the revitalization of Nicollet Avenue as a continuous corridor with a recognizable identity that celebrates its distinct and unique constituent parts.” The focal point of the project is reopening Nicollet as an uninterrupted thoroughfare, followed by high density and high amenity development in the form of unique two- to four-story buildings that integrate residential spaces with the commercial core, from Lake. A reoriented two-story retail business would continue to serve as an economic anchor at Nicollet and Lake, but it would be joined by micro-tenant retail spaces and businesses. Current plans project that construction of the new retail space and housing on the north side of the Greenway could begin as early as the fall of 2002.

In many ways, the Lake & Nicollet Commons project will turn back the clock at the intersection. The site plan includes park-like green spaces reminiscent of the recreational area once provided by the Nicollet Ball Park, while the street trolley proposed for the Midtown Greenway recalls the old streetcar lines. But Lake & Nicollet Commons offers much more, including housing along the Midtown Greenway; a high-density mix of small and large-scale retail spaces, restaurants, and businesses; a heated metro transit station; and access to a new southbound exit from I-35W onto Lake Street. In short, as Brueggerman points out, “Lake & Nicollet Commons would not just evoke the nostalgia of the old Nicollet-Lake intersection—it would immeasurably improve upon it.”

References

Anderson, David, ed. Before the Dome: Baseball in Minnesota When the Grass Was Real. (1993).

City of Minneapolis, Office of the City Coordinator. Lake-Nicollet Development District Plan (November 1972).

City of Minneapolis, Community Development Committee, City Council. Design Framework, Nicollet/Lake Development District (1978).

Nicollet Avenue Task Force. The Revitalization of Minneapolis’ Main Street. (May 2000).

Thornley, Stew. On to Nicollet: The Glory and Fame of the Minneapolis Millers (1988).

Fans Exiting Nicollet Ball Park, 1946.
Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.