The Minneapolis downtown area is not as busy as it once was. You can thank the pandemic for that. Overnight, workers disappeared, more than 150,000 in Minneapolis and about 50,000 in St. Paul. Workers are coming back, but slowly.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey supports converting downtown office buildings into apartments, according to an interview with Axios. With government buy-in, a downtown transformation is likely. But what exactly will that look like? That’s up in the air.
Fernando Burga is an assistant professor of urban planning at the University of Minnesota. He talked with MPR News host Cathy Wurzer to help make sense of the future of downtown Minneapolis.
Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.
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With government buy-in, a downtown transformation is likely. But what exactly will that look like? Well, that's up in the air. Fernando Burga is an assistant professor of urban planning at the University of Minnesota. He's on the line to help us make some sense of this. Professor, welcome.
FERNANDO BURGA: Hi there. Thank you so much.
CATHY WURZER: When you look at Downtown Minneapolis as an urban planner, what do you see?
FERNANDO BURGA: Well, I see a lot of opportunity. I think that downtown Minneapolis has a great future because of its existing amenities and also because there is civic leadership that's starting to veer attention towards the needs of a post-pandemic downtown.
CATHY WURZER: Let's talk about a post-pandemic downtown. I was talking and also doing a lot of reading for this interview, but talking to some experts who think that it's possible that billions of infrastructure in architecture could become functionally obsolete because of the changes we've seen in the pandemic. Do you think that's possible?
FERNANDO BURGA: Yes, but also I think that we need a more nuanced perspective. We're not talking about buildings being demolished, reconstruction in high intensity. What we're talking about essentially is reprogramming the functions of existing infrastructure, and that's really where the opportunity lies.
CATHY WURZER: Give us an example, reprogramming infrastructure.
FERNANDO BURGA: For sure. So what we're seeing or what we may essentially see is the re-envisioning and redesign of existing buildings as far as office space concern and parking into new useful infrastructure, and that may include all kinds of new uses ranging from hotels, schools, self-storage facilities. With our new digital economy, we may even envision even agri-tech startup opportunities.
Essentially, downtown Minneapolis is in a good place in terms of some of its great amenities. It's close to the river. We have to create entertainment centers on both ends. There's new development happening north of downtown with the extension of the light rail, and there's going to be opportunity to rethink the core according to new land uses which may yield new experiences, essentially.
CATHY WURZER: What do you think of the vibrancy of downtown? And I'm thinking about-- gosh. You go to almost any European or Asian urban core, and there's a lot of vibrant street life in one block than an entire square mile of some American cities, you know? What do you think of the vibrancy of the street life in Minneapolis, and how might that help pump up the downtown area?
FERNANDO BURGA: Sure. Well, I think it's important to recognize that we are not an Asian or European city. We are a Midwestern city that aims to achieve global status. And in that regard, we are competing with other cities like Chicago, for example. We have great opportunities ahead. One of the issues that has been in the minds of all residents in downtown and beyond, obviously, has been safety, and that's one issue that needs to be confronted.
But there is vibrancy if we look closely. There is vibrancy, for example, in the North Loop. There's vibrancy in the Skyways that slowly increase during weekdays when people come back to downtown Minneapolis to collaborate, to participate in meetings, to build culture and community in their offices.
So we need to start to really muster and look at those opportunities to really make something that is uniquely downtown Minneapolis. That's really where the opportunities lie and where we're able to actually achieve a unique idiosyncratic rebound that is Minneapolis-based by residents of Minneapolis.
CATHY WURZER: I'm glad you brought up safety. What can city officials do to create safer spaces in downtown Minneapolis?
FERNANDO BURGA: Yes, that's a huge issue that right now many different community groups, city leaders are looking at. First of all, there has to be an attention to equity and understanding that there needs to be better collaboration, communication, understanding the needs of residents who may feel that they're being affected by the issue of safety, but also understand how to build better relationships between institutions such as the police department and other residents in the city who may be affected negatively.
It's important also to consider and have good communication with police to understand what are their needs and how they can be prioritized. And lastly, I think we all need to build a culture of safety as residents in Minneapolis. I am, for example, a resident in the North Loop, and I try to consider also my own perceptions and my biases when I walk in the city to be aware of how safety impacts me, but also how it impacts others.
CATHY WURZER: Professor, I'm a student of history, and I know enough to know that the 1918 flu pandemic triggered an urban decentralization that helped launch American suburbia to a degree. What kinds of changes might the COVID pandemic make in how we view core urban areas moving forward?
FERNANDO BURGA: Yes, indeed. Richard Florida, who is a very renowned urbanist, has called the pandemic-- one of them-- if not the most important change since the suburban transformation in the mid 20th century, perhaps one which will really literally transform the 21st century. Essentially what we're seeing is a reconfiguration of the economic urban geography.
What you're seeing is new regional hubs starting to become destinations where some of these activities which used to be in downtown now will be placed. However, it must be said. Downtown remains a special place because it is historically, culturally, socially where people have congregated in order to work create and innovate together.
So as much as there may be some decentralization and suburban areas may become appealing, downtown will recover a new identity, one based on its cultural amenities and also as a lifestyle destination where people can live, play, and work in new ways after the pandemic.
CATHY WURZER: So it would make sense with what Mayor Frey is saying to maybe take some of the office space and convert it into apartment buildings.
FERNANDO BURGA: Definitely. Minneapolis is facing a housing crisis-- affordable housing crisis. The idea of considering housing is an excellent idea. There are many other cities that have looked at this template and have succeeded in rethinking their downtown and considering a post-pandemic city, so that is right on point on what is needed in Minneapolis-- specifically, this notion of thinking about an idiosyncratic Minneapolis-centric solution for this question.
CATHY WURZER: Professor, I appreciate your time. Thank you so much. It's been interesting.
FERNANDO BURGA: Thank you.
CATHY WURZER: Fernando Burga is an assistant professor of urban planning at the University of Minnesota.
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