Downtown Next — a plan with promise and an enormous omission

In December 2023, the Minneapolis Foundation published its action strategy for revitalizing Downtown Minneapolis entitled “Downtown Next.”

“Our goal with this report is to spur discussion and action, mobilizing the diverse coalition that our community needs in order to transform downtown into a place that works for everyone.”

R.T. Rybak, President and CEO of the Minneapolis Foundation

The Promise

The report recognizes the unique areas of downtown that have such promise — the riverfront area, the major stadiums, Nicollet Ave, the theaters, Loring Park, the booming North Loop, etc. It envisions creating connected villages throughout the downtown area, accessible by foot, like walking through SoHo, Greenwich Village, and the Theater District in NYC.

It also reminds us that downtown Minneapolis has gone through several remakes over the years. Sometimes we are quick to forget the Hennepin Ave of the ’60s and ’70s with rampant prostitution or the Washington Ave of the 50’s and 60’s with flop houses and “winos” fighting it out regularly on the street.

With vision and hard work, the city revitalized those areas. The report suggests the time has come for another revitalization.

No matter how disappointed many of us have become with Minneapolis, it is in our collective best interest that the city succeeds rather than fails. Minneapolis represents our state’s economic engine, and it is the major hub for entertainment, dining, art, sport, and culture. There is just too much history and investment to turn our backs on the city.

For that reason, aspects of “Downtown Next” should be embraced and supported. However, to do so as is requires a major leap of faith.

The report shows promise on one hand by recognizing successful policies that value the commonsense approach of maintaining a clean, orderly, and safe city, thereby encouraging more cleanliness, order, and safety. This represents the epitome of the “broken window” theory of policing which emphasizes addressing decay while enforcing low level acts of disorder and misbehavior making them unwelcome.

But then the report disappoints as it echoes the tired narrative that policing is not universally welcomed by all communities. The election of 2021 in Minneapolis should have made it clear that the majority of Minneapolitans value law enforcement, and want more of it, not less — especially people of color. 

The Omission 

The report almost stubbornly fails to address the most important step in the entire process – re-establishing public safety. Most of the report’s references to public safety suggest, “Other smart people are focused on comprehensive safety measures downtown and beyond.” This ignores how these other safety measures have largely failed in Minneapolis, in recent years.

Re-establishing public safety must be the first step. Without it the plan will fail as sure as constructing a building on an unstable foundation.

Oddly, the authors acknowledge “the primary theme shared when people heard of this downtown planning effort was, ‘You have to make it safe first — it’s not safe now,’” but then focus less than a page of the 65-page report on the topic of public safety.

Instead, the authors seem to bank on the idea that crime will be pushed out as increasing numbers of people again frequent downtown. But the plan is short on details of just how or why the people will return before public safety is restored.

In this respect, the report puts the cart before the horse. Such a move seems rooted in the naïve belief that the decrease in downtown safety has more to do with COVID related work-from-home policies than on the self-destructive demonization of law enforcement that has been so prevalent in Minneapolis in recent years. 

Make no mistake about it, safety in Minneapolis has declined because of the anti-police stance of its elected officials who have given the activist movement a bully pulpit to attack law enforcement rather than shutting down such dangerous rhetoric. 

The atmosphere has led to unprecedented defections of nearly 40% of the Minneapolis Police Department’s officers. For more than three years running, far more officers have left the MPD than have been willing to join the department. At times the city has seemed to be barely holding on.

Public safety won’t improve until Minneapolis’s elected officials begin affirming a strong law and order approach to the city’s public safety problems, or until the electorate replaces those officials with people who will.

Once and for all, we need to stop reacting to activist voices as if they represent the will of the people. We need to regain commonsense confidence to do what is right and stop capitulating to whomever can scream the loudest. 

Such capitulation will only encourage more screaming and will blunt the great intentions and visions of important work like the Downtown Next plan.