The Free Press, Mankato, MN

January 19, 2013

Ojanpa: Front Street can't go back

By Brian Ojanpa
Free Press Staff Writer

— You can go back to the future with that Michael J. Fox movie, but doing the same with downtown Mankato? Bit of a problem there.

Yet a coalition of businesses is canoodling about how to do just that.

Specifically, they’re looking at how to make Front Street more foot friendly for walkers, gawkers and assorted outsiders bearing money.

Trouble is, Front Street over the decades has transitioned from a traditional open-air avenue of retail and entertainment into an amorphous, partially enclosed blob fostering about as much human connectivity as a hermits convention. 

The other day, City Center Partnership coordinator Eric Harriman rhetorically posed the question, “Where is downtown Mankato?”

The correct answer is: Here, there and nowhere. Retired Minnesota State urban studies professor and downtown design consultant H. Roger Smith said as much years ago.

He parsed downtown into three pieces: Old Town (the North Riverfront Drive commercial district), Downtown (Front Street and its vestiges from the south side of Verizon Wireless Center to the bars two blocks away), and No Town (the “dead space” between the back door of Mankato City Center Hotel to the north doors of the civic center).

And looming like a roofed monolith in the middle of it all is Mankato Place mall, reposing on a stretch of Front Street that was roofed over in the 1970s.

Enclosing downtown stores in such a manner may have been cutting edge in the 1970s, but now the roofed-over facility is utterly problematic to efforts aimed at reimagining Front Street as an easy-to-access byway for walkers.

In one respect, the coalition’s Front Street Connectivity Plan might be a solution in search of a problem.

Thousands of out-of-towners each year — college students — never seem to have any trouble walking the pub-intensive streets downtown. (Walking in a straight line is another matter, but you get the point.)

Ultimately, an alluring downtown must feature things that allure people — attractive come-ons and “walk bys” to make hoofing it worth their while.

At this point, with precious few of those things existing, trying to jury-rig Front Street into something it’s not might be imprudent.

“If you don’t have it, don’t try it,” Smith says. “You don’t build a downtown; a downtown creates itself.”

 

Brian Ojanpa is a Free Press staff writer. Call him at 344-6316 or email bojanpa@mankatofreepress.com.