Not to my surprise, in my quest to determine if there’s a downtown Bloomington, I received several calls and emails.
One of those calls came from Roger Anderson, a former Bloomington Police officer. Anderson began patrolling the city in the early 1960s, and provided a historic account of the businesses in the vicinity of 98th Street and Lyndale Avenue, the area most often cited as the city’s downtown.
I asked him if that central business district was indeed the city’s downtown during the 1960s. He said it was.
But what if I hopped in my time machine and traveled back to 1965? Would I drive along Lyndale Avenue, look around and proclaim I had found downtown Bloomington? Roger’s answer: “No.”
Two weeks ago I outlined several characteristics of a downtown district. Last week I determined that it’s possible for a downtown district to shift, and awarded the designation to two areas from the city’s past, the latter being the 98th and Lyndale area.
Of all the characteristics I associate with a downtown, I’m not convinced the district needs to possess all of them.
Past discussions I’ve had or read regarding Bloomington’s downtown have brought unlikely candidates.
Mall of America has been suggested. It’s a cluster of retail and service businesses, with entertainment and dining options, and a community gathering space, accessible by public transit. But it’s far from a central business district for the city. Never was, unlikely it ever will be.
Malls may exist in major downtowns, but they are not downtowns in and of themselves.
Head east of the mall on Lindau Lane and you have the city’s South Loop District. As it develops, Lindau Lane may emulate characteristics of a downtown district. It may even look like a downtown, but it’s unlikely to ever achieve the distinction.
I’ve heard a couple other suggestions for areas that might fit the definition of a downtown, if you really use your imagination. But they don’t come close to representing the commercial, cultural, historical, political and geographic heart of Bloomington.
Not every Twin Cities suburb has a downtown, and that’s not a crime.
And even if we want to believe that Bloomington had a downtown once upon a time, in 2021 it does not.
The 98th and Lyndale area has a colorful history and many of the features you expect from a downtown. It served as the central business district of the city, featuring the wide array of businesses you would expect to find in a downtown.
Properties have been redeveloped over the years, but the district never quite evolved into the downtown of its predecessors across the Twin Cities. Perhaps downtown Bloomington was a victim of timing. Maybe it just came along after the central business district model changed, so we don’t look at the area today and think of it as a historic downtown district.
More than one person has referenced a song and/or jingle, posing the question of where Downtown Bloomington was in the 1960s or 1970s. If a musical composition is making light of the subject, it suggests to me that its existence is tenuous, at best.
We have an area that lacks some of the historic characteristics of a downtown district and was arguably a cultural, historical or geographic heart of the city for a time.
There are sidewalks, and residents who use them, but it’s not a particularly pedestrian-oriented district. There’s no prominent community park or gathering space, and few incentives for people to access the district via public transit, other than necessity. And it lacks a geographic feature that draws people to the district, such as river or lake. Lyndale ends at the Minnesota River, but the business district and the river might as well be miles apart.
There is no shortage of businesses in the area today that hearken back to the district’s glory days as a focal point of the city. But a clock tower at the corner and a few benches to sit down upon do not a downtown make.
The district may be the closest thing to a downtown that Bloomington has, and it may have served that role decades ago. I contend, however, that the city never had a downtown. Instead, it had a main street. And it still does.
Main streets are often part of a downtown district, and plenty of downtowns have a Main Street in name. Some may argue that you can’t have a main street without a downtown, but I’m convinced that Lyndale Avenue was and is the city’s main street.
It was pointed out to me, more than once, that Lyndale Avenue once served as the highway out of Minneapolis, prior to Interstate 35W. Heading to Texas? Take the highway through Bloomington as you head south. And as a result, complementary businesses sprouted along Lyndale.
Logic tells me other businesses sought the visibility and access Lyndale offered. As the freeway system usurped Lyndale, some of those businesses catering to travelers left, and other businesses with a local focus filled the vacancies. Time and the cyclical nature of business has continued that process through the years, maintaining a vibrant main street featuring a mixture of retail, residential and industrial destinations as you head south on Lyndale from Interstate 494.
The city has been planning a major overhaul of Lyndale Avenue, dubbed a retrofit. It envisions “a thriving, walkable, mixed-use corridor that serves as an amenity to attract new, and retain existing, residents and businesses.”
That sounds like far more of a downtown that what we have today in the vicinity of 98th and Lyndale.
Until then, I’ll be content driving up and down Bloomington’s main street in search of a place where I can linger on the sidewalk, where the neon signs are pretty. A place where you can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares. Downtown.
Follow Bloomington community editor Mike Hanks on Twitter at @suncurrent and on Facebook at suncurrentcentral.