A lesson for downtown Minneapolis: Strong architecture = strong cities

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In my last post, I wrote that the City of Minneapolis must actively encourage development around the future Vikings stadium site. But what will these developments look like?

Downtown Minneapolis learned the hard way that suburban style architecture and center cities do not mix well. Just look to the largely vacant Block E or recall the old City Center complex to confirm this. 

Yet the city could easily repeat these past development mistakes. Vikings owner Zigi Wilf is a real estate developer and owns some of the land around the stadium site, according to Finance and Commerce. A glance at his development company’s website reveals that he specializes in suburban-style box-store development.

Minneapolis must prohibit box-store architecture and ensure that development around the stadium is urban in nature.

So what is urban development? For one, urban development fosters walkability. An attractive walkable street features shop doors and windows that face sidewalks, not parking lots. A walkable street also features narrow storefronts that guide pedestrians to new visual experiences every few seconds (internationally renowned urban planner Jan Gehl suggests approximate storefront widths of 25 feet in his book Cities for People). Additionally, urban development includes buildings crafted with personality, designed to fit within a specific neighborhood and community.

There is no reason Minneapolis should not demand urban development from every developer and tenant. The New York Times recently revealed that even traditional box store retailers “are now willing to come into cities on the cities’ terms — with all the zoning headaches, high rents and odd architecture — because that is where the growth is.” In fact, many chain stores have been willing to abide by municipal design controls for years: over a decade ago the Urban Land Institute’s Ed McMahon wrote about chain restaurants’ willingness to forgo cookie-cutter designs and replace them with community-specific architecture.

Minneapolis has the tools necessary to create a beautiful and livable downtown. These tools include a zoning code, a planning commission, and an active city government. Therefore, if Minneapolis allows more suburban-style development downtown or allows vacant lots to remain, it has only itself to blame.