Uptown: It’s all about good urbanism

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Several things jumped out at me as I read through yesterday’s Star Tribune article about Uptown and the tension of its recent level of development. I’ll address three here, and they have everything to do with what a colleague of mine calls a “failure of frontage.”

First, with the somewhat controversial mixed-use project at 1800 West Lake, the developer, Daniel Oberpriller, was quoted as saying they “did everything they could to mitigate height.” Why is height for height’s sake so damn important to people? It is the one thing that can be easily expressed on opposition of a project, like when describing “that monstrosity” proposed down the street.

I’m going to show you two images. The first one is the base of a tall tower in Vancouver.

The second one is also the building frontage at the base of a tall tower in Vancouver.

Which of these is bad height? Well, neither. The problem is frontage. What would you rather walk past? Yes, these are both from Vancouver. Now don’t tell me you are tired of hearing how great Vancouver, Portland, or Barcelona are and we have to be like them. We do and I’ll tell you why – these cities put Minneapolis to shame when it comes to planning and developing the built environment and we absolutely should absorb whatever good examples we can and apply those lessons to Minneapolis. So yes, I’m going to use Vancouver as an example, and as you can see by the second image, they aren’t perfect. But what the first image shows is the building frontage, façade and streetscape come first in Vancouver and the result is a very livable city with good urbanism.

The scrolling photo is from Vancouver as well – why should Uptown not look like this? In many places it does, but we need to keep our eye on the ball. We must change the conversation from “how tall it will be?” to “what will it look like when I walk by?” because that is a far more important question. When I walk by the Mozaic and 1800 Lake I see a pretty good job of frontage and streetscape, and I don’t notice the height.

My second comment is later in the article one of Councilmember Meg Tuthill’s challengers in Ward 10, Ken Bradley comments on the public process. He is quoted as saying he thinks there should be more neighborhood meetings to seek input before developments receive approval. As president of my neighborhood board, I have to question whether more meetings are a good precedent. Besides, don’t both Uptown and Lyn-Lake have a small area plan completed recently that on a good day would result in appropriate zoning so that more public meetings aren’t required?

I question why we have to reinvent the wheel every single time a new development is proposed, particularly when a small area plan exists and some of these issues should be already decided. Unless the zoning code doesn’t fully encourage the vision laid out in the plan.

Aha! I believe much of the problem lies in the ability of the City of Minneapolis to execute its plan. Its plans are good, but the zoning tools to execute these plans are suspect, and in many cases bad urbanism is still allowed. In other words, we do keep reinventing the wheel when new development is proposed because the public doesn’t trust the process. I’m not advocating for top-down planning, either. Planning should start with a vision for what residents and business owners believe the character of the neighborhood should be, balanced with a market study that understands the blend of vision and real estate market potential, and then the right zoning should encourage it and reward developers to do the right thing, because that is what we decided we want. We’re part way there, and there is good recent urbanism in Uptown, but there is more to do, and much of it lies with the zoning code, and the first thing addressed should be what the building looks like from the street.

There is also a passing reference that chains are ruining Uptown. There is a strong argument to be made for local stores, but as an urbanist my primary concern is the frontage and how it interacts with the pedestrian realm. With that in mind, I believe the new infill of Columbia and Apple stores are really quite well done because they replace a storefront with a storefront. Each building has a pedestrian entrance and an opportunity to window shop. From a development perspective they are organic and incremental and the result does no harm to the urbanism of that portion of Hennepin Avenue, and I’m not sure the same can be said for the renovation of Calhoun Square across the street. After all, a street isn’t pedestrian friendly just because there is a sidewalk. People don’t just go for walks, they need a destination. They need to leave from somewhere and arrive somewhere else. Window shopping is very important, but there have to be doors. Even if they are residential units, the point is you can walk. You don’t have to like the Apple store (and you can’t really control the free market), but you have to admit it’s good urbanism.

What was not mentioned in the Star Tribune article, but was on a recent Streets.mn podcast was a comment by Ward 10 candidate Lisa Bender. She explained that every new development proposed gets to the public process and has its height reduced and its parking increased. She says what is more important is what that building looks like from the street when you walk by. I couldn’t agree more. We don’t have a “failure of frontage,” but it should be the first thing we talk about whether we are discussing development in Uptown or anywhere.