Above: The Camdi and Mesa Pizza building on 4th Street SE, protected from demolition in 2014. (Photo from designation study)
New historic protections approved by a key panel Thursday would help spare many of Dinkytown's small, older buildings from demolition amid the University area's increasing development pressures.
A proposed Dinkytown historic district is heading toward a final vote next month, about a year and a half after the City Council scuttled a controversial six-story hotel proposal on 4th Street. That project, coupled with other new apartments on the periphery of the Dinkytown core, ignited neighborhood fears about preserving the character of the area.
There remains debate about where preservation is warranted, however, particularly as the city invites new development. One proposed historic district covered 29 structures erected from 1899 to 1972 -- the end of the Vietnam-era protests -- but that proved too expansive for some council members Thursday.
Noting that "I don’t want to designate a McDonalds," Council Member Jacob Frey successfully limited the designation to the period of growth associated with the streetcar era: 1899 to 1929. See the map below.
“The critical time period for every individual is different and tends to coincide with the time in their lives when they were having fun, dating someone hot, smoking, staying up late," Frey said. "That’s not history. That’s college."
The council saved some of that small-scale streetcar development back in 2014, when it protected the building housing Camdi restaurant and Mesa Pizza from the wrecking ball. The draft historic designation study says streetcars were integral to the creation of Dinkytown's commercial district.
"Dinkytown was a distinctive streetcar commercial hub, located at the intersection of two busy streetcar lines. The architecture and development of Dinkytown reflect that era, and much of its original integrity remains," the study says. "Its relationship close to the University and continued role as a commercial center distinguish it from other streetcar commercial districts elsewhere in the city."
Many business and building owners have spoken out against designation, warning that it will stifle growth in this popular area.
Mike Mulrooney, president of the Dinkytown Business Alliance, said Dinkytown business activity is falling behind nearby Stadium Village, which sees more benefits from major events at TCF Bank Stadium.
“We need people,” Mulrooney told the committee. "And I believe that development and infrastructure in the area, improvements in the area, that’s what’s going to drive the economics of the area."
Steve Young, who owns several buildings in the area, said a historic designation will ultimately detract from the nostalgia many people have for Dinkytown. He encouraged allowing for more changes akin to the recent renovation of Loring Pasta Bar and Varsity Theater -- the latter of which now features weird and award-winning bathrooms.
“This funky, eclectic feeling cannot be legislated," Young said. "It has to grow organically.”
The designation does not end the debate, however. If approved, staff must create design guidelines to inform future development of the area -- regulating height, appearance and other elements that impact the character of a neighborhood.
A motion by Council Member Lisa Goodman Thursday specifies that staff should give more value to building facades than their backsides and not put more limitations on the height of the district -- beyond those already outlined in other plans.
An updated Dinkytown plan, approved last year, says buildings should be built within the four-story height of the district -- but no taller than six stories. Taller buildings must recede from the street after two stories.
The height clause worried Kristen Eide-Tollefson, owner of the Book House and a vocal advocate for the district.
"For Dinkytown, that is its characteristic," Eide-Tollefson said. "That it’s small and that students relate to it as a small place, as a small town.”
Buildings that contribute to a historic district can still be demolished, but owners must meet a higher burden of proof that they are structurally unsafe or no alternatives exist for reusing them.