There’s a new proposal for a residential project on the north shore of Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis. There are three different designs, best described thus:
3. All of the above, but more of it.
Of course, they’re just proposals. Designs are tweaked and perfected, but I suspect the end result will be boxy and glassy, since the people who will pay high coin to live with a lake view will want the maximum amount of view possible.
I also suspect that the city will get another undistinguished rectangle, and that the building on the spot now — an older rectangle in the midcentury style we’ve lost almost completely — will be instantly forgotten.
A missed opportunity, again. The new building should be 30 stories tall. Perhaps more. And there should be not one building, but two. Maybe three.
At this point, people who live around Calhoun have probably sat up straight in their chairs, stared grimly into the distance, and wondered where they keep the torches and pitchforks.
If we’ve learned anything, it’s this: Tall buildings aren’t welcomed around the lakes.
Density and open space aren’t enemies; they are complementary elements that benefit each other. This isn’t to say every city lake should have a tall tower or three. But why should every lake be forbidden from having any?
If there’s any lake that seems appropriate for a tower, it’s Calhoun. The adjacent neighborhood, Uptown, is already populated with dense residential blocks. It already has one tall tower, Lake Point. Lake Street is a busy thoroughfare, not a residential goat path.
So what’s stopping big visions? The law, for one thing.
The last tall building in the area was Lake Point Condos, 20 stories that went up in 1978 — and look like it. After that, the zoning laws were changed. There’s a Shoreland Overlay Ordinance, passed in 1988, which limits building height on a Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board lake parkway to 35 feet.
Anything over 35 feet was considered excessive. It’s the height of the tree line.
According to zoning laws, you could build 60 feet up around the Calhoun Beach Club and westward toward St. Louis Park, if nearby residential dwellings in the adjacent zoning districts weren’t plunged into shade for more than 90 minutes on Dec. 21 between the hours of 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Really.
Like many rules, however, there might be an exception. Let’s say someone comes in with a spectacular idea, and wants a conditional use permit, which lets them get around the rules. Would that be OK with the neighborhood?
“If you build a taller building,” says Bob Corrick, chairman of the land use committee for the Calhoun-Isles-Dean Neighborhood Association, “you have precedence issues. Lake Point is not a precedent, because it was built before the zoning code was implemented.”
The concern is that if you let one developer put up something quite tall, the next developer will say, “Well, you let them do it. Why not me?”
So the new proposals are scaled modestly, in the hopes of getting approval.
“We have not taken a position on any of them,” Corrick says, “and are considering all three options.”
If I were a betting man, I might not put all my chips on the proposal for a tall building.
Imagine 30 stories. Imagine 40, but not just a rote glass box. Something beautiful — a landmark in the day, a torch in the night. Now forget it, because it probably will never happen. People who live in the neighborhood most likely wouldn’t want it, and then they’d complain. And, of course, they have every right to complain, because they live there. It’s not just the shade they don’t like, it’s the alteration of neighborhood character, and the increase in traffic.
Change in the neighborhood — in any neighborhood, really — is difficult to quantify and hard to enforce. Is nearby Uptown worse off because new apartment blocks have risen on former parking lots or taken the place of some old buildings? No.
Has the character of the area changed? No; it’s been reinforced.
Uptown was always dense, with blocks of flats along the Mall dating back almost a hundred years. The area to the north of Lake Calhoun is different. Just because a few big projects have gone up doesn’t mean the residents should say “Sure, more of those” when someone wants to make their neighborhood 10 times denser.
Traffic, though, that’s the problem.
If a developer decided to raze the Market Place strip mall where Lake Street and Excelsior Boulevard meet, or tear down the shiny, short Lake Calhoun Executive Center for a super-tall tower, traffic would be unbearable. (Note: It’s unbearable now.)
More density would only make sense if there were a reliable mass transit system. Not the bus; people who live on the 37th floor of a Lake Calhoun condo don’t want to take the bus, and they won’t. They would take a streetcar if it stretched from Uptown to downtown, but that’s decades away.
Tall towers around the city’s most urban lake? Forget it. For now.
But here’s a prediction: In 30 years, the streetcars will be back. And they’ll serve the residents of the Torch, Calhoun’s most spectacular tower, rising on the spot where a car-oriented shopping center once stood. At night its crown glows — but only for an hour after sunset.
Because that’s what the neighborhood wanted. And they have every right to want that. After all, they live there.