This blog covers everything except sports and gardening, unless we find a really good link about using dead professional bowlers for mulch. The author is a StarTribune columnist, has been passing off fiction and hyperbole as insight since 1997, has run his own website since the Jurassic era of AOL, and was online when today’s college sophomores were a year away from being born. So get off his lawn.

NIMBY: a new definition

Posted by: James Lileks under Architecture, Minnesota History Updated: June 11, 2014 - 12:34 PM

Criticizing new buildings has to come with a disclaimer: it’s good to have a boom. Better to see cranes than wrecking balls; better to have ordinary new buildings go up than live some place where the economy is flat on its back and the only thing anyone built in the last ten years is a buck-sucking big-box chain on the edge of town.

But this . . . well.

Never mind the hue, which appears to be product placement by French’s mustard. The yellow hue works off the tint of the Varsity theater down the block, so that works, and it’s laudable that someone tries to bring vivacity to the corner. Residents need never give their address; they can say they live in The Yellow One? in Dinkytown, and that’s enough.

There are two problems. One: the windows. Thin windows.The corner windows are nice, even if it looks like a hinge on a door that never opens, but the thin windows have that punchcard / bunker-slit look from the late 60s / early 70s, and staggering them doesn’t absolve all the sins.

Second: that . . . protrusion on the roof. The meaningless stylized angled protrusion, or MSAP, is practically required on all buildings these days, a stylistic tic that says “modern apartment building with an urban vibe and a gas fireplace in the lobby and it’s not a dorm even though seriously you guys someone barfed in the elevator after the last Gophers game. But otherwise we’re totally adults.” It’s like the brim of a baseball cap.

Then there’s this, a planned three-block development on West Broadway: It replaces a string of old tired buildings. Who could complain?

Well, I will. With qualifications. First of all, it should be built. If someone wants to sink money into that neighborhood and bring it up, applause. The design has enough variety to give it cohesion, but at least it pretends to be different buildings, instead of one long faceless glass thing or faux-historical brick mega-development doomed to fail.

Nevertheless, it’s a missed opportunity. No one’s saying the buildings it would replace have great architectural distinction. They don’t. Mostly one-story commercial structures from the Coolidge era. But a few buildings doomed to die for the development have a quality their replacement can never have: style, size, history, presence. This one:


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These buildings deserve to live. They deserve to be incorporated into a new project, and would lend the new project instant credibility. A newcomer, but not an interloper.

It’s not always done well. “Facadomy” was a term used to sticking big projects behind the fronts of old buildings; 2000 Penn in Washington DC, where I used to work, is a fine example. The buildings have nothing to do with the office building behind them, which looks like a cruise ship that steamed from one suburban office park to another. But it’s better than demolition.

The small-scale brick buildings abound around the city, but there are fewer now than before. We discount them because they’re common. They’re like the old men who hang around the barbershop: they contain the vernacular memory of the neighborhood, and are irreplaceable. You have to pick and choose, which is why the House of Hanson in Dinkytown was not worth saving, but the Simms Hardware building is. Why the middle-of-the-block buildings that would have gone down for a Dtown hotel weren’t worth preserving, but the Old College Inn and Gray’s Drug are.

“You can’t save everything“ isn’t an justification for tearing down anything.

Nice to meet you,  Mr. Strawman, you say. But push comes to shove, yes or no? Knock it down, or wait for a rehab, even if if means the neighborhood has to look at boarded up windows for another 15 years? Because the boom will end, as they always do.

I don’t know. It’s not an easy choice. The people who want to preserve these buildings often seem opposed to any development, and it seems to have less to do with preservation than Change. No Trader Joe’s on Lyndale! People will come here. No apartment building on Franklin and Lyndale! People will come here and it will take longer to get through the stoplight and the building will cast a shadow. No hotel in Dinkytown! Because, well, because. No dense structure in Linden Hills! People will move there and it won’t feel special and there might be noise.

If developers were talking about plopping big blocks in the middle of residential neighborhoods, I’d understand - but these locations are all commercial modes, streetcar stops. Density is in their DNA.

(Oh, the new definition of NIMBY? Never Intentionally Maul Buildings, Yo.)

(Okay, it needs work.)

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