A fresh take on preservation guidelines near St. Anthony Falls

  • Article by: DON JACOBSON , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 5, 2012 - 11:02 PM

Minneapolis officials say new principles for the historic district will offer a holistic view and give developers clearer direction.

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Planner Brian Schaffer said the proposed guidelines better spell out the city’s thinking on such matters as the roles of archeology and landscape design.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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Since historic preservation guidelines for Minneapolis' St. Anthony Falls district were adopted in 1980, things have changed there in a big way: The area has gone from a languishing former industrial zone to housing and cultural hotbed. 

But those guidelines haven't been updated during those 32 years despite major advances in historic preservation. 

Until now. 

City planning officials are putting the finishing touches on comprehensive new guidelines for the St. Anthony Falls Historic District that they say will not only incorporate a new holistic way of looking at the area but will also eliminate the grey areas that have long frustrated developers. 

"The new guidelines are going to give developers clear direction," said Brian Schaffer, a principal planner for Minneapolis who is shepherding adoption of the new, 182-page set of principles. 

"That's one of the big things that's been asked for when we've had developers' focus groups. Having a clear understanding of what's expected is much more useful than what we've had."

And what they've had is a bare-bones, 11-page document that addresses the heights and materials used in individual buildings but not much else. Those loose guidelines have sometimes led to widely differing opinions among developers, members of the Heritage Preservation Commission and the public over how to interpret them, one former developer says. 

David Frank, now Minneapolis' transit-oriented development manager, was a project manager with developer Schafer Richardson when the company built the Phoenix on the River condominiums and worked to transform the Pillsbury A-Mill into housing over in the Falls area. 

"The main problem was, depending on which subdistrict the project was in, the guidelines might be so vague as to be unhelpful," he recalled. "It was hard to know where you stood even as you were trying to comply as much as possible."

Schaffer, during a late-June presentation to the Preserve Minneapolis group, said that the new guidelines will, for the first time, clearly spell out the city's thinking, such as the role of archeology in preserving the Falls District and how its former railroad corridors should be preserved.

In 1980, the discipline of landscape design wasn't as developed, but now landscaping that interprets historic features has become a major part of preservation efforts. The new guidelines address the topic, calling for incorporation of the remnants uncovered through archeological digs into designs for open spaces. They also call for historic infrastructures to be kept as part of new projects, with their original orientation intact.

Another focus of the new guidelines, Schaffer said, is establishing how new infill buildings should relate to the larger whole of the historic district -- another phenomenon that wasn't part of the equation 32 years ago. 

The current standards, he said, are geared toward big sites and big projects, whereas smaller buildings that might take up only a portion of a city block aren't specifically covered.  

"The guidelines will address how an infill building fits in its block, how it feels, and will ask, 'Is it proper for the district?'" Schaffer said. "Does it fit if you're looking at it from across the riverfront? How does it all work together?"

A public hearing on officially adopting the guidelines is expected this month.  

Don Jacobson is a St. Paul-based freelancer.

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