A happy hour conversation at the Herkimer in Uptown* with a fellow urbanist strayed from the usual business at hand to the subtle politics of local development. During our conversation, my colleague mentioned something that stopped me in my tracks:
“Minneapolis needs to stop apologizing for being a city.”
He’s right. Minneapolis and St. Paul are cities. The Twin Cities. Emphasis on cities. It’s about time they started acting like it.
What does this mean? For starters, we need to stop being obsessed with density, traffic and the perceived negative impacts that a development may have on a neighborhood.
It means that density is not the enemy. This is a difficult argument to make, especially for those who like their neighborhood as is and would gladly preserve it in amber. Linden Corner is a classic example where a local developer wanted to convert a surface parking lot into a five story mixed-use condo development. It failed.
In opposition to the project, neighbors posted signs in their yards that read: It takes a village to keep a village. The problem is: it’s not a village! It’s a dense, walkable neighborhood with a compact commercial node, existing large apartment buildings and access to transit and bike lanes. Coming from someone who has spent the better half of a decade studying, working with and writing about urban planning, it’s hard to imagine a more appropriate development than the one proposed. Nonetheless, it still failed.
Something to consider: In 1950, Minneapolis had a population of approximately 521,000. St. Paul had about 311,000. Today, Minneapolis is about 140,000 short and St. Paul is down 25,000. With our core cities, as much as the neighbors may disdain our current level of density, we are much less dense than we once use to be.
Development is always good in so much as it isn’t in your backyard, or so goes the argument. To combat this, the traffic card is often pulled from the deck. This is an extension of the density argument and its surprising it isn’t considered a dead idea by now. Traffic, in fact, is a sign of a strong economy (e.g.: getting around Cleveland is easy). That isn’t to say traffic shouldn’t be mitigated nor alternatives provided, but we shouldn’t use it as a method of rejecting projects for the sake of rejecting projects. We take this model, which is based upon out-dated assumptions, and extrapolate it to current conditions as if it matters. We do this just as we wrongfully do with most all parking requirements (see Cupake on Grand).
Not having required parking minimums is bad, but not nearly as bad as the prospect of living near those of lower incomes. This curiously holds true even along West 7th Street in St. Paul where Project for Pride in Living hit major road blocks in their attempt to build 44 units of low income housing. The cited neighborhood concerns were to that of the legalities of variances; one for a slight redevelopment lot size adjustment and the other for a parking lot setback (of which amounted to 4 feet in the rear of the property). As if the neighbors were filing the lawsuit because they genuinely cared about the legal ramifications and precedence of statewide small lot zoning and redevelopment variance discrepancies.
The West 7th project did advance. It’s currently under construction and it’s already shaping up to be a positive addition. The neighbors are coming around. This story is not uncommon. For this, I turn to West River Commons at the intersection of East Lake Street and West River Blvd in Minneapolis (home to the Longfellow Grill). Prior to its development, West River Commons endured the agony of 45 public meetings for the 56 unit project (a 1.24 meeting-to-units ratio). Opposition was the status quo, now it’s hard to imagine any neighbor opposing the project.
We can’t just expect our old industrial zones to be converted to condos and then nothing else. Our historic warehouse district spaces will fill up, and so will our parking lots (if we let them). We’ll eventually need to have development where people are currently living. That means neighborhood development.
Minneapolis and St. Paul are cities. The Twin Cities. Emphasis on cities. It’s about time they started acting like it.