Last week’s Minneapolis City Council vote to densify Dinkytown was anything but dinky. It signaled a major policy shift toward once again growing the city’s population, even in the face of noisy neighborhood opposition.

There’s a mounting realization in Minneapolis that building a competitive, high-quality city will require more taxpayers to shoulder the costs, and that will inevitably bring higher densities to commercial districts like Dinkytown.

The 9-4 vote was a shocker because it reversed the council’s Zoning and Planning Committee and defied the local council member, Diane Hofstede. Both had opposed an Opus Development Company project that will now bring two six-story apartment towers fronted by street-level retail shops along 5th Street SE. between 13th and 14th Avenues.

Hofstede likened the project to “the canary in the coal mine,” meaning that if the city allowed the destruction of Dinkytown’s village atmosphere, then no place in the city would be safe from the tower crane.

But that’s grossly misleading. In this case, the village atmosphere to be destroyed is an ugly, one-story convenience store and a shabby surface parking lot. The Opus project will add to the district’s college-town character, not detract from it. In an urban setting, the village is defined not by parking lots but by sidewalk activity — and 140 new apartments should enhance the pedestrian buzz.

As for the rest of the city, Council Member Elizabeth Glidden was right to declare: “If we’re not able to say yes to this project … how and when are we going to be able to say yes to density?”

Indeed, Minneapolis appears to be turning an important corner on the population growth question. As Mayor R.T. Rybak has often stated, the city won’t be able to afford the reinvestments in infrastructure and services that all older cities require unless it accepts greater density, especially in commercial nodes and along transit corridors. For far too long, city leaders have been timid on that question, as these numbers suggest.

The metro population tripled to 3.4 million over a span of six decades (1950-2010), while St. Paul and especially Minneapolis shrunk. Minneapolis lost nearly a third of its population between 1950 and 1990, and since then has achieved only modest gains.

Meanwhile, peer cities such as Seattle, Denver and Portland have grown impressively, each grabbing a significant share of metro growth. Each has added between 140,000 and 166,000 residents since 1990, mainly by retrofitting industrial areas for housing, encouraging density in commercial districts and emphasizing transit to ease traffic congestion. By sad comparison, Minneapolis and St. Paul combined to add slightly more than 43,000.

Now, however, as the housing market continues its inward pivot, some city neighborhoods are feeling intense redevelopment pressure. Dinkytown was only the latest in a string of density battles. NIMBY appears to be in retreat, and that’s a good thing. But neighbors do have some legitimate gripes about the new housing that’s popping up all over the city.

Quality of construction is one concern; design is another. Developers have settled on a drab formula that maximizes profit: Five stories of stick construction on top of a one-story concrete podium with two levels of parking below. Large floor plates and cheap cladding finish the look. The result (broad, bulky and boring) often fails to impress neighbors and makes density easier to oppose.

How to encourage more variety, creativity and style? Suggestions include altering the state building codes, introducing form-based zoning or instituting a design review process. Lenders could help, too, by being more open to creative projects.

Still, economics is likely to drive the look of these projects as long as infill locations are plentiful, said Peter Brown, a Minneapolis design consultant who has written extensively on the development process.

“Increasing population is more important than the design of buildings, at least in these early stages,” he said. “It’s people on the streets that sets the stage for more demand in the future, and with more demand will come better design.”


An editorial of the Star Tribune (Minneapolis). Follow the editorial board on Twitter | FacebookPinterest | Google+