Minneapolis may not be that serious about growth after all

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 28, 2014 - 5:52 PM

City Council’s Dinkytown vote could set a bad precedent.

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This Dinkytown building may look unremarkable, and it is, but it’s going to be the subject of a four-month historical-significance study.

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Is Minneapolis really serious about growing its population and tax base? That was a major theme in last fall’s elections, with most of the new City Council promising a greener, more urbanized, more competitive city that would attract young talent, hold down property taxes and stabilize the city’s financial future. But after last week’s vote to stop a hotel project in Dinkytown, you have to wonder.

Especially troubling was the tactic that the council used. Apparently with straight faces, its members voted to explore the historic significance of a less-than-ordinary one-story building along 4th Street SE., where a six-story hotel would have been built. If a four-month study finds it worthy, the building will be protected from demolition. Problem is, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of similar buildings along major transit corridors throughout the city. If all of those are suddenly “historic” and cannot be replaced by higher-density buildings, then the city can kiss its growth aspirations goodbye.

Perhaps it’s time for Mayor Betsy Hodges to step in to remind the council and the city’s neighborhood groups why growth is so important and why density along transit corridors is the best way to achieve it.

Let’s review the fundamentals. Minneapolis would be on a far stronger financial and competitive footing had it grown as much as its peer cities (Denver, Seattle, etc.) grew over the past several decades, but, sadly, it has not. To afford the basics expected of a competitive city, Minneapolis now badly needs an influx of investment and new residents to help carry the cost.

Happily, the economy has improved, and the real-estate market has shifted inward to the cities. After decades of population decline, Minneapolis has begun to grow modestly again. The trick is to maximize that growth and to convince longtime residents to accept a denser, more energetic place.

Growth along transit corridors is especially beneficial because it adds people without adding so many cars. By creating walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods, density also brings environmental and public-safety benefits while offering the urban atmosphere that a new generation is looking for.

Some neighborhood groups embrace this vision; others prefer the old thinned-out, self-satisfied Minneapolis in which younger people flee to the suburbs, taxes rise and there’s no need for all of these fancy new apartment buildings and other pieces of infill development.

After the Dinkytown vote, developer Kelly Doran declared his hotel dead, but Third Ward Council Member Jacob Frey still sees room for compromise. Elected as a progrowth candidate, Frey said he voted against demolition as a way to buy more time. Dinkytown and other transit-friendly parts of the city need more density, he said, but neighbors must also be made to feel more comfortable with the changes ahead.

College-town nostalgia may prevent Dinkytown from reaching its full redevelopment potential, but a clearer test for the new City Council is coming soon on the near South Side. Neighbors seem to hate a proposal from Master Properties to build five stories of apartments above retail and theater space on the southwest corner of Lyndale and Franklin Avenues. It’s a textbook example of the kind of redevelopment the city should pursue.

The project would replace a surface parking lot. It’s on an already busy intersection with transit service. It includes a community parking garage. It mixes retail, cultural and residential uses, and it encourages walking, transit riding and (with more eyes on the street) public safety. The project should be a slam dunk — unless, perhaps, neighbors insist that an unremarkable, one-story building on the site deserves historic protection.

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