How much does form matter?

  • Blog Post by: Nathaniel Hood
  • September 28, 2012 - 9:21 AM

Do buildings need to mold together? Do their forms need to match?

Above: St. Clair & Prior in St. Paul [Google Maps]

Incompatible uses? This St. Paul grocer is a single-story small “big box” style building that fits the streetscape and is, by and large, a great neighborhood market. It’s next to (and by next to, I mean, very close) what appears to be a duplex that has been converted into a retail front and upstairs office space (I believe there is an apartment, too).

Building a single-family style house next to a store like this, even under very loose zoning restrictions, is probably strongly discouraged. Although it wouldn’t be impossible to do this in the neighborhood today, it probably wouldn’t be worth the uphill battle to get it approved.

The thing is, it works really well – even if it looks a tad odd. The neighborhood gets a decent corner grocery store. A resident gets cheap office space near his house and a college student, young professional or senior can get an affordable apartment unit in a nice neighborhood (across from a beautiful church and elementary school/ community center).

Even when the form is more out of scale, it still works.

Above: Around the University of Minnesota [Google Maps Outdated Image]

This is even more out of scale – a six story building butting up against the shotgun shack of noodle shops. But if the urbanism is there, these incompatible uses don’t matter. Compared to what use to be there, this noodle shop (a new place, by the way) will benefit greatly by having six floors of students craving last-minute cheap food. All the while, the college students will benefit from having cheap food in very close proximity to their apartment.

In my mind these are two examples of urbanism creating win-win situations with “incompatible uses”. I believe that form is important, but just because your building is two floors tall that doesn’t mean your neighbor shouldn’t be able to build four floors. While I don’t advocate skyscrapers in single family neighborhoods, I do think the above examples could fit in most all inner-city Minneapolis and St. Paul neighborhoods.

Cough. Grand & Finn. Cough, cough. Sorry, my throat is sore.

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