New building plans attract ample attention for renderings of glassy towers that someday could loom over Twin Cities streets.
But how many doors will they have?
How buildings feel to people on foot and at street level is an obsession of sorts for consultant Sam Newberg, who channels famed urban thinker Jane Jacobs in his critiques of local streetscapes. Newberg’s consulting company, Joe Urban, specializes in real estate market studies, but he also writes prolifically about urban design on his blog and at streets.mn.
Curious about the good and the bad of newer development in Minneapolis, I asked him to give me a bike tour of the city with an eye toward first floors.
“If we started the development process by looking at the ground level and how it relates to the public realm, how that interaction weaves itself together, we’d get better results,” Newberg said.
The subject of doorways and entrances arose frequently during our two-hour excursion. It turns out that the number of doors, spacing of doors and orientation of walkout unit entrances to the street play a big role in how inviting a building feels — at least to Newberg.
He often uses the term “Gehl Door Average” or “GDA” to describe Danish architect Jan Gehl’s measure of the number of doors for every 100 meters of street frontage — a “GDA” of 10 or more is a positive sign.
While Minneapolis’ ordinances are very specific about the percentage of the first floor consumed by windows (20 and 30 percent for residential and commercial buildings, respectively) multiple doors are merely “encouraged.”
‘Activates the street’
Our tour began on a high note at E. Lake Street, where Newberg held up West River Commons as a prime example of smaller-scale neighborhood development. Opened in 2004, West River Commons is part restaurant (Longfellow Grill), retail, apartments and public plaza.
Newberg, who conducted a market study for the project by developer Lander Group, highlighted the two-story “rowhouse” apartments that each exit to Lake Street, comfortably spaced retail shops, a hidden parking lot, signs written in pedestrian-scale font, sidewalks wide enough for a Nice Ride station and a plaza designed for sitting and playing. I asked why the walkout units — a recurring theme — were so important.
“It matters because it activates the street. And even if there’s nobody walking in and out of these doors, everyone else walking down the street … they’re not met with a blank wall,” Newberg said.
The tour hit quite an opposite note at Loring Park, standing before yards of uniform glass beneath the 36-story LPM Apartments — which opened last year. A diner and craft brewery are ultimately expected to fill the ground-level retail spaces. Cautioning that it will take time for the retail to fully move in, Newberg pointed to the scarcity of doors and the orange garage vents above the glass at 14th Street and LaSalle Avenue S.
“This isn’t human comfort,” he said. “No one wants to hang out here.”
The Mill District offered contrasting examples of how residential projects interact with the street. Newberg said Park Avenue Lofts, built in 2005, were a good example of Portland- and Vancouver-like development. Plants, grills and a bird feeder greet walkers strolling past the patios of the two-story condominiums at street level, which Newberg said were spaced well from the sidewalk and elevated by relatively few steps facing the street.
“You walk down the sidewalk and there’s a clear delineation between public and private space, but there’s something enjoyable to look at,” Newberg said. “There could very well be someone sitting out here reading a book, grilling, having some quiet time. And you can make that personal eye contact, say ‘Hello’ – or not.”
Just down S. 2nd Street at Mill District City Apartments (2010), Newberg frowned at the comparatively small decks, elevated by too many steps facing perpendicular to the sidewalk. “It doesn’t feel as conducive to … human activity,” Newberg said. “It feels like they required [the developers] to put in doors facing the sidewalk and this is the way [they] could squeeze them in there.”
In the North Loop, 710 Lofts (2004) scored high marks for its roomy and attractive decks, despite its sideways staircases. Bookmen Stacks got a poor grade for its largely blank wall, opaque windows and lone door facing 6th Avenue N.
“I’m not sure what’s behind this space. … You can’t even tell,” Newberg said of the building, built in 2005. “But clearly it’s not anything that wants to relate to the outside world.”
By comparison, the Washington Avenue side of 2013’s Dock Street Flats was deemed a success. The building’s ample spacing from the sidewalk allowed for an outdoor Dunn Brothers patio, Newberg said, while the modest retail spaces are an approachable mix of windows and doorways. “Anyone walking by probably appreciates this space,” Newberg said.
Moving to Hennepin Avenue, Newberg expressed disappointment at the long planters separating 222 Hennepin — opened in 2013 — from the sidewalk. It did get kudos for hidden parking and a corner entrance, considered more welcoming to walkers. “I’m not wild about plantings that are just used as a buffer,” Newberg said. “Especially on a busy residential street. You can’t walk through them. There are no walkout units.”
What discussion of pedestrian-oriented development would be complete without a look at Nicollet Mall — the city’s signature walking space? Newberg lamented the historical disappearance of small-scale doorways on the Mall, wondering aloud why the upcoming $50 million renovation isn’t targeting that issue. “I just say there should be a store every 25 feet along the whole stretch of the street,” Newberg said.
His favorite storefront is La Belle Crêpe in the 1920s Medical Arts Building, where a patio juts out from a very narrow entrance. “It’s an intimate, welcoming space right off the sidewalk on a really fairly nice stretch of Nicollet Mall,” Newberg said. “And there should be more opportunities for that, whether it’s a tiny flower shop — even a newsstand can probably do business here.”
Newberg said it was probably too early to judge the 2014 Nic on 5th apartment development, as retail tenants haven’t moved in, although he was critical of a tunnel-like sidewalk down 5th Street and how the building’s spacing from Nicollet Mall interrupts the street’s continuous facades.
He added that a recent conversion of a retail space into a lounge for Target employees, known as Target Plaza Commons, created a detrimental “fishbowl” that allows people to look inside but not enter. “I think the hope that Nicollet Mall is an active public space with tons of pedestrian activity means that the uses lining it should be open to the public, and not private space,” Newberg said.