Technical Difficulty

My computer is malfunctioning. I keep asking it to open the pod bay doors, but so far nothing's happening. Plus, I'm going on Xmas vacation to a real big city called New York.

Happy Holidays

Look for new posts in 2006.


mpls: Historcal/Modern Hybrids

The diagram for the new condo in Eliot Park, located at 1010 Park where the Hinkle-Murphy mansion currently resides, pictures what the developer hopes will be the future of the site. As you can see, the condo tower swallows and dwarfs the mansion, which is currently being used as an art gallery.

The problem is that the proposal is so clearly weird, and doesn't maintain much of character of the original building. But, it adds much needed density to what had been a parking lot near both downtown and the freeway chasm. How do you reconcile the need to preserve Minneapolis's vanishing history with making the city liveable and vibrant again?

The Strib had yet another editorial today about development, this time discussing the need for preciesly this kind of history-saving attention. Only, from what I understand, the paper is all for preserving historical buildings only if they're in the first ring suburbs or something. What do you think?
It's a shame that Minnesota does so little to preserve the historic character of its cities and towns. It is one of only 10 states that does not offer a specific financial incentive to rehabilitate older buildings. Forty states either allow local governments to abate taxes for historic preservation or, better yet, grant state tax credits to supplement credits offered under federal law.

Keep in mind, this isn't about do-gooders running around trying to save old mansions. This is about giving older parts of cities and towns a shot at competing with the outskirts. Now it's not a fair fight. Minnesota spends untold millions on redundant infrastructure (roads, sewers, schools, etc.) to benefit greenfield construction while neglecting older sections where infrastructure already exists. That's a wasteful approach inconsistent with Minnesota values. A state whose citizens recycle 2.5 million tons of refuse per year can surely understand that its historic structures can also be recycled if given an even chance.

This is also an issue of economic competition. The best jobs and brightest people won't be drawn to the cities with the longest strips of discount stores and soulless office parks. People want authenticity, a true sense of place.

OK. I love the part about authenticity, but I guess I'm still a do-gooder running around trying to save old mansions. And here's an old mansion, and it's being "saved," kind of, and I'm still complaining?

What I'd like to see is more regulatory strength behind the idea of historical preservation. A good example is the proposal for the new downtown Lunds, as covered in the recent issue of the Downtown Journal. The Minneapolis Historic Preservation Commission made a series of minor suggestions about how to keep a Nicollet Mall area building "authentic." Instead, Lunds, a local company that ought to have its values in line with the area, rejected all of them and successfully appealed the ruling.

In my mind, a truly authentic city doesn't have cookie-cutter chain developments, and doesn't constatly insist on giant "showcase" developments. I'm envisioning human scale, less-than-10 story buildings that have smaller footprints and mix gracefully into their rich historical surroundings. It seems like Minneapolis hasn't been doing much of that lately.


density&diversity: PiPress on Open Spaces

Last month, the PiPress had an editorial about how proximity to open spaces is a financial boon to a neighborhood, increasing the value of homes. That should be obvious, but I guess not enough city bureaucratic types realize this. (The folks in Lake Elmo sure do, though they have their own problems... we should be limiting growth and preserving open space around the edges, in places like Isanti and Dakota counties... not right next to Saint Paul...)

Here's the highlight (now in the PiP archives):
Almost two-thirds of people surveyed who had bought in the past two years or plan to in the next two years said they would pay between 10 and 25 percent more for a home in walking distance of an open space, such as a park, wooded area, or wetlands.
The study doesn't make recommendations, it just lays out key findings about costs and benefits for local decision makers that rise on the daya showing higher real estate values near open space and the potential for lower community service costs of such things as storm water management. Another tactic for planners is the idea of offering developers of proposed housing subdivisions a density bonus in exchange for maintaining open space.

This last bit is the key. Open space comes at the cost of density, which is also the key to a healthy community (and lifestyle). Density, like in a townhome or small lot, requires people to get rid of their 14-foot Toro riding mower. Think about it...

The Op-Ed seems like a nod to a new coalition that's trying to moblize people around open space preservation -- Embrace Open Space. Go team. (They're like Jason Schwartzman in I [Heart] Huckabees.)

mpls: Strib Editorial

The Strib came today out with a decidedly pro-urbanism opinion piece. It had the following suggestions:

• Buses may be concentrated on just a few downtown streets. These transit malls would allow buses to pass one another, thus moving twice as many people three times faster than the single-file crawl now imposed on downtown buses. And the frequency of service might allow buses to double as shuttles within downtown, much like Denver's circulators, which operate at intervals of 55 seconds.

• Some one-way "commuter streets" may be converted to two-way "community streets" with wider sidewalks, lots of trees and fewer lanes for cars. The change would reflect downtown's transition to a mixed-use atmosphere.

• Streetcar loops, like those in Portland, San Francisco and (soon) Seattle, might also be considered as links to Uptown and other close-in districts. The Central and Southwest LRT corridors and the Northstar commuter rail line must also be factored in, although rail projects aren't expected to arrive fast enough to accommodate downtown's growth.

Indeed, the entire plan may be futile given that the state holds the purse strings on transit. The legislative trend has been to cut bus service and to reject the dedicated transit funding that other cities enjoy. The state also may be unwilling to alter its 1950s-era street standards to meet the city's needs.

Despite those difficulties, the city would be unwise to ignore the market trends that are reshaping its central districts. We offer three initial suggestions. Major destinations (museums, stadiums, theaters, etc.) should be factored in. The beauty and quality of public spaces should be emphasized. And, the advantages of walking and street-greening should be taken into account.

Altering the street standards is key, as is more two-way streets in the downtown core. Minneapolis should think about changing about half of the current one-way streets into two-way streets. Think about how much that would do to help streets like Park or Portland Avenues as they try to make their neighborhoods safe again.

Plus, downtown I'm all for making some streets bus-heavy. I rode the 6 down Hennepin the other day during rush hour, and not only was it standing-room-only, it was going the same speed as my disabled grandmother.

Even though a streetcar loop along the Midtown Greenway would be pretty darn cheap and incredibly popular, the Strib is not wrong in admitting the rail will not save us. It's not rails fault, either... it's just that it takes so long to build, and the current State gov't is really good at sitting on its hands. If Pawlenty gets reelected, kiss transit goodbye...

density&diversity: The Resurgent Grid

There's a nice article in this month's Governing about how the street grid is making a comeback. This should be music to the ears of anyone who grew up in the suburbs, like I did, where you had to drive around endless cookie-cutter homes for miles just to go visit a friend. Not to mention how difficult it was to go shopping...

Here's a highlight:

For more than a hundred years, the residents of Barcelona didn’t quite grasp what [19th c. city planner Iledefons] Cerda was up to. They saw L’Eixample [his street grid plan] as not only eccentric but also boring. Each side of each block was exactly 113.3 meters long. All the regular streets were exactly 20 meters wide. Cerda seemed to many a compulsive checkerboard-maker who sought to give his city order but succeeded only in making it sterile. One of the city’s most prominent architects complained of L’Eixample’s “total monotony, its lack of grace, its inability to understand that life can be pleasant.”

It was only much later that L’Eixample began to come into favorable reputation, both among residents and among architects and planners worldwide. As Barcelona has prospered and drawn international admiration in the 30 years since the return of democracy to Spain, the octagonal blocks and tree-lined streets of L’Eixample have become the places everyone wants to live in, although few can afford to. “It is Cerda’s plan,” the urbanist Joseph Rykwert wrote a few years ago, “that provided the basis for the revitalizing of Barcelona.”

Now I have a lot to say on this topic, because I think the grid has limits. Jane Jacobs, in her vital Life and Death of Great American Cities talks about the need for short blocks, to allow for alternatives and choice. The grid, oppressive as it may seem, is actually liberatory. It allows for all sorts of possibilities when it comes to a corner.

At the same time, streets that eschew the grid (like Broadway in New York or Hennepin in Minneapolis or W 7th in Saint Paul) become centerpieces, and those intersections are inevitably alive. That's what I think, anyway.

Oh, and one more thing... Death to the cul de sac!

mpls: Nicollet Mall 50-story Condo Still Coming

According to the TC Business Journal, one of the founders of the Nicollet, the big condo that's going to tower over (and evict) the Scientologists from Nicollet Mall, has had to sell his stake in the venture to finance the project. Here's the story (print only):

McDonnell, the 39-year old architect who sheparded The Nicollet throuh the city approval process, sold his 50-percent stake in the $200 million project Tuesday to the Twin Cities-based development partners he signed up last spring -- Len Pratt, John Ordway, and Dan Hunt.
[The tree partners] are negotiating with three national lenders about potential financing packages for the proposed condo tower. The lender might get an equity stake in the project.

The developers are hoping to break ground in the second quarter of next year, about six months later than originally planned.

This is just a reminder of what big money is at stake in the downtown building boom, and how there are big banks and big players behind all these lifestyle changes. (For the most part, that's a good thing. Let the big bucks fall where they may, and let's hope it's in the big city.)

It's also a reminder that Scientologists do not belong on Nicollet Mall, unless they're wearing sandwich boards or dressed like Krishnas or something. I know a girl who stopped in for a "free personality test" and they told her she needed to be more submissive...


stp: Big Box Size Limits

I overheard some Green Party people talking about pushing for a city ordinance on big box store size. A bunch of cities have done this, like Madison WI and Bozeman MT. Is it a good idea? Well, it wouldn't accomplish much, except along University Avenue, where the big boxes seem to have a nest, and are reproducing at a regular rate.

The push would seem direced at the Midway bus barn site on Snelling, which, I'm told, used to be where all the streetcars had their HQ. The ground there used to be filled with streetcar tracks, and the little buggers would pop in and out of there on their little rails with their little bells ringing...

But I digress.