Dogs Make Our Neighborhoods Better

The most valuable trait that a neighborhood can have is people. This statement may sound obvious, but to paraphrase Jane Jacobs; people are drawn to other people. Our culture, unfortunately, has mostly forgotten or shunned this universal truth. This is the reason that Washington Avenue will still carry 6 lanes of traffic after an $8 million makeover. This is why even just three good urban blocks will become a regional destination (Uptown, Northeast, Grand Avenue, Linden Hills, Nicollet Mall, 50th and France, Cathedral Hill, Dinkytown). We struggle as a culture to build, cultivate, and disseminate vibrant environments. Much of this shortcoming is due to the fact that America has a very short collective memory. Luckily, dogs have even shorter memories.

The writer's dog being uncharacteristically well-behaved outside Sebastian Joe's

The writer’s dog being uncharacteristically well-behaved outside Sebastian Joe’s

Dogs live for the moment, and they implore their people to do the same. Gracen Johnson, the creator of the Another Place For Me video series has done a marvelous short piece explaining exactly why dogs can enliven or even revitalize urban neighborhoods. The simplest and most important point that she makes is that dogs need to go on walks – especially if their owners don’t have a yard. If you own a dog, it is almost certain that you will be out and about at least twice a day. Chances are good that you will run in to the same people and the same dogs whom are also out and about twice every day. Even if your daily exchange is as simple as a smile and a quick hello, you are building your own sense of community. The presence of this joviality, as small as it may be, is discernible. Not only are dog owners’ experience of their neighborhood made a little better by additional human contact, passersby notice it too.

There are measures that apartment buildings, business owners, neighborhood associations, and even individual home owners can take to harness in the benefits of dog-friendliness. Something as simple as setting out a water bowl can signal to a dog-walker that they are welcome here. A repeat visit will increase foot traffic, which will increase eyes on the street, which is a boon to business or a benefit to home value. Walkable neighborhoods command higher property values than car-centric neighborhoods and are healthier on average (although health causation is debatable). The act of welcoming dogs and their owners in to a neighborhood can help to activate the process of increasing walkability.

The next step for a dog-friendly neighborhood might be a coordinated effort to make errands possible with dog in tow. I accept that there are limitations, especially when it comes to health code, but being able to add some productivity to daily walks would be an immense benefit to urban neighborhoods. I have no illusions of walking my dog down the aisles at Kowalski’s, but I will admit that CB2′s dog-friendliness has enticed me to spend more on furniture than I otherwise would have. By stopping in during walks I am more likely to grow fond of the store and come back later to buy.

Sidewalkdog.com is raising awareness of dog-friendly businesses.

Sidewalkdog.com is raising awareness of dog-friendly businesses.

The ability to bring your dog along is just one more much needed nudge toward shopping locally. A small publicity campaign to advertise that a majority of establishments in a given retail corridor are dog-friendly could be immensely helpful in bringing vitality to the street. Most business owners with a storefront don’t need anyone to explain to them that vibrancy means money. Most homeowners would rather see people out walking around than to live on a deserted street (although a small but vocal minority of homeowners will fight any attempt to make their neighborhoods more lively, amiright Bill?)

My own neighborhood of Lyn-Lake and nearby Uptown are both relatively dog friendly and I take advantage of that fact. It’s interesting to parse which stores I feel comfortable to wander in to and which I will stay out of with my dog. I always look for some sort of indication that the business is dog friendly and use common sense. If a high number of stores in a given area display a sign indicating dog friendliness I am more likely to feel empowered to wander in to nearby stores as well. The retail stretch of Hennepin between Lake and 31st is very good for shopping with a dog, and I have made several unplanned purchases while wandering in or taking respite from the weather. These businesses benefit from a perceived sense of dog-friendliness.

There is a familiar refrain to be made about cities, well-being, vibrancy, and the resulting human happiness. The bottom line is that good cities are the product of a chain reaction. They can not be faked or decreed. It is a process of growth and renewal that builds and improves upon preceding successes. There are very few positive interjections that can be made at any point during this process (but many possible disastrous interventions). Since they are so rare, I get very excited when I come across a beneficial action that communities can take without prohibitive costs or prerequisites. Dog-friendliness is one of these actions. Regardless of any other external conditions, dog owners need to take their dogs outside at least twice a day. Smart neighborhoods will greet them with open arms and handsomely displayed merchandise.

Parking Minimums Need To Go

Managing a city is a very difficult thing to do. It is a task fraught with chicken-and-egg problems. Vibrancy won’t increase without density, density won’t increase without vibrancy – things like that. To add to the difficulty, cities are created and shaped by many different people with many different interests. The most perilous part of this is that after they’re done, many of these influencers go to a home far away from the city that they exert so much influence on during the day. Even an unabashedly liberal city like Minneapolis is unable to create a cohesive and effective growth and transportation policy for itself. This is in no small part due to the many onerous layers of outside interests that Minneapolis must placate and win over in order to shape its own future.

DTE

A hollowed out downtown Minneapolis. The Downtown East plan may provide a second chance for these city blocks.

There is, however, one thing that Minneapolis can do to jump start its own prosperity and vibrancy with no strings attached. Minneapolis can repeal the minimum parking requirement throughout the city. This move was made for the downtown zoning districts in 2009, and is arguably already making a difference as a factor in the downtown building boom – especially in the former surface-lot haven of the Warehouse District. It is still to be seen how successful Downtown East’s second chance redemption will fare with a new stadium, but without parking minimums I am hopeful. This policy can and should be expanded to the rest of the city.

Minneapolis is a considerably less dense city outside of the downtown area, and even Downtown is small compared to a lot of its peers that we like to compare it to. There are enumerable opportunities to increase density without building vertically, especially in our neighborhoods. The ultimate goal is increased walkability, which leads to a much better quality of life. Changing occupancy laws can help, but allowing land owners to determine their parking needs for themselves is the most effective move that the city can make. There are holes throughout Minneapolis that can and should be filled in before the existing built environment is replaced.

                                   

Minimum parking requirements were manifested in the suburban expansion of the 20th century and, in trying to share in their new found prosperity, cities soon found themselves yoked with these same destructive policies. Parking requirements played a crucial role in hollowing out the core of cities, but it could be argued that the carnage wreaked in the suburbs and exurbs will soon be even worse. Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns asserts that the American suburban expansion of the twentieth century was structured equivalently to a Ponzi scheme. The low-density sprawl of suburbs and exurbs could only afford to finance its own infrastructure (sewers, electrical, emergency crews, etc.) by selling and developing more land to pay for the existing development. One way to do this was to demand that businesses buy and pay taxes on enough cheap land to fulfill exorbitant parking requirements (usually offered at a steep discount).

The massive size of these parking lots can not be brushed aside merely as the result of abundant and cheap land. The Wal-Marts of the world drive a notoriously hard bargain, so I doubt that they just happen to be generous when it comes to buying up land to pave over. No, this result was due to deliberate policy decisions made to force the sale of cheap land. Like any Ponzi scheme, what was easy to roll out will eventually crumble under its own weight.

It is not to be understated how instrumental this policy was in the stratospheric expansion of American settlement in to our former farmland and pristine wilderness. If each and every big box store had been allowed to purchase and pave only the land that it needed to accommodate its customers, sprawl would have been much slower and less expansive. It might have even expanded at such a pace that more sensible traditional development patterns would have naturally occurred through the process of unencumbered economic common sense.

Strong Towns conducted an ingenious crowd-sourcing event over this last Thanksgiving weekend to drive home this exact point. Using the hashtag #BlackFridayParking, Strong Towns was able to aggregate pictures of underutilized parking lots from all over the country. The kicker is that parking minimums are established to meet the demands of peak usage, a.k.a. Black Friday. The results were underwhelming and astonishing. Absolutely enormous parking lots were practically empty. My own contribution is below:

Target, St. Louis Park MN. Overbuilt on the busiest parking day of the year.

Target, St. Louis Park MN. Overbuilt on the busiest parking day of the year.

Cities, by definition, have ingrained traits that will help them to weather the storm of myopic land-use policies. Modern suburbs and exurbs do not. Post-war suburbs and exurbs have never made economic sense and exist solely due to government support and encouragement since their inception. For this reason, it is all the more urgent to these outer settlements that they remove their minimum parking standards so that useful, revenue-generating development can begin to fill in the massively overbuilt parking lots. Without infill development, small towns throughout the country face the prospect of a fiscal collapse with no viable options for generating adequate revenue.

This fate can still be avoided, and I believe that Minneapolis can lead the region while embracing a 21st century land-use policy. By implementing a city-wide policy that recognizes cars for what they are – privately owned machines that aid in personal travel – Minneapolis can unbridle itself from a destructive relic of the past. With a certain amount of last-minute foresight, Minnesotan suburbs and exurbs can then look to Minneapolis as an example of what steps can be taken to solve an imminent financial crisis.

A dubious urbanist wonders: Is this a good thing?

West End_1

The Flats At West End, positioned to conveniently conceal the Hilton Homewood Suites attached to its back end.

Something interesting has been happening lately. It’s a strange phenomenon that has this urbanist scratching his head. Mid-rise apartment buildings, the sort that signal a certain level of urban self-sustainability, have been popping up in locales that urbanists love to hate. This curiosity was first noticed at St. Louis Park’s mostly vacant “attempt” at creating a new “urban” destination just west of downtown Minneapolis. The quotation marks, of course, imply that this was not done in earnest. It’s the sort of place that I love to scoff at as I pull in to Costco. The cowboy bar is doing great.

This building continued to be built, and I continued to roll my eyes at it during my bi-weekly Costco trips. Then came news that another similar project is imminent in Edina’s Southdale. Another luxury mid-rise apartment building in another urbanist Mordor. This trend had officially become something that warranted further consideration. What was going on here? Could this be a good thing? It’s better than rows of new McMansions, right?

Urbanists are an unusually persnickety bunch. Normal people don’t care too much to consider why they would rather live here or there, they just do. If today’s trend is luxury apartment buildings in pseudo-urban parking lots, then why not make the best of it? When a former suburbanite starts to be annoyed by nearly being killed as he crosses his front parking lot on the way to Crate and Barrel, maybe he’ll stop to consider why exactly those weird bike people are always making such a stink (if, God willing, he makes that trek on foot). Maybe he will start to ask for traffic-calming measures and raised crosswalks, trees to shade his parking lot, and benches to sit down on. Maybe the vast parking lot will eventually become more obviously unnecessary and more housing will be built in its place. The evolutionary cycle that is sparked in these asphalt deserts might be incredible.

A rendering of the 232-unit development planned to be built in a Southdale parking lot.

A rendering of the 232-unit development planned to be built in a Southdale parking lot.

This is not to say that apartments have never been built in the suburbs before. Or that these two examples are even a fraction of the relevant development happening right now. The noticeable differences I see however are twofold: They are marketed as walkable developments (i.e. people are saying that they want this) and that they are in close proximity to pretty consistent transit routes. If the best possible outcome were to come true, this could be a game changer in the realm of the lesser of two evils.

It remains to be seen what will come of this recent trend and if it will gain any traction. I’d certainly prefer to see these development dollars being better spent in the urban core, but apartment buildings with a reasonable density in a “neighborhood” with nearby amenities is a step in the right direction.

Maybe?

 

A Hotel In Excelsior

Excelsior at sunrise. Photo by Al Whitaker, Excelsior's Amateur Photographer Laureate

Excelsior at sunrise. Photo by Al Whitaker, Excelsior’s Amateur Photographer Laureate

I grew up in Excelsior, Minnesota. Even so, I’ve been writing this blog for just over a year and have not yet dedicated a post specifically to any Excelsior going-on. For those not familiar with the town, it is an increasingly anomalous holdover in the American townscape and its past is a storied one. Excelsior was once a regional and even national attraction for summer vacationers back when electric streetcars were common – you know, like 110 years ago. Although the town is settled just 17 miles west of Minneapolis on the southwest shore of Lake Minnetonka, it began as an indisputably remote resort town. Edina, St. Louis Park, Hopkins, and Minnetonka were all blips in the landscape on the train ride from the Twin Cities. Excelsior is now lodged firmly in Suburbia, but has remained mostly true to its roots. The town is an authentic Mainstreet USA sort of place and although many small and historic cabin homes have become teardowns, McMansions are still rare within the city limits.

The site in question before demolition. Google hasn't been in town for a while.

The site in question before demolition. Google hasn’t been through town for a while.

There is a large piece of prime real estate in town; extremely valuable real estate that is sitting vacant across the street from Excelsior Bay. It is nestled between the end of Water Street, Excelsior’s main business strip and its thriving commercial core, and the foot of the town’s large and charming charter boat pier. This spot has been an empty grass lot ever since a 1970′s-era strip mall building was torn down a few years ago. The owner of the property refused to renew the leases of the “Pizza Hut building” in hopes of eventually landing a far more lucrative development. It was shortly after demolition that the idea of a hotel started to be murmured about town.

There are two warring forces in Excelsior: the development-minded and the preservation-minded. Although most Excelsiorites are decent and reasonable people, the flying accusations would give Congress a run for its money. The development-minded paint the other side as progress-stifling NIMBY’s while the preservation-minded mark the other side as Starbucks-courting yuppies. As is true with most controversies, the epithets are (mostly) false and the best solution can be found somewhere in the middle.

Geographically, Excelsior is a very small town. It inhabits only 0.63 square miles of land, and its population has dwindled from 2,397 in 2008 to 2,188 in 2011. The aggravation caused by Excelsior’s small tax base is made even worse by resentments toward adjacent townships. The residents of these more suburban-style cities benefit from Excelsior’s amenities and attractions without paying in for their upkeep, while their governing bodies barely provide as much as a real sidewalk or two in their own municipalities. Excelsior’s small size makes it difficult to compete in the terms that have become common in the American landscape: its 0.63 square miles of land can not contain enough Olive Gardens and Walgreens to meet its expenses while these same attractions can be found anywhere else that one may wish to drive to. Excelsior must carefully manage its resources, and its most valuable resource is authenticity.

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Dreaming of The 7th Street Mall

A quick candid photo taken on typical Fall evening on Nicollet Mall.

Nicollet Mall is the best part of Minneapolis. If not, it is definitely the best part of downtown. It is the best example of successful urbanism that we have, and its close proximity to the Minneapolis Convention Center has redeemed the reputation of the city for countless reluctant visitors. To readers of this blog it will be obvious why this is. The sidewalks are wide. Really wide. Cars are not allowed; only busses, taxis, bicycles, skateboards, pedi-cabs, pedal pubs, segways, push carts, food trucks, farmer’s markets, snowman floats, horse carriages, police, and ambulances are allowed. The Mall is full of sculptures and trees and planters and is almost always pleasant. Forget the Mall of America, if you are trying to impress visitors bring them to Nicollet Mall.

Lately I’ve been thinking that Minneapolis needs more of this. The human-scale vibrancy that can be found on Nicollet Mall is quickly lost any more than a block or two away from the Mall. Except for the occasional uninitiated out-of-towner, it is generally understood that Nicollet Mall is intended for accommodating and transporting humans, not cars. As downtown Minneapolis reaches toward its goal of doubling it resident population, cars will enjoy less of a priority and many more people will be on foot going about their tasks. This is why more space for people will become necessary as Minneapolis becomes a more human oriented city.

Hennepin Avenue seems like the most obvious candidate for this transformation, and it could use the work. However, I have a vision in my head of a large car-less intersection in the middle of the city, preferably with streetcars (but I’ll keep dreaming on that one). So, for my hypothetical study I need to find a street that runs perpendicular to Nicollet Mall and whose buildings could accommodate tenants that contribute to street-level pleasantness. I took a walk yesterday to scope out where I would put my “Cross-street Mall”. I eventually decided on 7th Street, which happens to be the corner of Nicollet that the Crystal Court rests on (which has been coming up a lot lately, maybe my shrink will sort that out for me 20 years from now).

I chose 7th Street simply because it seemed most plausible, or rather, least implausible. I like that it starts at the Target Center and First Avenue (the club, not the avenue), and that it ends roughly where the new Vikings stadium will be. It’s kind of like our own little Avenue des Champs-Élysées, only with more skyways.

The intersection of Hennepin and 7th. Block E at the forefront and the legendary First Avenue club in the back left.

Looking at the map above, 7th Street seems perfect, especially if I am to continue my Classical design metaphor. What I really want is to see what would happen if an American city shut off a street to cars every 4 blocks, but 7th Street will work for now. Making 7th Street car-less will give Minneapolis a sort of ciclovia cardo and decumanus. The intersection of Nicollet and 7th would become the commercial center of downtown. This is a convenient intersection to develop, especially considering that Mike Hicks recently pointed it out as the completely insufficient busiest transit stop in the state.

The Nicollet Mall intersection is in the back with the green awnings. The busiest transit stop in the state is behind that truck.

In its present condition there is not much sidewalk presence on 7th Street, but if it were given the wide sidewalks of Nicollet Mall and amenable transit stops there are many opportunities for pleasant and welcoming storefronts. The latest I’ve heard is that the empty Block E building is slated to become oodles of office space, which I honestly don’t think will be a bad thing. Maybe, if there is a 7th Street Mall, the ground floor will even be subdivided to accommodate organically developed independent businesses (which is the only real way a downtown district can thrive).

The Crystal Court, 40 years later

With cold weather coming soon, it’s a good time to talk about indoor spaces. While thumbing through my old copy of William H. Whyte’s The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces I came across his glowing review of Minneapolis’ Crystal Court. Whyte is not particularly kind to indoor spaces, but he can’t seem to say enough good things in his book about Yogurt Lab’s current residence.

Photograph of Crystal Court from “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces”

When Urban Spaces was published, Philip Johnson’s IDS Center had been towering over the Foshay for only 8 years. The snarky blogger inside of me has wanted to be critical of the Crystal Court for a long time, but I could never find enough fault with it to pass judgment. William Whyte praises the court for its highly visible connection to the street, its amount of seating, and its diversity of patrons and uses. For these reasons he makes the assertion that the Crystal Court is the best indoor space in the country, circa 1980. Compared to Whyte’s other examples of corporate-sponsored indoor public spaces, the Crystal Court is stellar. Its vast Modernism and bladder-inducing water feature, traits of the court that irk me, are given a pass by Whyte. Truth be told, the Crystal Court does manage to stay somewhat lively at most times, despite its cavernous qualities and its ever-progressing age. Whyte’s analysis credits the open flow and transparency of the entrances as major factors of the Crystal Court’s success. He spends a considerable number of paragraphs describing the downfalls of revolving doors, but fails to note that the Crystal Court employs them heavily, although that is a small matter.

A professor of mine liked to say that a test of whether a space is public or private is to lift up a camera and start snapping pictures. The quickness of security guards telling you to stop will help inform you to the degree of ownership that the public has in that space. This test is interesting because a camera will make it a long way through the Minneapolis skyway system (I’ve tested it) but is not likely to last long in the County office towers. For fun, he would conduct this test in outdoor shopping centers – always to disastrous results.

Ownership is an important point in regards to the Crystal Court because I would not be able to tell you who owns it if I were asked. In fact, now that I consider the IDS Center to be part of my neighborhood, I have the same sense of rapport whooshing in to the Crystal Court as I do when walking in to the lobby of my own building. It’s comfortable and very rarely do I feel like I am not supposed to be there. I’ve known many architects that will defend Modernism to their graves, and in this case Mr. Johnson may have gotten it right.

The Crystal Court as it exists today. Knowing Modernists’ disdain for curtains and blinds, I wonder how Philip Johnson would react to that flag.

Metrodome Redemption?

I finally took a moment to google the new Vikings stadium proposal while brushing my teeth this morning. I realize that the rendering HKS offered as their design concept is nothing close to what will end up being built, but I figured it might provide some insight in to what we will eventually get. I am generally optimistic regarding what will happen east of downtown in the coming years. All things considered, and budget politics aside, it could have been a much worse outcome. The stadium will stay in Minneapolis and smart growth policies are far better received now than when the Metrodome was originally built.

It looks like HKS doesn’t plan on spurring any development around their stadium.

That being said, this concept rendering doesn’t provide much hope for design-driven urbanistic development in the vicinity of the stadium. It also appears that Minneapolis is due for a dreary post-apocalyptic future (and a completely different skyline). Fortunately, Mayor R.T. Rybak seems intent on building a city over the giant parking lot surrounding the Metrodome before that ultimate fate comes upon us.

Although I labeled the Metrodome as a cancer yesterday, it doesn’t have to be. Target Field, for example, is slowly integrating wonderfully in to the downtown fabric, and I believe it will prove to be a major catalyst in the eventual flourishing of the North Loop neighborhood. The same can not be said for the Metrodome’s history.  Somewhere out there is a photo of many more buildings surrounding the Metrodome in the year that it was built than exist now. I’ve spend 20 minutes looking for it and that’s all I am going to do.(Please tell me if you know where to find it) 

Regardless, this is a present-day aerial photo and it doesn’t need much explanation. The rotting of the city emanating out from the Metrodome is not necessarily the building’s fault, although the building is certainly ugly; it is the fault of decades of stupid land-use and transportation policies. In that same vein, I don’t care so much about the actual design of the stadium. The eventual design is important in the way in which it integrates in to the neighborhood, and American stadiums (especially football stadiums) have a bad record with good design. A hideous, inward-looking stadium will seem a nefarious presence in any neighborhood looking to thrive. For the time being, however, I am much more concerned with what happens around the stadium, and with the policies that cause it.

Minneapolis has plenty of room to grow, as is easy to see above, and it will have to grow if doubling the downtown population is to come true. Washington Avenue is already seeing quite a bit of development along the riverfront and is ripe to keep moving along. Now we need some diversity of use to break through the wall of office buildings cordoning off vibrancy (and buildings) from expanding to the east. A policy of density surrounding the new stadium will help to usher that in.