A Form-Based Code Would Help Dinkytown

“Why would anybody ever eat anything besides breakfast food?” – Leslie Knope

“People are idiots, Leslie.” – Ron Swanson

When I heard Al’s might get redeveloped, I thought the end of the breakfast world was approaching. My first reaction was “you can take away Al’s Breakfast but you’ll have to pry that bacon from my cold dead hands.”

Bacon

So what does any self-respecting lover of breakfast food do? I took my son Ellis to Al’s for breakfast. And I asked questions and I did a little research. I was relieved to find out from Al’s staff that they are not in imminent danger, as the Star Tribune editorial hints. A very well-written piece recently here on Streets.mn dispels some of the myths about the project, and Bill Linedke adds some much needed levity to the situation (Bob Dylan may have busked in Dinkytown, but he also couldn’t wait to get out of here).

The Save Dinkytown group implores the City Council not to change the zoning from C1 to C3A. There is much that bothers me about this whole exercise, particularly since the Marcy Homes Master Plan and any resulting zoning changes should have short circuited a fight like this. But here we are. Mind you, a lot of great urbanism can be developed using either C1 or C3A, but also a lot of crap, and the image shown in the Street.mn post (see below) appears to be pretty darn good urbanism with street frontages that complement the area. Whatever the outcome of the city council vote on the “spot” zoning change, what could help ensure Al’s is preserved (as long as its owners wish) and the character of Dinkytown is maintained is a form-based code that ensures the scale and style of street-facing retail space long-term.

Dinkytown

You may argue the process is working. I say even I this development turns out to be very good urbanism, it shouldn’t require a protracted battle, zoning change and fight from a newly created NIMBY group, particularly if there was a big public process and plan just a decade ago. So why a form based code? Because the urban form of the buildings that face 4th Street and 14th Avenue is what makes Dinkytown special. Let me explain. Those who love Dinkytown will try to explain some kind of grittiness and character, a concise explanation remains elusive. I get that. I like Dinkytown for its shabbiness, variety of storefronts, some in basements, some above the street, some in mid-block arcades, some traditional street-facing. I’d argue that the wonderful variety of Dinkytown is the commercial storefronts that face 14th Avenue and 4th Street, as they are simple, pedestrian-friendly and allow for a nice variety of retail establishments. Many wonderful businesses have called Dinkytown home. Some are new like the Loring Pasta Bar. Some are old, like Al’s Breakfast. And some are long gone. The common denominator is the mostly uninterrupted storefronts and quirky but solid commercial architecture. Any new development that occurs on those two streets should imitate that urban form in terms of setback, height and frontage – good windows and doors.

I question why Save Dinkytown has to exist in the first place. After all, the Marcy-Holmes Master Plan from 10 years ago and corresponding city zoning policy was supposed to address the needs of Dinkytown. The plan itself causes some problems, as it says “Large scale (large footprint) buildings or buildings taller than four (4) stories in Dinkytown that conflict with the existing character of the area.” Two problems are there is no textbook definition of what constitutes “large scale;” we could debate that ad nauseum. Second, four stories is an arbitrary height limit that doesn’t address what makes Dinkytown great. Even if four-stories were acceptable, (correct me if I’m wrong) a zoning change would be required from C1 anyway, so in effect the plan and zoning don’t line up. An elegant form-based code mandating a one- or two-story height limit (with great pedestrian-friendly commercial frontages, mind you) could go a long way to avoiding this debate now and in the future. So what is “large scale?” Not C1, but perhaps C3A. Four stories is OK? Not in C1, but OK in C3A. You see, the problem here – the plan should have been a little more specific and the zoning should better take in to account what the plan actually says.

What about height and density once you get off 4th Street and 14th Avenue. The backs of those blocks can be developed with taller buildings, as is the case with the fairly recent mixed-use building on University and 13th that is home to the Purple Onion. I’d argue it added immensely to the overall by providing an excellent street frontage along University (see below). It appears Opus is being sensitive to the urbanism by placing a two-story building on the 14th Avenue side, with density facing 13th and the much taller tower to the west (in fact, I’d argue their proposal might just be better than what the Marcy-Holmes Plan calls for). After all, as Bill points out, this project is mostly adding housing on what is currently parking lots. (I’m sure I and my colleagues at Street.mn would be happy to address the parking issue in a later post – one solution involves street parking meters that fluctuate based on demand, ensuring street parking is always available.)

Purple Onion

So what should the City Council do? I’m assuming the Planning Commission and City Council have seen more detail than just the one rendering I’ve seen. I’d approve the zoning change only if Opus can assure high-quality frontage on all three block faces, 14th, 5th and 13th. Windows and architectural nuance are not enough – there must be doors, be they commercial or residential walk-out units. The single worst part about nearly all the new apartments near campus is the lack of residential ground-floor walk-out units, in the most heavily trafficked pedestrian area of the city. What a shame, but I digress. We can’t control our checkered past, but we can ensure the highest standards going forward.

Zoning cannot ensure Dinkytown will have independent businesses for generations to come, but a form based code can ensure the urbanism of the area won’t be altered, even if new buildings are built. We cannot freeze Dinkytown in time, but we can ensure that new buildings match the urban form of the existing or those they replace. I’m by no means opposed to density, but as I’ve said before, density alone is no solution. It must be appropriate and look really good, be varied and have lots of windows and especially doors, and add value not just to the parcel on which its built but the surrounding area. A form-based code can simply and elegantly show all stakeholders what future development will look like, as long as it is based on a planning process that listens to the needs and compromises of all stakeholders. A well-executed form based code also avoids an ugly, protracted reactionary fight by opponents over whatever they can get their hands on. A good plan with corresponding form based code change also avoids the need for a zoning change when development is actually proposed. It provides certainty and a visual example of what can be developed, and speeds the development process.

Whew, this was long-winded. But the battle over beloved breakfast joints gets me going.  We don’t know what the City Council will decide, but one thing is certain. Those of us who are lucky enough to wake up tomorrow morning will be hungry for breakfast, and I sure hope Al’s is still there to provide gastronomic pleasure for those of us who have a hankering for a Leonard or a good old fashioned short stack of Wally Blues. With bacon.

Al's

This was crossposted at Joe Urban.


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2 Responses to A Form-Based Code Would Help Dinkytown

  1. Alex June 7, 2013 at 11:36 am #

    The Minneapolis zoning code has a CUP process that allows for any height in any district. It was enacted hastily in response to Krummenacher v Minnetonka, so at the beginning they were issuing permits without any condition, but more lately they’ve often been adding conditions that require some of the good urban design principles you mention. I guess I’d prefer that more realistic height limits be written into the code itself, but that may face more political opposition than piecemeal approval.

    I’m not sure how it works technically, but I’d guess that the Minneapolis comp plan of 2009 supersedes the Marcy Holmes plan (of 2003 or so?), and the former guides the core blocks of Dinkytown as an Activity Center. The C3A district is actually titled Activity Center so it’s highly appropriate.

    I can see some of the advantages and disadvantages to form-based codes, but when they’re used as overlays don’t they just increase complexity? How do you insert “pigovian” provisions such as affordable housing bonuses into a form-based code? Couldn’t a code that has detailed design requirements be considered more complex by developers than one that lets them build whatever they want as long as they meet, for example, an FAR target?

  2. Sam Newberg
    Sam Newberg June 7, 2013 at 12:20 pm #

    Good questions. The experiences I’ve researched indicate form-based codes make the process easier, like on the Columbia Pike in Arlington and in the Bay Area – http://joe-urban.com/archive/form-based-code-key-to-bay-area-tod-success/. This is worth further discussion between local planners with the city and FBC experts from around the country.