The Mill District should be Loopier: On the creation of new old neighborhoods

Gold Medal Park

Gold Medal Park

I have recently spent some time milling about in the Minneapolis Mill District and part of the North Loop neighborhoods. These are hugely changed (and improved) over the past 15 years.

The North Loop took off first, with conversion of old warehouses, and then a lot of infill development. The “northeast” part of the neighborhood (1st St from 2nd Avenue N to 8th Avenue N) might be called “complete” in the sense that there are almost no vacant parcels left to develop. There are a few (1st and 4th, 1st and 8th), but many fewer than there used to be, and many of those have developments slated to be built. I put the word “complete” in quotes to indicate that nothing is really ever complete, existing buildings can be remodeled or replaced, so the city remains dynamic. But the first step, filling in the vacancies is largely done. The “southwest” section has many more developable sites.

The Mill District came more recently, being constructed on former rail yards and surface parking lots near the River. While there were a few Mill buildings that got renovated (most notably into the Mill City Museum), it comprises much more new construction. The Mill District possesses the Guthrie, (the maybe temporary) Gold Medal Park, one end of the Stone Arch Bridge, and just recently Izzy’s Ice Cream, and is near to the Metrodome and Downtown East. The Mill District, creates temporary street life with the Mill City Farmers Market.

They feel different:

  • First Street N in the North Loop seems to do much better with inviting street-front shops than Second Street S in the Mill District.
  • The Mill District has a greater number of institutional uses (theater, museum) and more parking ramps.
  • Second Street S. is wider, with bike lanes in each direction in addition to one parking lane and one moving lane, with a wider parking lane. I haven’t measured them, but I am guessing at least 10′ wider.
  • Gold Medal Park, while an amenity, reduces the urban feel. The park feels more like a park one might find in suburban Maple Grove rather than a tighter urban park. In part this has to do with younger trees. If this ultimately gets developed (or partially developed), it would change the feel.
  • The light and shadows are different. The buildings on the south side of 2nd Street S and not as high as those on 1st Street N, and thus cast larger shadows. Clearly this changes with time of day and month of year, but it creates a different feel for the pedestrian.
Mill City Farmers Market

Mill City Farmers Market

Both neighborhoods are in a very real sense new, even if they possess some old buildings, so have time to adapt. Additional infill development will change how both areas operate. But the vitality of the Mill District requires events (shows, markets), while that in the North Loop seems more continuous due to the more permanent retail establishments.

A key lesson is that it is often easier to grow an urban neighborhood from an existing lattice of structures than try to plop one down on a brownfield site. (This is not inherently a criticism of the Mill District, much of which was surface parking, and before that rail yards and had fewer structures to salvage). Thus we should try not to destroy viable structures or neighborhoods until we have considered renovating them and we have exhausted vacant parcels. Of course, one might say, that is the obvious lesson from urban renewal some 50 years ago.

But this still happens: The old Marshall HS in Dinkytown, e.g., or the Colonial Building at Emerald and University on the Central Corridor that has been a vacant parcel for about 7 years now. While construction is well-underway on the Marshall HS site, the Emerald and University site (variously 2700 The Avenue or City Limits Apartments) sits fallow. Things might happen between demolition and construction, so that construction which was planned falls through mid-project.

But I think no one is careful enough with existing buildings (not necessarily historically significant ones) in neighborhoods with vacant lots. Fill it with temporary uses at low rent, (e.g Streets.MN wants a clubhouse, or more seriously following the model of the Starling Project) that is far better than using it to store cars or raise weeds.

Izzy's Ice Cream Minneapolis

Izzy’s Ice Cream Minneapolis


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2 Responses to The Mill District should be Loopier: On the creation of new old neighborhoods

  1. Nick Magrino
    Nick Magrino September 23, 2013 at 6:22 pm #

    “Fill it with temporary uses at low rent, (e.g Streets.MN wants a clubhouse, or more seriously following the model of the Starling Project) that is far better than using it to store cars or raise weeds.”

    Our urbanism-discussing/cigar-chomping/liquor-swigging clubhouse aspirations aside, this is a pretty good idea, kind of in the vein of the temporary art installations along Hennepin Avenue. Would the Girl Scouts want to rent a space along Hennepin for a month to sell cookies? You could do temporary exercise studios, things like that.

    It’s weird when we see market problems like that…like the Primebar/Il Gatto/Figilo space at Hennepin and Lake. If the rent is too high to support uses for huge stretches of time, why isn’t rent lower?

  2. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell September 24, 2013 at 8:58 am #

    I wonder how much of it is HOW these two developed as well. I worked in the North Loop through the late 80’s and early 90’s. The whole area had kind of a gritty/bohemian atmosphere. The original ‘developers’ were folks like us who took vacant buildings or spaces and remodeled them—partially because it was cheap rent (we thought, until the hardware store bills arrived) and because we liked the ‘real’ bohemian human feel of the area. People from offices and WCCO would come over to the Monte Carlo like they were crossing the railroad tracks to the seedy part of town (and some were, to Deja Vu).

    It was a community though. When Moose & Sadie’s opened they became the central gathering place. Just about everyone who worked or lived in the area stopped by there and we pretty much all knew each other and we knew who worked there, who lived there, and who did both. (BTW, for a bit of trivia, Geek Squad got their start in a space above Moose & Sadie’s.)