Uptown – It’s All About Good Urbanism

Several things jumped out at me as I read through yesterday’s Star Tribune article about Uptown and the tension of its recent level of development. I’ll address three here, and they have everything to do with what a colleague of mine calls a “failure of frontage.”

First, with the somewhat controversial mixed-use project at 1800 West Lake, the developer, Daniel Oberpriller, was quoted as saying they “did everything they could to mitigate height.” Why is height for height’s sake so damn important to people? It is the one thing that can be easily expressed on opposition of a project, like when describing “that monstrosity” proposed down the street.

I’m going to show you two images. The first one is the base of a tall tower in Vancouver.

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The second one is also the building frontage at the base of a tall tower in Vancouver.

Picture 057

Which of these is bad height? Well, neither. The problem is frontage. What would you rather walk past? Yes, these are both from Vancouver. Now don’t tell me you are tired of hearing how great Vancouver, Portland, or Barcelona are and we have to be like them. We do and I’ll tell you why – these cities put Minneapolis to shame when it comes to planning and developing the built environment and we absolutely should absorb whatever good examples we can and apply those lessons to Minneapolis. So yes, I’m going to use Vancouver as an example, and as you can see by the second image, they aren’t perfect. But what the first image shows is the building frontage, façade and streetscape come first in Vancouver and the result is a very livable city with good urbanism.

The scrolling photo is from Vancouver as well – why should Uptown not look like this? In many places it does, but we need to keep our eye on the ball. We must change the conversation from “how tall it will be?” to “what will it look like when I walk by?” because that is a far more important question. When I walk by the Mozaic and 1800 Lake I see a pretty good job of frontage and streetscape, and I don’t notice the height.

My second comment is later in the article one of Councilmember Meg Tuthill’s challengers in Ward 10, Ken Bradley comments on the public process. He is quoted as saying he thinks there should be more neighborhood meetings to seek input before developments receive approval. As president of my neighborhood board, I have to question whether more meetings are a good precedent. Besides, don’t both Uptown and Lyn-Lake have a small area plan completed recently that on a good day would result in appropriate zoning so that more public meetings aren’t required?

I question why we have to reinvent the wheel every single time a new development is proposed, particularly when a small area plan exists and some of these issues should be already decided. Unless the zoning code doesn’t fully encourage the vision laid out in the plan.

Aha! I believe much of the problem lies in the ability of the City of Minneapolis to execute its plan. Its plans are good, but the zoning tools to execute these plans are suspect, and in many cases bad urbanism is still allowed. In other words, we do keep reinventing the wheel when new development is proposed because the public doesn’t trust the process. I’m not advocating for top-down planning, either. Planning should start with a vision for what residents and business owners believe the character of the neighborhood should be, balanced with a market study that understands the blend of vision and real estate market potential, and then the right zoning should encourage it and reward developers to do the right thing, because that is what we decided we want. We’re part way there, and there is good recent urbanism in Uptown, but there is more to do, and much of it lies with the zoning code, and the first thing addressed should be what the building looks like from the street.

There is also a passing reference that chains are ruining Uptown. There is a strong argument to be made for local stores, but as an urbanist my primary concern is the frontage and how it interacts with the pedestrian realm. With that in mind, I believe the new infill of Columbia and Apple stores are really quite well done because they replace a storefront with a storefront. Each building has a pedestrian entrance and an opportunity to window shop. From a development perspective they are organic and incremental and the result does no harm to the urbanism of that portion of Hennepin Avenue, and I’m not sure the same can be said for the renovation of Calhoun Square across the street. After all, a street isn’t pedestrian friendly just because there is a sidewalk. People don’t just go for walks, they need a destination. They need to leave from somewhere and arrive somewhere else. Window shopping is very important, but there have to be doors. Even if they are residential units, the point is you can walk. You don’t have to like the Apple store (and you can’t really control the free market), but you have to admit it’s good urbanism.

What was not mentioned in the Star Tribune article, but was on a recent Streets.mn podcast was a comment by Ward 10 candidate Lisa Bender. She explained that every new development proposed gets to the public process and has its height reduced and its parking increased. She says what is more important is what that building looks like from the street when you walk by. I couldn’t agree more. We don’t have a “failure of frontage,” but it should be the first thing we talk about whether we are discussing development in Uptown or anywhere.

Sam Newberg

About Sam Newberg

Sam Newberg, a.k.a. Joe Urban, is an urbanist, real estate consultant and writer. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two kids, and his website is www.joe-urban.com.

13 thoughts on “Uptown – It’s All About Good Urbanism

  1. Jeff

    Terrible article. Hi, I’m a real estate consultant and I’m going to use inductive logic to complain about people that keep us from making more money. The small area plan decision process is a pro-development-only back room sham – more democratic participation by residents is what is needed to balance power – not ‘shut up residents and only pay attention to money-grubbing developers’. Pathetic.

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      Jeff, I believe in democratic participation as well. I just believe there should be a more direct line between the plan for a neighborhood as envisioned by residents and business owners and the resulting development when it occurs. I agree with you that the small area plan process is problematic.

      I encourage you to read this article on my website: http://joe-urban.com/archive/form-based-code-key-to-bay-area-tod-success/. The key quote to me is “what you see (in the plan) is what you will get.” Everyone I spoke to agrees that a good planning process tied to a good code created certainty for neighbors and developers alike – with far less haggling when an actual development proposal came along. It was absolutely democratic but also business-friendly – this is what I’m advocating for. An open democratic process and pro-development need not be mutually exclusive.

      Another example is the Columbia Pike near Washington D.C., where developers can choose between the old approvals process and zoning code or a new form-based code that is rooted in a very democratic planning process. Every developer since this choice was provided has chosen the latter, which is rooted in the community vision but also is a much simpler approval process that does include members of the public but doesn’t take excessive time.

      I think there are better ways and I think it is time for Minneapolis to try them.

  2. David Greene

    I agree frontage is important but you really don’t notice MoZaic?


    It is one of the worst building in the city. 6-7 stories of PARKING and a measly three floors of actual useful space. It looks like something out of the old eastern bloc. Soviet-style architecture at its worst. It looms over the charming historic library building with about as much grace as a hippo with wings.

    I loved the original MoZaic plan and I know residents and the economy tanked it but Ackerberg could have done much better. They built it on the cheap and we’re going to be worse off for having it.

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

      Isn’t MoZaic more like 3-4 levels of parking with office space taking up the floors above that, and ground-level commercial space (Bar Louie occupying right now)? I’m not particularly wild about the design, either, but it could have been quite a lot worse. They could have built down with parking, ground-level commercial, and 3-4 stories of office up. But they didn’t. They did, however, add green to cover up t he parking areas which makes it look a lot less like parking than it otherwise could.

      1. David

        Underground parking would have been much better. The greenery doesn’t make it look any less like a parking ramp. This is Uptown where TOD ought to be the norm.

    2. hokan

      I know that so much parking was required under the zoning in place when the project was being built. Zoning parking requirements have since been somewhat reduced.

  3. David Greene

    I’m not as down on the process as Jeff but there certainly is a distrust of the city. The wedge has been fighting inappropriate zoning for forty years. Half the neighborhood was rezoned R6 in the ’60’s and developers took advantage and threw up all kinds of ugly walk-ups.

    We’re still stuck with this crappy zoning. I have mixed feelings about the 24th and Colfax development. I like density, but there does have to be some limit on how far into the core of the neighborhood we let that creep. There are wonderful old houses there that we do not want to lose.

    The neighborhood is all for more density on the periphery. We’re just trying to save our existing housing stock. Frankly, the Wedge has taken more density than any other Uptown neighborhood.

    The neighborhood drafted a zoning plan and presented it to the city in 2000. No response. Not at word.

  4. Nathaniel

    “… every new development proposed gets to the public process and has its height reduced and its parking increased.”

    I feel like every developer knows this about Uptown and initially overstates density as a result, and then eventually agrees to something smaller (which may have been the original intention regardless). If it’s going to be reduce anyways – why not start big and then meet less far down the ladder?

  5. Brendon SlotterbackBrendon Slotterback

    The City already has pretty strict requirements for window percentage at the ground floor, entrances, building massing etc, in the zoning code (see site plan review and specific districts for requirements). By my reading, that building in the second picture would not be allowed to go forward pretty much anywhere in the city. What else does the code need to address?

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      There cannot be more than 25 feet of uninterrupted blank wall. Ideally there would be an actual door at least every 25 feet. That is a big difference. But it is all contextual and I’d love to dig down in to the weeds in a future post or podcast, perhaps a conversation with a city planner. We are doing a lot right, but I think more can be done.

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