A Failure of Frontage

Do cities have a “failure of frontage?” I credit Dan Parolek of Opticos Design for coining the term. When I was researching my post on form-based codes in the Bay Area, Dan explained he believes cities everywhere have a failure of frontage, that we focus so much on other elements of urbanism that we overlook the basics. We worry about shape, height, bulk, ever-evil DENSITY, parking and traffic problems, but we fail to do the simple thing and make the building engaging to the pedestrian. We have a failure of frontage, and it’s not unique to Minneapolis.

A recent post of mine at Streets.mn about urbanism in Uptown in Minneapolis elicited a response that gets at what I believe is the core of the problem. The commenter stated that the City of Minneapolis has sufficient heft in its zoning code to create good urbanism. I disagree. In the Building and Placement page of the Site Plan Review section of the Minneapolis zoning code, under Building Design, it reads “Blank, uninterrupted walls that do not include windows, entries, recesses or projections, or other architectural elements, shall not exceed twenty-five (25) feet in length”. The result is according to the code a building frontage can look like this:


Is this good enough? I for one think not, and I suspect Minneapolis isn’t the only city struggling with this.

The example shown is a residential building near the University of Minnesota, a heavily pedestrian-focused part of the city. While the front of the building is much more appealing, this side of the building still “fronts” on a prominent street and looks like this. I presume parking is behind this wall, but I don’t care. I also don’t care whether this is near campus or some other neighborhood. We the people of the city should require something better, like this example below, where residential units front on Lake Street at West River Commons.

Picture 032

Simply bringing a building up to the sidewalk isn’t enough. Big blank walls don’t cut it. Even windows aren’t enough (although they help). The problem isn’t isolated – a number of new apartment buildings are being built, especially near campus, that have what are in theory appropriate setbacks and good urban form. But a closer inspection (i.e., walking past them) reveals the the urbanism is coming up short. The problem is a failure of frontage, and it actually sets the city back when we should be moving forward. Simply requiring ground floor units to have doors and exits to the street (that’s why the sidewalks exist in the first place).

The intent of the Minneapolis zoning code is good, but doesn’t do enough. Even the Pedestrian Overlay doesn’t help much, requiring 40% of frontage to be windows or doors with transparency, and that’s just for nonresidential uses. Yes, the city essentially requires every property to have a front door and tries to reduce the scale, but what cities need is to follow Jan Gehl’s rule of thumb from his book “Cities for People,” whereas in order to have a “friendly” street, there must be at least 10 doors per 100 meters (just over 300 feet) of frontage. To be “active, you must have at least 15 doors per 100 meters. Even my low-density street with just single-family homes is a shade shy of “friendly.”

Metric or not, Copenhagen or Minneapolis, it doesn’t matter where you are, friendly is friendly. Active is active. “Gehl’s rule” applies anywhere. Windows or doors aren’t enough. Streets need more doors, plain and simple, be they retail or residential. With a requirement of doors or windows every 25 feet, according to Gehl’s standard, the City of Minneapolis mandates its streets will be, at minimum, “boring.” We say we want friendly, but we allow boring. Is this good enough for a city that claims to want to be world class? The process should be not only requiring friendly streets (more doors), but actively encouraging it. Our development process should begin with the building frontage (all of them) and then worry about density, use and parking. Require friendly or active frontages and the rest will more easily fall in to place. We should require more West River Commons, not hope they come along and win the density fight against NIMBYs.

We have a failure of frontage and cities need to address it.

A different example is the new Target Plaza Commons in the old Let it Be Records space at 10th and Nicollet in Minneapolis.

10th and Nicollet

Target opened their employee meeting and fitness center last year (above) in a building that used to house Let it Be Records, Key’s Cafe and Sawatdee, three doors I used to use (there were more doorways as well). Hell, I used to leave Let it Be Records and just stand in the covered entryway because it was a good urban space; shabby and all, it had life. See below for a friendly urban street.


Target took a “friendly” street and made it “boring,” and the city allowed it. Yes, the building sat largely vacant for seven years, is in better condition now, and we can quibble about whether that stretch of frontage should be privatized to this degree. But you have to admit, three or more doors is better than one, and I can’t accept that fewer doors on the city’s primary pedestrian street (or any street) is progress. Could the city have at least insisted that Target retain the old Let it Be corner entrance with the covered entryway? What should have been done was to carve a couple small storefronts carved out of the corner of the building to make the street more active – Target could have the rest.

We as citizens need to expect more from our urbanism. This last example (below – by Mariko Reed) from Thin Flats in Philadelphia is striking in style but stays true to a walkable pattern of doors on the street, making for good urbanism that is timeless in that city and others. How can a city be walkable if buildings don’t have doors?


So yes, there is a failure of frontage, and yes I do believe the solution may be as simple as “Gehl’s rule” of urban doors. We just need more doors facing the street. It seems like if we get this simple bit right good urbanism will flow more easily. Am I wrong about this?

This was crossposted at Joe Urban.

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 “A Failure of Frontage

  1. Alex

    This is a great follow-up to David’s post on vitality on Monday. I was actually going to mention Nicollet Mall as a street that has a lot of activity and density but doesn’t usually manage vitality, and I think it’s for exactly the reason you mention here – doors have gotten more and more scarce there over the years. The only block that really feels “active” as Gehl puts it is between 9th & 10th, where there are actually multiple storefronts. The other exception is on Farmer’s Market Thursdays when additional storefronts are added into the middle of the street.

  2. Nick MagrinoNick

    I remember going to a neighboorhood meeting at one point where the architect of the Target Nicollet Mall space said that they were actually restoring the building to its original layout. Let It Be, or someone before it, carved that chunk out of the corner of the building at some point. So while I agree with you that the side entry isn’t the best, that may have been how they got away with justifying it.

  3. Ian Bicking

    I don’t see how a zoning mandate would accomplish that much. Doors enable vitality, but a door doesn’t magically make someplace vital – people actually have to be using the doors. There have to be destinations inside those doors, that starts to create destinations outside the doors. If someone puts in exit doors with no exterior access (besides via a key, probably only held by security), then what was accomplished? These are the kind of doors we see all over the place in new development. And you can’t well say that the doors must be open to the outside – there’s a certain point at which regulation is simply unfairly intrusive.

    This is mixing correlation with causation. When you have lots of individual units, with a diversity of uses, and individual caretakers, and a diversity of schedules, you have a good basis for a vital street. And to support that kind of situation you need lots of doors. Doors do not create that situation. Now you might argue that by demanding doors you are punishing developments that aren’t vital in this sense, but I can’t imagine that would actually accomplish much. You aren’t within close enough range of what you want that a little punishment would make them see the light; instead you’d just see more doors that serve no purpose.

    I see the problem as one of scale: new developments are too monolithic and large. They end up being owned by management companies. There’s an incentive to create closed and secured group spaces, instead of letting each occupant control and determine their property and security. The spaces can’t evolve and diversify over time, because they are always held by one management company and one vision, and the vision is held by a non-occupant who is more risk-averse than engaged.

    Complicated regulation – and what you propose is just an extension of that complexity – helps the large developers and hurts smaller structures. As such I think it’s a step back.

    Look at a vital block that is more traditional: it’s got a dozen buildings, a dozen of owners, people with different visions for their property, and the buildings have and will continue to evolve independently. I doubt many of those buildings could be built with our current regulations, we’ve regulated away small scale dense development. You can’t add more regulations to get that back.

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      Ian, you say doors enable vitality, and I say that is exactly my point. Moreover, NOT having doors greatly reduces or eliminates even the chance for vitality. Perhaps the single most important thing is doors and good frontage. Everything else must follow that.

      You are correct to point out the problem is one of scale. Single, monolithic uses that eat up frontage take away vitality. So while your pointing out that single-owner buildings can be an issue, I think West River Commons solves this by simply putting individual entrances on ground-floor units. The size of a development has very little to do with whether it is monolithic, as long as there are doors at the street level, be they residential or retail.

      My solution is to actually simplify zoning so that the frontage has more doors, and perhaps that will encourage more users and multiple ownership entities.

      1. Ian Bicking

        You can’t dictate where the doors will lead, or that they represent distinct entrance to different locations, or that they will be open or used. I have a hard time imagining that a zoning requirement wouldn’t just lead to more doors being put in without any purpose. Also how would this be a simplification?

        1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

          I don’t have to use my front door (and I hope strangers don’t, either), but that doesn’t lessen the importance of having one. Having one creates the possibility it will get used. Frankly even if it isn’t used it enlivens the street and adds visual interest (think about those coffee table books featuring the Doors of Ireland).

          I don’t think we should dictate where the doors will lead. Doors that don’t get used now may get used in the future. It is important that we demand them and do other things that encourage their use (like providing sidewalks and transit service and not provide excessive off-street parking).

          What goes on behind the door is less important (to regulate) than having a door in the first place, but if this does mean adding a regulation, I’m all for it if it adds to street life.

  4. Walter

    I’ve been trying to push this concept of people oriented street wall architecture to my readers and fellow livable streets advocates. My problem is I don’t know what to call the concept. I like the term” Failure of Frontage”, or “Frontage Failure”, but what does one call well designed frontage that we want to be achieved? In particular, I’m looking for name for a Policy.

    I’ve tried Active Architecture, Active Facade, People-Oriented Design(POD), Active Edge … but nothing seems to click. Maybe “Friendly Frontage” – but once again, a “friendly frontage policy” doesn’t sound quite official.

    Any suggestions?

  5. Brendon SlotterbackBrendon Slotterback

    This is a good specific example of a code change. I also worry that saying “more doors” will just give you blank metal doors. Why are doors better than visibility through the building frontage? How many doors per meter does Michigan Avenue in Chicago have?

    Also, I assume you’re referring to my comment at the beginning of this article. I didn’t suggest that the code was good enough, I only asked what you would change.


    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      Interesting question. A quick check of Google Street View shows sections of the Miracle Mile on Michigan Avenue have as few as 5 doors per 100 meters, but to your point lots of windows. Still, where fewer doors exist it is because one large store occupies the frontage and only needs one door. Keep in mind Michigan Avenue also has 25-plus foot wide sidewalks there with nice buffer of trees and benches and other pedestrian amenities.

      But point taken, and yes Brendon your comment was my inspiration for this post. So absolutely windows are better than blank walls, to be sure. But a door is better than a windows – a nice door, not a metal door as an emergency exit – transparency is important. Taken in context, an apartment unit facing a street with a door and a window is superior to two windows because it allows for the possibility that the door can be used by a pedestrian.

      So I guess the change I’d advocate for more doors per front foot, regardless of the use (residential or commercial). Exactly how many or at what spacing I can’t say, but the net effect would be more engaging urban frontage ultimately used by more pedestrians.

      1. Walter

        Sam, I profoundly disagree with you when you prioritize blank walls with doors over walls with clear windows.

        Cities exist because of, and for, the interaction between people. Without that interaction, cities do not flourish. Therefore, everything a designer, planner, architect, engineer, and politician does must be to maximize the possibility of incidential social interaction.

        As William H Whyte said, “What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people”. Blank walls with solid doors do not attract people. Being able to see human activity is far more interesting and for more important to the street user.

        Jan Gehl let us know about the short attention span of the pedestrian. It lasts about 20 feet at 3mph (walking speed). That means, to keep and attract people, a facade must change and interest a pedestrian every 15-25 feet. And as stated above, the goal of the built environment must be to attract and keep people.

        A good Active Frontage policy for commercial areas would mandate permeability on 80% of the facade, as well as numerous doors. Residential neighborhoods, even more so, must allow for social interaction between the street user and the resident. The public/private transition is more tricky for residential, so I won’t go into that here, just to say that incidental social interaction must be the goal of all our street frontages.

        So no, I would never, ever recommend a blank wall with solid doors. Such a wall would have to have some other way of facilitating interaction between users on the street, such as interactive art.

        1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

          Just to be clear to all readers, I in no way am endorsing blank walls or solid doors over windows. I have no idea how you are coming to this conclusion. I totally agree with you, Walter, that a facade must change every few feet. The transparency requirement in Minneapolis is good, but could be strenghthened, since it allows for as much as 25 feet of blank wall – that’s a bit much in my mind.
          Moreover, maybe some of those windows should be doors instead to encourage more pedestrian activity. And not steel doors, either, but nice doors with glass. Just look at that example of West River Commons – a door and window that look like that are better than simply having two windows, right?
          I want MORE doors AND more windows, certainly not less transparency.
          Just read this:
          http://joe-urban.com/archive/one-small-urban-victory-doors/. An individual unit entrance trumps none in may mind, all other things being equal.

  6. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

    This comment was made at TC Daily Planet’s reposting of this story, written by Stuart Ackerberg, CEO and owner of The Ackerberg Group, a prominent Uptown developer:

    “Sam, you raise some very interesting points that I truly hadn’t previously considered. Thank you very much for posting this information. I will take this to heart and our future projects.”

    At the risk of sounding self-congratulatory, I think it is important to point out that prominent developers and citizens alike are concerned about these issues of urban design, and maybe the conversation can swing from density and parking to frontage and walkable neighborhoods.

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