Three big misconceptions about the House of Hanson development in Dinkytown

I became pretty irritated after reading the latest counter argument for the controversial Opus mixed-use development planned in Dinkytown. If you live in a cave, or haven’t been to the U since Goldy had angry eyes, a proposal is currently in line to replace what is now the building that House of Hanson, the Podium music shop, and the Book House are located in, along with the underutilized surface parking lot behind them. A group called Save Dinkytown opposes this project, claiming that it would alter the historic, small town characteristic that Dinkytown portrays.

The problem is, the group seems to be using a sense of scare tactics to get their point across (Dinkytown will NEVER be the same, and this project will cause 4th Street to COLLAPSE, and Bucky will rise from the ruins and destroy ALL that is good, and will steal Bunyan’s Axe FOREVER).

Is this what you want Dinkytown to become, is it?

Is this what you want Dinkytown to become? Is it?

Obviously it isn’t that irrational (Except for the axe part), but the main problem I have with their efforts is that they are misleading and riling the public into believing false claims. In my opinion, this development will be a positive thing for the U of MN area and, in a way, for the Twin Cities as a whole.

Although I wish the new apartments would be more affordable for the ordinary student like myself, they add much more than just a student stockpile. More than half of the land that the proposed apartment will lie is currently a drab, derelict surface parking lot, and the cherished House of Hanson building it will replace isn’t necessarily historic – it was built in the 1970’s. Although it has a somewhat solid storefront feel to it, the 1-story nature and pure brick facade it contains makes it less architecturally pleasant than its surroundings. The proposed development keeps the brick, but adds more windows and storefronts, and thus creates a much nicer walking experience.


Which would you rather have in your city - a plain brick wall, or a more open feel?

Which would you rather have in your city – a plain brick wall, or a more open feel?

Opus, the developer of the project who has already finished a very successful Stadium Village Flats on Washington Avenue, has given many plans to accommodate not only the surrounding businesses, but also the very concerned residents of the area.

So, before I ramble on too much, here are the 3 biggest negatively-implied misconceptions about the proposed development:

1) Myth: The parking will not be replaced, and will thus hurt businesses.

Truth: There will be MORE parking in the complex than before in the form of both surface and ramp parking.

A big fuss in the debate is going towards the reallocation of parking for Dinkytown. Save Dinkytown has claimed that the parking will simply disappear; however, this is simply not true. As of now, the developer plans to add more parking that previously designed for to accommodate the concerned businesses. There are currently 120 parking spots in the entire subject lot, and there will be 138 slots when all complete, including 42 “pavement” slots remaining on street level. The remaining will be underground, and although some will be reserved for tenants of the building, most will still remain in the public zone.

It would be interesting to see a real technical occupancy survey done on this surface lot to see how many of the spots are actually occupied on an everyday basis. Although I don’t have that numerical data, I have never seen this lot come close to being fully occupied.

Another side note – It really is about time that Dinkytown is recognized for where it is geographically: in an urban area. Parking, especially in an urban area, can’t be super convenient if a lively street life is also to occur. In my opinion, the driving masses should start getting used to parking in the readily available large University ramp a block down the street, or start using other forms of transportation. I digress on that issue for now.

2) Myth: The owners of the property don’t want this to happen and don’t want to sell at all.

Truth: The stakeholders not only want to sell their property, but are wholeheartedly encouraging the development.

According to Hennepin County Property Records, there are 3 main stakeholders in this development deal: Laurel Bauer (Owner of House of Hanson, building, and surface lot), Susan Chilgren-Duffy (Owner of Duffy’s Pizza and surface lot), and Enjuno Investments (surface lot by Burrito Loco).

Bauer has stated that she wants to sell her property, and wants to see this type of development occur. Although seeing the House of Hanson go is fairly sad, Bauer has stated that the grocery store which will be placed in the OTEC complex currently under construction put her in an inevitable situation. Bauer has also said that she thinks Dinkytown needs to become more open to change, and that Dinkytown “will get left in the dust” if they don’t. She believes that the mixed-use plan is the best use for her property.

Susan Duffy also supports selling her property and seeing a new form of tax base come into the area. Within Duffy’s Pizza lies a decree of support for the project right on the counter where you pay for your slice. After talking with a late night employee last week, I received more information about Duffy’s supporting stance. Her land is valued more than she is currently making, and she was bound to close her business in the near future, regardless if the development plans went through.

Enjuno Investments owns the University of Minnesota Physicians building in Stadium Village. I don’t have information from this holder, but I can assume that since the project plans lie in this area, Enjuno supports the development as well.

3) Myth: This development will get rid of Dinkytown’s prized establishments, most notably Al’s Breakfast.

Truth: This development will not affect as much as most people think, and will NOT destroy Al’s.

Part of the pull for the movement against the project is the assumption that it will destroy Dinkytown’s most iconic locations. Al’s Breakfast, Kafe 421, and Vescio’s are claimed to be potential victims of the building if it passes.

Again, this is simply not true. This development only will replace the House of Hanson building, and will only go that far. This will displace the three previously mentioned businesses in that brick building, but will stop at Wally’s Greek restaurant. Everything to the south of that point will not be affected.

That’s right folks. That means Al’s is not in danger. I promise. Trust me, if that tiny little diner were in trouble, I would be front and center at the picket line.

In fact, Green Mill CEO Paul Dzunbar, the building owner of Al’s and Espresso Royale, has stated that he would never mess with the diner because “he likes it too much”. Assuming he holds true to his statement, Al’s won’t be going anywhere.

Same with Vescio’s. The owner of the famed restaurant, Frank Vescio, has turned down multiple selling offers and has stated that he doesn’t want to leave at any point in the near future because he likes what he does.

Same thing about the picket line with Vescio’s, too.


That is the thing – Although House of Hanson could be claimed to be a Dinkytown staple, the business was not doing as well as it had in previous generations. Al’s, Vescio’s, Annie’s, Loring Pasta Bar, Shuang Cheng, and other “independent local” establishments seem to be doing just fine. Not only that, but with an added population base located in the proposed development, more people will be living around the area to spend more frequent money at these locations instead of driving back out to Maplewood at 5:00pm. A more dense population base, especially in an area like Dinkytown, is crucial for the future of it’s growth simply because we cannot add more parking spaces without tearing down entire blocks. This development will help that cause.

At this point in the development process, I would encourage the leaders at Save Dinkytown to cooperate with the developer and ensure that the businesses located in the new building will be local, independent, and unique.  Dinkytown will not lose its appeal with the development, especially if cool small businesses fill the leased space. It is time to stop “beating them” and start “joining them” in an effort to keep Dinkytown unique, independent, and fun, while making it more walkable, clean, and livable.

Chris Iverson

About Chris Iverson

Chris Iverson is a transportation engineer & planner for the City of Bellevue, WA and currently lives in Seattle. He holds degrees in both Civil Engineering & Urban Studies from the University of Minnesota, and worked on a myriad of transit & multimodal transportation projects in the Twin Cities. He is a former Minnesota Daily columnist, RAGBRAI participant, bad musician, marathon finisher, and an unabashed generalist.

12 thoughts on “Three big misconceptions about the House of Hanson development in Dinkytown

  1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

    Well put Chris. I had not seen the rendering of the development you posted. From purely an urbanism point of view it is better, providing better windows (and I sure hope doors) facing the street, continuing the pedestrian-friendly character of the rest of this 2-block stretch of 14th Avenue.

    As a UW-Madison graduate, I was happy to see Bucky Badger too, but sadly, I don’t expect him to become a staple in Dinkytown any time soon.

    The important thing moving forward is we the public understand we have the right tools to ensure development that happens (and it will) is attractive and adds to the character of the neighborhood. The building the Purple Onion is in is an indication that good urbanism with density is possible on these four blocks of Dinkytown.

    BTW – I ate at Al’s this morning, and if anyone proposed redeveloping Al’s I’d be at the picket line with you

  2. Kelly

    While I somewhat agree with this article, I feel like part of the problem with building these apartments is that Dinkytown will no longer look like Dinkytown. It will start to lose its quaint charm. Not only that, but the apartments being built far exceed the price range of the average student. I would be 100% on board if they were making an apartment building that wasn’t two or three times more expensive than what an apartment should cost in an area for student living. I won’t particularly miss the businesses being sold and hope that the ones replacing them are interesting and unique, however I do not support the take over of the University area by these luxury apartments. Even if a student could afford them (which most of us can’t), that money could be better spent in other areas of student living or saved for the future. I really hope that someone starts building apartments that are affordable for the average student!

    1. Jeff Klein

      I want to agree whole-heartedly with the post, but I also have some misgivings. Dinkytown actually looks like something. The shocking number of student apartments being installed in Dinkytown and Stadium Village look like nothing. They are the most generic, stick-built starter-condos imaginable; they may add density and check off a few urbanist boxes but they deprive Dinkytown of place. It is great they will have retail on the bottom floor, but I would bet it will all be chain fast-food.

      Even with those considerations in mind development still may be good overall, but it seems worthwhile to at least acknowledge these concerns.

      1. Chris IversonChris Iverson Post author

        Kelly, I completely agree about the affordability piece. I think the new amenity-filled apartments are out of line for even the wealthiest trustafarian that goes to the U. I would love to see some more affordable places being built. I think the Elysian is a good example of that (Even though rents are still high, they will be reasonable for a brand new apartment). However, I think in the present day, it is more a note of economics in supply & demand. The demand for this type of student living was ridiculously high before 2010, and developers have been trying to keep up with that demand. As soon as that demand is met, rents should theoretically decrease.

        Jeff, I understand your concern about the feeling of Dinkytown. I think it is because of the unique shops in the area that people want to live near it, and if they are all taken away, Dinkytown will lose its appeal. I think the developer understands this, though. The designed facade is much more appealing than the current HoH building, and the apartment is set back so pedestrians dont feel constrained. If Opus can garner some interest in startup, independent businesses, the downsides of it will probably be shot down.

  3. Richard Nelson

    Thanks for this, it should also run on the Strib’s op/ed page. True, the proposed development isn’t the most stunning example of architectural wizardry, but I’d say it’s a vast improvement over what’s there right now, which is a bland 1-story blank wall of a brick retail building, an ugly surface parking lot that consumes more than a third of this city block, and a former house-turned-commercial building and the concrete block one-story building housing a slice shop. The 14th Street facade of the proposed building is a huge improvement over what’s currently there, and the floors above are set back so that pedestrians along 14th won’t feel them hanging over them as they walk down the street. The House of Hanson is closing, the Podium is closed, and from the sound of it, the slice shop is closing, too. I’m in agreement with Chris Iverson: What exactly is the downside here? Yes, there’s an enormous number of apartment units under construction near campus, and how is that a bad thing? If it’s going to put a damper on the U’s reputation as a commuter campus, then so be it, that sounds like a positive development.

  4. Steve

    This article is very poorly done. You call out the opposition for exaggerated scare tactics, but then offer up similar unsubstantiated “facts” to count them. Most egregious of this was your argument in favor of the parking lot. Is there any actual evidence that most of the spots will be for the public, or is that just a wild statement that supports your preconceived notion of the development. Do you really think the developer would turn down contract parking for the residents in favor of a public option? But I suppose that isn’t really an issue, because you have “never seen it full.”

    I really don’t have an opinion of this development, it seems to just be the way the campus going, nothing is going to stop it. The campus I came to 5 years ago looks downright quaint compared to the shiny new cookie cutter developments that have gone on. (I mean we used to take the bus to the metrodome for football games) But I don’t think that it’s necessarily a negative thing, despite my descriptors above. I do wonder what anyone is thinking paying for these places, but I suppose if parents will pay $750+ to share a room, that’s for them to decide.

    But what I do think is that we shouldn’t pretend like this isn’t a significant and fundamental change in the area. You can support it, but don’t delude yourself that the unique nature of Dinkytown won’t be eroded by this development. High end apartments don’t do anything for anyone except those who live in them. And there is no evidence that any kind of “cool small business” will move in there, and no historical precedent, or any reason whatsoever to think that would happen other than telling yourself what you want to hear. How do you think a group would even go about working with anyone to make that happen? That is an idea with no practical basis at all.

    So in conclusion, this is happening, so I see no reason to hold a grudge against it. I would say enjoy Dinkytown for now, make some memories, and someday you can tell your kids how it used to be.

    1. Alex

      How is it a significant/fundamental change? It’s not significantly taller than the Donhowe Building that’s been in the core of Dinkytown for 90 years. The Purple Onion is an example of an existing business that relocated to a new development, and the Chateau is a “new” building that’s been fostering local businesses for almost 40 years. The only significant/fundamental change is that the housing stock will be in much better condition than the typical unit in Dinkytown, but the same people from the same income class will be occupying them, they’ll just be paying the same rent for a better unit.

    2. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      Your comments nicely illustrate the problem with the residential off-street parking minimums for this area. By requiring a massive amount of off-street parking per unit in an area where very few people need cars, you raise the cost of housing for students. At the same time, these expensive parking lots sit largely unused, being paid for by students whether they use them or not.

      It’d be great to see the concerned neighbors start to think about parking policy more broadly to address parking supply/demand and lowering costs for new student housing by re-thinking these zoning requirements. (I’ve heard that a reform process is going on, but not enough for my taste. See my interview with a MHNA member here:

      1. Nathaniel M Hood

        Agreed. The Dinkytown Parking Overlay District is a step in the right direction, but it needs to go a step further. The City needs to limit off-street residential requirements. It’ll be interested to see how many stalls that are required in Dinkytown are left empty in 5 years.

  5. Dave Duggan


    There are more misconceptions at issue, having to do with the neighborhood’s own 2003 Marcy-Holmes Master Plan (currently in force) and the elements that have made the retail core of Dinkytown unique.

    Marcy-Holmes citizen and the local business writers were aware of the need for higher density housing, and assigned a number of adjacent areas to this purpose. Construction of this type is occurring along the 15th Avenue SE transit corridor near 8th street. At the same time, the community wished to protect C1 zoning (and 4-story height limitation) of the four-block small-scale commercial core – bounded by 13th, University Avenue, 15th and SE 5th Street.

    The community recognized Dinkytown’s service as an incubator for small entrepreneurs, These active families and proprietors and community participants; are mentors and role models for generations of college and high-school students. The rezoning will break this protection, favoring large-scale development that will provide only costly retail space — promoting large, transient store chains.

    The plan also required the local business association to provide substantial off-street parking, which it did. The proposed Opus project will produce a substantial loss of parking — adversely affecting the small businesses.

    The Master Plan, executed by the citizens and l businesses of the community, was a serious, responsible recommendation to the city.

    The commitment of the city to neighborhood input, and the “culture” of small retail that is the history of Dinkytown is worthy of preservation.

  6. Matt SteeleMatt

    There would be a net increase in space dedicated to car storage, as described above.

    And that’s assuming that parking is a good thing anyways. Many small business owners in this area, cited in many publications such as the Daily and the Strib, have pointed out that the #1 boon to business is having more residents within walking distance. #2 would be having residents within biking distance and effective infrastructure to accomodate bikes.

    In dense neighborhoods, autos serve a purpose but in general are the least space efficient form of getting patrons to businesses. Sacrificing the neighborhood to accomodate car storage results in less amenities and business viability for nodes build in the traditional development pattern. This really is the story of the last fifty years across our entire nation.

    Also, I’m not sure exactly why it makes sense to create a donut of higher density use around a preserved C1 use at the “core” of Dinkytown. Buildings that have intrinsic value beyond their density, such as Als, Loring Pasta Bar, Varsity, etc will do fine and of course merit discussion regarding historic preservation. But to think that we should protect a 70’s era blank-wall eyesore and a surface parking lot because higher density development does not belong in a four block “core” is misguided and bound to result in the types of outcomes which ultimately are hostile to the neighborhood.

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