By now you’re familiar with the Dinkytown story. The last few years have seen a wave of development around the University of Minnesota campus. The Dinkydome (my old haunt) transformed from a weirdly depressing food court into fancy apartments. The auto repair shop in Stadium Village (my mom’s favorite) is becoming apartments. Sally’s (home of the creepily attractive gopher) is temporarily closed while a new apartment-proximate Sally’s is born. Dinkytown’s odd “incubator” school and massive parking lot is becoming apartments and a grocery store…
And last week neighborhood pressure stopped rezoning of the surface parking lots and one-story buildings along 5th Street into mixed-use apartments. (To their credit, the local Marcy Holmes neighborhood group voted narrowly to approve the project, but others have been protesting vociferously.) Much has been said already. Lots of people seem angry for some reason, but the current sitution seems like a lose-lose for everyone. The businesses that occupied the site of the proposed development have already moved out, yet the City Council is recommending halting the project. Meanwhile these surface parking lots still sit in the middle of the city’s most pedestrian-oriented neighborhood. It’s hard to see this situation resolving elegantly.
City is Shooting Local Business Owners in the Foot
The present situation is made worse by the fact that all the affected businesses have already moved or closed. This is a fact seemingly missed by the “Save Dinkytown” movement, somewhat coreographed by the owner of the Book House (a decent used bookstore in a town that lacks them, BTW).
On the car-centricly sepia-toned Save Dinkytown page, they describe the horrible effects of the new development:
Local small businesses that face immediate closure or dislocation include: The Podium, The Book House, House of Hanson, Casablanca Hair Designer, and Duffy’s Dinkytown Pizza. The Dinkytown Parking Facility would be redesigned to accommodate residents of Opus’ proposed development.
Of this list, the only business still operating is the Dinkytown Parking Facility (and even they aren’t happy: see below). For their part, the Book House has already moved. While I’m sure it wasn’t easy, according to their Facebook page, the store says they are “settling quite nicely into our new location” (also in Dinkytown).
As for the House of Hanson, the corner store has been in decline for a long time and its owner, Laurel Bauer, seems to be looking forward to closing it. She provides an interesting quote in a recent Minnesota Daily piece on the development, worth quoting at length:
Laurel Bauer, who owns grocery store House of Hanson and the three buildings the Opus project would displace, said she expected the committee to approve the rezoning.
“I hope they come to their senses,” Bauer said. “Nothing historic is leaving Dinkytown.”
Two affected businesses, The Book House and The Podium guitar store, have already relocated, with only The Book House remaining in the area. The Podium has moved its business to another guitar shop on Minnehaha Ave.
Bauer planned to close House of Hanson on July 31 to make room for the development, but now she’ll leave her store open through at least the weekend.
“I’m hanging on day-by-day,” Bauer said.
Bauer said she has two other offers for her land that wouldn’t require rezoning, but Bauer said the other projects wouldn’t be as good for Dinkytown as Opus’.
Elsewhere, in another long Daily interview, Bauer had described how the new CVS two blocks away had taken half her business, how she’ll never survive the opening of a grocery store across the street, and how profits have gone down while expenses have gone up since her father owned the shop.
Meanwhile, most of the Opus footprint is owned by Pat Duffy of Duffy’s Pizza shop. (The bulk of it is a surface parking lot, with a barber shop and a pizza place in old wooden duplexes.) Here’s what Pat Duffy has to say:
Duffy manages the parking lot that combines space owned by him, Bauer and other Dinkytown landlords. When his wife bought the property 15 years ago, he said, Dinkytown had been granted a 10-year tax exemption to subsidize parking. Since that expired, the taxes have increased to $35,000 a year.
“We’re taxed at the value of the most commercially successful use of the land. And that’s not surface parking,” he said. He supports the Opus development, adding that his buildings are rundown will have to be replaced. Under current C1 zoning, he said, he could build a new four-story residential building without parking and it wouldn’t be as nice as the Opus development.
“If they are not going through with it, we will do it another way. We can with C1 zoning build a box up to four stories and rent apartments. We can do that. We won’t have a choice,” he said. “The Save Dinkytown people need to look around,” he said. “Dinkytown is not all Vescio’s and Al’s Breakfast anymore, and no amount of pretending will make it so. Dinkytown is not a destination. The only destinations are the Loring Café, the Varsity, and Al’s Breakfast.”
According to these stories, Pat Duffy had been looking forward to opening up in the new building, and the only reason these parking lots still exist is because they received a big tax write-off for many years. These are not historic land uses with a future.
Stopping Opus Now Is a Lose-Lose Solution
Squashing the Opus proposal at this point will mean 1) vacant buildings and surface parking lots for at least another year and 2) the eventual construction of another similar development, but likely with less density.
Proponents of stopping this proposal have been employing a slippery slope argument, claiming that letting this proposal go foward means “open season” on the rest of Dinkytown. They’re basically saying that if we build apartments on this surface parking lot, Al’s Breakfast will turn into an Apple store.
The truth is that stopping this proposal now will mean vacant storefronts and a worse overall result for density, student housing, and streetlife in one of our city’s most interesting and historic commercial districts.
While I understand the desire to complete the small area plan, and I sincerely hope that the new plan gets ride of onerous residential parking minimums that are the real thing making new student housing expensive, at this point stopping the Opus project is “preserving” surface parking lots and vacant storefronts. While that might seem like a moral victory to some, to me it seems like scorched earth in one of my favorite parts of the city.