City Council and NIMBYs Adopt Scorched Earth Policy to “Save Dinkytown”

One shouldn't be attracted to a rodent.

One shouldn’t be attracted to a rodent.

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.

 

opus-layout

The (mostly surface parking) layout of the proposed development.

 

City is Shooting Local Business Owners in the Foot

save-dinkytown

A sepia-toned 70s gas guzzler is a perfect symbol.

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).

dinkytown-quote-1As 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.

dinkytown-quote-2Meanwhile, 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

Apart from the huge (required) underground parking lot, this is an ideal land use.

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.

mpls-dinkytown-parking-lot

I hope you like looking at vacant buildings in a surface parking lot…

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12 Responses to City Council and NIMBYs Adopt Scorched Earth Policy to “Save Dinkytown”

  1. Matt Brillhart July 31, 2013 at 2:07 pm #

    Bill,

    I suggest a few edits. My understanding is that the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood actually voted to support the development, albeit by a narrow margin. The “Save Dinkytown” group is independent of Marcy Holmes Neighborhood Association. Also, you have the footprint of the building wrong. You are understating it just a hair. It actually forms a T-shape, covering a little more of the surface parking in the interior of the block. You have the profile along 14th Ave & 5th Street correct.

    Most importantly, you neglected to mention that this is not over…yet. Despite the setback in committee last week, the full 13-member City Council still has to take a final vote this Friday. While the proposal is not dead, it is certainly on life support, considering that we already know of 4 “NO” votes (Goodman, Tuthill, Gordon, & Hofstede). Gary Schiff and Kevin Reich are the only known votes in favor. To pass the rezoning, they’ll need to find 5 more supporters. That won’t be easy when this council has a history of deferring to the Councilmember whose Ward is in question. This is terrible policy, by the way, and effectively reduces Minneapolis to 13 little fiefdoms.

    Aside from those quibbles, I agree with your analysis.

    Minneapolitans: please contact your City Councilmember TODAY and urge them to support this project on Friday: http://www.minneapolismn.gov/council/index.htm

    How do we grow the City’s population back to 450,000 (Mayor Rybak and others constantly boast that we will so so by 2025) if we keep saying “NO”?

  2. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke July 31, 2013 at 3:19 pm #

    Thanks Matt, especially about the Marcy-Homes info.

  3. Nathaniel M Hood
    Nathaniel July 31, 2013 at 3:47 pm #

    Need an urbanism call to arms. This is still true: http://www.startribune.com/local/yourvoices/164700036.html. When a city can’t grow up, it must grow up (figuratively and literally)

  4. Brad July 31, 2013 at 4:23 pm #

    It’s fascinating that no one is really talking about the end result of this process – square footage cost for both commercial and residential renters. I hear most often that it’s local business that is being hurt by not developing with projects as the one above. Yet, at last week’s Z&P meeting Laurel Bauer herself said she wouldn’t move back into the new building because the rent would be way too high. She was charging her renters $22/sq ft; Opus states their rent would be at least in the low-30s – so let’s say $32/sq ft. What kind of local businesses can afford that rent? High-end services. Do high-end services survive in low- to medium-income neighborhoods like Dinkytown where the everyday customer is a strictly-budgeted college student (broke college student speaking here)? Not for long. When those initial businesses move out, that’s when the chains move in. Ask yourself how many higher-end restaurants that once operated in new developments all over the metro are now a CVS or something similar. Opus is fooling themselves if they think they will be able to subdivide and maintain that subdivision of 9500 square feet. Then again, Opus will sell the project so what do they mind. And just how many more college students are going to afford apartment prices as projects like this ask? This is the University of Minnesota, not the Ivy League.

    Over the past few years I’ve come to acknowledge this sentiment that the City has already given so much to developers that people are just throwing up their hands when it comes to having their say in what happens in the neighborhood in which they call home. Push people around enough, whether you are the City or a developer, and the people will fight back. Deferring to the community is always a smart move, not just for the community but for the city as a whole.

    The only thing long-term about most of the developments in the past decade is that the buildings will stand for a few decades (although I can’t imagine the wood-frame buildings standing all that long). There is little in the way of long-term living or long-term business, and not just in Dinkytown.

    There is more to these debates than just development and non-development. I wish more of the subtleties were discussed more often.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke July 31, 2013 at 4:32 pm #

      interesting points. stay tuned to my blog this week, i’ve a post half-written called “What would Jane Jacobs Say About Dinkytown” that is somewhat about your concerns.

      As to the issue of whether there will be demand for this housing in the future, and what “high-end” means… well i highly doubt whether much of this new building will be vacant in my lifetime.

    • Alex Cecchini
      Alex Cecchini July 31, 2013 at 4:51 pm #

      First, it must be taken in to account that the Opus spaces will have a mezzanine, which is not counted in gross sqft. Basically free space for tenants, bringing the effective price per sqft down.

      Second, I don’t understand why the finances of what is going on the inside of a given building are valid reasons to oppose letting someone build it. Yes, the units going in are luxury, but there is clearly a market for this (still) as vacancy rates (in existing luxury buildings) are extremely low. I would not have been able to afford the rents they are charging during my time at the U, but to put things in perspective, they include most utilities, cable TV, internet, have in-unit laundry (not coin-operated), security systems, and come furnished (I believe many have even provided plasma TVs). Many people are willing to pay a higher flat-fee rent, including student’s parents (who are less cost-conscious and more concerned with quality for their children). In time, these units will show a little wear, as will the furniture and TV, and Opus can choose to lower rent as they divest some of the amenities. The mere supply of the units helps keep aggregate prices down in the entire Marcy-Holmes area. It shouldn’t be our job to dictate what a developer (and a set of investors) offer from a product perspective and what they price it at.

      Third, the issue here is that Dinkytown (and the U in general) has clearly become a more desirable space. The football stadium is back on campus (bringing 30-50k fans, 7x a year), students are desiring to live on/near campus again, and many students who are graduating want to continue to live in urban environments with access to walkable amenities, bike facilities, and transit to downtown (all of which are in Dinkytown). The rent current tenants were paying was clearly too low – Bauer (owner of the HoH building) may have been able to stay in business by raising rents to her tenants (Book House, Podium) but more than likely did not want to continue competing with the existing CVS and new grocery coming in.

      Thus, the problem is not that developers are coming in and ruining the character of DInkytown, the problem is that there isn’t ENOUGH DInkytown. If Dinkytown itself expanded out – C1 style structures spilling westward and northbound in to Marcy Holmes, taking up (under-utilized) land with detached structures (or older, worn-out 60s apartments), they would be able to offer this lower price point. The space might not be as amenity rich and it would be a little further from the action (transit stops, the exits from campus at 15th and 14th where people leave to eat, the athletic buildings on gamedays, etc). This would provide space for the smaller, riskier (to landlords) businesses that offer oddball products, services, food, etc. The growth up and out would be the natural progression cities and neighborhoods have seen for centuries, while providing housing and commercial space to meet the demand of students and entrepreneurs (at multiple price points).

      If we as a society think that there are buildings in Dinkytown representing something truly special, architecturally or of historical significance, then let’s have the discussion about protecting them. I personally don’t think there are any in Dinkytown that meet either of these definitions (great read here: http://www.urbanophile.com/2013/07/29/historic-preservation-or-economic-preservation-by-sam-hersh/ ) but for the sake of argument I could be convinced of a couple being put on a register (Loring, Varsity perhaps). But to be perfectly, brutally honest, this commercial node is really one of a thousand like it in terms of look, architecture, feel, etc.

      Let’s not keep Dinkytown exactly as it is, let’s build MORE Dinkytown.

  5. Nathaniel M Hood
    Nathaniel July 31, 2013 at 4:52 pm #

    In new buildings, I think one of the most important factors is whether or not good retail space exists. When the House of Hanson building was new, it probably yielded high rents (in comparison to what existed). New buildings usually do that.

    The thing with new buildings is that they aren’t new forever. In an ever changing urban environment, new space will be developed (if we let it) and in the long run, the now-new space will be more affordable. Give it 10 to 15 years (which, in the history of a city isn’t much at all).

    • Alex Cecchini
      Alex Cecchini July 31, 2013 at 5:15 pm #

      I was trying to get this across in my comment, you worded it a little better. I would bet dollars to donuts that the new Opus commercial space will have better amenities than the existing HoH building, whether they be energy efficiency, ceiling height, layout possibilities, number of and placement of windows, etc. And it will be new. All of these factors make a space more desirable, and therefore cost more. But in time, new competitors will erode the advantage this space once had, while being the “new” dog in town (nice, shiny).

      It’s funny, the Mesa Pizza (and Duffy’s) are able to compete despite the chain Pizza Hut being nearby. Burrito Loco more than competes with neighboring Qdoba (and Chipotle in Stadium Village and Seven Corners). As much as I enjoy unique, fun restaurants and shops, chains are successful for a reason – whether it’s they’re marketing, the taste, speed of service, familiar atmosphere/menu, or some combination thereof. A chain will only be able to sustain those rents if they are successful at what they do. As long as said chain is not getting special treatment (tax abatement, utility fees being waived, special access by way of public infrastructure – many of which are given for big boxes like Walmart, Target, etc), they are competing fairly for the local consumer’s dollars. I don’t see any of that happening here, so I’m not sure what the problem is.

      If we want Dinkytown to continue having fun, eclectic shops/restaurants, then let’s build more of it to allow them to do so.

      • Alex Cecchini
        Alex Cecchini July 31, 2013 at 5:16 pm #

        Their. Ugh.

  6. Richard Nelson August 1, 2013 at 5:30 pm #

    I find the city council committee’s decision mystifying. The vast majority of the site in question has been an ugly surface parking lot for at least 35 years (as far as my memory goes), and I’m sure much further. That the city government finds a parking lot to be more advantageous than a thoughtfully designed mixed-use project is utterly baffling, and ridiculous.

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