A dubious urbanist wonders: Is this a good thing?

West End_1

The Flats At West End, positioned to conveniently conceal the Hilton Homewood Suites attached to its back end.

 

Something interesting has been happening lately. It’s a strange phenomenon that has this urbanist scratching his head. Mid-rise apartment buildings, the sort that signal a certain level of urban self-sustainability, have been popping up in locales that urbanists love to hate. This curiosity was first noticed at St. Louis Park’s mostly vacant “attempt” at creating a new “urban” destination just west of downtown Minneapolis. The quotation marks, of course, imply that this was not done in earnest. It’s the sort of place that I love to scoff at as I pull in to Costco. The cowboy bar is doing great.

This building continued to be built, and I continued to roll my eyes at it during my twice-monthly Costco trips. Then came news that another similar project is imminent in Edina’s Southdale. Another luxury mid-rise apartment building in another urbanist Mordor. This trend had officially become something that warranted further consideration. What was going on here? Could this be a good thing? It’s better than rows of new McMansions, right?

Urbanists are an unusually persnickety bunch. Normal people don’t care too much to consider why they would rather live here or there, they just do. If today’s trend is luxury apartment buildings in pseudo-urban parking lots, then why not make the best of it? When a former suburbanite starts to be annoyed by nearly being killed as he crosses his front parking lot on the way to the Crate and Barrel, maybe he’ll stop to consider why exactly those weird bike people are always making such a stink (if, God willing, he makes that trek on foot). Maybe he will start to ask for traffic-calming measures and raised crosswalks, trees to shade his parking lot, and benches to sit down on. Maybe the vast parking lot will eventually become more obviously unnecessary and more housing will be built in its place.

The evolutionary cycle that is sparked in these asphalt deserts might be incredible. These parking lots that were enormously overbuilt in a by-gone era could eventually be plowed over and converted to a more organic and natural form of human development; one in which humans comes first, and vehicles are meant as a tool to transport them.

A rendering of the 232-unit development planned to be built in a Southdale parking lot.

A rendering of the 232-unit development planned to be built in a Southdale parking lot.

 

This is not to say that apartments have never been built in the suburbs before. Or that these two examples are even a fraction of the relevant development happening right now. The noticeable differences I see however are twofold: They are marketed as walkable developments (i.e. people are saying that they want this) and that they are in close proximity to pretty consistent transit routes. If the best possible outcome were to come true, this could be a game changer in the realm of the lesser of two evils. Rather than being destinations to travel to by car from even further reaches of the suburbs, these locales (that are not exceedingly far from urban centers) could become villages unto themselves that are served by consistent transit to and from downtown Minneapolis.

It remains to be seen what will come of this recent trend and if it will gain any traction. I’d certainly prefer to see these development dollars being better spent in the urban core, but if they must be spent in the suburbs, apartment buildings with reasonable density in a “neighborhood” with nearby amenities is a step in the right direction.

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9 Responses to A dubious urbanist wonders: Is this a good thing?

  1. Sean Hayford Oleary
    Sean Hayford Oleary September 11, 2013 at 10:49 am #

    The problem with these buildings is not their location in “the suburbs”, but the street design, land use, and connectivity around them. After all, I don’t think these same accusations could be leveled against Excelsior & Grand or 50th & France, despite also being in “the suburbs”.

    West End has a unique problem of being almost totally inaccessible to anyone not in a car. Theoretically, it’s close to the Cedar Lake Trail, but access is poor. Otherwise, the nearest north-south street that really has access to the rest of St. Louis Park is Louisiana Avenue, about a mile to the west. Bus service is limited, and the route to access downtown is extremely circuitous. The street infrastructure in the immediate vicinity is ridiculous (four travel lanes, double-left turn lanes, and right turns lanes at just about every intersection), but to a certain extent, big streets are inevitable to a location with a massive amount of parking and few other options than driving.

    The Southdale site, despite being aesthetically worse, actually has a lot more going for it in terms of connectivity, in a (somewhat damaged) grid, and with a good amount of bus service from Southdale. Streets have similar issues (France is particularly egregious).

    One other plus that Southdale’s awful streets are 30-50 years old, and do not represent current designs. (In fact, Edina has plans to start paring down France next spring.) Conversely, the streets at West End are all brand new, designed specifically for the land use they’re now serving. Regardless, though, I’m excited to see infill in these parking lots, and think this kind of development makes the case for more humane infrastructure in the future.

    • Michael Roden
      Michael Roden September 11, 2013 at 6:48 pm #

      I agree with you and I was careful to not label these two sites as shamelessly suburban. They are both relatively close to the city and are certainly first-ring. Southdale is especially well-suited for transit, and as for West End – well, its developers certainly knew the best way to make money in the aughts (getting there from Cedar Lake Trail is infuriating!) I am much more excited about the prospects for Southdale, as it seems Edina is very interested in gaining respect in relation to Minneapolis. It is interesting that 50th & France is in Edina as well, and I am sure that the city’s officials are finding that it brings in much more revenue/expenses as compared to Southdale.

  2. Adam Miller
    Adam September 11, 2013 at 11:21 am #

    The West End is truly bizarre. As my patient fiancee got to hear to exclaim repeatedly on my first visit, I can’t believe they built an imitation urban center without any housing. The hole point of that style of development is to build the customers for the commercial space into the design. Instead, they tried to build the least convenient set up to drive your SUV to go shopping, apparently expecting the SUVs to stream right in. I guess the new apartments might help some, but it’s still hard to see that place ever filling up.

    As for Southdale, it seems only natural that declining demand for mall space (and the death of retail generally) would lead to recycling of unneeded parking lot space. Seems like a good thing to me.

    • Chad September 11, 2013 at 1:51 pm #

      @Michael – cheers to a well-written thought piece.

      @Adam – your last point about the “declining demand for mall space” and “the death of retail generally” really resonated with me. As ecommerce mega-monster continues to eat up virtually (pun intended) every brick-and-mortar establishment in our communities it seems like this housing trend will continue.

      I may be overestimated the economic drivers of this housing trend but it seems like these types of establishments will originate in the ‘burbs (where retail demand and mall space in general has been hardest hit) and then creep inwards.

  3. Michael Roden
    Michael Roden September 11, 2013 at 6:37 pm #

    I agree that suburban mall space is in decline, and maybe ecommerce is partially responsible, but I think that the effect of it is largely overblown. Absolutely, brick and mortar stores are losing market share to online retailers (well, really just amazon), but those stores had it coming anyway. They were predicated on the same false notion that the suburbs were built on; that we could keep spreading ourselves out thinner and thinner without an eventual collapse. America’s inner cities were gutted and vacated just as the suburbs were booming because we can’t have healthy cities and growing suburbs at the same time. With our advent and embrace of the automobile we believed that we could create and sustain a new form of human gathering, but 70 years later we are beginning to see it sag and collapse under its own weight. So to your point, the burbs will see parking lots and vacant malls converted to new uses until an equilibrium has been reached, but I believe that cities will actual witness a renaissance of retail, because you can’t fight human nature. People still want to see and feel the products they are going to buy, and just as it has been for thousands of years, people like to be around other people when they shop. Retailers are going to have to get smarter, sleeker, and more efficient than they have had to in the past in order to compete.

  4. Cedar Phillips September 11, 2013 at 9:39 pm #

    I can’t speak to the West End, but I think the changes around Southdale are very promising. Over the years I have spent a lot of time out in that area (my first paid job was at Southdale, among other things) and it’s a weird area because in terms of amenities the area has everything you need — grocery stores, doctors, pharmacies, library, etc. — but it is so incredibly unpleasant to walk around. There are also areas like the pedestrian trail that runs to Centennial Lake and that are actually quite nice, and, as has been noted, public transportation is good (much better than at 50th and France, which has seen its public transit go downhill in the past decade). There are also a lot of existing apartments (many of them have been there for decades now) in the immediate area, including many that serve large numbers of non-driving senior citizens. Apartment living is nothing new for that part of Edina — what makes the new development interesting is that it’s slowly filling in gaps that otherwise separate the transit hub that is Southdale from its surrounding community. It’s not my style out there, but the Southdale area really does have a lot of local amenities and isn’t a bad location for someone who doesn’t drive.There’s a lot of potential there, and, at least all the amenities are already in place. What’s left is to fill in more parking lots and improve the pedestrian/bike experience. Definitely doable, at least if the political will is there.

  5. Richard Nelson September 13, 2013 at 10:28 pm #

    A second Edina project has been proposed for a block north of this project, replacing the existing Borofsky’s (originally Boutell’s) furniture store with a 273-unit luxury apartment building.
    http://www.startribune.com/housing/221730401.html

  6. Cameron Conway
    Cameron September 17, 2013 at 9:36 pm #

    Honestly, I find little room to bash these kinds of developments. Clearly this kind of density should end up downtown and around under-developed light rail stations, but the first step towards urbanism doesn’t have to be light rail track or pre-existing density. I’m ecstatic at how many different locales are finding new dense developments, as these are the pioneering projects in what will become the region’s next urban centers. You can accomplish so much density with the vast acreage of parking lots in these areas that you really can’t in places with tons of historic housing. Having great and growing examples of urbanism in suburban jurisdictions can also really change the regional discussion about the worthiness of light rail and upzoning. These ideas aren’t nearly as scary when you have excellent examples only a few miles away.

  7. Sam Newberg
    Sam Newberg September 18, 2013 at 11:17 am #

    Winston Churchill once said “We can always count on the Americans to do the right thing, after they have exhausted all the other possibilities.” If we apply that to suburbs then it is safe to say we’ve exhausted most of the other possibilities, and indeed new infill apartments and mixed-use buildings are a step back in the right direction.

    The larger task in my mind will be twofold: the long painful process of teaching developers and architects to go from good to great and design ground floors that actually allow pedestrians to interact with the sidewalk; and get traffic engineers and street designers to design streets first for people, then transit, then bikes but lastly cars.

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