Save Dinkytown’s Public Realm

Dinkytown has been in the news again recently about a large-scale redevelopment proposal on one of the core blocks. There is much controversy over density, lost parking (perceived or real), and preservation. Those are all relevant issues with no absolute right or wrong answer but some very good possible solutions. But let’s not forget the pedestrian realm and the building facades that face it. By that measure, we need to send the Doran Companies proposal back to the drawing board, since adding a new curb cut and a large garage door, plus a transformer, facing 4th Street, is unacceptable.

Garage Door

Much has been written about preserving the character of Dinkytown, and in fact last week’s decision by the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission confirmed that impulse. Yes, perhaps the buildings Doran Companies is proposing to demolish are not historically significant themselves, but to some extent all the Dinkytown commercial buildings together do have some historical significance. Furthermore, for the most part they are good cheap commercial buildings that can attract a wide range of businesses and have great frontage. I went by Mesa Pizza last night and diners lined the windows facing out as hungry pedestrians walked by outside. So yes, preserving at least the Mesa Pizza building and somehow blending the hotel differently is something that should be considered. It may be physically and/or cost prohibitive, but worth consideration. If the retail facades and number of doors cannot be improved upon, then maybe they should be left alone.

Streetview

Here is the tally: the Doran Companies proposal would replace a current four retail tenants (plus an upstairs clinic), a curb cut and underpass that also provides a pedestrian entrance to an upstairs tenant, a cash machine, five doors and lots of windows facing the sidewalk with two retail tenants, a hotel entrance, lots of windows, a slightly shielded transformer (not the toy kind) and a garage door with a new curb cut in a different location. By that measure what exists today is significantly more pedestrian-friendly and a better public realm than the proposed development.

Aerial

A second-story outdoor patio is proposed (above), but why should hotel guests (the private realm) get a patio when immediately below it the sidewalk (the public realm) gets a garage door, vehicle access and curb cut? Doran Companies is proposing to demolish a house on 13th Avenue, replacing it with parking, so perhaps the vehicle access can be via that street and the garage face the alley, rather than off 4th Street. As well, can’t the transformer be relocated so as not to be facing the sidewalk (see below)?

Transformer Highlighted

There is a lot to like about the Doran proposal. A Dinkytown hotel would be an asset, and certainly would add pedestrian traffic. Overall, you can make the argument that total pedestrian traffic of the new development would be about the same as what’s there today. I for one don’t mind the density. It’s just that pedestrians walking by would have a degraded environment from today. What’s more bothersome is all the city codes currently allow this, so essentially the city is legally allowing worse urbanism.

So let’s not let preservationists, NIMBYs and developers have the only say on this matter. Their views are important, but so is pedestrian character of Dinkytown. To me, that is worth saving and improving upon, not diminishing. The Doran Companies proposal, as is, represents a step backwards for the public realm in Dinkytown and Minneapolis, as it has fewer storefronts, fewer pedestrian doors, a new curb cut, more garage doors and a transformer. Luckily, these problems with the initial proposal likely have solutions. The Planning Commission and City Council need to insist on and offer assistance with creative solutions so the urbanism and public realm of Minneapolis is improved.

This was crossposted at Joe Urban.

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19 Responses to Save Dinkytown’s Public Realm

  1. Joey Senkyr
    Joey Senkyr January 27, 2014 at 1:15 pm #

    This isn’t the first critique of this proposal I’ve seen that complains about the addition of a curb cut. Currently on this block there’s an alley between Camdi and Tony’s, and a parking lot entrance underneath the clinic. Two curb cuts. With the Doran proposal, there will be an alley between it and Tony’s, and a parking ramp entrance, approximately where the clinic was. Two curb cuts. I absolutely agree that Doran should be required to move the garage entrance as a prereq for getting permission to turn the house into a parking lot, but arguing that this proposal adds a curb cut to Fourth is just dishonest.

    • Alex January 27, 2014 at 2:09 pm #

      No, Sam’s math is correct. There is no curb cut where the parking lot entrance under the clinic is:

      http://goo.gl/maps/QGxVx

      • Sam Newberg
        Sam Newberg January 27, 2014 at 3:23 pm #

        Joey, I stand corrected. Alex, you and I cite Google Maps and Streetview. Based on Joey’s comment, I drove by and there is actually a curb cut for cars to use the underpass to access the parking behind. Streetview, etc. indicated the curb cut was closed off and bollards blocked the way. This perhaps was the condition once, but today cars can pass under. The post has been corrected accordingly.

        The larger issue is today there is a curb cut and underpass that also provides a pedestrian entrance to the upstairs clinic. Doran’s development would close off one curb cut and underpass and replace it with another and include a garage door facing the street. Grandfathering in the exiting curb cut is one thing, but creating a new one and including a garage door in a pedestrian zone is another matter and should not be allowed. There must be a way to access the hotel by car off 13th Avenue.

        • Alex January 27, 2014 at 4:42 pm #

          Huh, must be because of the Opus project. They probably accessed that lot through one of the curb cuts on 5th.

          • Joey Senkyr
            Joey Senkyr January 29, 2014 at 11:05 am #

            Correct. That whole area in the middle of the block had previously been run as a single parking facility, with a midblock entrance on fifth.

  2. Alex January 27, 2014 at 2:11 pm #

    I agree that the CPC should deny the curb cut, but assuming it’s allowed, what do you think about the fact that the garage door is set back from the sidewalk? In my experience, it’s preferable to have the garage door flush with the street wall, so you can see the door movement as a warning that a car will be emerging. What would be the advantage of setting the door back?

  3. Sam Newberg
    Sam Newberg January 27, 2014 at 3:24 pm #

    A garage set back is better aesthetically than having it flush, although you are right, it is a little more visible. However, no garage is better than one set back or flush.

  4. Richard Nelson January 27, 2014 at 11:34 pm #

    I’m a big fan of this blog. That said, really?
    In terms of the pedestrian experience, isn’t a garage better than the ugly surface parking lot that currently exists? I’m not quite sure how replacing one 4th St. SE. curb cut with another is a big deal, or why preserving an underpass (and a stairway) on a forgettable two-story concrete block building is somehow preferable to a garage door.
    I’m also not sure why the second-story patio is an issue, it seems to be a pleasant enough amenity that currently doesn’t exist, and it puts eyeballs on the street, at least when the weather cooperates.
    I agree, I like sitting in the window at Mesa and watching people walk by. But who is to say that the same cannot be done in the project’s new retail spaces?
    I agree that moving garage access to the to 13th Av. SE. lot is preferable (and the transformer is in a less-than-ideal spot), but these other arguments don’t seem to have a lot of merit.

    • Sam Newberg
      Sam Newberg January 28, 2014 at 8:35 am #

      If it seems like I’m nitpicking, fair enough. But overall I’m arguing that redevelopment should improve the public realm, and building a new building with a garage door and transformer facing the sidewalk is not acceptable.

      Today’s “forgettable” two-story building is certainly funky, and if it were to remain in place I’d still advocate for closing the curb cut and using the underpass instead for a restaurant patio – whether its preserving or building new, I am advocating for better urbanism.

      I have nothing against an upstairs private patio, but that the public realm gets a garage door which is decidedly a negative.

      New retail tenants may very well have window seating like Mesa, but there will be less opportunity in the new development to do so, with just two retail spaces, not the four that exist today. We need to be adding the potential for good urbanism, not subtracting it.

      • Walker Angell
        Walker Angell January 30, 2014 at 7:52 am #

        I think you nailed an important point. Short of good form based codes, cities need to ask, on every project, if it significantly improves the pedestrian experience and if it doesn’t send them back to the drawing board.

        • Walker Angell
          Walker Angell January 30, 2014 at 7:54 am #

          And they need to be clear that pedestrian experience isn’t just being able to walk by, but enjoy walking by, desire to walk by, have a reason to want to walk by.

    • Joseph Totten
      Joseph Totten January 30, 2014 at 12:12 am #

      Curb cuts are usually just left until major street work is done, which (due to recent resurfacing) is at least ten years out, more like fifteen or twenty, making the sidewalk dip like that would induce a trip hazard, and an unpleasant terrain for all pedestrians. True it won’t be used, but they are strange to see abandoned to say the least.

      I’d like to just see the rented retail/office space remain about the same or expand as well as the number of these units.

  5. Jeff Klein January 28, 2014 at 9:17 am #

    From a structural point of view, the development in Dinkytown doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is the loss of independent businesses, and the degree to which that’s coupled to the physical change. If it were possible to assure that each independent business got a spot in the new building, I’d say tear it all down except for the Annies/Loring Pasta Bar/Varsity block.

  6. Monica Millsap Rasmussen
    Monica Millsap Rasmussen January 29, 2014 at 11:09 am #

    I have often had similar thoughts as Jeff for all the neighborhoods along the Green Line.
    The middle class business are displaced, likely most are unable afford new rents in the new developments. Similar chain and corporate businesses replace what was once there. It’s like a larger scale Block E project.

    • Sam Newberg
      Sam Newberg January 29, 2014 at 11:55 am #

      Block E? Really? How so?

      • Adam Miller
        Adam January 29, 2014 at 4:06 pm #

        I would have gone with, “larger scale, how so?”

        • Sam Newberg
          Sam Newberg January 30, 2014 at 8:51 am #

          Good point, Adam. Except I understand resistance to larger-scale development. I think in the long-term, like it or not, Dinkytown will see denser development. We should accept that and work to ensure the buildings relate well to the street, so, like Walker says, people walk by, have a reason to walk by, and enjoy walking by.

  7. Adam Miller
    Adam January 29, 2014 at 4:02 pm #

    Isn’t there already a curb cut next to that ATM? Or is it out of use?

    There is another lot between the hotel and the house that is to be turned into car sharing parking. Perhaps Doran does not own, or doesn’t think it can get, that dividing lot to connect to its garage from the alley. If it can, that would certainly be an improvement.

    This is definitely not a “no” project, but it can be improved.

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