West River Commons (Still) Sets a High Bar for Minneapolis

In a recent streets.mn post, one commenter was accused by another of being paid by Michael Lander and loving Michael Lander. Allow me to show you why I believe we need more projects by developers like Michael Lander. Like it or not, Minneapolis, development is happening, and we need to encourage more talented developers who have an eye for creating or renovating a building with sensitivity to its surroundings, who place value on a building’s relationship to the street. We need more developers like Michael Lander and we need to make their job easier.

So let’s take a look at a project that, quite deservedly, is held up as a model for good development principles for Minneapolis. West River Commons is located at East Lake Street and the West River Road. Let’s go there now.

Main Photo - SE

The first image (above) shows the building from the intersection of East Lake Street and West River Road. This is what you see coming across the Lake Street Bridge – a mixed-use building, three to four stories in height, with 56 residential units and 8,000 square feet of retail. Set on just over an acre, this is density of 50 units per acre. This is exactly the type of infill development the city’s comp plan asks for.

Retail Frontage

Here is a closer look at the retail space. 8,000 square feet is enough for a restaurant, coffee shop, gift shop and take and bake pizza. Importantly, retail doesn’t line the entire face of Lake Street. There isn’t too much of it, and what there is faces the busiest corner of the development (and the Mississippi River and parkway). Signage is scaled to the pedestrian and not to cars racing by. Also very important is the design details, particularly how the retail space includes large windows and doors facing the sidewalk. These retail spaces are designed so tenants can come and go over time but still have a high-quality pedestrian presence.


The plaza is something special. It is intimate and not too large. Technically private property, it feels public, with multiple ways to access it on foot. The restaurant (Longfellow Grill) is in a space very much designed for a sit-down restaurant that frames the plaza well, including outdoor tables. Dunn Bros patio seating is informal and part of the plaza. The restaurant patio is clearly delineated from the plaza without feeling barricaded off. The plaza has kneewalls that are the right height for sitting, and the sculpture is in the middle, allowing kids to run around it. Overall the plaza is an excellent place for formal dining, a cup of coffee, waiting for a table, events like beer tastings, and just hanging out.

Walk Outs

Rather than line the street with retail, which risks higher vacancy and also requires more off-street parking, West River Commons has something novel: walk-out residential units facing Lake Street. I’m not aware of too many other residential units with direct access to the street. I suppose the whole of Lake Street doesn’t need to be commercial, but it should be pedestrian-friendly, and this achieves that goal quite well, pushing the GDA quite high.

Step Down

Three for-sale townhomes face 46th Avenue, a residential street, at the northwest corner of the site. From a design perspective, these three units are very important, as they are only two stories in height, which allows the building to “step down” and blend better in to the existing neighborhood to the north.

This project has essentially three housing types – three for-sale townhomes, 41 market-rate apartments (some with excellent river views), and 12 affordable rental units (20% of the total), for 56 housing units overall.

Parking Entrance

Parking is behind the building. The only surface parking visible from Lake Street are the on-street spaces. The two curb cuts that are required are as small as possible, and the parking area is masked by screens, shrubs and consistent architecture. The 74 parking spaces for residential tenants are underground.

Parking Behind

There are 37 off-street parking spaces in the lot behind the building designated for the retail space. This equates to 4.7 spaces per 1,000 square feet of space, which is generally thought to be sufficient for this environment. A pedestrian door provides direct access to all four retail spaces. So whereas the pedestrian-friendliness is the guiding principle of the design, this pedestrian door acknowledges how most customers arrive. Also, notice the residential units with walk-out access to the parking lot, just like those that face Lake Street. Why not? They give a greater sense of shared space, offer convenience for those residents, and probably make the parking lot safer.

Back Fence

There are no such thing as buffers in urban development – there isn’t space to build landscaped berms between uses. Therefore, all four sides of a project must be respectful of their surroundings. In this case, an attractive fence and landscaping face the alleyway, blocking direct views of the parking lot and dumpsters.

Simple Walk-Out

What is the takeaway here? West River Commons isn’t spectacular from an architectural perspective. It is pedestrian-friendly, mixes uses well, and hides parking. It is taller and denser than the buildings it replaced, but after 10 years, does that matter? The style of a new building doesn’t matter as much as whether it has good urban design that relates well to the street and surroundings. We the public have to raise the bar to encourage development that is first and foremost attractive, pedestrian-friendly and adds to the beauty of the city. West River Commons achieves this in spades.

Michael Lander also needed dozens of public meetings to get this project approved, and he was met with quite a bit of resistance. One project opponent showed up at the grand opening of the project and admitted he was wrong, that West River Commons was a good addition to the neighborhood. I realize not every person is going to be convinced that a new building built near their home is wonderful, even after it is done. My fear is our approvals process drives away the best developers, and since change will occur in some form, if we don’t get the best buildings for our city we all lose.

This was crossposted at Joe Urban.

Sam Newberg

About Sam Newberg

Sam Newberg, a.k.a. Joe Urban, is an urbanist, real estate consultant and writer. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two kids, and his website is www.joe-urban.com.