Friday Photo – Scale

Most new construction tends to rub me the wrong way, even when it conforms to enlightened urban design principles. It recently dawned on me when trying to come up with a rational explanation for my dislike of the West River Commons development, that the most significant factor affecting my negative reaction was its scale.

For a pronounced illustration of how development scale affects the streetscape, look at the urban renewal area around the former Gateway district.

A plat map of the area from 1892 published by C. M. Foote & Co.

A city zoning map of the area today.

Here are a handful of streetscapes around the time of the first plat map, and then in 2011 (Google streetview)

Looking East on Washington Ave. from Hennepin Ave:



Hennepin Avenue from 2nd St. towards Washington Ave:



4th St. between Nicollet and Hennepin Avenues:



3rd St. from Nicollet Ave. looking toward 1st Ave:



You may or may not have a preference for late 19th century architecture, but I think almost anyone would admit that the old streetscapes look a lot more interesting (They pull you forward – what are all those different things?) Think about what the area might look like today if it had still been razed, but the existing parcels had been redeveloped at their original size instead of having been consolidated. Sure, maybe there would have been 50 tiny parking lots at some point. But 50 tiny parking lots is a lot better than a few giant ones – it only takes one owner to sell to a developer and the ball starts rolling again. If you’re lucky, the area finally rebounds to its prior level of population, intensity, variety, etc. But the larger scale of current development seems to prevent that. I can’t very well buy a slice and build an apartment or a restaurant on the lawn of the ING Life Insurance building (but at least I vomited on it once when I was biking home from work with food poisoning).

Two of the main benefits of the city are diversity and intensity. With all the diverse
things going on, it’s more likely you’ll find things to do that are suited to your particular tastes. And with the intensity of different things going on, you’ll be exposed to things you didn’t know about, just for fun. Larger scales almost by definition undermine diversity and intensity. The bigger the thing is, the fewer of them can fit in a given area. The bigger they are, the farther away from each other they’ll effectively be.

It seems to me that what remains of the initial fine scale of development throughout the city plays a major role in what’s presently attractive about it. Doesn’t it make sense to employ a similar scale today? I’m sure there are tons of reasons the economics don’t work, but I’m not an economist and I secretly suspect no one else is either. is a non-profit and is volunteer run. We rely on your support to keep the servers running. If you value what you read, please consider becoming a member.

9 Responses to Friday Photo – Scale

  1. Eric Anondson
    Eric Anondson April 11, 2014 at 9:29 am #

    It hurts so much to see those old photos.

    And it like a kick in the groin when I see new developments with one entrance on an entire block. How can we wonder why people prefer skyways to these streetscapes? I’d rather be outside, but when the two alternatives are outside around those new buildings, vs indoors walking past small stores and mom and pop places… I’m indoors except on the most glorious weather days.

    And we keep getting sterile street scale on the most important streets.

  2. Alex April 11, 2014 at 10:29 am #

    At least it’s nice to place today’s fuckups within a continuum of fuckups rather than being some unique species of fuckup that landed here from space to wreck our lives.

    By which I mean, if you look at the Foote map in your post, you see that the cancer of lot consolidation had already produced some substantial tumors by 1892.

  3. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke April 11, 2014 at 10:42 am #

    I don’t hate the West River Commons, probably because it actually HAS multiple small-scale entrances / doorways (even if it is a superblock). That said, superblocks are almost always pisspoor urbanism. It’s hard to find one that really works, anywhere.

  4. Matt Brillhart April 11, 2014 at 11:36 am #

    Can we eminent domain the ING Building (20 S Washington) as part of the Nicollet Mall / Streetcar projects? It would be great to get those wedges of land back and restore Nicollet between Washington and 1st, even if just for streetcars.

    Also, how ****ing crazy is it that Nicollet Ave did not have transit service downtown??? North-south streetcar lines ran on Hennepin and Marquette (then 1st Ave S).

    • Cameron Conway
      Cameron Conway April 11, 2014 at 3:52 pm #

      I’d advocate for the same thing, although for the sake of a structure that actually addresses Hennepin. Further points if that lot is redeveloped with a retail-integrated streetcar station in m ind. If that Henn-Wash SW corner development goes through and the SE lot is turned into a park, we could have an actually okay DT MSLS focal point on our hands. Emphasis on ‘okay,’ as the one Whole Foods for the entire ground level of 222 hennepin makes me kinda queasy.

  5. Joe Scott
    Joe Scott April 11, 2014 at 11:37 am #

    it does help in the case of West River Commons that there are multiple destinations within the building. It’s not nearly as bad as 70’s urban renewal stuff downtown. But part of what really bugs me about it is that multiple lots are consolidated to a single owner, which decreases the democracy of the city’s economic/entrepreneurial landscape. It’s like, if every house in the city were a 5,000 sq. ft. single-family mansion, who could afford to live here? There are too few developers doing too few projects that are way too big. I think that makes the city less flexible, and less unique and thus potentially desirable relative to other places. Let’s just say I didn’t move here to be closer to Papa Murphy’s.

    I should also mention the old photos are from the Hennepin County Library’s Minneapolis Photo Collection, which unlike the historical society, let’s you download full resolution scans for free. It’s great.

  6. minneapolisite April 12, 2014 at 3:54 pm #

    I would think the economics would make sense for lots of separately owned narrow lots for better affordability for a greater variety of establishments, but I’m guessing subsidies were/are thrown at those with the option to consolidate their properties vs maintain them separately.

    The lack of small footprints for commercial building plays a large part in why I find so much of Downtown doesn’t appeal to me: the number of restaurants and bars I want to patronize are just a drop in the bucket compared to what’s offered. I had to go to West Bank last night to find a small locale with local live music. I don’t do fancy restaurants and lounges, let alone “ultra lounges”. Nicollet Mall is dominated by them despite there not being all that many there: it’s the larger scale and fewer number of spaces that lead to this. Unfortunately, small affordable spaces that work for more affordable bars and restaurants are very few and far between. That’s probably why I’m all but sure to head away from Downtown for a night or meal out whether it’s West Bank, Lyn-Lake, Whittier, or NE, When was the last time you had a great bowl of pho in a cheap Vietnamese restaurant? Or some cheap crave-worthy tamales at a Mexican restaurant? Or been to a great divey bar? I can pretty much guarantee it wasn’t Downtown.

    Lot size is also key in answering the question of why we have many times more residents than many other downtowns across the nation, but a notably smaller number of destinations: lot sizes are too big and then you end up with a lack of variety. Consider Downtown Boston which has just over 16,000 downtown residents but is chock full of a wider array of destinations and of course has smaller lots to thank in part for that.

    • minneapolisite April 12, 2014 at 3:58 pm #

      Basically, we need to worry about our downtown business population in comparison to other cities, not our resident population.

      • Rachel Quednau April 14, 2014 at 7:32 am #

        I wonder why the increase in residential population downtown hasn’t also brought about an increase in small businesses naturally. Is it simply that the spaces don’t exist or that zoning codes prevent them or something else? I would think a major draw of living downtown would be the fact that you could walk to work and also walk to the grocery store, cafe, gym, etc. so I wonder why that demand hasn’t brought more business in. Then again, maybe it’s just the river views that are drawing people to the downtown area and they still jump in their car to get anywhere that they might actually want to go.

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