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.