Simple Urbanism – So Elusive

At first blush, the new Harriet’s Inn at 40th Street and Lyndale Avenue in south Minneapolis is a nice addition to the city and its urban fabric. Jucy Lucy’s on the menu, Polygamy on a nitro tap, kids eat free on Tuesdays, what could go wrong!? Furthermore, the building has an attractive brick facade, big windows, is built close to the sidewalk and corner, and replaces a SuperAmerica with a big parking lot. An urbanists dream? Far from it.

Harriet's Inn, as Viewed From 40th and Lyndale

Harriet’s Inn, as Viewed From 40th and Lyndale

The first thing I noticed is that the restaurant patio is located along the north side of the building, actually hidden behind a brick wall with a window cut in it. This seemed odd to me. I don’t agree with architecture that takes a defensive stance against the city around it. Outdoor seating should be near the sidewalk to allow an opportunity for interaction between diners and passers-by. The only possible advantage to this defensive arrangement is if a stray car veers off high-speed Lyndale Avenue, in which case the brick wall will help protect diners. I don’t have a problem with a somewhat private restaurant patio, but just don’t waste frontage on an urban corner. This is no way to live.

Built to the sidewalk, right? Not quite. There is a landscaped buffer between the sidewalk and building. There is no need for this. A good urban building has a zero lot line and is built right to the sidewalk. Setbacks can be allowed to vary, but how they are used is critical. The only reason to set the building back is if that space is used for seating for diners, which is clearly not the case here. Landscaping has its place, but in a city, the space between the sidewalk and restaurant should be for people, not rocks and native grass.

Unnecessary Landscaped Buffer Between building and Sidewalk

Unnecessary Landscaped Buffer Between Building and Sidewalk

The all important front door test also isn’t as clear cut as you might think. Yes, there is a front door and yes it faces the sidewalk. But the door is purposely located close to the parking lot on the south side of the building, away from the intersection, lest patrons cannot walk an extra few feet for their Jucy Lucy. If only the door were closer to the corner, and closer to a restaurant patio that also faces the sidewalk, the result can be a nice little crossroads of activity and urbanity. Ideally the door would face the intersection at the corner, like so many older buildings from the streetcar era do. This is especially true for a single-use building like this that may only have one door. Alas.


The Parking Lot is Easily Accessible. Whew!

I can accept a parking lot on the side of the building, and agree that it should be away from the corner. Adding a little diagonal sidewalk is so weird, though. The message this sends is the design and siting of the parking lot is more important than the patio and building’s relationship to the rest of the city. The bent over tree, apparently struck by a vehicle, is an unfortunate symbol of the urban design flaws of this property.

Harriet’s Inn is really just a suburban boilerplate for a restaurant retrofitted to the city. This is simple urbanism, people, and it floors me to see us get it so wrong, particularly when we think we’re getting it so right. How do we fix this? Of all the possible solutions, I believe a revised zoning code and urban design regulations would have the best impact, and this should be done during the city’s comp plan update. We’re not going to drive away business and development by demanding a more beautiful city. Buildings, their entrances, and the spaces used by people should embrace the sidewalk and public realm rather than hide from it. We can and absolutely must do better, Minneapolis.

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

16 thoughts on “Simple Urbanism – So Elusive

  1. cobo Rodreges

    It strikes me that this assessment of the new Harriet Inn is a little harsh, as this restaurant is not in a dense part of town with busy sidewalks. Its in a very small commercial cluster in a low density detached house neighborhood. So It doesn’t need to awkwardly pretend that its in downtown, uptown, northeast or on any kind of main street because it simply isn’t.. It is the only restaurant there and there are maybe 3 niche stores next to it.

    It seems to fit the neighborhood OK and I and people like me personally prefer patios that are not right next to the road or sidewalks. Because I don’t want to interact with people enjoying their meal when I walk…. and when I am enjoying a meal I don’t want to interact with people who are walking, or deal with that much noise and breath exhaust.. Is that crazy?

  2. Eric W

    I am reminded of the aphorism, “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.” This is a nice-looking building that fits very well into its not-very-dense urban neighborhood. (I think this is the place I enjoyed a beer on the patio one chilly evening in November.) There is merit in a couple of your points, but to describe it as “so wrong” seems over the top. I didn’t realize an urbanist is supposed to oppose even a narrow strip of landscaping along the side of a building. In fact, some unpaved areas helps with stormwater runoff. There are bigger battles to fight.

  3. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    I agree with having seating along and open to the sidewalk. Cheeky Monkey in St Paul had both sidewalk seating and a back patio. We nearly always chose the sidewalk.

    Do the windows open to better connect to the sidewalk on nice days?

  4. Kevin

    Yeah, not to pile on, but I agree with the other comments here. To me, an ideal urban environment is more about diversity and wide appeal than stringently fitting some ideal urbanist code. Otherwise it becomes too much like that whole suburban cul de sac thing where your homeowners association dictates what color your house should be and how long your grass needs to be.

  5. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    I agree with others. This is a really good project. An 8′ tastefully landscape setback does not eliminate the benefits of close street frontage. Unlike many other projects, the *only* entrance faces the sidewalk.

    Even the older building to the north isn’t truly zero lot line — the setback is just paved. The other corners are a freestanding home with larger setback, and a SuperAmerica with very little redeeming to offer. I think this is a good and attractive improvement to the area, and fits in well with the mix of single-family homes.

    I wouldn’t necessarily feel the same way everywhere. There’s a new Wells Fargo branch just west of Sons of Norway on Lake Street that has a similar landscaped setback. In that case, it does feel really awkward and spoils the urban character of the frontage. In this case, it blends in great with the neighborhood.

  6. Aaron IsaacsAaron Isaacs

    Don’t forget what it replaced. It was built as a 7-11 with gas pumps, and it looked exactly like every other 7-11. It went out of business so SuperAmerica bought it. Now there were two SuperAmerica’s across the street from each other. So this one was closed and sat vacant for years. You bet Harriet’s is an improvement.

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      True, but I bristle at this line of reasoning. A big box superstore is an improvement over a superfund site, but that doesn’t mean a beautiful town center wouldn’t be even better. Minneapolis has a lot of demand for development. Asking for even better development isn’t going to drive it away.

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      I can see how this seems harsh, but that’s kind of the problem I see here. Broadly speaking, we tend to pat ourselves on the back here in the Twin Cities regarding development, and we do a GOOD job, but GREAT projects are rare. Basically I believe we should raise our standards.

      Like the building on the northwest corner of this intersection, you can visit nearly any streetcar era commercial building and you’ll find an appropriate relationship with the public realm – a door at the corner, good frontage, opportunities for outdoor seating, etc. While there is nothing fundamentally wrong with Harriet’s Inn, it just feels like the site plan was created in a vacuum, and relationships to the sidewalk and city beyond are incidental.

      Maybe the larger point is Harriet’s Inn is an example of good, but not great. I’d prefer a situation where a developer proposing a great urban project could walk out of city hall with a building permit on day one and someone proposing something that is less great needs variances or a zoning change. We get it reversed today. Look at the White Castle/Holiday or Walgreens for examples – there are differences but similar issues at the root of the problem.

      1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

        Good summary.

        This is along the same lines as MNDOT saying that they’ll allow narrowing of lanes on a suburban or urban stroad from 12′ to 11.5′ (but still with a 3′ curb reaction distance since we can’t expect drivers to pay too close of attention). It’s certainly better but not what it can or should be.

        1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

          It’s important to note that the reconstruction of Lyndale Avenue (when was that? 10 years ago? Less?) was the culmination of a long and painful design process whereby the neighborhood insisted on a much narrower, friendlier design, including sure bump outs and many other items, rather than the four-lane version the county was suggesting. (back in my teens, I did a lot of passing on the right – funny how taking away that option eliminates the behavior!)

          This does beg the question – if after all that effort, we still don’t have a Lyndale Avenue that is pleasant for sidewalk seating, then what?

  7. jim

    “the new Harriet’s Inn…”

    Am I missing something? Hasn’t this place been opened since 2015? Seems like you have a suburbanites notion of “new.”

  8. David Brauer

    Some background on this project (I’m a former Kingfield neighborhood president; we’re the ‘hood across Lyndale, with the SA that remained open):

    So Aaron is right, for a long time this was 2 SAs. Not an ideal situation for SA, who really just wanted to reduce competition, At one point around 2000, SA wanted to sell the Kingfield SA for housing, We were excited, but the plan’s stick was a rebuilt/expanded SA where Harriet’s now stands,

    To facilitate the expansion, SA had acquired the house next to its double lot. Due to zoning laws, the neighbors had incredible power to stop the needed rezoning, and they did, So SA retaliated by demoing a perfectly good house, with almost no notice, despite the fact that nothing commercial could be built there.

    This led to a near-decade-long glare-off, with a crumbling SA and a vacant lot at a gateway to what are two thriving neighborhoods. It was frustrating and depressing.

    FINALLY, the Green Mill dude bought the shebang, and people were generally excited. BUT. The neighborhood fought GMD on hours (earlier close), music (restricted) AND (here’s where it gets fuzzy) parking.

    If I recall correctly, there was originally a bocce court proposed, I think for the south side where the lot is. But – and I may be wrong here – the neighbors, still mad about the tear down, didn’t warm to the idea of crowd noise next to a residential house that should have been next to a residential house.

    So that moved what later became the patio to the north side, where the virtue (for neighbors) was that it faced commercial buildings, not houses. That’s why it’s on what seems like an illogical side,

    I don’t mind the patio not being on Lyndale – it’s very trafficky and another one of those trying-to-be-Paris-but-goddamn-it’s-loud unsatisfying patio deals. Would’ve been pretty on the streetscape, but current iteration more satisfying to sit in,

    I don’t remember the exact contours of why there’s such a big lot on the south side. I dimly recall this being a latish move by the developer, but could be wrong.

    As for the surban-ness of the whole thing, it is definitely that. It’s not a regular hangout for me, but I have learned there are plenty of neighborhood people who really like having something different than the Revival/LowBrow crowded/hip/etc. diner. On some level, it represents diversity, that many neighbors embrace.

    I think they tried hard with the building, and to my eye, just missed. But on balance, it’s a pleasant, if slightly off, addition. Aesthetically, it would be tons better without the lot, but not sure how immediate neighbors feel about that one.

    The food is so-so, by the way.

    As for

  9. Pete Moss

    “The parking lot is easily accessible.”
    You’re joking, right? See that pile of former snow / now ice that half-obstructs the walkway? That sure looks risky to me, especially to someone who’s not steady on foot or using a walker or some such.
    And why is that like that? In all likelihood, some guy in a pickup truck with an attached plow pushed the newly fallen snow around and off the parking area and onto any convenient non-parking area, including that spot. And no one in the days or weeks following got out there with a shovel to finish the job properly. And that’s standard operating procedure, folks, and a mark of a suburban, not urban, sensibility.

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