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.
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.
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.
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.