Because I have a lot of important things to fill my time, I recently tuned in to a meeting of the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission. There was just one item on the agenda: the proposed demolition of a low-slung downtown office building at 17 N Washington Avenue, which would then be replaced by a 27 story apartment tower. After presentations from city staff as well as the applicant, the Commission decided to grant the existing building interim protection and block its demolition.
It so happens that I quite like the building in question, which most readers will recognize as the Dolphin Staffing Building, but was constructed as the headquarters for Knutson Construction. It has an idiosyncratic pattern of openings on its façade that makes makes for an interesting contrast with its neighbors in the Warehouse District and the North Loop. But the case for the building’s historic value is weak. The building had been examined as a candidate for protection before and was swiftly dismissed from consideration due to its history of alterations. It is a product of the historic era of urban renewal and redevelopment that created Minneapolis’ Gateway District, an era which is now almost universally regarded as an enormous mistake. Considered alongside Minoru Yamasaki’s masterworks from the period, especially the Northwestern National Life Building, it’s hard to understand what additional historic value would be gained by extending protection in this case.
But to make an argument on these grounds already concedes too much. Even if the preservation case for the Dolphin Staffing Building were far stronger, the argument in favor of its destruction and redevelopment is stronger still. The proposed replacement tower would add around 430 new homes and around 330 new residential parking spaces, all across the street from a grocery store, three blocks from a light rail station, and well-within walking distance of the state’s biggest agglomeration of jobs, services, and entertainment. It is exactly the kind of development that the City of Minneapolis has called for through its comprehensive plans. It would improve housing affordability citywide, cut against residential segregation, encourage car-free or car-lite living, enhance the streetscape, and add to the tax base. In contrast, the existing building provides a limited amount of antiquated office space, no units of housing or other amenities, and its ground-floor-parking design makes for a hostile pedestrian environment. This is an easy call.
This is why I’m not tearing my hair out about the decision of the HPC in this specific case. I think it will be overturned. Whether or not the Dolphin Staffing Building does or doesn’t merit preservation, I understand the HPC’s impulse to step in and hit pause until more study can be done. That’s their job. It’s also the City Council’s job to review the Commission’s decisions if appealed, and the Council is likely to be more influenced by a wider perspective. I expect they’ll remove the interim protection and allow the project to move forward towards being permitted.
But while the HPC is in the spotlight, it’s a good opportunity to ask some more basic questions about historic preservation as an institutionalized practice within Minneapolis and elsewhere. Is it working as intended? Is it benefitting the public? If those answers are ‘no’, what might be an alternative?
Is Historic Preservation a Good use of Everyone’s Time?
There are many antecedents to the historic preservation movement in America. The one everyone knows is the demolition of New York City’s grand old Penn Station in 1963. In Minneapolis, people still mourn the Metropolitan Building (dem. 1961) and the Great Northern Depot (dem. 1978). When you look at the photos of these great structures, it’s inconceivable how society could’ve considered their worth to be less than the land they occupied. Historic preservation is valuable because it challenges the assumptions of the present day about what is and isn’t valuable or worth keeping.
But while historic preservation continues to dine out on Penn Station and other celebrated casualties of mid-century urban renewal, the day-to-day process of historic preservation looks a lot different.
For instance, at its December 15, 2020 meeting, the Minneapolis HPC considered a 104 page application to add an extension to a University of Minnesota fraternity house. At the October 13 meeting, the HPC considered whether a notable chimney could be reduced in height (it can’t), whether a brick house could replace its windows (it can), and whether a downtown building could replace its old cornices (it can). Two weeks before, on September 29, the HPC generously allowed a postmodern home to widen its stoop by two feet.
With no ill will towards the volunteer commissioners who read these materials, look into the details, and spend their Tuesday nights debating these questions, I have to wonder—is this a good use of anyone’s time?
The historic preservation movement was a response to a series of outrages, the vandalization of exceptional buildings and great places by a society that didn’t properly value them. But today, that same movement has achieved meaningful institutional power yet has been reduced to focusing on picayune questions of style and historicity amongst a parade of mostly ordinary structures.
This feels somewhat inevitable. It’s obvious that there simply cannot be that many exceptional or historic buildings in any given city, because the vast majority must be commonplace in order for some to be exceptional or historic. Minneapolis’ Heritage Preservation Commission meets twice a month. It is unlikely that it will uncover a previously-unconsidered architectural masterpiece or site of great historical import. The natural product of the temporal mismatch between the slow movement of history and the frenetic schedule of the commission tasked with preserving it is what we see today; an extraordinarily amount of attention paid to an extremely small subset of real estate activity, with an unspoken, simmering pressure to fill time by expanding the scope of preservation to even more fringe cases.
Is Historic Preservation creating new problems?
In the middle of 2019, Park Board Commissioner Meg Forney proposed a new “conservation district” in Southwest Minneapolis, near Bde Maka Ska. The proposed district, which included her home and those of her neighbors, was supposedly notable for its “charm, intimate scale, unpretentious but pleasant homes, wealth of architectural detail, and pedestrian orientation,” which made it “a perfect slice of Americana.”
After several meetings of deliberation, on September 17, 2019 the Historic Preservation Commission gave the green light for a study to be conducted into whether the proposed district met the guidelines for conservation. Almost a year later, on July 28, 2020, city staff submitted a 277 page report which concluded in exhaustive detail that “the district meets neither the ordinance’s eligibility requirements nor the comprehensive plan.” The HPC ultimately voted down the district after this extensive period of deliberation and countless volunteer and staff hours.
The weird saga of the “Ivy-Zenith-32nd Conservation District” shows how, when historic preservation is not being used as an excuse to micro-manage innocuous home renovations, it is often being used as a tool for the wealthy and well-connected to block new development in their neighborhoods. In this case, what prompted the conservation district proposal was almost certainly less about the area’s American charm and more about the fact that it was an enclave of expensive homes about to be zoned for higher density, within close proximity to the future West Lake light rail station where there would be demand for that type of development.
This type of chicanery has abundant precedent.
Most famously in Minneapolis, an old house at 2320 Colfax Ave that had been built by a prolific local builder became the subject of an epic multi-year battle in which neighbors sought to use the home’s specious historic value to kill an apartment proposal (they lost). Soon after, neighbors mobilized to try and protect the home of a successful writer from being converted into apartments (they failed to stop demolition, but the new building has yet to be built). This past year former US Secretary of Labor and budding leftist social media influencer Robert Reich made headlines when he and his Berkeley, California, neighbors attempted to use historic preservation to block a nearby cottage from becoming a small apartment building. Even when these efforts fail, they can impose a significant cost in terms of time and money on developers, city staff, and the public. Sometimes that cost itself is enough to kill the proposed project.
Historic property and historic areas increase property value. The historic preservation process is time consuming and complex. Historic protection is a powerful legal shield. The rewards of this system combined with the barriers to accessing it have too-often turned a mass movement that aimed to save buildings and spaces of great public value into an institutional force that instead acts to defend buildings and spaces that contribute to great private wealth.
What If Cities Focused On Something Else?
Minneapolis is far from alone in having a commission focused on historic preservation that wields influence over development. Most large American cities have similar bodies. Some have additional commissions or boards that scrutinize other aspects of the development process. In Philadephia, where I live, there is a process known as Civic Design Review, where a panel renders judgement on the aesthetics of medium to large building proposals. This board’s powers are limited to the ability to delay the process by recalling a developer and their architect back for a second meeting. But the recommendations from CDR can carry weight with neighborhood groups and councilmembers, whose support is often needed to achieve final approvals.
The example of design review demonstrates one of the many formal ways in which cities intervene in the property development process in order to achieve their own goals. Recognizing how commonplace such interventions are, it would be smart to step back every once in a while and question whether a city is taking an approach that allows it to meet its highest priorities.
This question matters, because at the HPC debate on the Dolphin Staffing Building, none of the arguments that might be made in favor of such a redevelopment project received even a mention, because they didn’t fall into the commission’s scope. When the City Council inevitably takes up the issue, its members may have other issues in mind, but the grounds of the debate have already been set. In installing a special interest commission on the subject of historic preservation and not any other, the City of Minneapolis has indicated that that subject alone matters more than any other, and is deserving of extraordinary consideration.
If a city like Minneapolis is going to require a developer to get the support of one special interest commission, does it make sense that that commission focus on “Heritage Preservation?” If not, might a different focus make sense?
Look Forward, Not Back.
One focus seems to rise above all others—the climate.
This is a massive, urgent subject in which real estate development can have a significant direct impact. If new buildings are constructed to minimize energy use, maximize energy production, limit transportation emissions, and slash their own embodied carbon, then we as a society will substantially advance our goals of mitigating climate change. If new buildings in Minneapolis are built without attention to these details, then the adverse effects will be long-lasting. It should also go without saying that if we want to preserve our heritage, then we also must preserve a future in which to enjoy it.
What might a Climate Preservation Commission look like? Many of the considerations that could fall under its purview, such as building materials and density, are already regulated by existing zoning and building codes. But a CPC could act as an institutional voice encouraging developers to push boundaries, or admonishing them for missing opportunities to promote sustainability.
For instance, a building along a rapid bus route that proposes two levels of underground parking might be cajoled into considering only one. A building with significant solar capacity might be referred directly to solar energy providers. A building with a design that doesn’t maximize natural heating and cooling might receive detailed suggestions to achieve a better standard.
To give these recommendations weight, this CPC could have the power of delay, calling the developer back for a second meeting. It could also have the power to attach conditions of approval for the consideration of the planning commission. Perhaps it could also approve projects for access to monies allocated by the city to support qualifying new ultra-green construction.
However, even without formal powers to exercise, such a commission would have two significant impacts simply by existing.
1) First, it would require developers to take the climate into consideration in the process of development. Today, developers routinely hire historic preservation consultants to advise on projects and architects to take historic context into consideration in their design process. This is more than just good citizenship, it is a response to a regulatory environment that has, for decades, placed special emphasis on historic preservation. If the emphasis of this regulatory environment were to change to climate preservation, the emphasis of developers and architects would shift as well.
2) Second, requiring applicant and staff reports to the commission would ensure that the impacts and benefits of new development are measured. It’s a truism that “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” Without measurement and data, we make decisions in the dark. With a commission to answer to, new development in the city would need to measure its carbon impacts, and this would provide a frame of reference that would better illuminate what is and isn’t progress. Using Minneapolis’ adopted social cost of carbon, those numbers could also be expressed in terms of money, helping the city properly calibrate its subsidies. Compared with certain fixed alternatives (say, a 30 unit multi-family building would be contrasted with 30 greenfield single-family homes in Carver County), the city could also better quantify its own role in the regional carbon economy.
In Minneapolis, as in most American cities, the process of land development is long and complex. But if it has a binding thread, that thread is preservation. As a reaction in part to the excesses of mid-century redevelopment and in part to the traumas of mid-century abandonment, we have developed an system that is inherently suspicious of change and deeply deferential to what already exists, whether formally acknowledged or not.
In a world where we know that the way we live is killing our planet, and where preservation in the long run requires dramatic change in the short run, this system requires another look. The infirmities of institutionalized historic preservation provide the sharpest lens with which to see this, and the clearest opportunity for reform.
What if we accepted and celebrated the wins of historic preservation without trivializing its work or expanding its scope in bad faith?
What we shifted the primary focus of our cities towards climate preservation and acknowledged that we must change everything in order to save something?
Can we imagine a present in which we protect our future as much as our past? What would that look like?