Tuesday, December 15, 2009

"Historic" Photos

I was going through some loose photos when I came across a handful of old photos ("old" as in mid- to late-1990s or early '00s), probably all taken as I tried to finish up a roll of film before dropping it off for developing. Nothing of any quality, unfortunately, but I'm posting them as both a glimpse back at those not-so-distant days, as well as a reminder to myself and encouragement to others to go out there and photograph not just the people, but also the places, that make up your lives. I wish I had taken more pictures, and had spent a bit more time thinking about the images.

I have an actual date on this one: July 1997, taken from the roof of the Calhoun Square parking garage.
I've done the classic "don't" bar across the subject's face here, as I don't have his permission to publish this photo, and he might not like being splashed across the internet sporting both a Hypercolor shirt and a Yankees cap.

Same intersection, different year, different season.
So there you have it; a sampling of some "historic" photos from relatively recent times. Thank goodness for digital cameras; I have a nice new one now, complete with vast amounts of memory, so I can wander the neighborhood taking hundreds of images so that in ten or twenty years I won't be limited to looking at a handful of random filler photo from the late 2000s.

Monday, December 14, 2009

How to Give a Servantless Dinner

December is a busy time for many of us, and I'm guessing that at least some of you will be doing some entertaining over the next several weeks. I think it's also a safe bet that most of Uptown residents don't have servants. If that describes you, you might enjoy some tips from the former Uptown-based Buzza Company, the one-time second largest greeting card company in the United States. With that in mind, here are their top eight tips for a smooth do-it-yourself dinner party:

  1. Do not attempt to serve more than eight persons until you are sure you can do it successfully.

  2. Invite guests who are congenial.

  3. Avoid serving things that are too elaborate and fussy.

  4. Eliminate the necessity of passing things to your guests -- if they are good sports they will enjoy the informality and want to be of assistance.

  5. Have everything piping hot that is supposed to be hot. The same applies to cold dishes.

  6. Iced drinking water, rolls, and butter should be conveniently near at hand.

  7. Never attempt more than three courses, the salad to be served with the dinner.

  8. Table should be faultlessly set, according to directions for the informal dinner. Decorations very simple.

Sounds easy, right? Time to move on to the big decision: what to serve for dinner. Never fear, the party planners at Buzza have advice for that, too. Their suggested menu:

  • Cream of minced clam soup, garnished with wafers, celery, olives, and radishes

  • Crown roast of lamb

  • Peas, sweet potatoes en casserole, pickles, relish, jelly, rolls

  • Asparagus tip salad, mayonnaise

  • Chocolate ice-box pudding, whipped cream

  • Coffee, salted nuts, candy

Worried? Don't be: "There is no reason in the world why the independent women of today [1927]," reassures the author, "young brides and housekeepers (provided they know anything at all about cooking), should hire some Martha-by-the-day to do what they themselves can do with such a degree of satisfaction -- (and incidentally save five dollars or more) !

Just don't forget the place cards.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Green Metropolis, Part II (Chapters 2 and 3)

Chapter two of Green Metropolis ("Liquid Civilization") isn't as directly relevant to Uptown as most of the other chapters, but there's still some good topics for discussion. In short, Owen argues that oil is a, if not the, primary environmental issue today. Even those issues not directly caused by oil are created, or at least enabled, by the existence of oil and its use in modern technology and the ways in which it has shaped the modern world. "Driving is driving," writes Owen, and he argues that if society is really going to tackle the tough environmental problems it's going to take a lot more than just switching over to hybrid cars. More fuel-efficient cars (or use of alternative energy sources) are part of the solution, but an auto-centric society leads to increased sprawl, as well as less incentive for public transportation or communities compact enough for easy walking or biking.

It was in this chapter that I once again started thinking about HOURCAR's role in Uptown. I think HOURCAR is a great program; car sharing does help more people live without a car, yet still have easy and affordable access to one when they do need it. I think that makes both economic and environmental sense. Still, HOURCAR has at times seemed to be too focused on the use of hybrids at the expense of seeing the big picture (although that does seem to have shifted a bit). As recently as May 2009, for example, HOURCAR was saying that they were not going to purchase a pickup truck because hybrid trucks were too expensive. I can understand why they might choose to focus their money elsewhere, but at the same time the most important thing is not that the cars themselves are hybrid (although that's certainly a bonus), but that these cars help more people live without a car. They're obviously still driving, but are probably doing far, far less of if than they would if they had a car of their own. There's a blend to be struck between quality and quantity, and I think at this point the priority of car share organizations should be to blanket the city with these cars. If more cars means going with a non-hybrid then so be it. (In defense of HOURCAR, I should note that their current fleet of cars has expanded, and now includes a wider range of options than in the past. They seem to be trying to find that balance, and given their recent expansion it seems to be somewhat successful.)

Moving on to chapter three, "There and Back," there's a lot good stuff that fits in well with discussions about the greater Uptown area. Some of the chapter focuses on more suburban-style zoning, new sprawl, and long commutes, but Owen also makes some arguments that are more immediately relevant to the city and neighborhood. Some interesting bits from this chapter that caught my eye:
  • There can be contradictions in what a neighborhood or city says it wants and what the actual regulations allow. This is obvious, of course, but among other things Owen asks why "restrictive" regulations are often considered protective, when in fact they often restrict the very features they're intended to protect. This seems to be at the core of many, many discussions about Uptown and any future development. Locals want an urban neighborhood filled with lots of local businesses and services, walkable, great public transportation, safe, and all the rest, yet frequently turn around and in the next breath talk about concerns about too much traffic and a dislike of density, among other topics. To support all those local independent businesses, for example, we either need to have a big enough local resident customer base (which translates into a need for increased density), or we have to bring in a lot of customers from elsewhere, and realistically they're not all going to arrive by bus, bike, or foot. There are ways to balance these various issues, but that means going beyond simply focusing on vague terms like "character" or "green" and instead defining what exactly it is that we want, and what we're willing to compromise or change in order to get it. Recent discussions about some local zoning changes (like the upzoning along the Greenway and along Hennepin and Lyndale) highlight some of these issues.
  • Difficult parking and bad traffic can be a good thing. Tough to find or expensive parking or frustrating traffic jams are a strong incentive to choose alternative methods of commuting. In New York City, Owen writes, reducing congestion "would be a loss for the environment, not a gain." In Uptown, things get a bit more complicated. Uptowners can't hop on a subway (or LRT line) and skip the traffic jams; we sit in buses that get stuck in that same traffic. Traffic congestion might increase the appeal of walking or biking, but it doesn't necessarily help with the bus. On the other hand, I'd rather be sitting on a bus and reading (assuming I can get a seat) than behind a wheel, but that's not the case for many people. So, while bad traffic might increase the incentives for people to choose to live closer to their work, or to stop commuting to Minneapolis from Lakeville, I don't think it has a great impact on Uptown specifically. The parking situation, however, could be a different story. I have no problems with Uptown having increasingly tight parking in the residential neighborhoods. I think the commercial areas need to have appropriate parking available (although not free), but as far as residential parking goes, locals can either rent or buy a place with a garage, deal with street parking, rent a garage space from someone else, or go without a car. Increasingly inconvenient parking coupled with increases in availability of options such as HOURCAR, as well as improved public transportation, could provide the incentive for more local residents to either live without a car, cut down numbers of cars within a family, or otherwise reduce the numbers of trips taken by car. That would be good for both the neighborhood and for the environment.
  • "Public transit itself can be bad for the environment if it facilitates rather than discourages sprawl." This isn't Uptown-specific, but I think it's worth discussing. The Southwest LRT line does exactly that; it bypasses dense urban areas and encourages yet more development in places like Eden Prairie. Another Owen quote: commuter lines (which is what the proposed SW line will essentially be) enables sprawl at the end of the line and does "almost nothing to reduce car use in the central city." LRT might not be coming to Uptown, but I hope we can actually see some movement towards getting real transportation solutions in the city itself. It's also not as if there isn't room for significant transit ridership increases in Uptown and Lyn-Lake; despite the plentiful existing public transportation options the majority of residents are still making most of their trips by car. There is a lot of room for improvement.
  • Free-flowing traffic should not be considered a public entitlement. I like this one. Unfortunately, Uptown once again runs up against the bus problem: slow traffic means buses sit in traffic, too, so slow traffic in the city isn't doing much to encourage switching to other forms of transportation. Still, I think it's an interesting point. Keeping traffic moving should be a consideration when it comes to urban planning, but putting it first and foremost in development concerns (which seems to often be the case) is putting the needs of cars before the needs of people. It would be ironic if it became faster for someone from a more suburban (and less walkable) neighborhood or city along the Southwest Corridor or the Northstar Line and commute into downtown than for someone to live in Uptown and commute downtown. And that brings me to my final thought: commuting to and from work is not everything. Reducing commuting trips by car is important, and does have environmental benefits, but it's only one (relatively small) part of the larger environmental puzzle.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Green Metropolis, Part I

David Owen’s Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability, suggests that the best American model for urban environmentalism is New York City. “Green” living, argues Owen, is not best served by open space, solar panels, or hybrid cars, but is instead achieved through dense urban living. It’s an interesting concept, and one that I, for the most part, agree with. The book is worth reading in its entirety, but in the interest of being able to pick out specific topics to highlight for discussion I’ll post individual entries about each chapter (starting now, with chapter one). While some of the issues are more relevant when discussing larger city or regional planning, much of Owen’s ideas are directly relevant to debates over Uptown and its future. Many Uptowners like to consider themselves environmentalists, and as such, should give Green Metropolis and its argument careful consideration.

Owen’s argument can be summed up as follows:

Live Smaller. Americans live large. Big houses and their trappings are wasteful. New Yorkers live in smaller homes, and use a lot less energy than the average American.

Live Closer. New Yorkers often live close to where they live, work, shop, and play; Americans in general need to embrace this if we are going to make significant positive progress on environmental issues. High density mixed-use buildings and neighborhoods can and should be discussed as an environmentally-friendly housing and planning option.

Drive Less. “Miles matter than miles per gallon.” Owen spends a lot of time on this point. Driving is driving, and from an environmental standpoint focusing on fuel efficiency or form of power isn’t addressing the other major environmental problems contributed to or created by cars, including the many issues relating to sprawl.

In short, high-density urban living is ideal from an environmental standpoint. More people living in dense urban neighborhoods means less sprawl and an overall reduced environmental footprint. It means less driving. Environmentalists need to stop considering getting “back” to nature as the environmental ideal, and start looking at cities as the model for a truly green future.

So how does Uptown fit into all of this? While I don’t doubt the environmental good intentions of some of my fellow Uptown supporters, anyone who has followed local neighborhood issues knows that there’s a great deal of lip service paid to “green” issues like open space, trees, native grasses, organics recycling, and parks. I certainly approve of some of these issues, but I agree with Owen that they cloud the bigger environmental issue. Given the vocal nature of some of the anti-density but self-proclaimed eco-minded crowd, such as former City Planning Commissioner Lara Norkus-Crampton, it’s time that we start to discuss issues like density as an environmental framework. Green living is not just about seeing eagles on the lake or looking at the sky. Adding density doesn’t have to give up livability or “character” or look like Manhattan.

I do appreciate Uptown’s character, meaning its blend of uses, its historic architecture (commercial, industrial, residential, and civic), and its tree-lined streets (less so following years of Dutch Elm disease, unfortunately). I don’t want to see the area’s homes all destroyed and replaced by high-rise apartments. But, despite the “sky is falling” opponents who would suggest otherwise, high density (and yes, high buildings) can and should be integrated into the greater Uptown area. The feeling of the neighborhood may change in parts, but it’s unrealistic to think that Uptown’s “character” will always remain the same. The area has changed dramatically over the years, and despite even the most stringent zoning and area plans will continue to do so, like it or not. We might as well embrace change, encourage it in appropriate areas, and allow Uptown to become, if demand allows, a truly urban neighborhood. While I believe increased density to lead to more livable communities, it’s also the environmentally-correct thing to do. How can we in good conscience call ourselves environmentalists yet not advocate for increased density in Uptown and in the city?

Or, to put it bluntly, why can’t more people (ahem, certain local board members and former planning commissioners) understand that density, including mid-rise buildings on busy streets, has positive environmental implications? (or, conversely, that lack of density can have a negative impact?)

I, for one, find Green Metropolis to be energizing. I’m going to do my part to take back the urban environmental message. “Green” should not just mean support of parks, bike trails, solar panels, composting, or other such endeavors (however worthy); it should also mean something substantial. If someone wants to wear the mantle of “environmentalist” yet oppose projects such as the proposed Mozaic (the controversial proposed mixed-use building behind the Lagoon Theater), for example, then they need to be able to fully explain their reasoning. Everything has its positives and negatives and not all neighborhood goals are compatible, but it’s our responsibility to at least be aware of the implications of our decisions.

What do you think? Can Uptown handle more density? Should Uptown become more dense? Where does increasing urban density fall in Uptown’s list of priorities, environmental or others?
David Owen. Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability. New York: Riverhead Books, 2009.
Up next: Chapter Two, "Liquid Civilization," or "Driving is Driving."

Friday, December 4, 2009

Coming Soon: Green Metropolis Virtual Book Club Posts

I've been missing in action lately, but am now fully caught up from "real world" issues, and eager to get back to discussing life in the greater Uptown area. For those of you who are reading along with the Uptown Urban Studies Virtual Book Club, I'll be posting something on David Owen's Green Metropolis in the very near future. He has a lot of interesting points that are very relevant to Uptown/Lyn-Lake/Minneapolis, so there should be lots of good issues to ponder.

I was unable to check my email for a few weeks, so I apologize to anyone who has emailed me and has not yet received a response. I'm catching up on all of that, too.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Chains in Uptown?

Penzeys Spices: A chain, yes, but not exactly a Walmart, either. What is the role of chains in Uptown? Are there "good" and "bad" chains?

A lot of locals (both those who live in Uptown, as well as those who like to visit) like to bash Uptown for its "corporate culture" and "suburban" design. Yeah, I know, I complain about chains plenty myself. Still, I think we could all use a little more time spent in thoughtful debate about the role of chains in Uptown (and Lyn-Lake).

Here's a representative comment from the anti-chain crowd, or what I think of as the "I hate suburbanites" subsection of anti-chain people, written by "Lisa" on the City Pages' blog posting about the Uptown Bar's closure:

"This is the further suburbanization of Uptown, bringing in suburban-style chain retail designed for suburbanites. Destined to fail, as most have: Gap, Limited, Garden of Eden, TCBY, etc. Maybe the city planners should think about THAT. People who live in the city do not want to patronize suburban-style chain retail. If there is no character or history left in the city, forget it.

This is also a consequence of all these big, stupid festivals taking place at Henn/Lake, like that Loppet, that bike race, etc., designed to bring the greater Twin Cities into town with their generic mentality. You get that going in the neighborhood, then it is marketed to these chain retailers as a place to capture that business. This is NOT progress."

This is a pretty typical rant. They tend to incorporate the same basic themes: "Uptown is suburban. All the cool people left. It's just a big mall. People from outside of city limits are inherently bland or have no taste." I don't want to patronize suburban-style chain retail, either. But a lot of this is rather uninformed, pointless, and doesn't move us forward to what we DO want, or how to go about getting it.
Lisa throws out a list of "chains" she doesn't like, so let's start with that. First, I'm pretty sure Garden of Eden isn't/wasn't a chain. My memory is a little fuzzy, but I'm pretty sure it's the same store that is now located on Grand in St. Paul; if that's true, then they are Twin Cities-based, currently have only one location, and proudly sport the 3/50 project's logo on their website), and given that it lasted so long in its location I wouldn't say it's a failure, either. I don't bring this up to argue the specifics with someone who probably will never read this post, but rather to question why one would list Garden of Eden as suburban-style chain retail. Is it because bath products and lotions are seen somehow as suburban? Do city-dwellers not take baths? Granted, I never could afford to buy much of any substance at Garden of Eden, but they filled a niche, and I think they were a nice addition to the neighborhood. Fancy oils and lotions aren't exactly a necessity in life, but there's nothing about them or the store that is inherently "suburban" or "generic" in style or function. My translation of this is to mean that it's not hip enough, perhaps because Garden of Eden lacked irony.

Let's go on to the rest of the list: Gap, Limited, and TCBY. Was there ever a Limited? I don't think so, although my memory may be failing. I assume she means the Express (part of Limited Brands, so she's not so far off). I never loved having an Express there, but did appreciate the opportunity to buy some basic women's clothing in Uptown. The store itself opened out both the street and into Calhoun Square, which isn't exactly traditional mall-style, either. And finally, the company as a whole has had problems, so I don't know if Express's ups and downs in Uptown reflect at all on the neighborhood, either. In sum, I didn't love Express, but do think that variety in clothing options in Uptown (in both style and cost) are a good thing. I would agree that I would prefer to have those options be independently-owned. Gap... well, the Uptown store was its first non-mall store in Minnesota, and it did last for much of a decade. I can't say that I love the Gap, but I prefer it to the Victoria's Secret. On the other hand, I think it's better to have a chain than a vacant storefront. I can think of many ways I'd rather see in that prime corner location, though. Finally, TCBY. Yes, I think of this as being a mall-store, but thought that it was a good use of its corner location. I doubt it went out because neighborhood residents avoided it because it was "suburban" in nature.

Again, I'm not picking on Lisa in particular, but rather attempting to figure out what people think of as acceptable versus non-acceptable chain stores in Uptown. Why does she list these stores, and not others? There are, after all, chains in Uptown that I think a lot of people don't even realize are chains; Paper-Source and Penzeys Spices come to mind as prime examples. I prefer my stores to be locally-owned and operated, but as far as chains go I think both are a far cry from "suburban-style chain retail," and demonstrate that chain stores can adapt to fit their surroundings.

The other thing that the anti-suburban crowd (as in: anti-suburban residents) forgets is that local people are also often frequenting the chain stores, the bland bars, and the other places that get so often derided for being geared only to those dreaded interlopers from Eden Prairie. One of the issues that Uptown faces is that it IS both a regional and a neighborhood destination. Overall, I think that's a good thing. Uptown's residents aren't enough to support the number of stores, restaurants, and other businesses that most of us want in the neighborhood. Maybe that could change if Uptown's density were to increase, and if more of us were to actively concentrate on keeping our spending in the neighborhood, but for now, if we want diversity and quantity then we've got to encourage visitors from across the metro area. That does NOT mean that we need to embrace chains or "suburban-style chain retail." In an ideal world, Uptown would be able to serve both residents and visitors with its innovative mix of local businesses and let the chains go elsewhere.

I try to avoid chains, I don't like shopping at malls (although find them oddly fascinating in their way), and I prefer my neighborhoods unique and mostly chain-free, but I also disagree with the anti-suburban advocates as to their characterization of suburban residents. There's often a smugness, an air of superiority, a feeling that "I'm better than you because I live in Minneapolis and you live in Eagan." I hate Eden Prairie, and think it would be an absolutely terrible place to live. I also think that many suburban lifestyles ARE damaging, unsustainable from an environmental viewpoint, and destructive to the fabric of society. I think city living IS better. That doesn't mean that the residents of those suburbs deserve to be bashed, though, or even if they actively prefer to live in a modern subdivision in exurbia that doesn't mean that they can't enjoy a visit to Uptown, too. On that note, take a look at the number of Uptown residents who think nothing of a trip out to Southdale and the Mall of America, or the city residents who live lives virtually indistinguishable from those living outside of city limits. It's not so simple as city residents are unique and individual, while suburban residents are "generic." Kind of ironic, given that I'm guessing many of the same people who profess horror when someone from the 'burbs drives in to get dinner at Figlio are the same people who tout diversity as one of the reasons to live in the city. That doesn't mean we have to make Uptown mall-like in function or appearance, of course, or accommodate every visitor's wishes and desires (including on things like parking), but it does mean that we as a collective whole need to stop complaining if people from outside of city or neighborhoods limits drive (or, ideally, bus) in to do some shopping.

In the end, I would prefer that Uptown have few or no national chains, but realize that that's probably unlikely to happen. I don't think all chains are bad for Uptown, and think that there are already existing examples of chains that have made a positive impact on the neighborhood. Paper-Source and Penzeys are both great fits; Urban Outfitters, too, seems to be an overall positive influence on the neighborhood. I'd prefer to see Victoria's Secret leave, or at least see it move indoors to Calhoun Square. I don't think chains (or franchises) automatically translate into "suburban" style development, and in some cases they are filling a niche that has otherwise been left empty. I like to be able to shop in the neighborhood, and if a chain is the only locally-located business filling a need then I will probably go there to do my shopping. When I have a choice, though, I will always make the attempt to go with the local option first, and believe that we do need to take a greater active role in helping support new and existing independent businesses.

And finally, I think there are good and bad chain stores. Some fit in well and are good neighbors; others, not so much. Admittedly the same could be said of independent stores, although with less financial resources than the big places they have limited power to create as much havoc. Ultimately, though, those people who complain about chains need to actually do something to support the alternatives. I'm trying to be good about this; whenever possible I'll spend the extra couple of bucks to buy local, and if I can't afford the extra then I'll try to hold off on the purchase until I can. That doesn't work for everything (there are definitely some gaps we need to fill...) but after reading Big-Box Swindle I do find myself increasingly thinking about every purchase I make.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Big-Box Swindle - Part I

Happy Halloween! How appropriate that this is also the day of the first post in the official Uptown Urban Studies Virtual Book Club. Because in many ways, Big-Box Swindles: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America's Independent Businesses is a scary read. Forget about ghosts and goblins and devils: my vote for scariest Halloween costume would be someone in a Walmart costume (come to think of it, that would be a really easy costume to make....). While much of the book focuses on suburban sprawl and the impact of big-box retail on smaller communities, there's a great deal of content that is relevant to Uptown and surrounding neighborhoods. We can work out the kinks of organizing this sort of discussion as we move forward, but for now my plan is to throw out some initial thoughts based on (or simply inspired by) the book, invite your comments, and in the next week follow up with some more in-depth postings on some of the specific topics.
  • What should the role of chain stores be in Uptown (and Lyn-Lake, or in other surrounding neighborhoods)? Are some chain stores better than others? Are they appropriate in some areas but not in others?
  • What is the thought on big-box development? One negative of Big-Box Swindle was the author's tendency to equate "chains" with "big-box stores," although that's not always the case. What if the big-box store is not a chain? How about Target? It's local; do we want a Target (even if an urban model without the sprawling parking lot) in Uptown?
  • How does Calhoun Square fit into this discussion? Is it part of "Main Street," or is it a mall? Does it matter?
  • How can we, whether at the city, neighborhood, or individual level, support independent businesses? In the grand scheme of Uptown (and Uptown area) priorities, where does this fall as a priority?
  • What current regulations are in place to support independent businesses in Minneapolis? Are there any ordinances on the books that restrict chains ("formula businesses"), and, if not, should there be?
  • How do we bring affordable commercial real estate to the Uptown area?
  • Is there room for a community-owned store in the neighborhood? What about a business incubator space?
  • What sorts of stores or businesses is the Uptown area currently lacking? What gaps do we want filled?

I'm going to come back to this list over the next several days and will write up my own thoughts on specific topics in more depth, as well as try to gather some relevant links and resources. In the meantime, what struck you as worthy of discussion while reading Big-Box Swindle?

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Kids and the City, Part II (Or, Could Family-Oriented Apartments/Condos Work in Uptown and Lyn-Lake?)

I recently wrote about how frustrating it can be to have larger society try to peg me and my fellow parents into very specific neighborhoods or living situations due to the simple fact that we have kids. Kids live in the city, families choose to live in the city, and city living with kids is perfectly normal.

All of that got me thinking. I know there's not a lot of new housing development going on right now, so some of this is currently a moot point, but how come all the new upscale condo and apartment developments in Uptown and Lyn-Lake are oriented to young single people or empty nesters? Why NOT families? The current developments don't exactly scream "family friendly." I've been busy dreaming up my vision of an ideal family-friendly building, ideally situated somewhere along the Greenway, and while I know reality gets in the way (developers need to want to build it, bankers need to be willing to finance it, and people need to be willing to rent or buy the units), I think there's some potential.

The Premise: Not all families want to live in single family houses. Many do, of course, but others either prefer not to for the same reasons as other condo-dwellers: no need to shovel, someone else handles the maintenance, perhaps shared amenities otherwise available, etc. Others would prefer the single family house, but will give it up in exchange for enough other benefits.

New Construction. I prefer older homes with a sense of history (and hate, hate, hate stainless steel appliances, granite countertops, open floorplans, and double sinks in bathrooms), but obviously a lot of people out there like new construction and modern architecture. They also like living in Uptown and Lyn-Lake. Rather than facing the option of moving to a new neighborhood, or, worse, buying a historic home and gutting it, why not give them what they want? Many of those younger, single, hip condo dwellers are going to have kids one day; it's not like their tastes are going to suddenly change overnight. Their needs might change, however, and that's where modern family-friendly condo options could really fit the bill.

Location: Uptown and Lyn-Lake are both ideal locations for kids. There are plenty of parks, there's the lakes, the Walker Library, multiple schools (at least at the elementary level), excellent restaurants and cafes, the Greenway, and growing numbers of other kids. Sure, there are some gaps to be filled (a toy store would be nice...) but overall it's a very family-friendly kind of place. Putting a family-oriented condo or apartment building somewhere along the Greenway, for example, would be a great location. The kids could learn to bike on the Greenway, the whole family could stroll down to the library or to the lake, and it would be just a quick bike or bus ride (or drive) to places like MIA or the Walker.

I prefer an older place, but if the location and amenities were right I'd give the right modern family building serious consideration. My dream multiple-family building would look something like this:

  • Play space. This is the BIG one. I like the idea of owning a house or duplex because there's room in the basement for kids to run around in the winter. We don't need huge amounts of living space, but given that my son gets crazy when cooped up inside for too many hours we need somewhere besides the living room to burn off some energy. An outdoor and an indoor space set aside for kids would be a MAJOR perk. It doesn't need to be anything fancy: a small outdoor playground with benches and maybe some picnic tables gives the kids somewhere to play and the parents somewhere to congregate, while an indoor space, even just a gym-like room with room to run around and maybe ride a push toy or bounce a ball would give both adults and kids a place (other than the main living quarters) to let off steam in cold or wet weather. There's a practical element to this that goes beyond simply playing, though. It's tough to informally meet fellow parents these days; a common playground (to supplement, not replace, local parks) builds community within the building, and gives kids a place to hang out with their young neighbors, while giving adults a chance to meet other adults, both those with and without kids.
  • Mixed use in the building. I like a building that incorporates a blend of uses. The best, most Jane Jacobs-esque building I've ever lived in was in Washington, DC. It was directly across the street from the National Zoo, and the street facade included a convenience store, liquor store, coffee place, salon, dentist, bar and grill, and pharmacy. Inside the building itself were mixed apartments with therapists, at least one nurse-practitioner, and assorted other small office uses. We didn't have a kid at the time, but I look back and think how perfect it would have been. There was even a small internal courtyard with a fountain. Imagine how convenient it would be to have, say, a pediatrician in the building, maybe a pharmacy, a store that sells basics like milk, a daycare or preschool, or any other number of places that would be useful to busy families.
  • Well-designed units useful for families. In other words, include enough three, or even four, bedroom apartments. I know kids can share a room, but in Minneapolis at this time it's unlikely to think that most families with money would choose to squash into a smaller unit if they can buy a house with three bedrooms for the same, or less, cost. The places don't need to be huge, especially if there's other play or storage space in the building, but enough buildings plus a good design could make apartment living an attractive family option.
  • Stroller storage. I haven't lived anywhere with this option, but wouldn't it be nice to walk in the front door and have a (nicely integrated) storage space in the common entry? It doesn't need to be huge, just large enough to stash a stroller and hang the coats. Those without strollers can use the space to store boots, coats, bulky sports equipment, or whatever else they don't want to stash in their apartment.
  • Garden space. While I don't think city living absolutely has to incorporate green space, a little bit of greenery makes city living more enjoyable for many of us. A small communal garden (for those who wish to participate) would build community, give an opportunity to grow some fresh produce, and give both adults and kids a connection to the outdoors.
  • Laundry. In-unit hookups are probably a necessity. Families go through a lot of dirty clothes; having a washer and drier in the unit is a luxury most families with options won't be willing to go without. Still, laundry rooms often perform a shared community function as building information center; in this case that could be switched to the mail room. And on that topic...
  • Mail room. Yes, there could be row after row of mailboxes right inside the front entry. But it would be much nicer to have an official mail room dedicated to the boxes; it would also hold a large bulletin board where residents could post notices and requests.
  • Pools and other extras. I'm not a big pool person; this wouldn't be a huge draw for me one way or the other. Still, amenities like a pool or a game room might be attractive to both those with and without kids, and could be a nice addition.
  • Condo versus apartment. I think something like this should probably be a condo building. Families in Minneapolis tend to want to buy, not rent. People could, of course, rent the condos from the individual owners.

What am I missing? Would you live in a building like this? If the right building in the right place at the right place came along I'd give it serious consideration, even if it wasn't my preferred historic architecture. Families successfully live in high-rise (or mid-rise) apartment complexes around the world (I've been browsing the Singapore listings lately); is there any reason this can't be done in Minneapolis?

[reminder: Uptown Virtual Book Club coming soon! First up: Big Box Swindle.]

Friday, October 9, 2009

Uptown Urban Studies Virtual Book Club

Okay, the title "Uptown Urban Studies Virtual Book Club" sounds more impressive than the idea behind the name. I try to keep up with interesting books that seem relevant to issues relating to building a better community, identifying the neighborhood's strengths and weaknesses, and contemplating both Uptown's (and surrounding neighborhoods) past and future. I know there's a lot of others out there who read those same books, too. The plan so far is that I'll announce a couple of weeks ahead of time what book I'll be posting about next, and then anyone who wants to can read along and join in the discussion.

My list of potential books includes those I already own or have read, as well as some I've seen that look interesting. Some possible titles (in no particular order) include:

First up will be Big-Box Swindle, followed by Green Metropolis.

Any and all suggestions for additional books are welcome!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Kids Live in Urban Neighborhoods, Too

Yes, that's a kid. Children are, have been, and will continue to be, a part of life in Ward 10.

I was reading an article about Lyn-Lake ("Lyn-Lake? The New Uptown?" Not exactly breaking news, but that's another post...) and got sidetracked by a brief comment made about the area's demographics. "[Residents] tend to be highly educated, disposable income, no kids, young people," said Andrea Christenson of Colliers Turley Martin Tucker. Well, sort of. Lyn-Lake does have a lot of young people, not as many kids as in many parts of the city, and as far as disposable income, well, that's a bit more debatable, but it's safe to say that the residents in the newer, more expensive developments probably do have a fair amount of disposable income. I'm not going to argue demographics here, and I'm not taking issue with the article itself or any of the people quoted in it. What I do want to discuss is the ongoing assumption held by so many people in Minneapolis that parents are expected to live a certain lifestyle. And, to many people, that lifestyle does not seem to fit with Uptown or Lyn-Lake.

Families are supposed to live in neighborhoods like Armatage. This view holds that new or expecting parents are supposed to buy a "starter" (oh, how I hate that term) home in a neighborhood like Kenny or Armatage, or, if they can afford it, somewhere like Linden Hills. While they're at it they might as well buy themselves a minivan, because real parents don't drive beat up old smaller cars, let alone ride the bus. They can buy a bike with a baby seat or one of those trailers for socially-acceptable family bike rides around Lake Harriet.

Parents don't go to bars or restaurants. According to the Lyn-Lake Small Area Plan's Market Study, "this general area of Minneapolis, including Uptown and Lyn-Lake, has long been popular among a younger generation due to its range of restaurants and bars, and proximity to downtown employment." (p.20-21) I'm sure that's true. That's part of the reason I like Uptown and Lyn-Lake. And, to be fair, I still count in the study's "younger generation," since I am under 35. Again, not quibbling with the idea that bars and restaurants appeal to young people (they appeal to all people), but in general there is an assumption that families don't want to live in bustling city neighborhoods with bars on the corners. Admittedly I have less time or money to visit restaurants or bars, but that doesn't mean I don't want them nearby. As most parents can attest, delivery or take-out is a fabulous thing.

Families only want to live in single family homes. This is probably true for many families. But, despite the assumption otherwise, not all kids grow up in freestanding, single family homes. There's nothing wrong with apartment living for families, and maybe in Uptown and Lyn-Lake we should be encouraging that option for those families that want to live in the neighborhood but can't afford to buy a house. I'm not immune to the appeal of home ownership; we're hoping to buy a place (ideally a duplex or maybe a triplex), too, but I'd take longterm renting in Uptown or Lyn-Lake any day over a house in Armatage. It's just not for me. Kids can and do live in more urban neighborhoods, so let's stop assuming that everyone wants to move to quiet, pleasant, but boring neighborhoods (or worse, move out to the 'burbs).

Families don't need to have 2,000 square feet of living space. I admit it; if I could afford one of the grand old homes in the neighborhood I'd be happy to live there. They are big and beautiful and filled with history and original woodwork. I don't mind having space to spread out. I doubt we'll be able to afford one of those houses, though, and I have no problem with living with a smaller floor plan.

I like city living. I don't want to have to drive places. I want to be able to walk to the grocery store, the library, retail stores, the doctor, parks, and other destinations. When I can't walk I want to be able to take the bus (or, ideally, light rail!). I want safe streets, but don't mind a little noise at night, and don't care about traffic. I want my son to grow up enjoying urban life, and when he's older, being able to easily walk, bike, or take the bus places on his own, too. Both Uptown and Lyn-Lake are great places to raise kids, and instead of reading article after article making it sound like everyone in the neighborhood is 25, rolling in money, and spending every waking minute at the bars I wish we could start fully embracing the various neighborhoods of Ward 10 as places where people of ALL ages can find a home. Even if that home involves shared walls or no car, let alone minivan.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Does Gail Dorfman Ever Even RIDE a Bus?

It’s been another depressing day as I think about the Twin Cities’ overall attitude towards the role of public transportation in life. Specifically, I’ve been reading Gail Dorfman’s letter to those who support the 3C LRT alignment. While I support 3C, I can understand that there are valid reasons to support 3A, mostly that it may come down to a choice between 3A or nothing due to the current flawed federal funding formula. While that’s frustrating, it’s not nearly as frustrating or depressing as the arguments of people like Dorfman. A quote from the letter:

“Many people are curious as to why ridership in Uptown isn’t significantly higher than on the Kenilworth alignment. The answer lies in the excellent transit service that Uptown already enjoys. Adding LRT to Uptown does not draw a large number of new riders to the transit system, and while it may move some riders off of buses, that reduces the overall efficiency of the transit system.”

How does this make any sense? Let me take it point by point:

Uptown already enjoys excellent transit services. True, to a point. Uptown does have good bus connections, and it is relatively easy to live in Uptown without a car. At the same time, these bus routes are often slow. ConnectUptown has crunched the numbers: 22 minutes from the Uptown Transit Center to downtown (4th Street), 24 minutes from Lyn-Lake. The Uptown alignment would reduce that to nine minutes and eight minutes respectively. That sounds like a pretty major improvement in service to me. Besides, if we were going to go purely by this argument we could say that riders in Eden Prairie already have express bus service to downtown Minneapolis; why bother putting in light rail since it duplicates service?

“Adding LRT to Uptown does not draw a large number of new riders to the transit system.” Where does this idea come from? Is it based on bogus federal reports? Common sense suggests that this simply isn’t true. Despite the fact that Uptown does have plentiful bus options, the vast majority of Uptown residents do not, in fact, take public transportation on a regular basis, or at least not to work. Many do, of course, but census data has shown that as an overall percentage of the population there’s still a lot of room for growth. Not all residents work downtown, in Eden Prairie, or at points along the route, of course, but there’s still likely a sizable portion of untapped new riders that aren’t being factored into the equation. These are the same types of people that are expected to be attracted to light rail out in the suburbs: people who currently drive, don’t like buses, but could be convinced to take a train. If they count out in the ‘burbs then they should count here in the city.

Moving riders off buses reduces the overall efficiency of the transit system. I don’t really know where to start with this one. What? What does that mean? Isn’t the point of an efficient transportation system to get people quickly and easily from point A to point B? If a lot of people along the 3C route want to quickly and easily get downtown (or to Eden Prairie, or to Hopkins, or to St. Louis Park, or anywhere else along the way) then isn’t this route helping them to do just that? Or does this imply that there will be so much demand from existing transit users (who apparently don’t matter) that they’ll crowd the trains and make the LRT ridership numbers a little too high?

I’ve seen others (including Dorfman) argue that Uptown residents won’t walk a few extra blocks to get to the LRT station if they can just hop on a bus instead. Again, I’d like to know where they get this information. Bogus federal guidelines shouldn't count. Are there local market studies out there that suggest this? This in no way matches up to my experiences living in other cities, cities with active light rail and subway lines. In DC we lived on Connecticut Avenue a couple of miles from downtown. A bus stopped right in front of our door; while I did take the bus sometimes, I almost always preferred to walk the extra four blocks or so to the metro station. The bus was convenient, but, like in Minneapolis, it sat in traffic. Snow, traffic, motorcades; the same issues that plague Uptown (well, not the motorcades) led to frustratingly slow bus rides. Far better to just walk to the station, hop on a train, and zip along underground until I got to my stop. It worked the same way in Los Angeles. I rode the bus a lot, but the train (light rail in this case) was faster, didn’t get stuck in traffic, and was often worth the extra walk (and I wasn't the only one who felt that way). I certainly plan to ride LRT in Uptown if 3C does somehow get built, even if it means a few more blocks of walking. From the perspective of a parent, too, it’s far, far easier to bring a stroller onto a light rail car then onto a bus. Uptown parents (or parents elsewhere who want to easily visit Uptown with your kids): take it from me, 3C will make your lives easier.

Light rail does not have to be for commuters only. This focus on city versus suburbs overlooks the fact that there is a great deal of movement between city and suburbs, and that Uptown is a part of a regional network. This is not just about getting Uptown residents to and from downtown quickly, although that’s worth consideration, too, given the density of the neighborhoods in the 3C corridor.

I can understand why some people support 3A, although I don’t agree with that choice. That’s not what angers me here. What is so depressing is to have politicians like Dorfman throwing out all sorts of arguments that make little or no sense, and perpetuate the myth a viewpoint that light rail lines are only for commuting. When I read some of the rationale thrown out by Dorfman I’ve got to wonder: does she ride the bus? How often does she ride the bus in Uptown? Does she take public transit in other cities? Because quite honestly, the impression I’m getting from a lot of these people is that they could use a little more time in the real public transit world. If they’re going to continue to advocate for 3A then please, please stick to the rational arguments, and stop arguing that the low Uptown ridership numbers reflect any kind of reality.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

I Love Alleys

I love alleys, and always have. I've been trying to analyze why, and think it has something to do with the blend of their private nature and utilitarian function. Wandering through a neighborhood's alleys show a glimpse of another world, one completely different from the facade out front. Garages themselves can be interesting, ranging from the architecturally intriguing to the hideously ugly, from the old and decrepit to the updated and modern, as well as all points in between. Nature, too, can be found back there; squirrels, birds, cats, sometimes rabbits or raccoons, not to mention the ever-present lilac bushes and other greenery bravely hugging the property lines and filling the gaps between garages. You can get a peek at people's backyards, some fabulous retreats still visible to the alley, others blocked off by tall fences, and still others unfortunately paved over into unpleasant surface parking lots.

Not all of Uptown's blocks have alleys, but many of them do. I've spent a lot of time in them over the years; walking dogs, pushing strollers, and visiting garage sales. The photos below are not meant to be the best examples of Uptown's alley system, but rather a handful of images that struck my fancy when I went out on a photo-gathering trip earlier in the summer.

Maybe it's because I grew up on a house with an alley view of the Buzza Building (Lehmann Center), but I think those enjoying the view from the alley between Dupont and Colfax should count themselves lucky. I've always appreciated the fact that you can see the beautiful and fascinating historic Buzza Building from blocks away; those who complain about newer tall buildings "blocking the sky" should stop for a moment and realize that the Buzza's tower is pretty tall, yet I've never once heard anyone complain about how it ruins the character of the neighborhood.

One of these days we're hoping to buy a place of our own, and when we do one of the first things we do will be to plan a vegetable garden. In the meantime I'll have to make do with watching the progress of those lucky enough to have sunny space of their own.

Yet another reason I want to buy a home of my own... I really want some backyard chickens. Uptown's chicken population is growing, and these lucky chickens reside in a beautiful red alley-side coop.

This alley (near Bryant Lake Bowl) isn't itself particularly attractive, but I liked how the building is edged with a strip of greenery.

Yet more garden photos; an example of how vegetable gardening doesn't have to be expensive or fancy to be productive and worthwhile.

This garage could use a little work, but I love the architecture. Let's hope it never suffers the fate of an owner who decides to "upgrade" to a massive new structure. I love Uptown's historic garages, especially those with a lot of character.

The garage itself isn't beautiful, but the modern and attractive address numbers add some visual interest. There's no reason the back entrance can't be given the same care and attention as the front of the house, or that garages can't also benefit from a little creativity.

Ever wonder how to best use that small patch of space between two garages? I loved the canoe storage concept.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The More Boba the Better!

Word on the street (well, actually word in the Southwest Journal) is that Uptown will soon be home to another bubble tea place. Bubble Me will be opening at 1404 W. Lake St., next to Stella’s. The Southwest Journal is describing it as a “bubble tea, snack bar, and coffee shop.” Given the name, though, I’m assuming the focus is on the bubble tea (boba) part of the equation.

I love boba. I’d take it over coffee any day, and appreciate the fact that most (all?) of the boba places in the Twin Cities are independent places. It’s kind of a strange love, admittedly, as I don’t have particularly like the taste of the tapioca balls, although I don’t dislike them, either. I like the big straws, the bright colors, the very non-Minnesotan tropical flavors, and the weird sense of accomplishment that comes from sucking one of the balls up through the straw. Boba can be refreshing on a hot summer day yet warming (in the purely imaginative sense) on a cold day in January.

I admit that when boba first showed up in Uptown I didn’t think it would stick around. Is there really enough of a true boba following in Minneapolis (and in Uptown in particular) to keep boba around in the long-term? Now I know it’s been trendy for a long time now; it started in Taiwan in the ‘80s, became very popular in parts of Asia in the ‘90s, then made its way to New York, Los Angeles, and other strongholds of Asian immigrants who knew and loved the stuff. It’s since hit the rest of the US, including, of course, Uptown. Tea Garden opened its first location, at 26th and Hennepin, in spring 2002. It’s still going strong, and has over the years opened multiple locations around the metro area. I welcome more Uptown boba options, and concede that although I thought it was just a trend that wouldn’t last, maybe the boba bubble hasn’t yet burst.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Uptown is Worth the Fight

As some of you may have noticed, I haven’t posted much lately. Some of that is due to practical issues; I’ve been busy with work, done some traveling, and have been entertaining visitors. Some of it, though, is because I’ve been a little depressed about the future of both Uptown and Minneapolis. While I’m sure that both neighborhood and city will continue to be pleasant and desirable places to live, it’s frustrating to feel like I’m on the losing side when it comes to vision for the future. I envision Uptown as a vibrant, bustling, exciting urban neighborhood, a neighborhood where people of different ages and backgrounds live side-by-side, where residents can walk to all the essentials of life, and where a car is unnecessary.

The problem is, lots of people don’t seem to share that vision. Despite the rhetoric, a lot of local activists, mostly the NIMBYs, seem to prefer a quieter neighborhood. Sure, they like local stores and give good lip service to the importance of walkability and public transportation, but their actions send the message loud and clear: no city neighborhoods wanted here. They'd prefer to see Uptown as a slightly larger version of Linden Hills. Uptown has historically been an urban neighborhood, and I want to build on that tradition, to bring back streetlife and vitality and a better mix of people and businesses, rather than trying to remake the neighborhood in the image of a (perfectly pleasant)neighborhood located just a couple of miles away. I love Linden Hills, but if I wanted to live the Linden Hills lifestyle I would choose to live there, not Uptown.

The most recent frustration has been light rail. I understand the various pros and cons of each line, and why some people think that any line is better than no line. I’m still hoping that 3C will come through in the end, but mostly the ongoing debates have highlighted the fact that many people in the Twin Cities, and even in our city neighborhoods, don’t see public transportation as a regional need. They see light rail as primarily something to serve the needs of commuters (whether to the suburbs or to the city), and not as something to be integrated into the many different needs of daily life. When we were living in Los Angeles I took my local light rail line on a regular basis. I used it to bring my son to and from daycare, to go to work, to go to the doctor, and to go shopping. Most of my trips involved short distances: five stops to get to daycare, followed by three stops to get to work; one stop to the doctor and to the pet store, two stops to get to the bookstore. Light rail, subway, bus, commuter rail, and Amtrak were all integrated into one larger transportation system, and I used all of them depending on my needs. Obviously the transit-dependent among us in the Twin Cities will do the same thing, but it’s frustrating that so many people are willing to accept the notion that light rail is only for home to work commutes. It seems part of a larger willingness to give up and accept as fact the idea that Minneapolis is not worthy of the same quality public transportation found in so many other cities around the world.

It’s not just public transportation, of course. The focus on height has overtaken almost all other issues when it comes to Uptown’s “character.” Many of Uptown’s self-appointed leaders have decided to focus their time and energy on preventing any tall buildings from entering the neighborhood. Where’s the outrage about auto-centric, short, suburban-style buildings? Why the focus on height at the expense of all else? I still believe that these outspoken residents do not reflect the majority of Uptown residents, but unless there’s massive change it seems likely that the NIMBYs will continue to hold enormous power over neighborhood issues, and to continue to represent themselves as the voice of the neighborhoods.

I love Uptown, and think a vibrant, urban Uptown is still a cause worth fighting for. Still, the NIMBYs are wearing me down, and sometimes I wonder if it’s easier to just give up and just move somewhere like New York (or, yes, LA) where dense, vibrant, urban neighborhoods are plentiful and appreciated. After having some time to think it over, though, I’m starting to get reenergized. Why should we have to move to another city simply to enjoy urban living? Why should a handful of outspoken local homeowners get to shape Uptown into a vision of a quieter, less urban neighborhood? Minneapolis has plenty of neighborhoods like that already. For many of us, Uptown’s primary appeal is that it’s one of Minneapolis’s nicest urban neighborhoods. Let’s run with that, and give Minneapolis city lovers a chance to enjoy the best of urban in our own backyards.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Times They Are-a-Changin': Uptown Bar Edition

Uptown is buzzing with conversation about the possible closing, or at least relocation, of the iconic Uptown Bar & Cafe. If all goes forward as planned, the current building will be demolished and a new, three-story building erected in its place. There are a lot of issues here, and I still have to sort out some of my thoughts. In the meantime, here’s my first stab at working through some of it:

The owner is old, and is the one who wants to sell. This is NOT an issue of a beloved local institution being forced out due to market forces. This is an essential point, and those demanding that the city step in to intervene need to keep this in mind.

There’s a possibility that the Uptown Bar would relocate elsewhere in the neighborhood. Not the same thing, I know, but better than nothing.

Is the Uptown Bar “historic”? I have mixed opinions on this point. I’m a strong believer in historic preservation, probably more so than many people in Uptown. I also like the Uptown Bar’s building, I like its sign, and I like its significance to not-so-distant Uptown history. At the same time, businesses come and go. That’s life, like it or not. Take a look at the Rainbow CafĂ©. Time moves forward. Much as I’d like to see the Uptown Bar stay where it is, I think it’s reasonable to accept that this is an inevitable change of guard in the neighborhood. The building has historic value, but I don’t think it’s significant enough to justify forced preservation. I would, however, like to second the suggestion I’ve heard floating around that any new design incorporate the Uptown’s sign, or otherwise preserve some element of the building and its history. I also hope that if and when things move forward that the Uptown Bar get in contact with the Hennepin History Museum, the Minnesota Historic Society, or, for ephemera, the Minneapolis Collection at the Hennepin County Library to see if they’d be interested in any materials for their collections.

If the Uptown Bar closes, does that really mean Uptown has “lost its soul”? This is another opinion frequently expressed by regular Uptown Bar patrons. I don’t agree. While I welcome some of the neighborhood’s changes and dislike others, I think Uptown was – and continues to be – more than just what is represented by the Uptown Bar. Uptown is more than a bar (or breakfast) scene. The Uptown Bar may be far less annoying than Cowboy Slim’s or Chino Latino, but it’s still just one aspect of the neighborhood. The Uptown Bar is an important local institution, but it’s not the only thing of value in Uptown. For those looking for local, independent, smaller, unique businesses, there are still plenty of those around, too. And for everyone who claims that Uptown has become just another suburb, well, I’ve yet to come across a Twin Cities suburb that offers the level of density, amenities, and overall urban lifestyle offered by Uptown.

Yes, I’ll be sad to see the Uptown Bar leave. No, I don’t want to see another chain in Uptown. I will be sad to see the Uptown Bar’s building gone, no matter how wonderful (or not wonderful) the replacement building will be. I’ll be interested to see what detailed arguments proponents of the historic preservation movement put forward. I’m sympathetic to their concerns, and if the arguments are good enough could still change my personal stance. Still, at this point in time I am resigned to saying a fond farewell to a longtime neighborhood landmark, and raise my Uptown Bar glass in salute to a local institution.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

LRT Meeting August 13

This isn't one of my regular blog posts, as I've been very busy lately and haven't had much (any) free time, but the LRT meeting tomorrow, August 13, is too important to let slip by without comment. I'll write a post soon about my comments about the importance of the 3C Southwest Corridor, but in the meantime there are several blogs and websites that do a great job of laying out some of the issues:

Connect Uptown: Want LRT through Uptown? The Connect Uptown website helps keep you informed on developments and how to go about making sure your voice gets heard.

The Transport Politic: This blog post has been getting a lot of attention lately, in part due to the blogger's extremely useful maps showing the proposed routes in context with neighborhood density.

Minnescraper: Minnescraper's forum has an entire thread devoted to the Southwest Corridor. Read the latest posts for comments and details relating to the most current developments.

Choosing a route that leaves out Uptown is short-sighted, and bad for the city, the neighborhood, and the region. The current bias is against the 3C route (based on part on arguably faulty numbers), so now is the time to show overwhelming public support for the Uptown alignment. You can do so tomorrow, August 13: the meeting will be at the Central Library at 11:30.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Moving the Walker Library?

Above: The original Walker Library

I knew that there was a new Walker Library on the horizon, but until recently had not been aware that there is a possibility that the library could move to a different location. There are no specifics – at this point this is more of a “what if” kind of question – but the library would still remain in the Uptown area. I was surprised to discover that this was even open for discussion, but the more I think about it the more I like it.

The current location limits expansion. While the location on the corner of Lagoon and Hennepin is certainly convenient, the footprint is small. It will be a cold day in hell before a Minneapolis library axes parking in return for building space, so once you factor in the need for parking (even if an underground garage) there still isn’t going to be much room for additional space. Moving to another location would provide more flexibility with design (including parking options) as well as potentially free up more space for a larger building.

Go east, young library. While I certainly want the library to stay within Uptown, I really like the idea of it moving east along Lake or Lagoon. Even a short move would put it that much closer to residents of Lyn-Lake and the heavily populated Whittier and Lyndale neighborhoods.
What about public transportation? I’ve heard some complaints that patrons would be hurt if the library was not in such close proximity to the transit center. I don’t buy this argument. The library should be within easy distance of bus (and, I hope, a LRT line!) routes, but that doesn’t mean it has to be directly adjacent to the transit center. People can walk a few blocks, and those who can’t, but still depend on public transportation, will continue to have other options such as Metro Mobility. Ideally the library will be moved east along the stretch of Lake or Lagoon between Hennepin (I’d be open to as far east as Bryant) allowing for both easy bus access beyond simply the Transit Center as well as a convenient connection to the Greenway.

“Uptown” does not have to mean within two blocks of Hennepin and Lake. I’ve also heard the argument that if the library moves that it will be a sign that commerce has taken over the heart of Uptown, and that the people will have lost as a result. I think this argument only flies if one considers Uptown to be a very small commercial core. By moving the library to a different location within Uptown there’s the chance to further strengthen the entire area. Providing a civic building, a community gathering place of great social and symbolic significance, away from the historic heart of the commercial district will help send the message that Uptown is more than just a couple of intersections. If located between somewhere between Hennepin and Lyndale it could further strengthen the connections between the traditional Uptown area and the Lyn-Lake area.

What about the current site? The corner of Hennepin and Lagoon really does deserve a great building. I’m open to the possibilities, but don’t feel that it has to be civic in function. I would hope it would be something drawing enough traffic at different times of the day to keep that corner vibrant and bustling, further helping to liven up a block that is currently not living up to its livability potential. What would be really nice, though, although admittedly not practical, would be to turn the original Walker Library into a post office. That would ensure some civic presence in the heart of Uptown, reuse a building that will always look somewhat institutional (in a good way), and provide a much-needed service to the Uptown community.

A clarification on my stance on a mixed-use library: I had previously stated that I oppose a mixed-use library, in part because I like the idea of a library having sufficient community and cultural heft to stand on its own as a landmark and local focal point. I still feel that way, but do like the idea of some additional non-library use, although in moderation. If some low-key office space, perhaps with a separate entrance, were feasible it could help with costs, as well as provide some additional foot traffic in Uptown. It would then be available for future library use, if, say, the library system needs additional administrative space or has other needs. Another potential mixed-use option would be a coffee place or something similar (although Uptown is not exactly lacking in those); something to provide library patrons with a quick place to get a snack or a drink, while also providing some extra income for the library.

Finally, the Uptown branch may not be large enough to support such a thing, but a high-quality friends of the library store, one selling relevant gifts and book-related accessories, perhaps, could both bring added revenue and traffic to the site as well as enhance the library as a destination. It may be a branch library, but that doesn’t mean the Uptown neighborhood can’t treat it as our own “central” library. These options would only be feasible on a new site. In the end, though, I do firmly believe that the library should look like a library (although that can be interpreted in innovative ways – it doesn’t need to look like the classic image of a library) and should have a form befitting its status as a local landmark and major community destination.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Has ECCO Crossed the Line?

The controversy over the proposed Lake and Knox development has taken the Uptown area by storm. As one would expect, the NIMBY-dominated neighborhood organizations have banded together to protest the recent Minneapolis Planning Commission ruling in favor of the development. If nothing else, recent neighborhood board activities highlight the dysfunctional nature of these organizations, and the need for real and substantial change in either the role or the implementation of neighborhood board activities. The recent allegations over ECCO’s recent activities are a good case study.

First, some background. The ECCO board previously voted to oppose the project due to concerns about height. It was not a unanimous decision, and several recent debates (including several letters and commentaries in the Uptown Neighborhood News) have led to heightened tensions at the board level. A difference in opinion in itself is not a bad thing; neighborhood residents seldom share the same view on something, and it’s only reasonable that the board members would also have differing ideas.

Fast forward to July. The Planning Commission met, approved the project, Lara Norkus-Crampton resigned in protest, and the NIMBYs rose up to declare the Uptown Small Area Plan (USAP) dead. The neighborhood boards and nine individuals are appealing the decision. This, however, is where things in ECCO get complicated and possibly cross both ethical and legal lines. Nancy Ward, ECCO’s board president, sent an email to ECCO board members asking if they would support an appeal, and, if so, would they be willing to contribute ECCO funds to do so. (I should note right here that I am not on the ECCO board, have never been on the ECCO board, and have not seen the email in question. If someone has the text and understands the situation differently, feel free to add your comments below.) It was not couched as a formal vote, and was never formally debated, discussed, or approved. A slim majority of respondents were favorable to the appeal, and the board (or at least a few members of the board) moved forward.

Assuming the allegations are true, this should be taken seriously by both the city and the neighborhood. ECCO is a nonprofit organization, and as such is expected to abide by certain laws and regulations. There is no excuse for ignoring legal obligations or for failing to follow the organization’s own bylaws. The bylaws, for example, state that “any action that may be taken at a meeting of directors may be taken without a meeting if authorized in writing and signed by all the directors.” An informal email poll hardly qualifies. The bylaws also clearly state “only the ECCO board of directors may make a binding commitment for the ECCO area.” An informal, non-binding email non-vote is clearly not sufficient.

There are many problems at play here. Local neighborhood boards are grassroots politics at the micro-level. ECCO’s own bylaws also state that one of their objectives is to “act as a spokesperson for the ECCO neighborhood before city boards, commissions, etc. and as otherwise needed.” If the ECCO board is going to assume that responsibility, and if the city and state are going to recognize it as speaking for the neighborhood, then it need to follow the rules.

I have little hope that the issues facing Uptown neighborhood boards will ever going to be fully fixed, but there are some potential actions that could help alleviate some of the problems. An open letter of suggestions for current and potential board members:

Take board membership seriously. A board is not just a social club or even a group of like-minded neighborhood activists meeting to discuss local issues. Boards have legal obligations, and as a director or trustee a member of the board it is your responsibility to know the law, as well as to read and understand (and follow!) your board’s bylaws. ECCO is a “duly authorized nonprofit organization under the laws of the State of Minnesota,” as ECCO’s own bylaws remind board members and residents. That status comes with rights and regulations. Board members – and especially officers – need to be conversant with their bylaws, and to fully understand just what they’re taking on when they join a board.

Board education is key. Obviously there are a lot of board members out there who quite possibly have never even read their own bylaws. Bylaws are boring. I understand that; I have plenty of personal experience both serving on boards, answering directly to boards, and attending board meetings as a non-voting participant. Still, every new board member should receive adequate orientation before assuming the mantle of “director” or “trustee.”

Boards shouldn’t ethically be allowed to speak as the “voice” of a neighborhood unless improvements are made. I don’t know about the legal issues involved, but if an Uptown-area board consists almost entirely of white, middle-class, middle-aged homeowners then I think it’s safe to say there are some potential problems. You can’t make people participate, and there’s no reason why a white, middle-class, middle-age homeowner can’t also take into account the potentially different needs of a young renter or an old renter subsisting on social security checks. Still, boards need to take a more active role when it comes to adding board diversity. A nominations committee should focus on outreach efforts, and the board as a whole should work to address the issue of lack of representation.

Board members are public officials, and need to be treated as such. If board members are going to assume representative powers then the residents – all residents (or eligible stakeholders) – in the neighborhood need to know just who these people are and where they stand on relevant issues. Realistically not all (or even many) residents are going to pay any attention to this, but neighborhood organizations could at the very least post candidate statements on websites prior to neighborhood elections, publish them (as paid advertisements, if necessary) in the relevant local neighborhood newspapers, and send them out via email.

Boards need to acknowledge their weaknesses. I’ve read and heard statements to the effect that if you don’t care enough to participate yourself, then you have no right to complain. I think this is hogwash. It is the boards’ duty to think about the needs of all residents, participants or not. It would be nice if everyone in the community could and wanted to participate in local issues, but that’s not the reality. That in no way means that the needs of non-participants do not matter. A good board acknowledges both its strengths and its weaknesses, and endeavors to consider the needs of the broader community.

Accountability is a good thing. Politics are obviously not perfect, and board members should be able to vote based on their conscience, not due to fears of political repercussions. But board members do need to be reminded that their decisions can have a significant impact on the development of the neighborhood. If, for example, a board member does something in his or her board capacity that is unethical or illegal or otherwise violates the public’s trust, then he or she needs to be held accountable for that action. Similarly, even if an action does not violate ethics – CARAG President Aaron Rubenstein’s comments in the Southwest Journal about the “very significant, long-term damage” to the Uptown Small Area Plan by the Planning Commission, for example – neighborhood residents should be aware of just what it is that their neighborhood representatives are saying on their behalf, and be prepared to boot those officials out of their board membership role if they decide that those opinions do not, in fact, represent the view of the neighborhood.

To bring this back to the situation in ECCO, it sounds like things are pretty seriously amiss if the allegations hold true. Bylaws and regulations aren’t perfect, but they are an attempt to protect people from potential misuse of power. In this particular case the NIMBYs are in the position of power; if the political makeup changes in the future and they represent a minority of board members then they, too, will appreciate why there are checks and balances in place to keep a few activists from making all of the important decisions. This is democracy at the micro-level, and it can only work if residents – and board members – take it seriously. If ECCO has indeed run amiss of ethics and the law then it’s time for a major shakeup, potentially a board recall, or at the very least some major internal soul-searching.