Saturday, January 31, 2009

Uptown Leaders Speak Out

Regular readers of the Southwest Journal probably remember the January 12 article "Slowing but still growing: Thoughts about Uptown from Southwest Community Leaders." If you haven't read it, it's worth taking the few minutes needed to at least give it a quick skim. Reporter Brian Voerding interviewed five local prominant figures, asking each to give his or her vision for the future. The article is, unfortunately, heavily edited; undoubtedly a necessity, but one that does raise the question of how much was lost in the process. Still, it's quite interesting to see what these people think about Uptown and its future. Bear with me as I take the rest of this post to reflect on some of their responses.

Stuart Ackerberg: Ackerberg, owner of longtime Uptown development firm The Ackerberg Group, highlighted the need for daytime activity in Uptown. "The key to vibrancy is daytime population," he argues in his statement. I think he's right on the money on this one - Uptown used to have more offices and even schools (remember the dental school where Stella's is now?) and those people pumped money into the neighborhood economy during lunchtime and before heading home. I think this a key component to Uptown's future successes. These people will help make Uptown an around-the-clock destination, to the benefit of everyone living in the neighborhood. As an added bonus, many of these office workers may already live in (or move to) Uptown; how nice to be able to walk or bike to work. Convenient for them, good for traffic reduction, and great for an overall sense of shared community.

Ralph Remington: Ralph Remington, Uptown's city council member, spends a lot of time thinking about Uptown and discussing neighborhood issues with constituents. While I don't agree with everything he says - anytime someone cites "character of the neighborhood" I get nervous (I think "character" is too often misused for specific political purposes, but that's another posting...) - I do appreciate his focus on pedestrian safety and a light rail connection. Both of those elements are vital for Uptown to thrive as a great urban neighborhood. He's a CARAG resident himself, and I hope that he remains a local activist on these issues even after his city council term has finished.

Thatcher Imboden: Imboden, the young president of the Uptown Association, as well as an Uptown historian, brings a much-needed historical perspective to the discussion. Uptown's been around a long time and has seen its share of ups and downs. Like Ackerberg, Imboden also emphasizes the importance of daytime activities. He also mentions the possibility of a hotel. I know that there has been talk about this in the past; I hope his vision comes true and we can at some point welcome a hotel to Uptown. Travelers, whether visiting for business or personal reasons, will support neighborhood businesses, among other things. Many of the county's nicest urban neighborhoods - Washington DC's Dupont Circle, any number of New York City neighborhoods, etc. - offer a wide range of hotels, and their neighborhoods are the stronger for it.

Craig Wilson: Wilson, the co-founder of Kandiyohi Development Partners, noted the importance of "independent, original, interesting places." That's what I love about Uptown, and I hope that he is correct that the future will encourage the retention and formation of these types of spaces. Uptown doesn't want or need to be a mall or even just another nice urban neighborhood filled with the same stores found in other similar neighborhoods nationally - we want to retain a sense of place and a feeling of community.

Lara Norkus-Crampton: ECCO resident and City Planning Commission member Norkus-Crampton's comments were the only ones that left me feeling quite conflicted. On the plus side, she spoke extensively on the importance of pedestrian-friendly streets, including pointing out that "pedestrian-friendly" needs to take into account Minnesota's brutal winter weather. Beyond that, she had some weird statements that may be a result of editing or could be symbolic of her larger, more anti-urban feelings. First, she talked about "buffer zones" between commercial and residential developments. I may be wrong, but I got the impression that she disapproves of these pairings. I, on the other hand, think that - within appropriate parameters - this type of development is not only desireable, it's essential. The integration of appropriate commercial and residential uses adds vibrancy to the street and provides residents with convenient services (not to mention possibly giving the businesses a built-in audience). I think the more of this the better. Sure, it doesn't make sense to plop a convience store or salon into the middle of, say, Fremont between 33rd and 32nd Streets, but in an ideal world it would be wonderful if no resident had to walk more than three blocks, tops, to get to a coffee shop or deli. These sorts of things help build community.

My other concern with Norkus-Crampton's remarks include both her historical understanding of the neighborhood as well as her comments about property taxes. "This area wasn't always seen as such a perfect place," she said, "there were parts of Uptown considered borderline." I consider myself pretty familiar with Uptown's history, both recent and historic, and I think this doesnt' reflect reality. No, it wasn't a "perfect" place, but "borderline" just isn't true. Of course "borderline" is in the eye of the beholder, and this off-the-cuff comment suggests to me that there are some class issues at work here. Uptown has always been fairly safe (with some problems, of course, but this is - and has been - a city neighborhood with all the accompanying pluses and minuses) but it did at one point have a younger, less wealthy, and more blue collar population. This also ties into my second concern, which admittedly may be an issue of editing: "People pay dearly to live here, pay a lot of property taxes, and I think it's as important to preserve these long-term stakeholders that help build and maintain our city as it is to invite new uses, new neighbors." My translation of this statement, fair or not? "Rich people pay a lot to OWN homes here and we need to take care of them." Yes, property taxes impact everyone, renters and owners alike, but my feeling is that Norkus-Crampton is thinking only about the homeowners. Since Uptown is a majority-rental area, I'd have been more comfortable if she had also pointed out the dangers of rising rents. What about long-time stakeholders who rent and not own? Stakeholder does not necessarily equal homeowner. And, for that matter, I'm sure plenty of those longterm stakeholders, renters and owners alike, are annoyed by Norkus-Crampton's portrayal of the neighborhood as a former "borderline" area, and see her remarks as a reminder that Uptown's gentrification over the years has not always been a good thing for everyone.

To be fair, I don't know Norkus-Crampton or her views on most things, but her comments don't give her much sympathy among those of us struggling to afford rent or to buy our way into the area's home market. Her property taxes may have gone up, but then, so has her home value. Finally, those who speak the loudest about things such as Uptown's previous "borderline" history are the same ones who are the most likely to paint a historical picture of a small agrarian village atmosphere, one in which the neighbors all lived quiet lives on quiet streets. The reality, of course, is that Uptown has always been - at least among most residents' lifetimes - a busy, bustling place with all the accompanying noise, traffic, and urban amenities and sometimes problems. To put it bluntly, I don't think Norkus-Crampton knows what she's talking about, at least when it comes to local history.

I give the Southwest Journal kudos for compiling this article. I now hope that they continue this discussion, maybe asking another round of community leaders (neighborhood board members, perhaps?) as well as regular residents of different ages and tenures for their hopes and vision for Uptown's future.