Saturday, February 28, 2009

Is the Uptown Small Area Plan in Danger of Dying?

Those of you following Uptown development news have probably heard about the four to six story building proposed for Lake and Knox. The land lies within the Shoreland Overlay District and is also addressed in the Uptown Small Area Plan (USAP). Needless to say, the anti-height people are having a fit. I’ll go more into the building itself in a future post, but for now I want to look at the issue from the viewpoint of what this means for the USAP. It appears that battle lines are being drawn, the opposition is gearing up, and this is going to in all likelihood be an issue in the coming Ward 10 City Council races.

ECCO board member Robert Kean has a recent opinion piece on the issue, published in the March issue of the Uptown Neighborhood News. He frames the Lake and Knox building issue in terms of the Uptown Small Area Plan, an argument that on the surface makes a lot of sense. In short, he says that the USAP was created so that the community did not need to constantly fight the same battles over and over, and that the USAP would serve as a “guiding rule for Uptown development.” He warns his readers that the USAP will be “rendered pointless” if the height suggestions are not enforced – pretty potent stuff.

Similarly, Ward 10 City Council candidate Lara Norkus-Crampton, an active member of the USAP process and now a Minneapolis Planning Commissioner (and a dedicated opponent to height at all costs), seems to take a similar stance on her campaign website. She states emphatically that “together, neighborhoods working with their partners in City Hall can make sure that two years of work on the Uptown Small Area Plan and the Lyn-Lake Small Area Plan are fully and consistently implemented with every development proposal, every time.” (emphasis mine)

The problem? The USAP is not a zoning document. It offers suggestions, and presumably carries some weight with the Planning Commission and other government bodies, but it does not mandate that every project within Uptown must conform to its standards. Councilmember Ralph Remington understands this; he recently reminded Southwest Journal readers that the plan “has built in flexibility,” and that “if the plan were rigid and finite, it would never have been approved.” Norkus-Crampton’s comments are particularly concerning, given her current political goals. It shows either a lack of understanding of the USAP’s purpose, or – more likely – a willingness to subvert the process to ensure that the end result meets the needs of a small but vocal minority, rather than those of the neighborhood (and not just their boards) and the city as a whole.

The Shoreland Overlay District itself offers the City plenty of flexibility. While it does limit the height of buildings near the water, it also gives the City the opportunity to provide conditional-use permits to taller projects. The USAP, too, is not set in stone. That doesn’t mean that it’s not a useful or worthwhile document. It is, again, not a formal zoning document.

The rigid positions of Lara Norkus-Crampton, Robert Kean, and other NIMBY-types such as Aaron Rubenstein (CARAG board president) do not necessarily reflect the opinions of all, or even most, Uptown residents and business owners. I, too, want new developments in Uptown to be carefully considered and to meet the needs of the neighborhood. In this case, maybe a mid-height building, done well, would be just the ticket for that particular location. If approved, it doesn’t mean the end of the Uptown Small Area Plan or its goals. It just means that the plan worked. It will have provided a framework for discussion, and if the project is indeed approved it will have been done so only after careful consideration of how this specific site and this specific project fit into the larger picture. Yes, it could be devastating if this balloons into a huge controversy that leads some to decry the ruin of the USAP. But it's a two-way street, and just as developers should be willing to listen to the neighbors, so must the neighbors be willing to listen to the developers. In the end it's the open communication that matters, and it's open communication that's really at risk when the threats start flying.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Cowboy Slim's Plus-sized Parking Costs - Does it Matter?

I see that CARAG is in the process of submitting a letter to the City opposing Cowboy Slim’s “exorbitant” $9 parking fee. Cowboy Slim’s is the Old West saloon-themed restaurant opening soon in Campiello’s old space. And while I wasn’t at their meeting, I can guess the gist of the conversation; undoubtedly residents fear that if parking is too expensive then people will instead simply park on “their” streets.

I agree that $9 for parking is a lot. I’m sure many people won’t be willing to shell out that kind of money. I know I wouldn’t, at least not just for dinner at an Uptown restaurant (of course I’d just walk to begin with, but that’s besides the point). That said, I don’t have a problem with them charging whatever they feel is appropriate.

I don’t think many people will park in the neighborhoods. For one thing, the streets closest to Cowboy Slim’s have permit-only parking restrictions. Yes, a few ambitious people will walk a few extra blocks to get free street parking, but I think many others will simply park in the newly expanded Calhoun Square garage. This is a good thing. It means that these customers will park, walk through Calhoun Square and from there along the street. They’ll pass other retail stores, and will perhaps be tempted to extend their dinner into a bigger evening out. That translates into dollars for Uptown, dollars that provide our local businesses with the money they need to survive and thrive in tough times.

I would also like to think that many of Cowboy Slim’s customers will come from the neighborhood and will therefore be walking (or possibly biking). Uptown is, of course, a regional destination, and I’m sure that a large percentage of diners will indeed come from elsewhere. Many of them will drive. That’s a fact of life in Uptown, and realistically dealing with a tight parking situation comes with the territory. It’s all part of the larger trade-off for living in an urban neighborhood with lots of offerings.

In many ways this is yet another reason to argue for the Uptown light rail route; quick efficient train transportation means that people from the southwest suburbs can park (or walk to) their local station, then just take the train to Uptown and not deal with parking at all. There will always be some people who refuse to give up the car, but there are plenty of others who will be more than happy to go with free or cheap parking near home coupled with a quick (and entertaining, to some extent, as Minnesotans get used to the novelty of FINALLY having the beginnings of an actual rail network of their own) transportation into the heart of Uptown for a fun night out.

Cowboy Slim’s is the target of this particular CARAG complaint, but the reality is that they are simply the victim of the larger Uptown parking wars. Now if they would just add some hitching posts maybe all those would-be cowboys could just ride their horses in on the Greenway…

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Is Uptown a Good Place to Raise Children?

There seem to be a lot of divergent ideas as to whether or not Uptown is a family-friendly (as in families with kids) kind of place. Some say it is, others say it isn’t; others say it was but isn’t now, while some say it is now but wasn’t in the past. Is Uptown a good place to raise children? What does it currently offer families, and what is it missing?

I grew up in Uptown, so I’m admittedly biased. I think it was - and is - a great place for kids, and hope to raise my own children here. That doesn't mean that it’s perfect, or that there isn’t room for improvement. I do think, however, that the same things that make it attractive to many adults -an urban lifestyle that doesn't require a car, interesting things to see and do, the lakes, attractive homes of different styles, etc. - are also relevant to families with children.

Top Five Benefits for Uptown-area Families
  1. The Lakes. Everyone loves the lakes, but anyone with children can attest to the fact that they need a lot of time to run around outdoors. Living near the lakes means long leisurely stroller rides, visits to the beaches, opportunities to look for turtles and watch ducks, access to bike trails, the Tot Lot, canoe and kayak rentals, readily available ice cream cones, and winter ice skating. In short, there’s stuff to do for kids of all ages, with or without their parents.
  2. There are recreational opportunities (beyond the lakes). Uptown has several city parks, the YWCA, and the Walker Library. They all offer stuff to do, both of the formal and the informal variety.
  3. It’s safe. Sure, Uptown sometimes has its problems, but for the most part it’s a safe place to live. Crime is relatively low, the streets have sidewalks, and most kids have safe access to outdoor play space of some sort.
  4. There are other kids in the neighborhood, too. There aren’t as many kids here as in some city neighborhoods, but there are still enough that parents with kids won’t feel like rare exotic creatures living in a landscape void of sippy cups or big wheels.
  5. It’s a compact place with plenty of stores and public transportation. Who wants to stick their kid in a car seat just to trek to the grocery store? I certainly don’t. At least here you have the option of walking to pretty much everywhere you need to go: grocery store, playground, nursery school, elementary school, lakes, doctors, shops (including places like the Shoe Zoo, which is about as family-friendly as it gets). And when you don’t feel like walking there is always the bus (and I hope eventually a light rail line). For parents of older kids this means that you don’t have to shuttle your teenager around – they know how to read a bus schedule, right?

Some Suggestions for Improvement

  1. More diversity would be nice. Uptown is a pretty white place. Both Uptown-adjacent neighborhoods Lyndale and Whittier offer far more ethnic diversity. At least Uptown has a lot of gay and lesbian parents; diversity of family types is a good thing, too.
  2. More affordable housing. Houses in Uptown are expensive, and families looking to buy often go elsewhere. There are larger duplexes and apartments available for families needing multiple bedrooms, but those can be expensive. There’s also more of a stigma against the idea of renting here (in Minneapolis) than in many other cities, I think, with the result that some families may feel socially pressured into buying elsewhere immediately rather than renting in Uptown.
  3. More family-oriented stores. I’d really like to see another toy store in Uptown. Local kids could buy things with their allowance, while the neighborhood’s many parents grandparents (and uncles, aunts, family friends, etc.) could pick up the latest educational organic handmade gizmo guaranteed to turn their beloved child/grandchild into an artistic, athletic, and academic genius. I’d also like to see a basic thrift shop – something along the lines of a Salvation Army or Goodwill – where parents could inexpensively outfit their kids. And, while I’m sure some parents and dentists don’t agree, a fun, child-focused candy store could be a fun addition to the neighborhood.
  4. The school/neighborhood links could be strengthened. The Wedge and East Isles neighborhoods probably feel pretty connected to Jefferson and Kenwood Schools (and maybe Whittier, too, to some extent), but ECCO and CARAG don’t have a regular school within their neighborhood limits. And forget about local junior highs or high school – they’re located elsewhere. The realities of modern life in Minneapolis, or in Uptown, at least, is that, for better or for worse, there are no true “community” schools in the traditional sense of the word.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

More Thoughts on Lyn-Lake and Uptown

In a city with sharply defined boundaries between official, government-recognized neighborhoods, Lyn-Lake and Uptown stand out as being more ambiguous communities. While not neighborhoods in the NRP sense, they are neighborhoods in the community sense. To complicate things further there is no one, shared larger vision of exactly what is the Lyn-Lake "neighborhood" versus what is Uptown. In addition, two formal neighborhoods (CARAG and the Wedge - aka LHENA) straddle both Uptown and Lyn-Lake. I've addressed this in other posts, but given that Lyn-Lake is currently in the process of creating a Small Area Plan of their own I thought it worth another visit.

As with Uptown, the Lyn-Lake Small Area Plan process started with a series of community meetings. While the complete report has not yet been issued, initial meeting notes as well as additional materials can be found online. Some of the comments I found most interesting, as well as relevant to a larger Lyn-Lake/Uptown discussion include the following (not direct quotes):

  • One participant lives between Uptown and the plan's Lyn-Lake cut-off boundary; this person stated that they do not consider themselves as living in Uptown, and believed that the two areas were distinct and unique.

I know that there are several ways of looking at this. One perspective is that Uptown is a vast, sprawling area encompassing multiple commercial districts. Lyn-Lake might be considered part of Uptown if you take that view. The other perspective is the one taken by this participant; Uptown and Lyn-Lake are different places. I happen to agree with this person - I feel that Lyn-Lake and Uptown are, and should be, seen as separate and unique. They are, on the other hand, very closely interconnected, and realistically it is impossible to totally separate the two. Perhaps the implementation of the Uptown Small Area Plan and the future completion and implementation of the Lyn-Lake Small Area Plan will help each area to better tackle these complex issues for the benefit of both Lyn-Lake and Uptown.

This participant's comments also highlight the personal subjective nature of identifying with neighborhoods; I'd guess that there are others living on the same block who feel a strong affiliation with Uptown. It also serves as a reminder that the official boundaries of formal neighborhoods, typically major commercial streets, do not always correlate with the more unofficial community boundaries of city neighborhoods.

  • Several people thought that Lyn-Lake of today reminded them of Uptown of the 1960s and 1970s .

I agree with this. It's one of the strongest appeals of Lyn-Lake today. Lyn-Lake has a more old-school, eclectic, non-yuppified vibe going for it. The challenge will be to retain that feel as it continues to evolve.

  • At least one person wanted Lyn-Lake to retain its own distinct identity, and not be seen as Uptown's "dowdy sister."

Amen to this! Lyn-Lake should be distinct, should be celebrated, and shouldn't be seen as "Uptown-lite."

Exciting vibrant and walkable cities such as New York, San Francisco, or Washington DC contain long strings of interesting neighborhoods. Take Washington DC, for example. Let's say you live in Dupont Circle. You can stay in the neighborhood, enjoying all it has to offer, but whenever you want a change of pace you can walk to nearby Adams Morgan, Georgetown, or Woodley Park for a completely different feel. I'd like to think that Uptown and Lyn-Lake can be sort of like Dupont Circle and Adams Morgan - different but equally nice neighborhoods in their own ways, with at-times blurred borders yet each with with a strong sense of personal identity.

Both Uptown and Lyn-Lake leaders, as well as the City of Minneapolis, not to mention the many residents of both neighborhoods (wherever you consider their boundaries to fall) recognize the importance of strong connections between Lyn-Lake and Uptown. These connections should continue to strengthen with the completion of both Small Area Plans, as well as with continued improvements and activity along the Midtown Greenway as well as along Lake Street. The future looks exciting, whether for Lyn-Lake, Uptown, or a broader "UPTOWN" encompassing it all.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Uptown's Urban Farmland

Uptown is a pretty "green" place to live. The area is packed with people who care about environmental issues, and both the local neighborhood boards as well as the recent Uptown Small Area Plan address options for improving the neighborhood's impact on the environment. Uptown's lakes offer residents and visitors with an opportunity to get outside and enjoy nature in all seasons, as does the Midtown Greenway. And, while the lakes offer multiple obvious environmental and quality of life benefits, it's the Midtown Greenway and its possibilities that really excite me.

The Midtown Greenway Coalition advocates for the use of the Greenway as a "green urban pathway," and suggests adjacent community gardens as a way to "showcase native plants, on site water management, and ecological sustainability." I completely agree with all of this, but how about putting additional emphasis on organic, local, appropriate food production? I would love to see the length of the Greenway dotted with continuous, or near continuous, gardens. These gardens, whether owned and operated by community groups, the city or park, schools, private landowners, or any other organization, business, or individual, would provide Minnesota-appropriate organic food for area residents, thereby increasing everyone's access to fresh, affordable produce, decreasing the environmental costs associated with the transportation of food from elsewhere, adding beauty to the Greenway, and providing additional Greenway safety as a result of increased people presence in the form of Greenway gardeners.

The Soo Line Garden, a community garden located just outside of Uptown (at Garfield in Whittier) is already well into its second decade of existence. According to the Midtown Greenway Coalition, talks are underway with the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board to investigate the possibility of formally transferring ownership of the land to ensure its continued and permanent status as a public garden. Interest in these and other gardens across the city is high (with many gardens lacking space to accommodate all who would like to participate), and will presumably continue to grow as a result of rising food costs coupled with an increased awareness of and interest in the local foods and urban farm movements. Let's build on the concept of community gardens and line the Greenway - including the portion running through Uptown - with fruits, vegetables, and other edibles. These plants, in accordance with the Midtown Greenway Coalition's existing resolution on native plants, could be selected from native species wherever possible.

I'd like to expand this idea even more and suggest that additional agricultural options also be included along the Greenway. Chickens, dairy goats, honey bees - all could find a place in what could be a stretch of urban agriculture running through the heart of the city. This would involve, among other things, the loosening of current city regulations to encourage and support responsible, well-run urban mini-farms up and down the Greenway. The farms could be both public and private, selling their products (an Uptown Cheese Company? Lyn-Lake Honey?) at the eventual Uptown's Farmer's Market or even directly from their plots to walkers and bikers making their way up and down the Greenway.

The urban farm movement isn't new, but it does seem to be picking up speed in recent years. It's admittedly a new world to me, and I have a lot yet to learn. The Greenway is still fairly young and is still evolving, so this is our chance to truly do something radical that will help the environment, our neighborhood, and the city. I would welcome any input from readers who have information on already existing conversations on this or similar topics.

The Midtown Greenway is already a highly artificial, human-shaped pathway through the city. It's not an existing untouched native landscape. While lining the shores of Lake Calhoun or Lake of the Isles with food-producing gardens wouldn't make sense, doing so on the Greenway does. It's not even necessary to have a full, complete community garden - thin strips of fruit trees, bean plants, corn stalks, or thin beds of herbs, whatever we can squash into the space available, whether in raised beds, in the ground itself, or even in boxes hanging from nearby building walls - along the route could fill in sections between the larger, more formal parks and gardens. Let's take the concept of a "green urban pathway" to the next step and provide Uptown - and south Minneapolis - with this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to develop and implement a modern vision of a more self-sustainable and environmentally-friendly urban life.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Memo to Permit Parking Advocates: Too Bad!

Ah, the parking issue. Nothing, other than height, of course, gets Uptowners up in arms more than a debate about the parking problems.

CARAG resident and parking permit advocate Phillip Qualy wrote an opinion piece in January 2008's Uptown Neighborhood News in response to those who would prefer to see the ill-conceived permit-only parking done away with once and for all. "Other neighborhoods and other neighborhood groups want to weigh into our front yards and take away what we enjoy," he wrote. His advice to his frustrated neighbors? They should just get permit parking, too!

For evidence that Qualy and his fellow advocates just don't get it, check out this next sentence: "we pay taxes and we have the right to enjoy our curb space and the privacy of our residential yards." Yes, he does then acknowledge that the streets are public domain, but then brushes that inconvenience off with the assertion that his right to a parking spot somehow needs to be balanced with the rights of others to park on city streets.

I feel sympathy for those who can't find a parking spot. Really, I do. I know how frustrating it can be to circle block after block, looking for something, somewhere, that won't require carrying my bags five blocks home through the rain or snow (I should note that those experiences happened elsewhere; I doubt most Uptowners have ever had to park that far away). But Qualy's desire for a convenient parking spot is not my problem. It's not the city's problem. Most of the residents in the permitted areas have garages; why not park there? And if they don't, or if they have more cars than will fit, or they just prefer to park on the street, well, they have equal right to a parking spot on their block as does anyone else.

Uptown has always been a busy place. It was, if anything, actually busier in years past. These people knew when they bought their homes or signed the lease that the streets could get crowded at times. They could have chosen to live elsewhere. Parking difficulties are something to factor in when deciding where to live; if it's something that is of great importance to you then you need to either live somewhere with a garage, perhaps rent a garage from a neighbor, or find somewhere else to live.

In many cities parking is not seen as a fundamental right of home ownership. A spot out in front is a perk, and homes with garages come with higher price tags. Apartments don't guarantee parking spots; they're available if you want one, but you have to pay for the privilege. I'd be open to the possibilty of limited parking without permits - perhaps a time limit for parking without a permit or some other gesture of goodwill - but we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that the streets are city property, and as such do not belong in private hands.

The permit parking pushers have somehow managed to pressure the city into giving them unwarranted special considerations. Permit parking - at least not as it is set up now - is not the answer. I hope that the next Ward 10 Council Member will have the willingness and the political might to stand up to this small but vocal group of residents and to give the streets back to the people - all of the people - to whom they really belong.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Edgewater Irony

When the historic Edgewater apartment building was demolished and a fancy new condo built in its place, Uptown residents had a fit. I can understand - I liked the old Edgewater apartments, and wish that they were still there (in livable condition, of course). I know that there were legitimate concerns and questions raised during the broader community discussions. Still, some of the controversy really rubs me the wrong way, and illustrates some of the conflict bubbling under the neighborhood's surface.

Take, for instance, a January 2007 Uptown Neighborhood News article titled "The Edgewater: Gateway to Uptown or Uptown's First Gated Community?" The article, although filled with details about the new Edgewater project, never actually explains how it qualifies as a "gated community." Given the attention lavished by the authors on the condo building's luxury finishes, I'm guessing it's because the condos were to be inhabited by rich people.

I'm not going to get into the details of the Edgewater itself or whether or not it should have been built. I just think it's rather silly for a group of ECCO residents, most of them homeowners, few, if any, exactly poverty-stricken, bashing the Edgewater for being expensive. Prices for other ECCO lakeview homes, if they hadn't noticed, were also sky-high. In some ways one could argue that a condo building is more egalitarian than are the large single-family homes lining the lake; at least at the Edgewater more people can be stacked in the same land footprint.

Uptown does have a housing problem. It can be difficult for some people to afford to buy or rent in the neighborhood. But for the residents of ECCO to bash, even indirectly, the future owners of Edgewater condos for being elitist or too flush with cash is simply a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

Friday, February 20, 2009

When Is "Near, but Not In" Enough?

One of my recent posts ("Filling in the Gaps: Things I Wish Were in Uptown") was recently picked up by the Secrets of the City, giving a broader spectrum of readers the chance to weigh in on their personal visions for Uptown. There were some great suggestions (personal favorites include a toy store, gay bar, and Norwegian sweaters) but what really got me thinking was one poster's comment that both a farmer's market and good Mexican food both exist within relatively close proximity to Uptown. This is true, of course, but where does one draw the line between unnecessary and necessary (or at least desirable) duplication of services? It's an issue I've been struggling with for some time now, and for me, at least, I think the answer is that - unscientific as it sounds - I'll know it when I see it.

Unnecessary duplication homogenizes neighborhoods: In an ideal world every urban neighborhood would contain (and support) core basics. Everyone deserves to have a grocery store or market within close walking distance to their home; same with a pharmacy, a laundromat (or dry cleaner), a coffee shop, and other similar businesses. I'd like to think that every neighborhood could have their own bookstore, a basic array of restaurants (my personal must-haves would include Thai, Chinese, pizza, tacos/burritos, and a greasy American diner type of place), bakery, pet store, and hardware store. The exact mix doesn't need to be the same in every neighborhood, and it's that individual blend that helps create a distinct neighborhood feel.

Independent stores make duplication less of an issue. I like certain local chains - Davanni's and Dunn Brothers, for example - but wouldn't want to see one in every neighborhood. Independent, one-site-only businesses, even those located within walking distance of other businesses of similar types in adjacent neighborhoods, help define local communities. This doesn't work for all businesses - some stores simply need to draw from a larger area to survive - but others, your local neighborhood burrito purveyor, for example, have a better chance of making a go of it by serving primarily their immediate neighborhood. Sometimes you don't want to walk ten or fifteen blocks just to get a good taco/bagel/boba tea/ice cream cone.

Physical distance alone doesn't necessarily matter. Uptown is fairly close to the main Minneapolis farmer's market. I wouldn't suggest that an Uptown farmer's market would or could ever replace it, or even provide much direct competition. The farmer's market on Lyndale is both socially and physically separated from Uptown; Uptowners can and do walk or bike there, but once you go past Loring Park and the freeway it ceases to offer that larger community feel. It does provide a broader Minneapolis/Twin Cities appeal - certainly something to embrace and support - but I think, in this case, an Uptown farmer's market offers far more than just good food. It offers a sense of local community, and is therefore not an unnecessary duplication of services.

The Creative Kidstuff question: I've been thinking for some time now how nice it would be to once again have a toy store in Uptown. There used to be a great one in Calhoun Square; I think it was there for most of the 1980s, and possibly some of the 1990s. There is, however, a perfectly nice toy store - a major destination in its own right - in nearby Linden Hills. Creative Kidstuff is, after all, only a short bus or bike ride, walk, or drive away from Uptown (and is sort of the Minneapolis Farmer's Market of local toy stores). Given the close proximity, then, does Uptown really need a toy store of its own? Speaking from a community point of view (and not as a potential shop owner worrying about profits), then yes, Uptown could benefit from its own toy store. An independent toy store with its own unique vibe and inventory would be a great asset to the neighborhood. Linden Hills helps define that neighborhood; a great toy store in Uptown would help further define Uptown and to distinguish it as a separate and unique community from its neighbors.

Really, when it comes down to it, not every neighborhood needs or wants every given type of store or business. Sometimes just having something close is good enough. In other cases, though, I think it's appropriate and desirable for Uptown residents to be able to enjoy a broad array of businesses in their own backyards. It won't stop anyone from going out to explore the many other fascinating areas of the city, but it will provide people options for those times they just want to stay near home.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Strib's Chris Riemenschneider is Too Cool for Uptown

For those who haven't yet read it, check out the Star Tribune columnist Chris Riemenschneider's recent rant about the current state of Uptown. Riemenschneider is so clueless about Uptown and its larger context that it's hard to know even where to start. A sampling of Riemenschneider's arguments, assertions, and misconceptions, and my responses:
  • Uptown is like Riverplace, Block E, or City Center. Riemenschneider leads off by listing off a whole host of heavily city-funded package projects, most of which had brief periods of success before slowly fading off into the sunrise. His basic fundamental mistake? Uptown is NOT like any of his examples. Uptown is not a single project. It is a neighborhood, and even if you only consider the commercial district, it is still a complex mosaic of buildings, stores, offices, and residences owned and operated (and lived in) by many different people.
  • Uptown is Calhoun Square. No, he doesn't outright state this, but does call Calhoun Square Uptown's epicenter, and it is perhaps this basic belief that Uptown is Calhoun Square that leads him to think of it as in the same category of the big projects listed above. Calhoun Square is essential to Uptown's commercial success, certainly, but Uptown existed for many years before its opening. The community at large can and has worked hard to hash out a unified vision for the future, but one of the strengths of an urban neighborhood is that they evolve organically over time. Sometimes things work, sometimes they don't, but that's the nature of city life - and why Uptown is more interesting than Block E, Mall of America, or any other single development. Calhoun Square is just one (admittedly important) component out of many.
  • Uptown is 20 years old. Again, not outright stated, but seems to be the logical conclusion to be drawn from his rant. I would say he thinks Uptown dates to the opening of Calhoun Square, but his references to "shuttered old mainstays" include only Campiello and Josi Wert, two businesses that date back only to the 1990s (Calhoun Square was built in the early 1980s). His lack of longterm historical perspective invalidates his larger argument that Uptown is "failing" and can be compare to short-lived Minneapolis "entertainment districts." Businesses come and go; it's a fact of life in any commercial district. And with Uptown's commercial core dating back almost a century, it goes almost without saying that a great many wonderful businesses, mainstays included (Rainbow Cafe, anyone?), have shut their doors over the years. It's ironic that he looks to the '90s as his vision of Uptown's heyday, as it was back then that everyone was up in arms as national chain stores started to arrive. I'm sure some other columnist will come along in another ten years and write about how 2009 was back before Uptown had sold out and lost its edge.
  • Developers are to blame (as always). This seems to be a favorite around Uptown. Developers - especially the ones who dare to build condos - are all out to force a bland, suburban-style neighborhood on the rest of us. I don't always like new developments, and readily agree that not all developers have the interests of the neighborhood in mind, but why have developers become the bad guys everyone loves to hate? Many of them are dedicated to good urban design, and want their buildings to strenghten the neighborhood and to embrace its unique characteristics. I don't particularly like modern condo buildings - give me a nice classic 1920s apartment any day - but if they offer more housing choices, bring in more people, and fill in empty or underutilized lots, then what's the problem? Oh, yeah, the problem is, of course:
  • People who live in modern condos aren't hip. They are pretentious yuppies who should be living in Eagan. No, not stated formally, but he does take extensive shots at local salons, people's choice of hair style, and "upchucked" newly constructed condos. I find this funny because it is the people in the new condos - people who have chosen to plunk down money to live within close walking distance of Uptown's many amenities - who are going to help provide the economic boost and support necessary to bring back Uptown's round-the-clock vibrancy of the "cooler" hipper years gone past.

So does Riemenschneider's article have any good points? Well, yes, although he's not exactly providing breaking news or even cutting edge analysis. He points out that there are lots of empty storefronts, that business seems to be hurting, and that Uptown could benefit from more customers. I'm sure that the business community and the neighborhood's residents all would agree (except for those that think business brings traffic, of course...) Unfortunately that's not an Uptown problem - it's a larger, MUCH larger, economic problem of international proportions.

Riemenschneider points to the Uptown Bar as a shining beacon of light, the purveyor of secrets that will save the neighborhood. He likes its grunginess, it's authenticity, its vibrancy and diversity. All completely understandable. I think most people in Uptown want more, not less, of the "creative and independent entrepreneurs" he cites. Complaining about the loss of the good old days, however, whether those be the '70s, 80s, '90s, or some other decade (I think the '40s sound pretty exciting, myself) doesn't do much to help. And for someone who proclaims to like diversity, he sure demonstrates a strong dislike of anyone he thinks is pretentious or simply uncool (i.e. anyone who appears to have used expensive hair products, shops at Urban Outfitters, or lives in a condo.).

Uptown is always evolving. People are always complaining about change. And yes, sometimes the change is for the worse. Most of us want a return to a greater daytime streetlife. But at the same time, Uptown does continue to offer an array of evening entertainment options, and that's not a bad thing, either. And for Riemenschneider's salons, the subject of so much derision? Even most cool hip people like him need to get their hair cut sometime. And if they combine a trip to the salon with a visit to the bookstore, a drink at the Uptown Bar, and a swing through Lunds to pick up some groceries, well, then that's doing something to help build the kind of livable neighborhood that has the necessary density of shoppers needed to support the creative vibrant businesses that we all love.

(And, as an aside, I bet Riemendschneider doesn't know that the owner of his beloved Josi Wert once managed Uptown's Urban Outfitters - a store he repeatedly bashes in his article, along with its customers.)

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Neighborhood Board Diversity that REALLY Matters

We like to talk about diversity a lot. Uptown in particular likes to pride itself on its "diversity," even if the reality is that it's not all that diverse. Usually when people are talking about diversity they're talking about race and ethnicity, but here in Uptown - as with elsewhere - diversity can and should be a great deal more than just race or ethnicity alone.

Some other examples of diversity to consider in Uptown:
  • Age
  • Marital Status
  • Households with children
  • Income level
  • Type of work
  • Political party
  • Sexual orientation
  • Nationality
  • Language spoken at home

I'm sure there are many more categories you could add to the list. The biggest diversity in Uptown, though, isn't just race or age or income; the biggest issue, particularly when it comes to the neighborhood boards, is renter versus owner.

Uptown and its neighborhoods are inhabited primarily by renters. Shouldn't it follow that the neighborhood boards are dominated by renters? In reality, renters are few and far between. Relatively new ECCO board member Anders Imboden (brother to former CARAG renter and board member Thatcher Imboden) is the only, or at least one of a very few, renters on that neighborhood's board. The other neighborhood boards have equally dismal renter participants, although some neighborhoods have been more successful than others. CARAG, for example, has 2 renters and 8 homeowners (plus one board member living in a parish). In a city system that looks towards these boards as the local voice of the masses, this skewed renter/owner schism is obviously a major problem.

Why don't renters join the board? Or should the question be why do home owners join the board? It makes sense if you think about it. While both owners and renters have an investment in the neighborhood, owners have a long-term economic motivation. A desirable neighborhood increases their home value. Conversely, a crime-ridden, unpleasant neighborhood means home values will go down and homes will be harder to sell. A renter wants a nice neighborhood, too, but they have the option of bailing out cheaply and easily if the neighborhood becomes dangerous or just unpleasant. They also face the opposite risk of putting in too much work, dramatically improving the neighborhood, and then seeing their rents go up as a result. I doubt most renters or owners think it through in this much detail, but it's obvious that there are more incentives for owners to get involved.

Renters, too, are diverse in perhaps a broader sense than are Uptown's homeowners. Renters range from young college students living with roommates to old people who have lived here for many decades. Renters, especially the younger ones, might be more likely to have jobs with evening hours; if you're waiting tables at night, for example, you're not going to be able to make it to regular board meetings no matter how much you love the neighborhood. A larger percentage of renters do probably just see themselves as temporarily passing through; for every longterm renter there is another who see Uptown as a fun place to live for a couple of years before settling down somewhere else.

It's also worth noting that renters and homeowners have many of the same concerns. Crime, environmental issues, transportation, parks, among other things, all impact everyone. Also, just because someone owns a home does not mean that they aren't concerned about the issues facing renters, or vice-versa.

As I've said elsewhere, I think the neighborhood boards would gladly welcome more diversity in their ranks. The time has come to go beyond just openness and towards active recruitment. Every neighborhood should have a nomination committee, as well as a renter outreach committee. It's possible that many interested renters may never have even considered joining a neighborhood board. Perhaps there are some renters who think you have to own a home to participate. In any case, it's the job of the neighborhood to go out to their residents and make sure that everyone feels involved and welcomed. The result would not just be a more diverse board, but also an overall increased sense of larger community.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Booze is Bad. Bad, Bad, Bad!

Alcohol has long been a hot topic in Uptown. The issue has only grown in stature as Uptown's daytime/evening balance has tipped increasingly towards more bars and restaurants and fewer daytime retail shops and amenities. There have been alcohol-related incidents of vandalism, not to mention loud and messy drunks on the sidewalks, sloshed drivers on our streets, and other negative impacts of too much booze.

There is a balance to be struck. Minnesota still has remnants of its teetotaler (dare I say uptight?) past, and a knee-jerk aversion to alcohol and its evils can still be readily found. Perhaps as a result of this it becomes clear when looking back over recent Uptown history that the neighborhood's internal conflict over the appropriate role of alcohol in the neighborhood is alive and well.

Alcohol is a part of Uptown life, for both good and bad. Wine tastings are a regular occurrence, with revenue from one such event going to benefit the neighborhoods themselves.

I think that most Uptowners are pretty understanding about liquor. We realize that responsible adults should be able to enjoy beer or wine with a meal or have a drink at an area bar. We also know that there are those who abuse alcohol. Rather than putting all of the blame itself on the booze - not an inherently bad or even unhealthy drink if consumed in reasonable amounts - let's focus on making sure that area restaurants and bars are following the relevant laws. Definitely crack down on drunk drivers. If problem drunks seem to be originating from one place, then by all means let's address that specific issue. But periodic hysteric and ridiculous statements of the "booze is bad" type simply distract from the bigger issues.

Take, for example, the 2006 debate over whether to allow the sale of beer and wine at the Tin Fish restaurant by Lake Calhoun. The Tin Fish claimed that their liquor license application came at the request of neighborhood customers themselves. The ECCO Board had mixed feelings on the matter, with at least one board member noting the appeal of a nice glass of wine with dinner. One board member, however, voiced an all-too-common viewpoint of the booze-is-bad crowd:

Do we really need to have alcohol in the park, where kids have to sit and watch?

(Uptown Area News, May 2006)

Heaven forbid a child actually observe an adult sip a glass of wine or a light beer. Luckily for the most part Uptown area boards and residents are trying to take a somewhat fair approach, acknowledging the benefits of alcohol in moderation and trying to reduce the negative impacts that come with too much of it. It can be a tricky balance, but with open communication, a willingness to see multiple sides of an issue, and continued close relationships with the various constituencies involved (businesses, police, neighborhoods, etc.) Uptown should be able to tackle the booze problem.

Now just imagine the sparks that would fly if someone were to announce the construction of a highrise lakeside building with a rooftop open-air bar...

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Uptown's History's Not History Yet!

Good news for you historians, historical preservationists, and anyone who thinks "character" is impacted as much by the historical layers of a neighborhood as by height: the Wedge (LHENA) has announced that the neighborhood is officially starting a Historic Preservation Committee. Among other things, committee members will attempt to establish a LHENA historic district.

The Wedge is filled with a plethora of historic homes, as well as historic commercial and industrial buildings. A historic district will focus attention on this historic heritage, and, one hopes, assist the neighborhood when it comes to preserving and maintaining these interesting and attractive properties in the long run.

Too often Uptown's history is overlooked. Yes, people know that the area has been around a long time, and yes, many people like the old homes, but a focus on historic architecture or landscapes tends to be folded into vague statements about neighborhood character. The Uptown Small Area Plan, for all of its many strengths, failed to adequately address this issue. Maybe this committee will help to make historic preservation a larger, or at least more visible, issue in Uptown.

The historic preservationists should be careful, however, to remember that historic architecture is not the be-all, end-all of a neighborhood's historic character. Cities are an evolving thing, and the best urban neighborhoods incorporate both the past and the present in a vibrant, living thing. Some preservationists also get bogged down by architects and architecture; I urge the members of this new LHENA committee to spend equal time thinking about historical elements beyond simply interesting or quality historic architecture. Buildings did not exist in a void, and the Wedge may have non-building historic elements deserving of preservation. Those could include things such as gardens, industrial spaces, or other landscapes. Cultural history, too, should be considered. In short, historic preservation is not just about the "best" examples of an architectural style.

Finally, another common fault with neighborhood preservationist movements is to too often focus exclusively on homes. LHENA is also home to some interesting commercial and industrial properties - the Greenway, for example, runs through its southern end and shouldn't lose sight of its industrial heritage - and these should be included in any discussion of potential Wedge historic districts.

Hats off to the Wedge and its residents for their commitment to considering the role of the past in the shaping of the future.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Remember When Uptown Was "Bad"?

Remember back when people were scared to visit Uptown? When it was seedy and scary and "bad?" When people with kids moved away to "safer" neighborhoods? No? Well, I don't either, and I've been around more than a couple of decades.

This is a common enough refrain, though. I suppose each person has his or her own definition of what makes a neighborhood "bad." Still, despite occasional pockets of crime or problem houses, the main Uptown neighborhoods - CARAG, the Wedge, East Isles, and ECCO - have never been considered scary places to live or visit. Well, maybe they were by some people, but those people probably think everyone in city limits packs heat anyway.

So who is saying this and why do they continue to do so? A 2006 Uptown Neighborhood News profile of ECCO board member Tim Prinsen, a "born and bred" Minnesotan who moved to Uptown in 2001, remembers the '90s as a time when "people used to be nervous about coming into Uptown." While that is undoubtedly true, I think it's also fair to say that many of those people were basing their fear not on facts, but on misperceptions. And, unfortunately, perceptions take on the mantle of reality, especially when it comes to city neighborhoods. I doubt that many people actually living in Uptown at the time considered it to be scary or dangerous.

Although I don't fault Prinsen for that statement (yes, some people were nervous about Uptown although unjustifably so), I don't agree with him on his next point: "Tim remembers a time when young couples would move to the area, but once they had children they would move out. Tim and his wife are an example of how that is no longer the case."

I was born in Uptown. I grew up in Uptown, as did many other kids on my block, in my neighborhood, and at my school. If anything, Prinsen has it backwards. Young couples used to come to Uptown because they could afford to raise a family here. In more recent years young couples with children are moving away, not because they don't want to raise their kids here, but because they can't afford to buy a home in the neighborhood. I think it's wonderful that he and his family are able to live here, and hope that more families will have the opportunity to follow in their footsteps. An integrated community filled with people from all stages of life will make this a better place for all of us.

It would be one thing if this was just one isolated example of a reference to Uptown's scary past, but the revisionist history of Uptown's bad years is still around. Take Lara Norkus-Crampton's recent comments to the Southwest Journal, for example. I've discussed it in prior posts, but it bears repeating. "This area wasn't always seen as such a perfect place," attests Norkus-Crampton, There were parts of Uptown considered borderline." Norkus-Crampton is an ECCO resident and, unfortunately, a Minneapolis Planning Commissioner (as well as a newly-announced Ward 10 City Council candidate). I don't know what her definition of "borderline" is, but her comments only reinforce my impression that she is either unaware of Uptown's true history, or, possibly, finds the very attributes that made Uptown so popular to so many people - the "weird" and the artsy, the economically, age, and racially diverse, people who work blue collar jobs - to be uncomfortable.

In Lara Norkus-Crampton and other's defense, I suppose, I should note that Uptown in the 1960s and 1970s had its issues. It was, in fact, a very controversial designation of Hennepin and Lake as "blighted" that paved the way for the creation of Calhoun Square. Maybe Norkus-Crampton is talking about this era, although to many people Uptown wasn't "borderline" even then, it was just dumpier and and not as yuppified. What I just can't understand, as much as I think about it, is how anyone can make an argument that Uptown of the late '80s into the '90s was somehow a dangerous or even borderline neighborhood.

I'm tired of revisionist history. Uptown has had its ups and downs, but there's no point in highlighting a "bad" or "borderline" past that just doesn't exist. Why, then, do people insist on perpetuating this myth? Perhaps they like to envision themselves as urban cowboys, living in a tough neighborhood, turning it around through the toils of their labor. Or perhaps they just think living in a neighborhood without a North Face was really slumming it.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

CARAG's Transportation & Energy Committee - The Most Efficient Option?

One of the CARAG board committees has long been the Transportation Committee. Duties were pretty obvious: keep an eye on transportation issues relevant to the neighborhood. These include things such as road construction, bus lines and stops, changes to stop signs or stop lights, and, in recent years, discussions relating to the Southwest light rail line and its possible Uptown route. In other words, pretty obvious stuff, and all very important to quality of life in the neighborhood.

In December, however, the CARAG board voted to change the committee and its responsibilities. The new committee: The Transportation and Energy Committee. Its members will continue its transportation role, but will now also "explore opportunities for the community to reduce energy costs, improve energy efficiency, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions."

Does anyone else out there think this is weird? On the one hand, I do understand some of the reasoning: transportation involves cars, cars create greenhouse gas emissions. Public transportation and bikes reduce gas emissions. Therefore, Transportation and Energy might as well be clumped together to save everyone some meeting time. On the other hand, doesn't this just dilute the committee's overall purpose? Why not just create two separate committees, committees that can meet jointly when their interests overlap? Not all transportation issues relate to energy efficiency, and certainly not all energy issues relate to transportation.

My other concern with this newly expanded committee is the larger judgement call that it seems to make. By putting energy and transportation together, CARAG is sending the message that the committee's overall goal is "energy and transportation," and not "energy" AND "transportation." That statement, intentional or not, makes it more difficult for the committee - a committee of volunteers with limited time - to fully discuss the many issues relating to energy and to transportation that may fall outside of the "energy and transportation" category.

Don't get me wrong, I certainly think it's admirable that CARAG consider the larger environmental issues relating to transportation and transportation. I just think that two separate committees - one for transportation, and one dealing specifically with environmental issues, including but not exclusively those relating to energy - would be a better use of, well, energy.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Reasons to Make Your Voice Heard - Part I

If you don't speak out, whether literally - through participation at neighborhood or city meetings, or perhaps informal events like those happy hours and breakfasts with Ralph Remington - then at least through the written word.

If you don't make your voice heard, there are plenty of other people out there who are happy to speak on your behalf. I've come across so many ridiculous things in my recent Uptown research that are in need of sharing. I'm going to highlight a few of those from time to time; think of them as a reminder that there are a broad range of visions and opinions in this neighborhood. Speak up now or risk the consequences.

And now, for example number one. Remember all the fuss back in 2006 about having a hotel in Uptown? I always considered it a no-brainer: argue the merits of the location and design, if you want, but a hotel itself (done well) would be, and I hope will be, a huge asset to the neighborhood. Not everyone agrees with that, of course. Some highlights from this concerned ECCO resident (name withheld to protect her from ridicule, as she's not a public figure), in a letter to the editor published in the Uptown Neighborhood News in August 2006:

"According to the developer, hotels run at 75% occupancy.
That means approximately 23,000-plus people
need to pass through this hotel's door per year."

Yes? And they would then of course pass into the neighborhood, spending their money and shoring up Uptown's economy. But, of course, this writer doesn't agree with me on that point:

"These people are not neighbors with vested interest in your community;
they are people who will impact your livability."

You'd think the hotel was going to be renting rooms by the hour and selling crack in the lobby. She has a point, though; these customers will impact neighborhood livability. And, if done well, it would be in a good way.

And, this being Uptown, you can't have a critique without ultimately getting back to height:

"This project will loom over the neighborhoods. Do you want a complete stranger looking into your backyard as your family barbecues and your children play?

Because, as we all know, hotel residents have nothing better to do than stand in the window, scanning the horizon looking for family barbecues to watch. Perhaps the hotel had plans to issue binoculars upon check-in?

Let that be a lesson to all of you. Don't grill nude or while wearing funny hats. Oh, and the next time you hear about a project you like take the time to voice your support. Unless, of course, you want your more vocal neighbors to speak on your behalf.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

I Take a Gander at the Girard Meander

With new construction at both Calhoun Square and the new Mozaic space comes the opportunity for a new public thoroughfare. The plan is that the portion of Girard between Mozaic's plaza and Lake street, and from there Calhoun Square, will become what has been dubbed the "Girard Meander." The Meander will be open to cars, but will be designed to be easily closed off for evening or weekend events.

The Uptown Small Area Plan says "the street [Girard Meander] should be designed to be closed on occasion for festivals, events, and markets." This sounds great, especially the market thing - I hope that it's a sign that there is a movement from somewhere within Uptown to get a farmer's market going.

I think it's a great idea: create a public space that will perhaps be truly public (unlike Calhoun Square, which remains in private hands) and can be used for a variety of outdoor public functions. Wide sidewalks are a wonderful thing, especially if they can accommodate outdoor patios and other amenities of fun city living.

My only problem with the Girard Meander? It's got to be the world's stupidest name. "Girard Meander." It sounds like it was made up by some mall marketing firm. Does everything need to have a name? And do they need to sound so artificial? It's not like there's a meandering river winding its way up Girard. It's just a street with some sidewalks. A nice street, perhaps, but that doesn't mean we have to give it a dumb name befitting of some new development in Chaska.

The Girard Meander? It's a good thing. "Girard Meander?" I hope you never catch me calling it by such a ridiculous moniker.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Should Neighborhood Activists Be Required to Take Logic 101?

Combing through old neighborhood board minutes, newspaper articles, and other documents, one thing is crystal clear: there are a lot of people in Uptown who are, to put it nicely, not taking the time to think things through.

I'd like to give them some credit. Newspapers, minutes, and other written documents don't always give the full story. Things are edited, taken out of context, and can otherwise distort otherwise logical questions. (Remember that scene in My Cousin Vinnie? The one where "I shot the clerk?!?!" became "I shot the clerk" in the courtroom?)

That said, here's another bit from the annals of recent Uptown history. I can't get over this height stuff. I agree that Uptown isn't downtown, but don't think a few tall buildings - done appropriately and in the right context - are going to send the neighborhood free falling into darkness, either. Apparently that opinion is not shared by many of those holding neighborhood board positions.

So, with no additional fanfare, here's some tidbits taken from the reactions to the 2007 unveiling of the as-then still uncompleted Uptown Small Area Plan:

Howard Verson, CARAG President and therefore someone with neighborhood clout, was wearing his height-colored glasses. "Has there been enough discussion about height and character?" he asked in the Uptown Neighborhood News. Um, yes, Mr. Verson, just the MILLION comments that you and the other "height=character" folks have brought up again and again over the years.

Verson then went on to share his logic with the readers of the Uptown Neighborhood News. Verson, no surprise, "doesn't buy" the "concept of taller buildings on a retail basis": "He [Verson] cited Laurel Village, on Hennepin between downtown and Loring Park, as having a poor retail environment and a dead street zone/life. He also noted that the Village Green apartment/retail projects on Lake Street at Aldrich and at Fremont have had a very limited retail success." (Uptown Neighborhood News, June 2007)

So the logic here, broken down, seems to be as follows:

Laurel Village is (sort of) tall.
Laurel Village is boring and has no street life.
Therefore, tall buildings mean a boring, dead street life.
Village Green is (sort of) tall.
Village Green has had limited retail success.
Therefore, tall buildings have limited retail success.

Am I missing something? It's admittedly been awhile since I took a logic class. Apparently it's been a few years for Verson, too. If he was in my class, though, those theorems wouldn't pass muster.

Height is but one factor of many in the larger picture of what makes up a successful neighborhood environment. Height should absolutely be factored into any discussion of a new development and its impact on the street, on the block, and on the neighborhood. But it's illogical to write off tall buildings simply because they are tall, or to place Laurel Village's problems on height alone. By focusing so narrowly on one aspect these neighborhood activists - who do, like all of us, want a nice, livable neighborhood (even if we sometimes have different definitions) - run the risk of missing the bigger picture. Or, as the saying goes, of not seeing the forest through the trees. Or of not seeing the vibrant, attractive, interesting neighborhood through the building height.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Filling in the Gaps: Things I Wish Were in Uptown

I might complain about the people who spend their time trying to make Uptown into something that it's not, never has been, and never should become, but that doesn't mean that I don't have my own wish list of things that would make this neighborhood better place to live. The difference, I think, is that my list builds on what Uptown already has, rather than trying to fundamentally change the area and its nature. I think these additions will only improve the neighborhood and boost its already-considerable assets.

So, in no particular order, here's a wish list for Uptown:
  1. A Farmer's Market. What's not to love? A weekly farmer's market gives locals the chance to buy fresh, locally-grown food, all while enjoying wandering around outdoors with your friends and family. The best farmer's markets offer something for everyone: fruits and vegetables, of course, but also local soaps, nuts, crafts, prepared foods, and entertainment. They attract a diverse audience, and would be beneficial to all of Uptown's various constituencies. A farmer's market could truly be a community gathering place. Our farmer's market should accept food stamps, welcome and encourage Uptown vendors, offer a broad selection of food, including "ethnic" options, and be open as much of the year as possible.
  2. Good Mexican food. Minneapolis has plenty of good Mexican restaurants and bakeries in other neighborhoods - let's get some more taco and burrito options in Uptown itself. I'd like both more authentic cheap taco stand-type places as well as perhaps a more formal sit-down place.
  3. A Post Office. It doesn't have to be a full-service place, just a basic substation will do. Remember when Calhoun Square used to have one tucked away in the back? This is such a neighborhood essential - let's figure out how to get one back.
  4. A Light Rail Station. Really, is there any need to explain this? The vast majority of Uptown residents want our neighborhood plugged into the larger Twin Cities transit network, and buses alone aren't the option. Let's all cross our fingers (and send some emails) and hope that Uptown gets its much-needed station.
  5. A Community Garden. Check out the Dowling Community Garden for an interesting example of how these can work. Uptown - especially apartment-dense areas such as those found in the Wedge and in parts of CARAG - could really benefit from one of these. It's healthy, provides yet more sense of community-building opportunities, environmentally-friendly, and gives everyone a chance to get outside and enjoy the benefits - health, taste, and economic - of growing produce or even just flowers.

This is just a partial list, of course, but any or all of these things would certainly add to my quality of life. Here's to hoping that they all come true.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Sky is Falling! (Or is It Just Hidden?)

In the spirit of revisiting longstanding disputes, let's take a moment to consider the issue of height in Uptown. Or, more specifically, to address the idea that somehow Uptown's sky is under constant threat of disappearing behind a wall of skyscrapers if it were not for the ongoing neighborhood vigilance.

You may remember a few years ago when a small but vocal group of angry Uptown residents rose up in anger about the proposed Mozaic development on Lagoon and Girard. The building, originally designed to be 13 stories high, had a twisted shape designed to minimize its shadow or impact on other buildings. The location, too, was tucked behind the Lagoon Theater and the Midtown Greenway; it was not exactly towering over local homes.

The problem? Uptown residents - even those living five or more blocks away - were afraid that they wouldn't be able to "see the sky." The building's design became a flashpoint for that year's City Council race.

"I like to be able to see the sky."
-Lara Norkus-Crampton, ECCO resident and
current Minneapolis Planning Commissioner

The great irony of this controversy seems to be that the building was designed in a way to minimize excess bulk and to best preserve views. While not completely up on all of the details of the way the project evolved, my understanding is that the current, approved version is a shorter, squatter design. And again, this building is in the center of the commercial core of Uptown - it is NOT sitting in a residential block or on the edge of Lake Calhoun. It's negative visual impact would be minimal, and to some it would have even served as a welcome addition to Uptown's built environment.

To Norkus-Crampton and her fellow neighborhood activists, however, this fight was about one thing: height. The trend unfortunately seems to have continued. What they fail to realize, or perhaps just simply disregard, is that height is one aspect of many when it comes to good urban design. Unfortunately these sky-is-falling types have focused all of their attention on one element of Uptown life at the expense of the bigger picture. With luck the Uptown Small Area Plan, hashed out after 18 months of meetings, will provide some relief on the height/development argument front, and will allow this upcoming Ward 10 City Council race to move on to other, pressing concerns.

Norkus-Crampton is far from the only Uptowner worried that tall buildings anywhere in the vicinity will slowly but surely destroy the neighborhood. She is, however, arguably the most successful: she was nominated in 2006 by Major Rybak (and subsequently approved) to serve on the City's Planning Commission (noticeably missing from the new Commission was veteran Judith Martin, former Commission President, University President, and all-around urban planning guru. -Seriously, Norkus-Crampton over Martin?!?). I have nothing against Norkus-Crampton personally; I'm sure she's a friendly and an intelligent person and I know that she loves the neighborhood and the city. But her sky-is-falling comments about Uptown's presumably one-slip-up-from-Manhattan skyline and her ongoing concern about "overdevelopment" in Uptown show that she has a massively different opinion on the subject than do the majority of other, quieter, city-loving residents. Unfortunately she and the other loud anti-development types have an inordinate clout when it comes to presenting the public face of the neighborhood's hopes and desires.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Who ARE These People, and Why Do They Live Here?!?

I've been spending more time combing through the Uptown Small Area Plan - both the main document and its appendices. The USAP is a must-read for anyone interested in Uptown. You, like me, might wish you had had the opportunity to fully participate in the formation of the plan, but that doesn't mean that the future of Uptown is a done deal. It's never too late to get involved, or too late to have your voice heard.

OK, enough with the lecture. Let's move on to some of the most intriguing elements of the USAP: the meeting summaries in the appendix. Specifically, to a November night back in 2006. Yes, that's more than two years ago, but most of the same people are still around, and as I've said before, I bet most of them have the same opinions now as they did then. Before getting into the meat of my complaints (expressions of amazement?) let me first acknowledge that diversity of opinion can be a great thing. I think it's wonderful that so many residents and stakeholders came out to express their vision for the future. That said, there's some scary opinions in there - and I think it's an even scarier thing that these viewpoints are most likely held by a small but vocal (and influential) minority.

On November 8 and 8, 2006, approximately 160 people came together to lay out their vision for Uptown. They gathered in groups of five to eight people and together dreamed about the future. They then shared their visions with the group, and through the finalized Uptown Small Area Plan's appendices, to the rest of us.

The Question: What do you want Uptown to look like and feel like in the future?

The Answers: I agree with most of the answers. I won't go into details here (read it for yourself online), but generally people wanted a mix of business and residential offerings, good transportation, green space, a diversity (in all senses of the word), and a sense of distinct place. Some people, however, had some more extreme views. Some of the highlights:

No LRT station in Uptown.

What? Who in their right mind would prefer there NOT to be a light rail station in Uptown? They would prefer to leave Uptown out of the greater long-term train transit grid that will - one hopes - once again cross the city? This wasn't just one group, either; several groups expressed this hope. I think some of these people have some romantic notion of streetcars connecting Uptown with other transit points. I doubt that these residents actually take public transportation themselves. I can't imagine an actual Minneapolis transit rider based in Uptown actually preferring to decrease their public transportation options. I'll have to post more on this later, but in the meantime let me just say that Uptowners need to unite and make one last push to ensure that the next LRT line comes through Uptown.

Dinner and movie destinations close up at midnight on the weekend and 10 pm on weeknights.

Who are these people? Why do they live here? There are many other nice options in town, many of them also in close proximity to the lakes. I certainly don't want an environment where people drink too much, drive drunk through the streets, drunkenly sing as they stagger their way home, or otherwise cause a public nuisance, but this idea that dinner and movies should close up early is crazy. Bonkers. Bad for the neighborhood. I can't imagine that there are more than a few people in Uptown who feel like this, but unfortunately their participation in this exercise probably gives them a greater statistical importance than they deserve. What's next, a ban on dancing?

Uptown is a place that Linden Hills is envious of. [sic]

Ha, I knew it. Proof that there are people in Uptown who would prefer that their supposedly beloved, "unique" neighborhood turn into another Linden Hills. Linden Hills is a wonderful neighborhood. It offers a great deal to its residents and to visitors. It is, in short, an all-around fabulous place to live. So why don't these Uptown residents choose to live there? I certainly don't follow the "if you don't like it you can just leave" model of neighborhood planning; everyone has a right to his or her opinion about where they live, and can and should work to make their visions a reality. But that still doesn't explain why someone would purchase a home in Uptown - knowing full well that Uptown is a busier, louder, more urban kind of neighborhood - and then complain about it.

Linden Hills is not better or worse than Uptown, and Uptown is not better or worse than Linden Hills. The two neighborhoods offer different amenities and lifestyles. They each have their pluses and minuses. Uptown has no reason to be envious of Linden Hills, and I don't know why Linden Hills would ever be envious of Uptown. These are two complementary neighborhoods that, taken together, offer Minneapolis residents (well, those who can afford it - which I have feeling the Uptown complainers probably can) two distinct lifestyle and housing options.

I agree with those who argue that one of Uptown's problems is that local government - in this case the neighborhood boards - do not fully represent the population as a whole. These boards are dominated by older, white homeowners. Certainly many of them do share the interests and opinions of many of their constituents. But others don't. I believe that the boards would be more than willing to open their ranks to those who don't the standard profile. It's not an instance of intentional freezing out of the masses. That doesn't make it any less of a problem, though. It's therefore up to all of us to speak out, become involved whenever possible, and let it be known that most Uptowners moved here because they like Uptown. They like urban neighborhoods. They like public transportation. They like being able to meet up with friends or family for dinner, a movie, even maybe a cocktail (!).

Join your neighborhood board, or at least attend meetings. Read the local papers. Send letters and emails to local politicians. Talk to your friends. Follow the upcoming city council races and demand answers from the candidates. Invite Lara Norkus-Crampton out for a late night beer to discuss planning issues. Uptown is for everyone, and it's time that the silent majority rises up to make their voices heard.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Home, Home on the Range: Where the Beer and the Pizzas Flow

Urban cowpokes will soon have another place to rest their boots soon enough. Cowboy Slim's, the new cowboy-themed restaurant set to open soon in the former Campiello space (1320 W. Lake), is designed to be a "saloon" kind of place, complete with very manly, cowboy grub like steaks, sloppy joes, and fire-oven pizzas - because no self-respecting urban cowboy would hit the range without his very own pizza oven.

I'm a cowboy who never saw a cow
Never roped a steer 'cause I don't know how
And I sure ain't fixin' to start in now*

According to The After Midnight Group, the company behind Cowboy Slim's, the saloon's target demographic is 25 and older and includes families. I have no doubt that the people over at The After Midnight Group know what they're doing - their other venues include Minneapolis establishments such as The Cabooze, Sally's Salon & Eatery, and The Joint Bar. It's just that the concept sounds, well, a little tame. Uptown cowboy saloons should come in two varieties: authentic or campy. A place where the patrons wear real boots or spangled cowboy hats. Or, better yet, both. Instead, I'm envisioning a sanitized, Disney-style "saloon" lacking the edge of the authentic and the entertainment value of the kitsch.

I'm thrilled that there is a company willing to invest in putting in a new business at the Campiello location. The last thing Uptown needs is an empty storefront or building. It does bother me, though, that Cowboy Slim's is nearly identical to its planned sister (brother? pardner?) saloon, Cowboy Jack's, scheduled to open soon in a former T.G.I. Friday's space in Plymouth. True, there are supposedly some differences - suburban cowboys get to eat pizza - but there's something disconcerting about the idea of a themed "saloon" that works equally well in Plymouth as it does in Uptown.

I know all the songs that the cowboys know
'bout the big corral where the dogies go
'cause I learned them on the rad-ee-oh*
I wish Cowboy Slim's good luck. I just hope that their cowboy theme is not yet another mass-produced, suburban-style theme restaurant shoehorned into a neighborhood that values the unique. Time will tell. In the meantime, yippie ki-yay and happy trails and all that. Uptowners, go dust off those hats and go get some onion rings.
(*These lyrics, for you non-cowboy or non-cowboy-wannabe types, are from the song I'm an Old Cowhand From the Rio Grande.)

Does Uptown Have a Sense of Community?

One of the charges sometimes leveled against Uptown is that it lacks a sense of community. Could this possibly be true? And if it true, even if only in part, why is that the case and what can we do about it?

I am not a trained social scientist, but I think a few minutes spent reviewing the Sense of Community Index (SCI), an index used to quantitatively study this exact issue, would be worthwhile. You can read the entire document on the Association for the Study and Development of Community's website, but I'll pick out a few questions or statements from the questionnaire for consideration:

"Community members and I value the same things." I think this is a source of tension in Uptown; as I mentioned in a previous post, I think there is a "clash of cultures" at work in the neighborhood. Still, there should be enough overriding big issues - safe streets being at the very top - that we can overcome our other differences.

"People in this community have similar needs, priorities, and goals." Again, I'm not trained in this stuff. I have some questions on this particular point. I think a vibrant community has people of all age brackets, and realistically this means that there will be many different needs, priorities, and goals. I hope that an overall shared goal of having a safe and supportive environment in which to live can unite everyone regardless of age, family status, or personal interests.

"I can recognize most of the members of this community." Obviously this is never going to happen for Uptown as a whole. We should aim to recognize everyone living on our block, and beyond that to recognize or know at least some of the other people that we encounter at the parks, at the stores, at the coffee shops, or just out and about the neighborhood.

"Being a member of this community is a part of my identity." This is true for many Uptown residents; for others the neighborhood is just a temporary address as they move forward in life. At least Uptown is a distinctive, well-known area; we don't need to be worried about people not realizing that they live in Uptown. How important that address is to their personal identities is a bigger question.

"I expect to be part of this community for a long time." This one gets tough - it's easy for homeowners to say this; they have a house or condo, and if they're lucky they have a stable, fixed rate mortgage and know that they'll be around until they die or move off to Florida. It's not so easy for Uptown's many, many renters. Renters may want to stay around for a long time, but at some point they'll face a decision the decision of whether to rent or to buy. Without a broader range of affordable housing many would-be Uptown homeowners are simply priced out of the market. The result is a two-tier system, with homeowners having an incentive to invest in the community while renters face the conundrum of giving Uptown their all yet still having to give it all up if their rent goes up or if they want to buy. Some renters never intend on staying - Uptown is a fun place to live with friends in that post-college, pre-family stage. Others want to stay and raise their families here but don't have much of a choice. I don't know what the solution is (rent control, perhaps?) but do think that the revolving door of renters does impact the larger shared sense of unified community.

I believe that Uptown does have a strong sense of community, but do think that this renter/owner split does need to be addressed. The neighborhood organizations need to continue to reach out to all residents regardless of age and home status, and to make a concentrated effort to bring renters and young professionals into the fold. The powers-that-be need to continue to address home affordability issues. Renters and owners alike need to reach out to their fellow neighbors. Block leaders need to be recruited, supported, and energized - maybe they can help draw people together to ensure that even those who don't attend formal meetings feel like valued members of the community. Together, block by block and neighborhood by neighborhood, we can prove to ourselves and to the city at large that Uptown is overflowing with community spirit and pride.