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.

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