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.

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