Thursday, March 26, 2009

Lake Calhoun: Build, Baby, Build

Lake Calhoun. It’s one of Minneapolis’s most unique assets, as well as one of the defining features of Uptown. It’s even the inspiration for the name of one of the Uptown-area neighborhood groups – CARAG (Calhoun Area Residents Action Group) – even though even the westernmost borders of CARAG are still at least four blocks from the lake (and is, of course, the namesake for lake-adjacent ECCO, or the East Calhoun Community Organization). The lakes are a major draw for most Uptowners, and one of the reasons people are willing to shell out some big bucks (comparatively) to live in the area. It’s also the source of much ongoing controversy, serving as a lighting rod of sorts for practically any and all development issue in Uptown. Take, for example, the Uptown hotel proposed a few years ago; opponents complained that they might be able to see the top floor when walking around the lake. Needless to say, any development taking place on or across from the lake attracts even more neighborhood ire.

None of this is new news, but it might be dragged up again during the course of the Ward 10 City Council race. At the recent debate (“forum”) between Wedge residents and candidates Meg Tuthill and Matt Filner, Tuthill once again pulled out that oh-so-popular development card. While answering a question about the relationship between new development and local Small Area Plans (Uptown has one; Lyn-Lake’s is being finalized) she referred to the danger of Lake Calhoun looking like “Miami Beach.” She’s not the only or the first one to say this. Participants in the Uptown Small Area Plan process also referred to the Miami Beach concern, while developer Clark Gassen was slammed locally when a 2006 New York Times article quoted him as referring to his vision of making Uptown – and presumably some of the land by Lake Calhoun (his company was responsible for the controversial Edgewater project) – a “little Manhattan.”

I’m treading on sensitive ground here, but I think Meg Tuthill (along with the active and outspoken NIMBYs who fill many, although not all, of the seats on our local neighborhood boards) is wrong to excessively limit development by Lake Calhoun. The stretch of land between Lake Street heading northwest towards St. Louis Park could, if anything, use more development. Sensitive, well-done development could add housing to the neighborhood, potentially add useful retail, and decrease the car-dependent nature of the development along the northwest portion of the lake. There are already tall buildings in the area, so it’s not as though short, single-family homes would be converted into towering apartment buildings.

Not every lake needs to provide local residents with a “pure” nature experience. These are urban lakes, and I love the fact that I can see the downtown skyline from Lake Calhoun. Buildings such as the Calhoun Beach Club are certainly a visual presence on the lake, but that doesn’t detract from the overall experience. I would not advocate for tall buildings along Lake of the Isles or Lake Harriet, or for the ECCO portion of Lake Calhoun, for that matter, but I think it’s appropriate and desirable for part of the lakeshore. Increased housing options also means more opportunities for people – and not just rich people – to live within close proximity to the lake and its amenities. I know what the NIMBYs think; now I’d like to know what other Uptown – and Minneapolis – residents and visitors think about Lake Calhoun-adjacent housing development. As for me, I say build, baby, build.


  1. I'm not sure I like the "build, baby, build" bit, given the bad taste it leaves in all good liberals' mouths, but this is a thoughtful and reasonable post that supports a similarly thoughtful and reasonable position: there are underutilized lots adjacent to Lake Calhoun that could be densely developed without harming the quality of our lakes or our community.

    The thing is, there are only a few of those lots. The controversial Lake & Knox project is one of them. Besides that corner, I would really only include the Lander Group's now-canceled 2626 West Lake project next to the Beach Club area in any list of parcels that could be practically and tastefully developed. That and the parking lot of the Lake Calhoun Executive Center.

    So Tuthill's "Miami Beach" comment seems little more than some red meat thrown to the NIMBY base, which is a notable portion of the delegates to next month's ward convention. I was glad to see Matt Filner resist the temptation to appeal to some folks' gut fears of change, choosing instead to focus on how to conscientiously approach development issues so we can reflect community desires while not turning every single project into a "war" against one company or another.

    Let's hope that at this more moderate tone carries the day, both at the ward convention, and in our conduct as a community. If we come at every developer as a rival, we will always be treated just the same.

  2. Just thought I wouldn't let the Republicans take ownership of a good piece of alliteration.

    You bring up a good point that there's realistically no way that Lake Calhoun COULD become another Miami Beach. I like Meg Tuthill and agree with her on many things, but this is one point where we do disagree. It might be good politics on her part (I assume she was trying to connect with the one-time Lara Norkus-Crampton delegates), but I agree that overall a more moderate view - one that encourages true communication between various constituencies - will be to the benefit of everyone.

  3. I agree with you, that not every lake needs to provide people with "pure" nature. Whether or not people like it or not, the northwest to northeast ends of Lake Calhoun have been built up with buildings from 5 to 20-something stories. I think it's appropriate to fill in some of the sites between the two ends of the development with new buildings, as long as they are well-designed.

    Quite frankly, if there's anything that takes away from the enjoyment of Lake Calhoun, it's Lake Street, with its high amount of traffic, noise, and six lanes of asphalt. When I walk along Lagoon Avenue and feel the density around me, it makes me appreciate the diversity of the types of housing stock we have in this neighborhood. We have higher-density low-rise building, higher-density medium-rise buildings, and lots of houses.

    I love walking on Dean Parkway and seeing all the buildings, with the west side generally more modern than the east side. It's a quiet area within a fairly dense neighborhood and adjacent a major shopping area. The taller buildings over at 32nd and West Calhoun Parkway offer a more-affordable (but still mostly unaffordable to many) way to enjoy living adjacent the lake. The vibe over there is younger, more active than on the east side of the lake. I enjoy it, minus all the traffic on Lake and Excelsior and the auto-centric nature of the shopping centers. If the area were more built up, even if it meant a few taller buildings, I think the neighborhood would be even better than it is.

    Lastly, I too, thought that Tuthill's "Miami Beach" comment was purposely meant for the Norkus-Crampton crowd and an unrealistic comment. Hopefully it was just a little bit of politics than anything else, as I'd expect her to be willing to have a conversation regarding any proposal without prejudice, which she said she would do.

  4. I also welcome increased development & density in Uptown. But then again... I don't live there...

  5. I'd like to see more development along the N shore as well. Having lived near the Whole Foods, a walk to Uptown with shopping, dining, etc. at the base of condo developments would have been great.