Local Uptown-area NIMBYs, led by the Queen NIMBEE (and Minneapolis City Commissioner) Lara Norkus-Crampton, have led a mostly successful campaign to firmly establish the belief that the terms “character” and “height” are virtually synonymous.
Take this new passage from the revised Lyn-Lake Small Area Plan, for example:
“Building height and character is discussed within context of each character area below… higher heights should be concentrated in the Activity Center, and height above four stories should be substantially set back from the lower floors.” (41)
The Plan went before the Minneapolis City Planning Commission on Monday; its earlier attempt at approval, back in April, was delayed by the efforts of Norkus-Crampton (she wanted to slow down the process to better evaluate issues relating to height and the pedestrian character of the plan) and – no surprise here – CARAG, which expressed concerns over “character, scale, context, and transitions,” according to the Southwest Journal. And as for the above quote, yes, building height and character are discussed, but so are a lot of other things. The singling out of these two particular elements, used together in the same sentence, is not an isolated example of “height” and “character” being lumped together as one topic; read enough of the local plans and attend enough public meetings and you’ll see and hear dozens, if not hundreds, of similar statements.
The fuss over height and character in the Lyn-Lake Small Area Plan is pretty minor in comparison to the controversy relating to the Uptown Small Area Plan, and to new proposed developments in Uptown, for that matter, but it does highlight the near constant refrain of “preserve the character of the neighborhood – limit height.” If you say it enough it must be true, right?
Height is only one element of neighborhood character. Sure, a skyscraper is going to alter the character of Uptown, but the occasional tall(ish) building isn’t necessarily going to harm things. There are many different aspects of neighborhood character, and a limited primary focus on just one thing is one of the biggest dangers being pressed on us by a small but vocal group of neighborhood activists. In some cases a tall building may offer other elements that actually enhance the neighborhood’s character; a knee-jerk reaction based purely on height is illogical and misguided.
Why don't the NIMBYs complain about too-short buildings? The Lyn-Lake Small Area Plan does encourage buildings along Lake Street to be more than one story, thank goodness. Still, how often do we hear people complain when someone comes along and wants to build yet another one-story building on one of our valuable major commercial streets? This is just as potentially damaging to neighborhood character as a five-story building (if not more), yet I rarely, if ever, hear many people complaining about anything being too short.
I’m going to repeat it again, as I think it’s that important: height does NOT equal character. It is something to consider, certainly, and an appropriate height and design can have a major impact on the character of a street, block, or even neighborhood. But it is not the only consideration, and I don’t even think the most important consideration. The NIMBYs (and yes, Lara Norkus-Crampton and certain CARAG activists, I’m talking to you) need to broaden their horizons a bit for the sake of the neighborhood and the true preservation of its character.