Saturday, October 31, 2009

Big-Box Swindle - Part I

Happy Halloween! How appropriate that this is also the day of the first post in the official Uptown Urban Studies Virtual Book Club. Because in many ways, Big-Box Swindles: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America's Independent Businesses is a scary read. Forget about ghosts and goblins and devils: my vote for scariest Halloween costume would be someone in a Walmart costume (come to think of it, that would be a really easy costume to make....). While much of the book focuses on suburban sprawl and the impact of big-box retail on smaller communities, there's a great deal of content that is relevant to Uptown and surrounding neighborhoods. We can work out the kinks of organizing this sort of discussion as we move forward, but for now my plan is to throw out some initial thoughts based on (or simply inspired by) the book, invite your comments, and in the next week follow up with some more in-depth postings on some of the specific topics.
  • What should the role of chain stores be in Uptown (and Lyn-Lake, or in other surrounding neighborhoods)? Are some chain stores better than others? Are they appropriate in some areas but not in others?
  • What is the thought on big-box development? One negative of Big-Box Swindle was the author's tendency to equate "chains" with "big-box stores," although that's not always the case. What if the big-box store is not a chain? How about Target? It's local; do we want a Target (even if an urban model without the sprawling parking lot) in Uptown?
  • How does Calhoun Square fit into this discussion? Is it part of "Main Street," or is it a mall? Does it matter?
  • How can we, whether at the city, neighborhood, or individual level, support independent businesses? In the grand scheme of Uptown (and Uptown area) priorities, where does this fall as a priority?
  • What current regulations are in place to support independent businesses in Minneapolis? Are there any ordinances on the books that restrict chains ("formula businesses"), and, if not, should there be?
  • How do we bring affordable commercial real estate to the Uptown area?
  • Is there room for a community-owned store in the neighborhood? What about a business incubator space?
  • What sorts of stores or businesses is the Uptown area currently lacking? What gaps do we want filled?

I'm going to come back to this list over the next several days and will write up my own thoughts on specific topics in more depth, as well as try to gather some relevant links and resources. In the meantime, what struck you as worthy of discussion while reading Big-Box Swindle?

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Kids and the City, Part II (Or, Could Family-Oriented Apartments/Condos Work in Uptown and Lyn-Lake?)

I recently wrote about how frustrating it can be to have larger society try to peg me and my fellow parents into very specific neighborhoods or living situations due to the simple fact that we have kids. Kids live in the city, families choose to live in the city, and city living with kids is perfectly normal.

All of that got me thinking. I know there's not a lot of new housing development going on right now, so some of this is currently a moot point, but how come all the new upscale condo and apartment developments in Uptown and Lyn-Lake are oriented to young single people or empty nesters? Why NOT families? The current developments don't exactly scream "family friendly." I've been busy dreaming up my vision of an ideal family-friendly building, ideally situated somewhere along the Greenway, and while I know reality gets in the way (developers need to want to build it, bankers need to be willing to finance it, and people need to be willing to rent or buy the units), I think there's some potential.

The Premise: Not all families want to live in single family houses. Many do, of course, but others either prefer not to for the same reasons as other condo-dwellers: no need to shovel, someone else handles the maintenance, perhaps shared amenities otherwise available, etc. Others would prefer the single family house, but will give it up in exchange for enough other benefits.

New Construction. I prefer older homes with a sense of history (and hate, hate, hate stainless steel appliances, granite countertops, open floorplans, and double sinks in bathrooms), but obviously a lot of people out there like new construction and modern architecture. They also like living in Uptown and Lyn-Lake. Rather than facing the option of moving to a new neighborhood, or, worse, buying a historic home and gutting it, why not give them what they want? Many of those younger, single, hip condo dwellers are going to have kids one day; it's not like their tastes are going to suddenly change overnight. Their needs might change, however, and that's where modern family-friendly condo options could really fit the bill.

Location: Uptown and Lyn-Lake are both ideal locations for kids. There are plenty of parks, there's the lakes, the Walker Library, multiple schools (at least at the elementary level), excellent restaurants and cafes, the Greenway, and growing numbers of other kids. Sure, there are some gaps to be filled (a toy store would be nice...) but overall it's a very family-friendly kind of place. Putting a family-oriented condo or apartment building somewhere along the Greenway, for example, would be a great location. The kids could learn to bike on the Greenway, the whole family could stroll down to the library or to the lake, and it would be just a quick bike or bus ride (or drive) to places like MIA or the Walker.

I prefer an older place, but if the location and amenities were right I'd give the right modern family building serious consideration. My dream multiple-family building would look something like this:

  • Play space. This is the BIG one. I like the idea of owning a house or duplex because there's room in the basement for kids to run around in the winter. We don't need huge amounts of living space, but given that my son gets crazy when cooped up inside for too many hours we need somewhere besides the living room to burn off some energy. An outdoor and an indoor space set aside for kids would be a MAJOR perk. It doesn't need to be anything fancy: a small outdoor playground with benches and maybe some picnic tables gives the kids somewhere to play and the parents somewhere to congregate, while an indoor space, even just a gym-like room with room to run around and maybe ride a push toy or bounce a ball would give both adults and kids a place (other than the main living quarters) to let off steam in cold or wet weather. There's a practical element to this that goes beyond simply playing, though. It's tough to informally meet fellow parents these days; a common playground (to supplement, not replace, local parks) builds community within the building, and gives kids a place to hang out with their young neighbors, while giving adults a chance to meet other adults, both those with and without kids.
  • Mixed use in the building. I like a building that incorporates a blend of uses. The best, most Jane Jacobs-esque building I've ever lived in was in Washington, DC. It was directly across the street from the National Zoo, and the street facade included a convenience store, liquor store, coffee place, salon, dentist, bar and grill, and pharmacy. Inside the building itself were mixed apartments with therapists, at least one nurse-practitioner, and assorted other small office uses. We didn't have a kid at the time, but I look back and think how perfect it would have been. There was even a small internal courtyard with a fountain. Imagine how convenient it would be to have, say, a pediatrician in the building, maybe a pharmacy, a store that sells basics like milk, a daycare or preschool, or any other number of places that would be useful to busy families.
  • Well-designed units useful for families. In other words, include enough three, or even four, bedroom apartments. I know kids can share a room, but in Minneapolis at this time it's unlikely to think that most families with money would choose to squash into a smaller unit if they can buy a house with three bedrooms for the same, or less, cost. The places don't need to be huge, especially if there's other play or storage space in the building, but enough buildings plus a good design could make apartment living an attractive family option.
  • Stroller storage. I haven't lived anywhere with this option, but wouldn't it be nice to walk in the front door and have a (nicely integrated) storage space in the common entry? It doesn't need to be huge, just large enough to stash a stroller and hang the coats. Those without strollers can use the space to store boots, coats, bulky sports equipment, or whatever else they don't want to stash in their apartment.
  • Garden space. While I don't think city living absolutely has to incorporate green space, a little bit of greenery makes city living more enjoyable for many of us. A small communal garden (for those who wish to participate) would build community, give an opportunity to grow some fresh produce, and give both adults and kids a connection to the outdoors.
  • Laundry. In-unit hookups are probably a necessity. Families go through a lot of dirty clothes; having a washer and drier in the unit is a luxury most families with options won't be willing to go without. Still, laundry rooms often perform a shared community function as building information center; in this case that could be switched to the mail room. And on that topic...
  • Mail room. Yes, there could be row after row of mailboxes right inside the front entry. But it would be much nicer to have an official mail room dedicated to the boxes; it would also hold a large bulletin board where residents could post notices and requests.
  • Pools and other extras. I'm not a big pool person; this wouldn't be a huge draw for me one way or the other. Still, amenities like a pool or a game room might be attractive to both those with and without kids, and could be a nice addition.
  • Condo versus apartment. I think something like this should probably be a condo building. Families in Minneapolis tend to want to buy, not rent. People could, of course, rent the condos from the individual owners.

What am I missing? Would you live in a building like this? If the right building in the right place at the right place came along I'd give it serious consideration, even if it wasn't my preferred historic architecture. Families successfully live in high-rise (or mid-rise) apartment complexes around the world (I've been browsing the Singapore listings lately); is there any reason this can't be done in Minneapolis?

[reminder: Uptown Virtual Book Club coming soon! First up: Big Box Swindle.]

Friday, October 9, 2009

Uptown Urban Studies Virtual Book Club

Okay, the title "Uptown Urban Studies Virtual Book Club" sounds more impressive than the idea behind the name. I try to keep up with interesting books that seem relevant to issues relating to building a better community, identifying the neighborhood's strengths and weaknesses, and contemplating both Uptown's (and surrounding neighborhoods) past and future. I know there's a lot of others out there who read those same books, too. The plan so far is that I'll announce a couple of weeks ahead of time what book I'll be posting about next, and then anyone who wants to can read along and join in the discussion.

My list of potential books includes those I already own or have read, as well as some I've seen that look interesting. Some possible titles (in no particular order) include:

First up will be Big-Box Swindle, followed by Green Metropolis.

Any and all suggestions for additional books are welcome!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Kids Live in Urban Neighborhoods, Too

Yes, that's a kid. Children are, have been, and will continue to be, a part of life in Ward 10.

I was reading an article about Lyn-Lake ("Lyn-Lake? The New Uptown?" Not exactly breaking news, but that's another post...) and got sidetracked by a brief comment made about the area's demographics. "[Residents] tend to be highly educated, disposable income, no kids, young people," said Andrea Christenson of Colliers Turley Martin Tucker. Well, sort of. Lyn-Lake does have a lot of young people, not as many kids as in many parts of the city, and as far as disposable income, well, that's a bit more debatable, but it's safe to say that the residents in the newer, more expensive developments probably do have a fair amount of disposable income. I'm not going to argue demographics here, and I'm not taking issue with the article itself or any of the people quoted in it. What I do want to discuss is the ongoing assumption held by so many people in Minneapolis that parents are expected to live a certain lifestyle. And, to many people, that lifestyle does not seem to fit with Uptown or Lyn-Lake.

Families are supposed to live in neighborhoods like Armatage. This view holds that new or expecting parents are supposed to buy a "starter" (oh, how I hate that term) home in a neighborhood like Kenny or Armatage, or, if they can afford it, somewhere like Linden Hills. While they're at it they might as well buy themselves a minivan, because real parents don't drive beat up old smaller cars, let alone ride the bus. They can buy a bike with a baby seat or one of those trailers for socially-acceptable family bike rides around Lake Harriet.

Parents don't go to bars or restaurants. According to the Lyn-Lake Small Area Plan's Market Study, "this general area of Minneapolis, including Uptown and Lyn-Lake, has long been popular among a younger generation due to its range of restaurants and bars, and proximity to downtown employment." (p.20-21) I'm sure that's true. That's part of the reason I like Uptown and Lyn-Lake. And, to be fair, I still count in the study's "younger generation," since I am under 35. Again, not quibbling with the idea that bars and restaurants appeal to young people (they appeal to all people), but in general there is an assumption that families don't want to live in bustling city neighborhoods with bars on the corners. Admittedly I have less time or money to visit restaurants or bars, but that doesn't mean I don't want them nearby. As most parents can attest, delivery or take-out is a fabulous thing.

Families only want to live in single family homes. This is probably true for many families. But, despite the assumption otherwise, not all kids grow up in freestanding, single family homes. There's nothing wrong with apartment living for families, and maybe in Uptown and Lyn-Lake we should be encouraging that option for those families that want to live in the neighborhood but can't afford to buy a house. I'm not immune to the appeal of home ownership; we're hoping to buy a place (ideally a duplex or maybe a triplex), too, but I'd take longterm renting in Uptown or Lyn-Lake any day over a house in Armatage. It's just not for me. Kids can and do live in more urban neighborhoods, so let's stop assuming that everyone wants to move to quiet, pleasant, but boring neighborhoods (or worse, move out to the 'burbs).

Families don't need to have 2,000 square feet of living space. I admit it; if I could afford one of the grand old homes in the neighborhood I'd be happy to live there. They are big and beautiful and filled with history and original woodwork. I don't mind having space to spread out. I doubt we'll be able to afford one of those houses, though, and I have no problem with living with a smaller floor plan.

I like city living. I don't want to have to drive places. I want to be able to walk to the grocery store, the library, retail stores, the doctor, parks, and other destinations. When I can't walk I want to be able to take the bus (or, ideally, light rail!). I want safe streets, but don't mind a little noise at night, and don't care about traffic. I want my son to grow up enjoying urban life, and when he's older, being able to easily walk, bike, or take the bus places on his own, too. Both Uptown and Lyn-Lake are great places to raise kids, and instead of reading article after article making it sound like everyone in the neighborhood is 25, rolling in money, and spending every waking minute at the bars I wish we could start fully embracing the various neighborhoods of Ward 10 as places where people of ALL ages can find a home. Even if that home involves shared walls or no car, let alone minivan.