Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Granny Flats: Coming to an Alley Near You?

Adding density to Uptown is vital if the neighborhood wants to support the kind of walkable, urban lifestyle that so many residents desire. That doesn’t mean we need to line the streets with high-rise apartments, or tear down single-family homes to clear space for multifamily residences. A balance can, and should, be struck between the neighborhood’s traditional “character” (and I’m talking OVERALL character, not just height) and the need to provide more housing for more people.

I particularly like the idea of “granny” or “alley” flats (also called “accessory dwelling units,” or ADUs). These are smaller residences found in the backyards of homes. Some parts of Minneapolis, particularly the big mansions with surviving carriage houses, still have these. For the most part, though, the only structure found in most Uptown backyards is a garage.

Alley flats have a lot of benefits:

  • These units tend to be smaller, providing housing options for single people (including the “granny” looking to downsize to smaller digs) who don’t want or need to live in a big place.

  • The smaller size often also translates to cheaper rent, broadening at least the possibility of affordable (or semi-affordable) housing in the neighborhood.

  • The property owners – who often live in the main, front house – get some extra income to help pay their mortgage. This would assist larger families who would prefer to live in a house, but have a hard time paying an Uptown-sized mortgage.

  • We’ve all heard about the importance of “eyes on the street” in preventing crime; this would bring more eyes and ears to Uptown’s alleys.

  • Alley flats increase a neighborhood’s density without significantly altering its outwards appearance.

There are some potential negatives, too:

  • Increased density is going to impact parking. More people probably translates into more cars, although ideally it also means the population necessary to support a greater variety of daily essentials in the neighborhood, as well as increased access to both public transportation as well as car share programs – thereby making it easier for individuals and families to live a car-free life, or at least reduce the number of cars needed per household.

  • Increased density means more people, which could mean more noise, more traffic, more garbage, and possibly decreased green space. These issues could be alleviated with good planning, and are counteracted by the positives associated with increased appropriate density in Uptown.

Although these types of housing have always been popular in some parts of the country, communities sometimes see them as a negative. That’s been changing in recent years, as more and more cities and towns (including some wealthy enclaves filled with even more NIMBYs than Uptown) face the need for increasing density and housing options, and as baby boomers start to age, retire, and consider the benefits of moving to a smaller space.

Minneapolis has embraced the concept of alternative accessory dwellings in some of the neighborhoods along the Hiawatha Light Rail line, as well as in several other overlay districts throughout the city (North Phillips/Ventura Village, for example). While not necessarily allowed in Uptown, they are supported by many area residents. And while the Uptown Small Area Plan does not specifically address granny flats, the CARAG Master Plan does – a positive sign, as CARAG in particular is a hotbed of anti-development activists. I’m hoping that this means that granny flats and ADUs are something that we can all get behind. I called the City to get some more information on the current situation, and was reminded that although a specific residence may not currently meet current zoning requirements for a granny flat it is possible to be granted a variance. I hope that the City code will continue to be tweaked to make it easier for these types of residences to be built; perhaps this will be spurred along if Uptown gets its LRT line. I’m not in the market to construct a granny flat anytime soon, but the possibility is intriguing, and it will certainly be something I at least ask about when I start the process of purchasing an Uptown-area home.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Traffic Issue in Uptown's Own Backyard (or Garage)

One of the complaints we all frequently hear about Uptown is that there’s too much traffic. I agree that the cars speeding through Lake or other major thoroughfares are a source of frustration. There are also many people driving to Uptown, and I do wish that more of those people would consider taking the bus, biking, or, when possible, walking. That said, too much of the traffic focus tends to be on the problem of “outsiders,” whether it’s the people coming to Uptown to shop or dine, those who drive to their Uptown jobs, or the people who are driving through Uptown on their way from and to places elsewhere. These groups of people are admittedly a major component of any traffic “problem,” but we can’t forget the group of people most likely to be on Uptown streets on a daily basis: Uptown residents themselves.

The 2000 census sheds some interesting light on Uptown residents’ commuting patterns (“Uptown” in this case defined as CARAG, ECCO, LHENA, and East Isles, with the numbers based on “workers 16 years and over). Some highlights:

  • 52 percent of Uptown residents drove to work alone, a five percent increase over 1990.
  • Six percent of Uptowners carpooled to work, the same percentage as in 1990.
  • A mere 17 percent took public transportation to work, a decrease from 22 percent in 1990.
  • Four percent walked to work in 2000; five percent walked to work in 1990.
  • Two percent of workers took “other means” (I’m assuming this means bicycles, plus perhaps the occasional skateboard or set of roller blades thrown in for good measure) versus less than one percent in 1990.
  • Two percent of Uptowners worked at home in 1990, three percent worked at home in 2000.

There were, of course, statistical differences between neighborhoods. The percentage of local workers commuting alone by car (in 2000) broken down by neighborhood are:

  • 58 percent in the Wedge
  • 61 percent in CARAG
  • 64 percent in East Isles
  • 72 percent in ECCO

I realize that not everyone can bike, walk, or take the bus to work. Still, these numbers leave a lot of room for improvement. The majority of those people - and we're talking thousands of Uptown residents - are driving to and from work five days a week, many of them in the same general morning and evening timeframe. Instead of focusing our energies on parking permits and battling new developments we can and should identify the most efficient ways to get people out of their cars and onto the sidewalks, onto bikes, or on the bus (and at some point, I hope, LRT). Some worthwhile potential goals:

  • Cut down number of cars per household. Not every adult member of every family needs a car, and some households can live without any car.
  • Decrease the use of each car. If even a relatively small number of current residents switched to, say, biking to work one day a week in the summer it would have an impact. So, too, would be if some current drivers switched to taking the bus to work one or two days a week instead of driving. And once at home, if more residents walked to local stores for their errands (including grocery store runs) we’d decrease local traffic even further.
  • Provide support for residents to get by without owning a car. Uptown has a car share service (HOURCAR); with time and increased usage we could expand the locations, making it an even more convenient option for those who don’t want a car yet still want to have access to one from time to time. And, of course, an Uptown LRT alignment, good (and affordable) bus service, and a bike- and pedestrian-friendly environment are also essential.

Traffic and parking are always going to be issues facing Uptown; it’s part and parcel with urban living. An equally important element of urban neighborhood life should be the ready availability – and embrace – of a car-free lifestyle. By all means continue to address through traffic and parking, but don’t forget the simple fact that in many cases the traffic problem is not just “them” – it is “us.”

Saturday, March 28, 2009

ECCO Board Member Speaks Out in Favor of Lake & Knox Development

Those of you interested in the proposed development at Lake and Knox, or about the ins and outs of the Uptown Small Area Plan and the Shoreland Overlay District, should check out ECCO resident and neighborhood board member Tim Prinsen's opinion piece ("Responsible Common Sense Development") in the April issue of the Uptown Neighborhood News. It's refreshing to see a local activist speak out in such a calm, reasonable, and well-reasoned way about the development issues facing the Uptown area. Too often these issues get blown into major storms, with the resulting confusion, tangents, and politics distracting from the actual issues. As Prinsen writes, "please do not allow a vocal minority to dictate what happens in our neighborhood."That's solid advice, and something we should all heed.

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.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Uptown's Pizza Landscape

Pizza. It’s not really appropriate to say it’s the glue that holds a neighborhood together, but I don’t think I’d be too far off to say that a community’s quality of life is directly related at least in part to the number of quality pizza joints available to its residents. Proximity to a good pizza place is a neighborhood essential for me. Better yet is being within close walking distance of several places, and having yet more options within delivery distance. Luckily for me and my fellow pizza connoisseurs, Uptown is bursting at the seams with pizza options.

My all-time favorite place, Davanni’s has become a local powerhouse, a local chain known for both its pizza and its hoagies. The first location opened at Grand and Cleveland in St. Paul, and was initially known as Pontillo’s Pizzeria. According to Davanni’s Uptown general manager Phil Martin, the Uptown story began on January 16, 1981 with the opening of a Pontillo’s Hot Hoagies store. Although the customers presumably loved the hoagies, they also wanted their pizza; pizza was soon added to the Uptown menu. In 1983 the company, by then a thriving local chain, changed its name to Davanni’s Pizza and Hot Hoagies, and the rest, as they say, is history.

So what’s to love about Davanni’s? I’m not a food critic; I’ll leave the culinary reviews to the experts. Still, I get hungry just thinking about a Davanni’s deep-dish pizza (introduced in 1986) or one of their hot hoagies. Although food is obviously the core function of any restaurant, there’s other, less edible factors that make a place a beloved part of a community. Customers have enjoyed sitting in Davanni’s for more than 25 years now, watching the street activity along Lake Street through each dining area’s huge glass windows. Many of the employees seem to have been there for years, as do plenty of the customers. Finally, Davanni’s has a long history of local involvement and socially responsible corporate decisions. The company has always supported local suppliers, has implemented energy saving measures in its restaurants, and in general tries to combine good business practices with good environmental policies. They also are active in the community, and frequently provide pizza and food to fundraising efforts. I don’t know what they’re like as an employer, but given the long tenure of many of its employees I’m guessing it’s a pretty good place to work.

Galactic Pizza is in Lyn-Lake (2917 Lyndale), so admittedly not as central Uptown as Davanni’s. A relative newcomer to the local pizza scene, Galactic Pizza also offers local residents a chance to pump their money back into the local economy. They very consciously make every attempt to be socially and environmentally responsible. Some of my personal favorites from their long list of “values-led activities” include the sale of the “Second Harvest Heartland Pizza” (one dollar donated to Second Harvest Heartland with every pizza sold), their composting program, the fact that they contribute five percent of their pre-tax profits to charity, and that they run their restaurant with wind energy.

Galactic Pizza’s menu is more gimmicky than the more traditional old-school local pizza places – they even offer a pizza named the “Hipster,” for example – but their gimmicks include some truly creative offerings. The “CSA Pizza,” for one, is based on produce from the Harmony Valley C.S.A.; I love that they’re both utilizing local, in-season produce as well as helping inform the public about some of the local C.S.A. options available.

Also in the Lyn-Lake area is Pizza Lucé, now celebrating its tenth year in the neighborhood. The pizza is good and has received all sorts of awards, but one of my favorite things about Pizza Lucé is that it’s turned a boring and ugly convenience store into something new and improved, complete with patio.

And yet another Lyn-Lake addition, Dulono’s has been a longtime neighborhood institution. Go here to get your thin crust pizza, beer, and bluegrass music. I love that it’s been around forever, and hope that it continues to thrive. I get tired of all the trendy, hipster places (even if they do offer good pizza and socially-responsible operational policies), so it’s a relief to have some actual authentic, non-manufactured “ironic” places around.

The Leaning Tower of Pizza gets major bonus points for its place in Minneapolis history. The restaurant opened in 1952, and moved to its current Lyndale location in 1959. According to their website, they were only one of four restaurants in the city to offer pizza. Thank goodness I was born well after 1959, as I can’t imagine a childhood (and adulthood) devoid of pizza. In addition to its tasty pizza and long history, Leaning Tower is also where Uptowners can go to schmooze with current Ward 10 Council Member Ralph Remington – go eat pizza, have a beer, and talk Uptown with Remington every fourth Tuesday of the month between 5:30 and 6:30. I hope this is one tradition the next Council Member will continue; with both leading contenders living in the Wedge I’d say it’s at least a possibility.

So there it is… a partial tour of some of Uptown’s (and Lyn-Lake’s) pizza offerings. I’ve undoubtedly left off someone’s favorite spot, but we can all take heart in knowing that there are plentiful pizza offerings for those of us who think as goes the local pizza scene, there goes the neighborhood. Even better, most of the Uptown area’s pizza offerings are either independent stores or local chains. Go buy a pizza today and do your part to support your community, stimulate the economy, and soothe your pizza cravings.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Do You Remember A Brother's Touch?

Do you remember A Brother’s Touch? A Brother’s Touch, once located at 2327 Hennepin, was the Twin Cities’ first GLBT bookstore. It was a local landmark for many in the local LGBT community, as well as a familiar part of the neighborhood even to those who never set foot inside its doors.

Owner Harvey Hertz initially opened A Brother’s Touch at Franklin and Nicollet in 1983; at some point the store moved to its Hennepin location, where it remained until its closing in 2003. Its closing was part of a larger, national trend, a result of both competition from national chains and online booksellers as well as the changing nature of American society. By 2003 GLBT books were readily available in mass bookstores; at the time, Uptown’s own Borders branch purchased more books from LGBT publisher Alyson Publishing than any other store in the state.

I’m not gay or lesbian, and never actually went into A Brother’s Touch, but the store’s bright pink neon sign – a man with his hand on another man’s shoulder, if I’m remembering correctly – blends in with my other vivid mental images of Uptown’s changing landscape. The store’s loss is unfortunate on several levels; from a pure neighborhood standpoint it’s a sad reminder that this decade saw the departure of many good neighborhood bookstores (including the longtime and independent staple Orr Books, as well as the above-mentioned Uptown Borders).

Markets change, neighborhoods evolve, and businesses come and go. That’s the nature of life. Still, I look back at the closing of A Brother’s Touch and mourn the loss of an independent store, a store that would be unlikely to be found at a suburban mall. A Brother’s Touch is also a reminder that Uptown’s history has been (for the most part) inclusive and tolerant; while there is no “gay neighborhood” in Minneapolis, Uptown certainly has been and continues to be popular with plenty of Twin Cities LGBT residents. And while A Brother's Touch lacked any deep personal meaning for me, other than as a familiar storefront, I know that has great significance for many others. A Brother's Touch was a local institution, and as such deserves to be remembered for its role in Uptown's - and the Twin Cities' - history.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Uptown Market: Coming Your Way Summer 2009

Word on the street is that initial plans for an arts, crafts, and farmer’s market are in the works. The Uptown Market is tentatively scheduled for the third Sunday of every month between June and September. According to the website, “the Uptown Market is a venue to enhance the quality of life for the community through the gathering of local artisans, craftspeople, small business owners, area farmers, and neighbors.” The Uptown Market will also provide outreach opportunities for community organizations.

The Uptown Market is the project of Minneapolis resident Roxie Speth. I don’t know Speth, but it appears that she’s a prolific crafter, and was presumably inspired by the larger crafts movement (as seen on sites such as etsy) that is sweeping the nation. She envisions something modeled after Seattle’s Fremont Market. I have my doubts as to how feasible it is to get this off the ground and running, but am cautiously optimistic that it will turn out to be a wild success. It’s an interesting concept, and certainly worth pursuing.

So where will this Uptown Market be held? While the site isn’t yet firm, the expected location will be at 29th Street, between Lyndale and Dupont. And that, really, is the only thing that slightly bothers me. Or, more accurately, it’s the potential disconnect between the name and the location that I find jarring. Is 29th and Lyndale Uptown? There is no clear answer. Some people believe the Lyn-Lake area to be a subsection of Uptown, while others are adamant that it is its own distinct location. My views are starting to slightly shift; while I still consider Lyn-Lake to be its own entity, I acknowledge that to those outside of the greater Uptown area that the distinctions between the two are fuzzy or non-existent. The two areas do overlap, and I sometimes cover Lyn-Lake issues or places in this “Uptown” blog. Still, I do think that the name deserves careful consideration, especially given that Lyn-Lake is currently in the final stages of putting together their own Small Area Plan. It’s possible that the choice of a different name, perhaps the Lyn-Lake Market, would better brand both the Market and its location.

In the grand scheme of things, of course, the choice of a name isn’t the important thing. The larger point here is that there are active, involved people who are working to implement their creative vision for the benefit of the community. I’ll be following the developments on the Uptown Market front with great interest, and look forward to the day when I can wander down the streets of Uptown (or Lyn-Lake) on a sunny summer day to purchase some locally-grown carrots directly from the grower.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Is Uptown a Hipster Haven?

In recent years Uptown has taken on a reputation as being a “hipster” neighborhood. What exactly does that mean, was it true, and is it still true today? And, perhaps most significantly, does it matter?

Despite the frequent references to “hipster neighborhoods” in popular culture, there is no one standard definition agreed upon by everyone. While they all share many common characteristics – most notably the presence of hipsters themselves – there seem to be a range of diversity, economic situation, and overall level of “grittiness” in hipster neighborhoods. Uptown seems to be sort of in the middle on the spectrum of hipster neighborhoods; less diverse than many, not as recently gentrified, yet still relatively affordable in its local context (key word is “relatively.") For my own purposes, I’m going to go with Richard Florida’s definition of a “hipster haven” (from Who’s Your City?):

"With just the right combination of city grit and posh, hipster havens tend to attract a relatively affluent crowd – that doesn’t want to appear too affluent. Music scenes, nightclubs, and coffee shops pop up everywhere in their wake, as older residents either cash out or are pushed out. Hipster havens also attract the bridge-and-tunnel crowd on the weekends – people from the suburbs who can’t quite stomach city life during the week but like to visit from Friday through Sunday."

Florida cites Williamsburg (NY), Wicker Park (Chicago), Montrose (Houston), and West Hollywood (LA) as examples of hipster havens. His description of the issues facing hipster havens should sound familiar to Uptown watchers: rising rents (both commercial and rental) and the resulting loss of independent or “authentic” businesses and residents. Noise is also an issue, as apparently all those nightlife-loving hipsters keep late hours.

So is Uptown a hipster haven? While I think it is, to some degree, I think it’s also straddling the line into another neighborhood type, one Florida dubs “designer digs.” Designer digs, he says, “feature upscale condos, renovated town houses, organic markets, posh grocery stores, and niche boutiques.” In the case of Uptown, the Wedge and CARAG tend to lean towards the hipster haven side, while ECCO and East Isles have greater designer digs tendencies. The result is a blend of the two in the commercial core and up and down Hennepin.

A couple of statistics pulled from the recent Uptown Small Area Plan have some bearing on this discussion. Despite Uptown’s reputation as a young neighborhood, it is in fact aging. There are now 30 percent fewer 20 to 24-year-old residents in Uptown than there were in 2000, while the percentage of 55- to 65-year-olds has grown by nearly 40 percent in that same period. Assuming that hipsters tend to be young, that suggests a transition away from a traditional hipster haven. Presumably they’re moving east towards Whittier and Lyn-Lake, or over Northeast, an area frequently labeled as Uptown’s successor.

I appreciate that Uptown has a reputation as an interesting, exciting place to visit. I like that it has developed a regional, and even national, reputation. The thing I don’t like about the hipster label, accurate or not, is that it oversimplifies things and highlights one group of residents at the expense of the rest of the neighborhood. Uptown is more than just hipsters; an over-emphasis on one neighborhood element discounts the fact that many types of people live here, including plenty who roll their eyes when they see hipsters rolling down the street. Pegging a neighborhood as a certain type, especially when urban neighborhoods such as Uptown are constantly evolving and changing, isn’t accurate, and could potentially be damaging if too many Twin Cities residents or new arrivals write off Uptown as a place for families, old people, non-hip young people, or anyone else who doesn’t wear horn-rimmed glasses and swig PBR.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Lara Norkus-Crampton Drops Out

Hot off the press - the Southwest Journal reports that Ward 10 candidate Lara Norkus-Crampton plans to officially drop out of the race. She will continue her role on the City's Planning Commission, and doesn't discount the possibility of running for City Council at some point in the future.

I have mixed feelings about this news. On one hand, I think Lara Norkus-Crampton is not the right person to represent Ward 10. While certainly involved and committed to the neighborhood, her views are often extreme, and reflect only the opinions of a small percentage of the Ward's residents. On the other hand, her exit leaves only two people left in the race. While I believe that Meg Tuthill and Matt Filner are both solid choices, I am uncomfortable with the lack of significant choice in politics at the local level.

I'm a little fuzzy on the current ins and outs of the DFL endorsement process; in the last City Council race there was no endorsement, leading to more options for voters and a more robust debate. With three plausible candidates in the mix it would have been more difficult for one candidate to get the endorsement. I'm not sure what it means to the endorsement process if only two candidates remain. While at this point in the game I believe both remaining candidates to be good City Council material, I still hope that the residents of Ward 10 - including those who aren't actively involved with the local political party - will have the opportunity to enjoy some actual choices.

Both Tuthill and Filner have promised to abide by the DFL's endorsement, should there be one. That means that the show could well be realistically over and done with months before the actual voting begins. Sure, there might be a Republican or a third party candidate, but they're going to have a hard time overcoming the Democratic nominee. Norkus-Crampton had also promised to abide by the endorsement, but at least in the meantime she offered an alternative view for the neighborhood, and her participation may have sparked some important debates.

I might not agree with much of Lara Norkus-Crampton's vision for Uptown, but I don't doubt her love for the neighborhood or her good intentions. I wish her the best of luck in her future non-City Council endeavors.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Uptown in a Larger Context

A recent Pew Research Center study declares Minnesota to be what they define as a low magnet/sticky state. In other words, Minnesota doesn’t attract a large number of new residents (perhaps they’re afraid of the cold?) but does retain most of its natives for life. Some other interesting statistics, also from the Pew Research Center:
  • 37% of Americans have never lived outside of their hometowns; this number rises to 46% in the Midwest.
  • 57% of Americans, and 64% of Midwesterners, have not lived outside of their home state.
  • 15% of Americans have lived in four or more states.

So what does this have to do with Uptown? Although I don’t have the statistics for Uptown. I would suspect that Uptown, as a desirable city neighborhood, has a higher percentage of people born elsewhere. Still, I’m sure that there are many residents in Uptown who have never lived outside of the Twin Cities, or of Minnesota. This potentially translates into a population consisting of people who have limited experiences with other cities. While this can be mitigated by travel and research, a tendency towards parochialism, combined with an at-times smugness and a rah-rah Minnesota attitude, can hurt Minneapolis and Uptown by squashing deeper dialogue and limiting vision.

I think this limited viewpoint can be seen most acutely in discussions about transportation. It's shocking that a metro area of this size is so lacking in rail options. We’re finally starting to make up for lost time, but perhaps if more people were familiar with light rail, subways, and commuter rail found in other cities across the world they’d more fully embrace light rail in the Twin Cities. Similarly, if more Uptowners had lived in cities with busy light rail or subway networks they’d better understand why so many people consider it vital that the Southwest LRT alignment come through Uptown.

A limited understanding of other cities also leads to at-times silly assertions. Remember a few years ago when there was talk about the “Manhattanization” of Lake Calhoun’s shores? It may be news to the neighborhood’s hard-core NIMBYs, but Uptown is no Manhattan. It goes the other way too, sometimes, with proud Uptowners comparing the neighborhood to Greenwich Village. Again, for better or worse, Uptown is no Manhattan.

I am a strong advocate for exploring other cities. I’ve lived a lot of places in my life, and every experience has helped me to further refine the way I think about urban design and the makings of a good – or bad – neighborhood. They’ve also helped me to better put Uptown into a larger, national context. Travel, too, has shown me yet more neighborhood options. The world is wide open with possibilities, and Uptowners needn’t be restrained when it comes to daydreaming about the future.

I’ve been doing a little thinking about what other national (and maybe international) neighborhoods Uptown resembles. One of Uptown’s charms is, of course, that it retains a distinct identity. Still, there are certainly many comparisons to be made, all of which can help us to better understand what works and doesn’t work about this neighborhood, as well as to provide some inspiration for further developing Uptown’s unique identity. I’ll post my personal summary later this week, but in the meantime I’d love to hear from others what neighborhoods Uptown should be looking at as we continue to chart the future.

To be continued…

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Do Condos Mean the Death of the Neighborhood?

With the housing market in turmoil across the nation, it might seem a little out-of-date to spend much time discussing condos – both new and conversions – in Uptown. But I ran across this Liberate Uptown website today, and thought it raised some interesting questions. Do condos belong in Uptown? Are condos destroying the neighborhood? Is this even still an issue?

First, the anti-condo argument. The Liberate Uptown website, written in 2007, makes the following assertions:

  1. Condos only “belong” downtown.
  2. Condos are and will continue to force current residents out of the neighborhood.
  3. Condos will gentrify the neighborhood.
  4. Condos are created and sold by rich people who are out to make a buck on the backs of the people.
  5. Condos are not affordable and will never be affordable.
  6. Condos are a form of class warfare.
  7. Condos force up rental rates.

These are fairly typical arguments, and shouldn't be seen as strictly the view of one lone author. I agree on some points, while in other places I think the anti-condo arguments are flawed. Let’s take them one point at a time:

Condos only “belong” downtown.

This seems to be a fairly common view. I’m guessing that the people who share this opinion have limited familiarity with other cities and their housing markets. Condos are a type of housing option; at their most basic they are apartments that people own rather than rent. They don’t represent a specific aesthetic style, they’re not all luxurious, and in many places they are located in neighborhoods of all price points. There is nothing inherently wrong with condos being located in residential neighborhoods.

Condos are and will continue to force current residents out of the neighborhood.


Condos will gentrify the neighborhood.

The condo critics have a better argument for these points. Still, this snippet from the Liberate Uptown site was a bit dated, even for its 2007 publication date:

Uptown is full of young people, artists, musicians, people who want to live in a vital area with grassroots communities, as well as working class and middle class people who can’t afford to live elsewhere and/or want to live close to where they work rather than driving for hours each day to and from work.”

The unfortunate reality was that by the 2000s the gentrification movement had already largely displaced many residents. The conversion of Uptown apartment buildings added to the numbers, but it wasn’t the root cause of the problem. That paragraph could just as easily – and probably even more accurately – refer to the 1980s instead of the mid- to late-2000s.

The addition of new condo buildings, luxury or not, doesn’t bother me, assuming they are replacing either surface parking lots or bland, unessential neighborhood buildings. The new places do tend to be expensive, or “luxury,” but they do offer additional diversity to the neighborhood’s housing stock. I also believe that density is a good thing in the long run, and the new buildings open up higher-end spaces that take up less room than the neighborhood’s traditional expensive single-family house options. Not all of the “luxury” condos are even that expensive – in many cases you can buy a modern Uptown condo in a new building for less money than it would cost to buy even a dumpy Uptown house. I’d take a historic home with character myself, but I think it’s a positive thing if we can provide people with more options. If nothing else, maybe people who want that modern aesthetic will be more likely to just buy a new condo than to buy an older place, gut it, and install an out-of-place modern interior. (as someone who appreciates older buildings, I cringe every time I see references to "updated" kitchens or bathrooms - this can be a good thing if done well, but just as often it means a shoddy modern suburban-style shoehorned into the stripped hull of a formerly stately historic kitchen.)

The conversion of existing apartment buildings is a more difficult issue. It is terrible to see longtime residents forced out of their homes. Many condos were purchased by investors. It did drive up prices. On the other hand, condos offer would-be buyers more opportunities to purchase property of their own. Middle class people who didn’t want to lose out on the tax incentives and possible long-term financial gains associated with home ownership often actually had a shot at buying a condo, while a more expensive freestanding house was more likely to remain out of the realm of possibility. Lower income people are the real losers here; they are unlikely to be able to buy a house or condo in Uptown, and they have at times been forced out of their apartments when their buildings have gone condo.

Condos are built, converted, and sold by rich people who are out to make a buck on the backs of the people.

The developers and sellers of condos understandably want to make a profit. That doesn’t mean that everyone involved with the condo market is evil, or even necessarily rich. Many of the condo developers do have long roots in the neighborhood, and do genuinely care about Uptown and its problems. Others didn’t, or don’t. I don’t think that this can be counted as a valid argument against condos specifically, though, as this could also be said about apartment owners. There are some very good landlords in Uptown, and there are also slumlords. Landlords also want to make money from their investments. In their case the profits come from the rents paid by their tenants.

Condos are not affordable and will never be affordable.

When most people buy a condo their payment often will be more than what they’d pay for a comparable rental unit. On the other hand, they won’t be at the mercy of a landlord and will, if lucky, have a fixed rate mortgage that won’t seem like such a bad deal in the future. Some of this is also relative; a condo payment may be more than a rent payment, but those who want to buy but can’t afford to buy a freestanding single-family home have more opportunity when they have access to condos. In the short-term condos are more expensive, as they’re a recent phenomenon in Uptown and the sales prices reflect the housing and condo boom and the related escalating property values. In the long-term it’s possible that condos will be more on par with rentals. On the other hand, this readjustment will have come at the cost of a large-scale rise in price that has made lack of affordable housing in Uptown an increasingly pressing issue.

Condos are a form of class warfare.

Again, condos are in themselves not the problem. The problem is the larger issue of lack of affordable housing. Large-scale apartment conversions certainly didn’t help, but it’s only one aspect of the bigger picture.

Condos force up rental rates.

I’m sure that they often do, at least in the beginning. In the cases where a building goes condo, buyers move in, and then turn around and rent their units. In that case of course the rent is probably going to go up – the new owner has a higher mortgage, and would need a higher rent just to cover their payment. Affordable housing is obviously a problem for Uptown.

I believe the concept of condos to be good for a neighborhood. They offer a viable home alternative to many potential Uptown residents, both in terms of housing style (in the case of the new buildings) and housing cost (as compared to a freestanding single family home in the neighborhood). In Minneapolis there seems to be a much higher stigma attached to renting than there is in many other major cities; as a result there's more social pressure for people to buy rather than rent long-term. Those who like apartment living but prefer to own would be well served by condo options; so, too, would be people who want to buy in Uptown but can't or don't want a house. Condos should not be automatically written off as a bad thing for Uptown or for Minneapolis, or the larger issue of affordable housing lost in a haze of allegations of class warfare.

The market may have cooled, but condos are now a permanent fixture in Uptown. Like it or not, there is no way to “liberate” Uptown from condos. There is room for increased dialogue and creative thinking about ways in which to encourage the preservation and creation of affordable housing. Perhaps in the future condos can even be a part of the solution.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Calhoun Square: Good or Bad?

Now that work on Calhoun Square is visibly moving forward, it’s perhaps a good time to take a moment to look backwards. More specifically, back to the late 1970s when Calhoun Square was first envisioned, and the early 1980s, when it became a reality. Like it or not, most people will readily acknowledge that the opening of Calhoun Square was a turning point in the neighborhood’s history. Did Calhoun Square “kill the soul of Uptown,” (as one local argues in the Uptown Small Area Plan) or did the urban mall give the commercial district a figurative kick in the pants, reenergizing the neighborhood for the benefit of all?

First, some history. Depending on your point of view, Uptown in the 1970s was either a run-down crime-ridden dump, or it was the exciting center of local and even regional artistic and bohemian life. For others it was a combination of the two; a little rundown around the edges, perhaps, but still a vibrant, affordable, and desirable place to live. You could even argue that the extra layer of urban grit gave it the authenticity so often lacking in modern suburbs or in overly sanitized malls.

The Hennepin-Lake intersection had been the center of the neighborhood’s commercial district for decades. Businesses in the area included a bowling alley, the Rainbow Café (a regional draw), and stores ranging from the Uptown Bookstore to the Save-Mart store. An elementary school, Calhoun School, was located adjacent to the business district, approximately where Calhoun Square’s parking lot now stands. The school was closed and demolished in the mid-1970s, opening up land and ultimately paving the way for Calhoun Square’s eventual construction.

Even after Calhoun Square was gone, the Calhoun Square footprint had businesses and other buildings still standing. After a long and controversial public debate, the Minneapolis City Council voted to designate the Hennepin-Lake district as “blighted,” allowing both the use of eminent domain as well as tax increment financing. While some in the neighborhood were supportive, others dubbed the project “Updale.” In many ways this is the battle still raging, although not necessarily focused on Calhoun Square at the moment; the modern updated argument centers on modern luxury condo buildings and chain stores, but the basic concerns about gentrification, change, suburbanization, and yuppification remain the same.

Calhoun Square finally opened in 1983. The urban mall incorporated both old and new buildings. Five buildings originally were located on the site; two were razed for the project, while the remaining three were gutted. The mall’s stores included a mix of both longtime neighborhood businesses as well as new ventures. Although a mall, Calhoun Square’s independent retail stores were a far cry from the standard shopping outlets at the ‘Dales. The mall quickly became an anchor in the neighborhood, and did successfully draw shoppers from across the region.

So, did Calhoun Square squash the spirit of Uptown? Was it the best or the worst thing to happen to the neighborhood? In many ways, I think it was a little of both. Uptown pre-Calhoun Square was an active commercial district, but we’ll never know how well it would have survived the 1980s or 1990s without Calhoun Square. Calhoun Square did energize the neighborhood, and did bring in many new amenities. Large interior malls may not be the fashion now, but in a cold Minnesota winter (or even during the worst days of a hot Minnesota summer) it can be nice to have some indoor shopping options, too. Back in the 1980s the central atrium was actually pretty nice; there were fountains and plants and benches, and there did seem to be a genuine attempt to make the common space feel like it belonged to the community. On the other hand, Uptown’s “revitalization” meant that some longtime businesses got pushed out. A neighborhood shopping district once again became a regional destination; this meant more options for locals, but in return it meant a loss of that smaller, neighborhood feel.

Ultimately what I want out of the neighborhood is a vibrant, urban neighborhood, one in which I can do all my daily and special occasion shopping and living, only leaving the neighborhood because I choose to and not because I have to. I’m too young to have many memories of a pre-Calhoun Square Uptown; I don’t have an answer as to whether or not Calhoun Square was good or bad for the neighborhood. Ultimately I don’t know believe that anyone does. It changed the neighborhood, without a doubt, but things would have changed whether or not Calhoun Square was in the picture. Calhoun Square was only one pressure point of change – a large one, admittedly – on the neighborhood. It would be unfair to forget about larger city and even national economic and cultural trends that also shaped life at the local level. Would that bohemian artistic vibe survived the materialistic ‘80s? We’ll never know for sure.

Calhoun Square of today is a very different place than the Calhoun Square of the 1980s. It’s quieter now, with fewer independent stores and a lot more vacant spaces. The new construction has and will change things dramatically yet again, and it remains to be seen whether or not the outcome will be positive or negative for the neighborhood.

Regardless of one’s opinion about Calhoun Square, past or present, I think most people will agree that it is very important to Uptown as a whole that Calhoun Square survive, and ideally thrive. Love it or hate it, the reality is that the Uptown that existed prior to 1983 is long gone, and it isn’t coming back. The best we can do is to support Calhoun Square in its new form. Shop in its stores. Eat at its restaurants. Don’t forget about the rest of Uptown, of course, but do try to keep your money local. Don’t like chain stores? Focus your buying power on the independents. There’s no way to know whether the neighborhood will thrive or wither in the years to come, but having a big empty albatross sitting at our busiest intersection is the fastest way to encourage failure. Good luck, Calhoun Square, for all our sake.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Emily Goodridge-Grey Charter School

Did you know that CARAG has its own elementary school? Many people don't - it's a small charter school located at 34th and Dupont (in the First Universalist Church). The Emily O. Goodridge-Grey Accelerated Charter School is sponsored by the Audubon Center of the North Woods, and has approximately 170 students in grades K-6. Among other things, the school focuses on a "sense of community and responsibility through service learning and environmental education." They're fairly new - the first academic year was 2007-2008 - so I'm guessing that there are many others out there who know little or nothing about this local school.

I had a difficult time finding much data about Emily Goodridge-Grey, in part because it's so new. The State offers some basic information, but the Emily Goodridge-Grey is so small that the data has limited use. Still, some useful facts from the 2007-2008 school year show that the school had a staff of 10, 60 percent of the staff is state-licenses while 30 percent is "in compliance by permission," and about half of the teachers hold Bachelor's degrees while another third hold Master's degrees. None of the teachers have taught for more than ten years, while 44 percent have less than three years of teaching experience. A glance at the school's staff and board roster and biographies shows an impressive range of interests, experiences, and areas of expertise.

I was surprised to see that despite the school's goals of diversity, the school itself was certainly lacking in that category: there were only 11 kids out of the school's 159 students who weren't black. Of those 11 there was some diversity: three American Indians students, one Asian, five Hispanic, and two. I don't know what percentage of the black students were African American and what percentage were either immigrants or were born to immigrant parents; that would add an element of diversity that may not be reflected in the these numbers.

There was also a lack of economic diversity; Emily Goodridge-Grey is classified as "high poverty," and 96 percent of its students qualified for free or reduced lunches. Diversity of academic skills seems to be lacking, too, with NO students (tested in grades three, four, and five) meeting math or science state standards. The school did slightly better with reading; a majority of students still failed to meet basic standards, but there were at least some students meeting and exceeding standards. These dismal test scores don't necessarily reflect upon the school or its offerings - the school was brand-new, and besides, teachers can't be held solely responsible for the many educational obstacles likely faced by many of their students - but I think they would be disturbing to a parent looking for a good school for his or her child.

I don't have to worry about a school for my own children yet, but I'll face that decision someday. I believe in public schools, and am open to the concept of charter schools. If I were evaluating this school for my child I would be concerned about the lack of economic and ethnic or at least racial diversity among the student body. Most significantly, I would be concerned about those test scores. It's not that I think the scores reflect an unprepared staff or a poorly designed curriculum, it's just that I think that a student working at or beyond the grade level standards would be slowed down or bored if the majority of his or her peers were working at a much lower level. I don't know if that's a bad thing for a kid who is working at a lower grade level; perhaps it means that there will be more resources available to help him or her progress. I'll leave that particular question to the education theorists.

Given the school's math scores, I find Emily Goodridge-Grey School's emphasis on self-esteem - the website references teachers referring to their "math geniuses" - a little silly. On the other hand, there are certainly kids who desperately need to hear from someone that they are smart and can do well in school. The kids at Emily Goodridge-Grey may well all be little geniuses just waiting for a caring teacher to encourage them and help them to develop a love of learning.

Emily Goodridge-Grey School does sound like an interesting place, and very well may offer its students a quality educational experience. The teachers sound enthusiastic, and perhaps some of the diversity issues will be resolved as it ages. In the meantime, I hope that the school can continue to carve out a niche in Uptown. I'm guessing that many of its students don't currently come from the neighborhood (not many high poverty families can afford to live in Uptown), but I hope that, too, will change with time. Emily Goodridge-Grey's current students may not be Uptowners in terms of place of residence, but they can still be part of the Uptown community. High quality public education for all children is essential for a successful society. Schools, too, can be a rallying point for a neighborhood, places where a sense of shared community can take root, whether or not the school's neighbors have kids in the school. I wish the Emily Goodridge-Grey Accelerated Charter School the best of luck, as well as a belated welcome to the neighborhood.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Streetcars on the Greenway

There's been some differences of opinion over the type of transportation best suited for the Midtown Greenway. Some people would prefer it to remain bikes and pedestrians only, others hope for a light rail line through part of it, while still others still hold out hope for a Greenway streetcar line, ideally using vintage trolleys. At one point there was even talk of creating a designated busway, although common sense seems to have prevailed and that plan has lost its traction.

A 2001 Greenway Trolley study was commissioned by the Midtown Greenway Coalition. A different streetcar study, issued by the City in 2007, lays out a 20 to 50 year potential streetcar plan for Minneapolis; this study also incorporates a potential streetcar line up the Greenway.

There are many people out there who have been following this issue for years, who have a high level of expertise in transportation issues, and who know all the ins and outs of the proposed Greenway Streetcar. I'm not one of them; I admittedly have a lot to learn. Still, based on what I know so far, my opinion boils down to several key points:
  1. Uptown needs light rail. A streetcar connection to the Hiawatha line and to a Kenilworth alignment of the Southwest line does not serve the residents of Uptown well. Uptown needs quick, direct rail transportation to downtown. Those who believe a streetcar connection would be an adequate substitute are probably not transit users themselves. Those who use the bus for daily transportation (and not just to go to the airport, sports games, or for a fun day out and about) want their transportation to be efficient, easy, and fast. Screwing around with a Kenilworth Connection just to get from Uptown to Downtown is none of that.
  2. I agree that the neighborhoods along the Greenway Corridor need and deserve improved transportation options. Lake Street is a heavily traveled artery, and taking the bus up its length seem to take forever. Some sort of rail transportation would speed up transportation time, attract new riders, and spur development. These are all good things.
  3. Streetcars are cool. I love streetcars. I love the idea of a vintage trolley. The Greenway report has lots of examples from other cities, and I think it could be a great addition to Minneapolis. The Midtown Greenway Coalition and I agree on that point.
  4. Can't we have both light rail and a streetcar? Does it have to be an either/or proposition? The City's plan shows a proposed line that connects Hiawatha with the Southwest line. I want a streetcar, but not at the expense of light rail.
  5. Does it have to be IN the Greenway? This is my biggest question. I think a streetcar would be wonderful, and I think they'd be an asset to South Minneapolis. I don't understand why it needs to go in the Greenway. Why can't we put the line up Lake Street instead? I realize that construction is disruptive to residents and to businesses, but ultimately it seems to make more sense to have a streetcar run up a major commercial corridor. People can easily get off to run errands or grab lunch. If riders are zipping along the Greenway they'll have a pleasant ride, but it won't help local businesses if riders don't know the commercial wonders located just a block away. A Lake Street route would be convenient for riders as well as benefit the local economy.

I fully support the idea of the Greenway as a transportation system. I hope that Uptown gets its light rail line, which of course would run on part of the Greenway. I love the concept of the Greenway as a bicycle and pedestrian path. I have no problems with the idea itself of a streetcar sharing that space. I'm just not convinced that the Greenway is a logical place for a streetcar line.

Transportation issues seem to move at a snail's pace in Minneapolis, so for better or worse I suppose I have plenty of time to investigate this in more depth and to be convinced one way or the other that a Midtown Greenway streetcar is the way to go. I'd welcome any and all thoughts on the issue.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Heading to Cowboy Slim's? Get the Right Duds Right on Lake

I know a lot of people out there are anxiously awaiting the arrival of Cowboy Slim's (for those that can't wait, Cowboy Jack's in Plymouth is already open). Uptown is apparently a neighborhood filled with would-be cowpokes, all itching to get their hands on some sloppy joe and onion rings.

When the big day comes and you first venture into the saloon, are you going to be dressed in your same old boring city clothes, or are you going to dress for the occasion? Why not go all out and both support the neighborhood AND indulge your inner ranching spirit? While technically in the Lyn-Lake area (and therefore sort of Uptown, depending on your view) the Schatzlein Saddle Shop at Grand and Lake is the real deal. Not only is it exactly what it sounds like - an honest-to-goodness saddle shop in the heart of the city - it has also has a long history in the neighborhood.

Schatzlein's first store opened at 609 West Lake Street (between Lyndale and Garfield) in 1907. Now, 102 years later, they're still going strong, and still located in the Lyn-Lake business district. Besides saddles, they also sell fun things like boots, hats, and clothing. Even if your city life doesn't bring you anywhere near a horse doesn't mean you can't look the part.

And, I've started to research this but don't yet have an answer: are horses allowed on the Greenway? Is there a reason why horses shouldn't be on the Greenway? I jokingly said once before that Cowboy Slim's needed to get some hitching posts for their patrons' parking needs; wouldn't it be cool if there really was a stable somewhere along the Greenway that offered evening rides down the Greenway for a fun night out? It's been done other places. I'll be the first to sign up, wearing my newly procured Schatzlein boots, of course.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Raise Your Hand If You Hate Uptown

My hand is down. I love Uptown. Not everything about it, of course, but I love that it does offer safe, interesting, attractive urban living in Minneapolis. Besides, I grew up here; I'd probably love it even if it was crumbling down around my ears. There are plenty of others out there who don't share the love. For every person out there who claims to love Uptown, there's another, equally vocal person who proudly announces his or her hatred of the neighborhood. It's an area that seems to incite strong opinions, such as some of those expressed in this relatively recent Yelp conversation. You just don't hear this kind of passion about many local neighborhoods.

For the purpose of this discussion I'm going to ignore those who hate Uptown because they don't like cities, hate traffic of any kind (although I really don't see driving to Uptown as any worse than braving a mall parking lot), or just overall would hate Uptown regardless of who lived or did not live here. Instead, let's take a look at why in some circles it seems to have become the in thing to hate Uptown.

1. Hating Uptown makes you cool. Sneering at Uptown for "selling out," being too "white," too "yuppie," or filled with too many chain stores highlights your own superior taste in neighborhoods.

Well, I guess it's a short list. That pretty much sums it up right there.

On to some other observations on Uptown and its supporters and detractors:

  • Expectations are unrealistically high. I think it's reasonable to believe that Uptown can and should be an interesting and successful city neighborhood. I don't think it's realistic to think that it can be all things to all people. I wouldn't care what the rest of the Twin Cities thinks about Uptown, other than the fact that the neighborhood needs to continue to draw on outside dollars to support local businesses. I have no need to live in a trendy neighborhood. I just want to live in a walkable, safe, non-car dependent neighborhood filled with local businesses and interesting people. People who have high expectations about how it "should" be filled exclusively with musicians and artists (and not investment bankers and lawyers and doctors or other potential yuppies) are going to be disappointed. Personally, I'd like to see it strike the right balance of both. Diversity of all sorts is a good thing.
  • People who hate Uptown mostly don't live there. They may or may not have enough experience with the real neighborhood to make an informed judgement call. Some people lived there once and were disillusioned, while others only come in once in awhile to go to the stores, restaurants, or theaters. Still others lived here briefly at one stage in life, and then moved elsewhere. Not to get too pop-psychological here, but maybe those people look back at those years as being a period of younger, more immature (but perhaps fun) behavior, and extend those feelings out to the neighborhood as a whole.
  • Uptown does change. It should be obvious, but things don't stand still. Favorite places go out of business, new places move in. Sometimes the change is good, sometimes it's bad. Rather than complain excessively about the bad let's get proactive and do something about it. Realize, too, that Uptown will continue to evolve. Every decade has a different flavor, and we all have the opportunity to help shape the direction of the future, whether through political involvement, community service, or simply choosing to live a lifestyle that supports the neighborhood.
  • Uptown does not answer to anyone. Or at least not to any single person. Uptown is not a person. It's a neighborhood made up of residents, businesses, and visitors. It can't "sell out." Many changes in the neighborhood are a result of changing demographics and larger city patterns, as well as just simple evolution and changes over time, and there are no laws on the book saying that only people of the "right kind" (aka the cool people) can live here.
  • There are plenty of other options out there. I love Uptown, but I love other Minneapolis neighborhoods, too. We all have options. People who can afford to live in Uptown have other choices available. For those who do live elsewhere (who tend to be the Uptown haters, anyway) why focus so much energy on hating this neighborhood? Why not concentrate on why you love your own choice of community? Perhaps it's partially due to jealousy - Uptown does get a lot of media attention, and is a top trendy destination. But really, do the people who bash Uptown for attracting "uncool" wealthy suburbanites really want their own neighborhoods to become the new location of Chino Latino? Wouldn't that simply recreate what it is that they say they dislike so much about Uptown?

I spend plenty of time on this blog complaining about things. I don't like everything about Uptown, but I do love the neighborhood and think that it has a lot to offer. I also respect the fact that other people don't have to love Uptown. They can choose to hate it if they want. But do they have to be so damn annoying about it? It would be obnoxious of me to write that they're just jealous. So I won't. I'll just think it instead.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Ward 10 Precinct Caucus (Un) Endorsements

Those of you involved in Ward politics know what March 3 means: the first step towards selecting the official DFL-endorsed Ward 10 City Council candidate. Given the one-party dominance of this neighborhood, the endorsement of a candidate will in all likelihood mean that the contest is over, especially if the other Democratic candidates in the running step aside if they don't receive the endorsement.

Those not involved with politics at the local level might be lulled into thinking that one candidate is as good as the next; they're all Democrats, right? And yes, certainly at some level there are shared values. But the reality is that these candidates have very different approaches and visions, and the general public (and local delegates) deserve the opportunity to understand what each candidate brings to the table.

Before I go any further, let me fully disclose that there's still a lot that I have yet to learn about the candidates. Things are starting to move along quickly, though, so I'm sure we'll all have the opportunity to get more questions answered in the coming month. I don't, however, feel ready at this time to make a formal decision about where to throw my support. That said, I do know enough to be able to state definitively that there is one candidate that the Uptown Urbanist and the Uptown Musings blog will NOT be endorsing: Lara Norkus-Crampton.

Lara "I like to be able to see the sky" Norkus-Crampton is not the right person to represent Ward 10. Her record to-date has shown her to be an active NIMBY, focusing on issues of height at the expense of providing a broader, more useful vision for Uptown. I don't know Norkus-Crampton, and assume that's she's a nice, caring person who does passionately care about the community, but she is not the right person for this job at this time.

Rather than embrace Uptown for what it is - an exciting urban neighborhood - Norkus-Crampton instead all-to-often focuses her energies on the dangers of building height and excess traffic, with the goal of shoehorning Uptown into a quieter, different kind of place. Yes, there are some in Ward 10 who share her (tunnel) vision, but a great many others do not. Her platform also includes references to engaging the community in city affairs, but her stated approach - attending all neighborhood board meetings - fails to acknowledge that the neighborhood organizations do not necessarily reflect the majority of neighborhood residents.

Minneapolis and Ward 10 are facing more pressing issues right now than whether or not a building two blocks from Lake Calhoun is three, four, or even five stories tall. Yes, of course these topics are important to local residents, and do need to be discussed. But we also need someone who both shares a love of Uptown and Ward 10 for what it is now, as well as what it can be in the future. We need a representative who can better balance the many nuances of city life. Lara Norkus-Crampton represents only a small percentage of the Ward and therefore receives the official Uptown Musings un-endorsement.

Meg Tuthill versus Matt Filner: I haven't made up my mind between these two candidates yet. I've heard great things about Filner, and especially appreciate both his acknowledgement that there are many in the Ward whose voices are seldom heard, as well as his knowledge and understanding of the larger Minneapolis and Twin Cities political situation. He's a smart guy who knows his way around the political landscape, and I believe he would serve both Ward 10 and Minneapolis well. His references to the issue of Minneapolis and Ward 10 poverty and political exclusion highlights Norkus-Crampton's lack of commentary on those same subjects, furthering my impression that Norkus-Crampton, while undoubtedly well-meaning, will not represent all the people or be as in-tune with some of the serious issues facing many Minneapolis residents.

While Filner hasn't been around long as a local community force, his educational and professional experiences are impressive and completely relevant to the job. I feel comfortable that he understands Ward 10 - and not just one small subgroup of Ward 10 residents - and would make a true effort to put his skills and knowledge to work on behalf of all Minneapolis residents.

Meg Tuthill also seems like a solid candidate. She's been actively involved in the community for decades. Her experience as both a resident and a small-business owner would serve her well. I'd like to know more about her vision for Uptown - as well as her take on changes and development - but I feel comfortable that she understands the balancing act between "character" (and NOT simply the character=height arguments of Norkus-Crampton and the NIMBYs) and change necessary to keep the neighborhood thriving. I like that she's been long been active in the schools, and I also appreciate her interest in and work on behalf of the preservation of Uptown's historic housing stock. I think she'll work hard, get things done, and do what it takes to make both Uptown and Minneapolis a better place to live and work.

I'd like to see Meg Tuthill and Matt Filner have the opportunity to continue to discuss their opinions on issues (and solutions) relevant to both Ward 10 and to the city as a whole, while I'd like Lara Norkus-Crampton to find another outlet for her service to the community. (I'm thinking official City ornithologist might be right up her - low-rise and quiet - alley...)

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Remember McPunks?

Ah, the good old days. In this case, for some of us, anyway, that means the 1980s. The decade of tight zipper-legged jeans, leg warmers, big hair, and Thriller. In Uptown it was the decade of the McPunks.

The McPunks were the mostly teenage punks with mohawks and piercings who used the Uptown McDonald's as their primary hangout. McDonald's had a different building back then, with a small patio separating the restaurant from Hennepin. At the time they were a highly visible, as well as controversial, part of the Uptown street scene. Some people thought they were scary: bad kids who meant trouble, and who undoubtedly would run amok in the neighborhood as soon as they got bored with nursing a Coke or cold fries on the patio. Others didn't have a problem with the McPunks themselves, but worried that they would scare away more conventional customers. Still others just saw them as kids with a different style who didn't hurt anyone, and in some ways might even help the neighborhood avoid becoming too tarnished with the gentrification brush. Calhoun Square was still brand new after all, and the neighborhood was starting to regain its position as a regional draw, and a bunch of teenagers with spikes on their head and safety pins in their noses might not fly with visitors of Edina. On the other hand, conventional visitors from the 'burbs didn't agree with all of the locals, many of whom were still bitter about the new urban mall in their midst.

The reality, of course, was that many of the McPunks were themselves from Edina. Or, if not Edina, then at least southwest Minneapolis. While there were some examples of vandalism and other crimes possibly attributed to some of the McPunks, for the most part they were good kids who simply chose to express themselves through the radical hairstyles and clothing of the time.

What does this mean, if anything, for those of us in Uptown today? I think a lot of people look back to the 1980s as the last decade in which Uptown had any claim to "weirdness," the last hoorah before national chains moved in in the 1990s and rents and housing prices began to escalate at even faster rates. The McPunks were a symbol that Uptown was an eccentric place and somehow different from other city (or suburban) neighborhoods. They were also a sign of the tensions of the neighborhood; did Uptown want to be weird? And where did the balance tip between weird-exotic and weird-scary? It wasn't an easy question, and was in some ways the neighborhood's clash-of-cultures of its time.

I'm pretty conventional in a lot of ways. My hair's its natural color, and I'm too cheap and lazy to get a cut that would involve too much maintenance, let alone put in the kind of time that must have been necessary to maintain one of those elaborate spiked 'dos. But even as a kid I was never bothered by the McPunks. They were just part of the landscape, just like the old people at McDonald's - who also hung around for hours, nursing a coffee or doing crossword puzzles - and the rest of the Uptown regulars. And while I'm not not a McDonald's regular myself, I do miss that old patio and its place in Uptown's cultural history.