Friday, July 31, 2009

Has ECCO Crossed the Line?

The controversy over the proposed Lake and Knox development has taken the Uptown area by storm. As one would expect, the NIMBY-dominated neighborhood organizations have banded together to protest the recent Minneapolis Planning Commission ruling in favor of the development. If nothing else, recent neighborhood board activities highlight the dysfunctional nature of these organizations, and the need for real and substantial change in either the role or the implementation of neighborhood board activities. The recent allegations over ECCO’s recent activities are a good case study.

First, some background. The ECCO board previously voted to oppose the project due to concerns about height. It was not a unanimous decision, and several recent debates (including several letters and commentaries in the Uptown Neighborhood News) have led to heightened tensions at the board level. A difference in opinion in itself is not a bad thing; neighborhood residents seldom share the same view on something, and it’s only reasonable that the board members would also have differing ideas.

Fast forward to July. The Planning Commission met, approved the project, Lara Norkus-Crampton resigned in protest, and the NIMBYs rose up to declare the Uptown Small Area Plan (USAP) dead. The neighborhood boards and nine individuals are appealing the decision. This, however, is where things in ECCO get complicated and possibly cross both ethical and legal lines. Nancy Ward, ECCO’s board president, sent an email to ECCO board members asking if they would support an appeal, and, if so, would they be willing to contribute ECCO funds to do so. (I should note right here that I am not on the ECCO board, have never been on the ECCO board, and have not seen the email in question. If someone has the text and understands the situation differently, feel free to add your comments below.) It was not couched as a formal vote, and was never formally debated, discussed, or approved. A slim majority of respondents were favorable to the appeal, and the board (or at least a few members of the board) moved forward.

Assuming the allegations are true, this should be taken seriously by both the city and the neighborhood. ECCO is a nonprofit organization, and as such is expected to abide by certain laws and regulations. There is no excuse for ignoring legal obligations or for failing to follow the organization’s own bylaws. The bylaws, for example, state that “any action that may be taken at a meeting of directors may be taken without a meeting if authorized in writing and signed by all the directors.” An informal email poll hardly qualifies. The bylaws also clearly state “only the ECCO board of directors may make a binding commitment for the ECCO area.” An informal, non-binding email non-vote is clearly not sufficient.

There are many problems at play here. Local neighborhood boards are grassroots politics at the micro-level. ECCO’s own bylaws also state that one of their objectives is to “act as a spokesperson for the ECCO neighborhood before city boards, commissions, etc. and as otherwise needed.” If the ECCO board is going to assume that responsibility, and if the city and state are going to recognize it as speaking for the neighborhood, then it need to follow the rules.

I have little hope that the issues facing Uptown neighborhood boards will ever going to be fully fixed, but there are some potential actions that could help alleviate some of the problems. An open letter of suggestions for current and potential board members:

Take board membership seriously. A board is not just a social club or even a group of like-minded neighborhood activists meeting to discuss local issues. Boards have legal obligations, and as a director or trustee a member of the board it is your responsibility to know the law, as well as to read and understand (and follow!) your board’s bylaws. ECCO is a “duly authorized nonprofit organization under the laws of the State of Minnesota,” as ECCO’s own bylaws remind board members and residents. That status comes with rights and regulations. Board members – and especially officers – need to be conversant with their bylaws, and to fully understand just what they’re taking on when they join a board.

Board education is key. Obviously there are a lot of board members out there who quite possibly have never even read their own bylaws. Bylaws are boring. I understand that; I have plenty of personal experience both serving on boards, answering directly to boards, and attending board meetings as a non-voting participant. Still, every new board member should receive adequate orientation before assuming the mantle of “director” or “trustee.”

Boards shouldn’t ethically be allowed to speak as the “voice” of a neighborhood unless improvements are made. I don’t know about the legal issues involved, but if an Uptown-area board consists almost entirely of white, middle-class, middle-aged homeowners then I think it’s safe to say there are some potential problems. You can’t make people participate, and there’s no reason why a white, middle-class, middle-age homeowner can’t also take into account the potentially different needs of a young renter or an old renter subsisting on social security checks. Still, boards need to take a more active role when it comes to adding board diversity. A nominations committee should focus on outreach efforts, and the board as a whole should work to address the issue of lack of representation.

Board members are public officials, and need to be treated as such. If board members are going to assume representative powers then the residents – all residents (or eligible stakeholders) – in the neighborhood need to know just who these people are and where they stand on relevant issues. Realistically not all (or even many) residents are going to pay any attention to this, but neighborhood organizations could at the very least post candidate statements on websites prior to neighborhood elections, publish them (as paid advertisements, if necessary) in the relevant local neighborhood newspapers, and send them out via email.

Boards need to acknowledge their weaknesses. I’ve read and heard statements to the effect that if you don’t care enough to participate yourself, then you have no right to complain. I think this is hogwash. It is the boards’ duty to think about the needs of all residents, participants or not. It would be nice if everyone in the community could and wanted to participate in local issues, but that’s not the reality. That in no way means that the needs of non-participants do not matter. A good board acknowledges both its strengths and its weaknesses, and endeavors to consider the needs of the broader community.

Accountability is a good thing. Politics are obviously not perfect, and board members should be able to vote based on their conscience, not due to fears of political repercussions. But board members do need to be reminded that their decisions can have a significant impact on the development of the neighborhood. If, for example, a board member does something in his or her board capacity that is unethical or illegal or otherwise violates the public’s trust, then he or she needs to be held accountable for that action. Similarly, even if an action does not violate ethics – CARAG President Aaron Rubenstein’s comments in the Southwest Journal about the “very significant, long-term damage” to the Uptown Small Area Plan by the Planning Commission, for example – neighborhood residents should be aware of just what it is that their neighborhood representatives are saying on their behalf, and be prepared to boot those officials out of their board membership role if they decide that those opinions do not, in fact, represent the view of the neighborhood.

To bring this back to the situation in ECCO, it sounds like things are pretty seriously amiss if the allegations hold true. Bylaws and regulations aren’t perfect, but they are an attempt to protect people from potential misuse of power. In this particular case the NIMBYs are in the position of power; if the political makeup changes in the future and they represent a minority of board members then they, too, will appreciate why there are checks and balances in place to keep a few activists from making all of the important decisions. This is democracy at the micro-level, and it can only work if residents – and board members – take it seriously. If ECCO has indeed run amiss of ethics and the law then it’s time for a major shakeup, potentially a board recall, or at the very least some major internal soul-searching.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Lara Norkus-Crampton: "Part of the Problem"

By now everyone has heard that Lara Norkus-Crampton has resigned her seat on the Planning Commission in protest over the Commission’s support of the project at Lake and Knox. What? You haven’t heard? You haven’t heard of Norkus-Crampton, and didn’t realize that she’s doing this for you, the people of Uptown? That, of course, is part of the problem, and is yet another reason why it’s so frustrating when people like Norkus-Crampton and her merry band of NIMBYs claim to speak for all Uptown residents and stakeholders. While it would be nice if every resident or other Uptown property owner, business owner, employer, visitor, or other Uptown regular was actively involved in discussions about the neighborhood and its future, that’s not the reality. Norkus-Crampton and the NIMBYs are one faction of the neighborhood; a vocal faction, of course, but just one group out of many.

Most of the readers of this blog probably do know Norkus-Crampton and her history, but then again, readers of this blog are, like the NIMBYs, not necessarily a representative cross-section of Uptowners. Norkus-Crampton has been an active figure in local development issues, and is one of the leading proponents of the concept that tall buildings, or even slightly tall buildings, are single-handedly going to destroy Uptown’s “character.” Norkus-Crampton and the NIMBYs have a vision of Uptown as a quieter place, a less-dense neighborhood where they can “see the sky.” And while I certainly think diversity of opinions is a good thing, and value a good community discussion as much as the anyone, the NIMBYs are, to adapt Norkus-Crampton’s description of the Planning Commission (“I have come to the conclusion that the Planning Department, and the Planning Commission, as a whole, are part of the problem”) the real problem facing Uptown today. Norkus-Crampton’s actions sum up the general attitude in a nutshell: my way or the highway.

Norkus-Crampton claims that the Planning Commission’s vote in favor of the Knox development shows a “complete disregard” for the Uptown Small Area Plan. More specifically, she says it destroys what she calls “the Grand Compromise,” a compromise she alleges the USAP allowed for higher density and height in the core of Uptown in return for lower height. The reality is not that simple. Uptown business leader and USAP steering committee member Thatcher Imboden described his view of things in a recent post on the Minneapolis Issues Forum:

“Height was a component, but it was intentionally not elevated to supreme status. Height itself, determined through our planning process, was not the main issue. It was the height’s relationship with people… meaning how it made you feel on the sidewalk and how it impacted other properties…. But, that’s not quite 100% the way everything ended. A pre-draft came out and was distributed to the Steering Committee. It supported a little more height than the adopted plan. But mysteriously, that height was stripped out a week later without any reason given. The official draft had every district recommended for 3-5 stories with potentially a little more between the Greenway and Lake between Dupont and Hennepin. Otherwise it said that height may be increased from time to time and it left the doors open for that discussion…. The public was told very clearly that staff would not make a recommendation on height and that the Planning Commission would resolve it after taking public comments in writing during the draft response phase and during the Planning Commission official proceedings. Lots of people gave feedback, some saying it’s a good plan, some saying less height, and some people saying more height would be fine, and others saying making it clear that the plan is flexible. BUT, the Planning Commission stated after the public hearing that a compromise had already been reached and they didn’t want to reopen the conversation. Except it hadn’t really been resolved.”

Was this the “Grand Compromise?” Does Norkus-Crampton really think that the Commission’s recent vote was a referendum on the USAP? The approved USAP itself even spells out the potential ambiguity of situations such as the Lake and Knox project. “On occasion, variances and conditional use permits within the Shoreland Overlay District may be appropriate,” (47) for example, and “a broader public discussion that evaluates and weights the overall public contributions and merits of an individual project should be expected on occasion in the future in the even that a taller building is proposed.” (74) I find it outrageous that Norkus-Crampton and her allies have the nerve to proclaim the USAP dead. “This kills the compromise,” said Norkus-Crampton in her resignation press release, “how do you say ‘yes’ to one 56 foot high proposal and ‘no’ to others who will follow this new precedent?” Well, Lara, it’s easy. You go with the plan and evaluate each proposal in turn, just like the USAP suggests. Norkus-Crampton calls the Commission’s willingness to follow the USAP’s flexibility as “cavalier;” I call her disregard for the plan and differing views cavalier.

I’m not sure exactly what to think of Norkus-Crampton’s actions. On one hand, I’m tempted to write it off as a childish reaction to not getting her way. The NIMBYs, after all, have enjoyed a great deal of power in recent years. On the other hand, maybe she really does believe in what she says. I’m not sure which is worse. Is it better to set yourself up as a martyr for the cause when you know full well that the plan was designed to be flexible (in a political move designed to further your overall agenda), or is it better to have such tunnel vision that you honestly don’t understand the details of the plan? To put it in a non-Minnesota “nice”way, is she calculating, is she dumb, or is she oblivious? I think it’s the case of well-meaning tunnel vision, myself. I don’t think she’s stupid and I doubt she’s particularly Machiavellian, but I do think she’s not spending enough quality time engaging in meaningful, sometimes uncomfortable, debates (internal or external) about Uptown and its past, present, and future. I think she honestly does believe that her view of Uptown and its potential is shared by the vast majority of local residents, or, if they don’t share it, then they must have somehow sold out to the evil developers who are out to destroy the neighborhood. In any case, I’m glad to see Norkus-Crampton go, but hope that it doesn’t newly energize an already energized bunch of vocal residents who already enjoy a disproportionate amount of political power.

“This proposal was opposed by the East Isles, ECCO, and CARAG neighborhoods,” said Norkus-Crampton in her press release. It’s this disregard for the people of Uptown, or at least for those who don’t share the NIMBY viewpoint, that really gets me steamed. The NIMBYs often claim to speak for entire neighborhoods. The problem, of course, is that the project was opposed by the neighborhood boards (and not all board members), and boards should not be considered the same thing as neighborhoods. The neighborhood boards are not particularly representative of the neighborhood residents, and are easily dominated by small groups of people with special interests. Neighborhood boards have their strengths and weaknesses, and certainly have a role to play in Uptown, but they have a lot of work to do if they want to become true representative bodies. The NIMBYs have nothing to gain, and potentially a lot to lose, by becoming more diverse and encouraging a broader range of opinions, so unless a slate of new neighborhood activists bursts onto the scene in coming years (and are willing to put up with the process and the frustrations of dealing with the current status quo day in and day out) it appears that the NIMBYs will continue to shape the dialogue as the “official” spokesmen and women for Uptown-area neighborhoods.

It remains to be seen what new role Norkus-Crampton will play in the ongoing debate about the future of Uptown, but I, for one, pledge to do my part to place Norkus-Crampton and her allies in their proper context: a group of neighborhood residents who have one concept of what Uptown is and should be, but not a group that has the authority to speak on behalf of all, or even most, Uptown residents and stakeholders. As for Norkus-Crampton herself, I appreciate her love of the neighborhood and her dedication to making it a better place to live (although our opinions differ on the details), but hope for the sake of Uptown that she channels her new free time into bird watching and planning block parties instead of resuming her role of ECCO and Uptown’s Queen NIMBY.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Kim Vlaisavljevich Runs for Ward 10 City Council Spot

You knew it would happen one of these days: a conservative has now officially entered the Ward 10 race. While technically running as an Independent, Kim Vlaisavljevich has the endorsement of the Republican party. The odds of her winning are about as likely as Lake Calhoun freezing over in August, but at least she does bring some political diversity to the proceedings.

The Basics
According to her website, Vlaisavljevich’s primary issues are “budget control,” “better property tax management,” and “no wasteful spending.” Unfortunately her website, like most candidate websites, is heavy on rhetoric, light on details. She wants to “make better management decisions” and to ensure that stimulus money is “allocated to projects that make the most sense for the community.” What those decisions or projects may be is left largely to the imagination of the voter.

In a Nutshell: It’s All About the Money
Vlaisavljevich appears to be a one-issue candidate. That’s not surprising, I suppose, but I do with the local fiscal conservatives would put forth a candidate with more dimension, or, alternatively, that Vlaisavljevich herself would elaborate a bit more about exactly what it is that she stands for, other than on matters of money.

About Kim Vlaisavljevich
According to her LinkedIn profile, Vlaisavljevich holds a BA in Economics and International Business from St. Cloud State. She currently works as a financial and accounting consultant, and is the owner of mIT Consulting, a “customer focused IT consulting firm.” She started out her career as a bankruptcy analyst for Wells Fargo before moving on to work for Carlson Companies, followed by contract work for clients such as SuperValu, Allina, Thomson Reuters, and SALO.

“There’s nothing that bothers me more than wasteful spending.”
Really, this seems to sum it all up. I don’t like “wasteful spending,” either, but what counts as wasteful? And, when it comes right down to it, I can think of things that bother me more than wasteful spending. Things like inequality in education. Crime. Poverty. Lack of affordable housing. Given that there’s a limited amount of money to go around it’s important to allocate it in the best way possible for the sake of the community, but it would be nice to see a little more passion about the ways in which that money could help improve society as a whole, and Minneapolis and Ward 10 in particular. Or, since I’m not a Republican and admittedly just don’t “get” the mindset, what’s wrong with having passion for both saving money AND making Ward 10 a better place to live, work, and visit? What does she want for Ward 10? What are her priorities? What is her vision? She does mention the need for “less property taxes, high service levels, better schools, business development, and more green space,” but that’s still pretty vague. (I also found it interesting that "less property taxes" came first on that list of desires)

Things are starting to gear up, and if we’re lucky each of these four Ward 10 candidates will help provoke a larger community discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of Ward 10, as well as highlight the diversity of opinions held within the Ward as a whole. I will never vote for Vlaisavljevich, but I appreciate that she’s running. While I don’t wish her the best of luck with the actual election – I support Meg Tuthill, although I disagree with some of her stances – I do wish her the best of luck in drumming up some increased Ward 10 chatter, and in providing voters with an alternative view on local issues.

Ward 10 Candidate Slate Complete

Filings are now complete for Minneapolis City Council candidates, and Ward 10 now has four official contenders. There’s Meg Tuthill, of course, now joined by Dan Alvin, Kim Vlaisavljevich, and Matthew Dowgwillo. I’ve already written about Alvin and Tuthill, but in the spirit of giving all Ward 10 candidates a shot at equal attention I’ll be posting comments about both Dowgwillo and Vlaisavljevich in the coming days.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Dan Alvin Runs for Ward 10 City Council Spot

Ward 10 residents will at least in theory now have a choice at the ballot box this fall; Dan Alvin of either CARAG or East Isles (he lives on the border, although I'm not sure which side of the street) recently announced his candidacy for Ward 10 city council member as the Independence Party candidate. The Southwest Journal ran a brief profile on Alvin, in which Alvin cites the importance of local businesses and a neighborhood-driven police force as top priorities. A look at his website provides further details. Check it out for yourself, but here's the Cliff Notes version of his chief goals:
  • To transform the idea of what a candidate and city council member can be;
  • To let everyone know that an average person of humble means can change city politics;
  • To represent renting artists and hospitality industry folks, as well as property owners and small businesses;
  • To bring innovative thinking and unique perspectives to city leadership;
  • To listen to your thoughts and bring an independent voice to city government;
  • To empower our ideas and create the policies we want.

A quote published in the Southwest Journal's profile seems to sum up his view of the ward in a nutshell. The ward, he says, "is all driven by food and art and entertainment." He argues that his background as a musician, a chef, and former owner of a record-label make him an ideal fit for Ward 10. He also has significant experience in the non-profit world.

Before I write much more, let me state that I like some of Alvin's ideas. Who could disagree with statements like "I am a firm believer that we need more low cost, safe, and clean affordable housing"? I love that he wants to get local food into local schools and retirement homes. I appreciate that he's made support for "mother-in-law cottages" part of his platform. But overall, to be frank, I think his views (or at least his explanations of them) are somewhat simplistic and vague. I agree with him on some things, but strongly disagree with him on many other points. On the other hand, I'm thrilled that he's running, as a race with only one candidate hardly counts as a race. I hope that his participation sparks additional neighborhood discussions. And in the spirit of discussions, here are some of my concerns and disagreements about Alvin's platforms and views:

The Ward is not "all driven by food and art and entertainment." Those activities are all major issues in the Uptown area, but a focus on this overlooks the many other activities and businesses in the area. I like that he is paying attention to these factors (and as a positive - too many people focus on them as negatives), but it does make me wonder if he's going to understand what my issues are and why they matter. Food, art, and entertainment are just one component of the whole.

I don't want an "average" person in office. I realize that he's trying to push a certain image, a man-of-the-people grassroots image. I have no idea if he really considers himself average or not. But why is it acceptable to vote for average people for office? My ideal candidate is brilliant, has a broad range of experiences, and knows the ins and outs of both the neighborhood and the workings of government. I don't care if candidates have money or not, as long as they are aware of and outspoken about the issues facing people of all economic backgrounds.

He lacks details. I know, I know: candidate's websites are often heavy on fluff and big talk, light on the details. I realize that, but when a candidate proposes major changes I want to know just how he or she thinks this is possible. It's good - even desirable - to dream big, but I also want results. Alvin wants to encourage cops to live in the community, for example; sounds great, but what does that mean? Citing "incentives" and mentoring programs doesn't go far enough. And by community does he mean the police should live within city limits? Does a cop living in Camden have a closer affinity to Ward 10 than does a cop living in St. Louis Park? I'd love it if all of our police officers lived within Ward boundaries, but it's not realistic. I'd certainly be willing to hear Alvin's suggestions, though, but want more evidence that he's thought through these issues and has a good grasp of all the implications of whatever proposal he comes up with.

I don't agree with him on the development issue, or at least I don't think I do. Again, websites are a little vague. Maybe some of these details will be discussed in more detail as the campaigns shift into higher gear. On his website Alvin writes "the recent housing property bust has demonstrated the failure of putting everyone in a house. I think the threshold of high-rise condos in the ward has been reached." What does he mean by this? First, there are few high-rise condos in Ward 10, so I'm assuming (although am perhaps wrong) that he's referring to some of the developments along Lake Street and around Lyn-Lake. I would hardly call those high-rise. Of more significance, don't condos provide more living options in the area? How do statements A and B relate? High-rise condos (or medium-rise condo or apartment buildings) are not single family homes; if done right they can be part of the affordable housing solution, not singled out as problem.

Alvin also suggest that local residents need more power over zoning: "no one knows the needs and the wants of neighborhoods more than the people who live there, so locally elected zoning commissions could apply a more accountable standard to development concerns." Ward 10 is already filled with vocal opponents of any and all development project, with most concerns based purely on height. The communities do have a significant voice in new developments. I understand the desire of local neighbors to have some control over what goes up in their own neighborhoods, but more local control is not the right answer. For one thing, how are we going to ensure that these locally-elected zoning commissions reflect the will of the people? Alvin himself acknowledges that local politics need to better incorporate a broader range of residents, including renters; given that local neighborhood boards are currently dominated by middle-aged white homeowners, many of them adamant NIMBYs, why would these zoning boards be any different? I'm the first to acknowledge that not all white boomer homeowners share the same outlook on life or on development, but let's fix the current system and increase representation on the current neighborhood boards before we throw any binding power to local groups, elected or not.

Is Alvin a feel-good candidate lacking in substance? Maybe, maybe not. I'll reserve final judgement. But his website skews heavily to the fluff side. The sentence that grates me the most is his stated goal to "empower our ideas and create the policies we want." What ideas, and what policies? Or are those all to be determined at a later date, perhaps driven by the will of the people? What if (and this is not going to be the case in Ward 10, thank goodness, but it's a hypothetical what if) the people, or at least those who get out and vote or participate in forums or whatever other way of communication Alvin prefers, envision themselves living in a right-wing wonderland? I want a city council member who will listen to all local stakeholders -- including those with views I don't agree with -- but that doesn't mean I want him or her to make decisions based on a majority-rules mentality. And if Alvin does intend to stick to his guns and make the decisions he feels are best for the Ward, then I want to know the details of those ideas and policies upfront.

I think Alvin means well. I'm sure he's a smart guy, and he does have an interesting resume. I think he'd be a wonderful asset to any neighborhood organization. But I'm far from convinced that he's ready for the big leagues of Minneapolis City Council. But even if he's unlikely to win (and, I think, not ready to win), I hope that he has success in bringing his issues to the table -- even those I don't agree with -- and can help to spark some larger discussions and debates among the stakeholders of Ward 10.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Walker Library III

Above: Current Walker Library interior

Uptown is getting a new Walker Library, and the Library powers-that-be want your input on what it should include. Meetings are scheduled for July 11 (2:00 – 3:30 pm) and July 16 (6:30 – 8:00 pm) if you want to get involved in the discussion.

Some Walker Library history in a nutshell: the first Walker Library, located across the street from the current building, was built for $45,000 in 1911. It provided local residents with access to books, as well as served as gathering place for the larger community. In the 1960s, discussion began about building a new library; things moved slowly then, too, and construction did not begin until 1979. The new library – the one we still have today – was designed to be energy-efficient. It opened for business in 1981.

Fast-forward twenty-plus years. In the early to mid-2000s there was discussion about the possibility of a new, mixed-use building on the site. (read Greco’s 2005 proposal here) Despite extensive community discussion, in the end nothing happened. The library is still here today, it’s still underground, and while there have been some changes, it still feels overall pretty much the same as it did ten, even twenty years ago. I’m assuming that the proposed new library will be free-standing and not part of a mixed-use development, but please post a comment below if you have information to the contrary.

Some thoughts and a wish list for the new library:

I support a free-standing structure. In most cases I like the idea of mixed-use developments. I think it helps add appropriate density, and in turns enhances the vitality of a neighborhood. It also increases the housing options available. In the case of a library, however, I think mixed-use is the wrong way to go. That goes doubly in a neighborhood that is in desperate need for public iconic gathering places. Uptown doesn’t even have a post office. There is no high school. We obviously don’t have a city hall. The Walker Library steps in to fulfill this role, and I think a suitably grand and inspiring freestanding building is the way to communicate its status to the community.

The plaza. I like the library letter art; it would be nice to see them Incorporated somehow in the new design. The plaza itself is a failure, though. It usually feels dead. I like the idea of some outdoor space, ideally incorporating seating and maybe even a small children’s play area, but it needs to better engage the public and contribute to the overall street life of Uptown. I’ve seen it done well in other places, and have every hope that it will work here.

Parking. I know people have a fit about parking. I believe that the library has to offer adequate parking, particularly to serve older or disabled people, but overall if it comes down to making a decision between extra space for either a public plaza or the library building itself I’d get rid of the parking (or most of it) in a minute. Non-disabled people can walk, bus, bike, park on the street, or walk from one of the neighborhood’s other parking lots.

Meeting space. The library needs to provide flexible space to accommodate large groups. An obvious point, of course, but one worth listing all the same.

Gallery space. Given the library’s function as more than simply a repository for books (and now provider of computer access), it would be wonderful to see an area set aside to feature relevant small-scale exhibits. There should be secure accommodations for small three-dimensional objects (including books) as well as wall space for art; possible exhibition topics could be everything from the work of local artists to local history to highlights from the library’s own collection. Curators could include both library staff as well as community members. Exhibitions with a Minneapolis, and even better, an Uptown, focus would further enhance the area’s sense of unity.

Corral the kids. The trend in libraries seems to be towards integrating children’s rooms into the larger library, rather than placing them off to the side and away from the adult areas. I assume that part of this is due to security concerns and staffing issues. As the parent of a toddler, I can speak from personal experience when I say that I absolutely hate these wide-open spaces. Kids are noisy (even when trying to stay quiet), run fast, and need their own space. A separate room may not be possible, but even an area enclosed by some Plexiglas or enclosed by a waist-high wall could keep the kids from a mad dash out the door while still allowing good visibility from outside. Still, a separate space would be my number one choice if at all possible, and would presumably also please the other patrons of the library, at least those who prefer to be able to work in peace and quiet.

Technology. Computers are a necessary part of any library, so provide enough of them to meet the needs of the patrons. Keep enough aside (and scattered) to provide easy catalogue access for visitors just trying to find a book.

And the big one: books. The more books the better. And also from the viewpoint of a parent of a toddler, it’s nice to have the aisles spaced widely enough so that I can push a stroller down the middle without my son being able to sweep all the books from the shelves before I can stop him. Even without a child in tow it’s nice to be able to have room for browsing, especially if it’s a popular row. Still, if it comes down to cramped rows or more books, I’d take the more books option.

What did I miss? What are your ideas for the new Walker Library?

Friday, July 3, 2009

Why Do Only Homes Get to be "Historic"?

The Greenway - a reminder of Uptown's rich industrial heritage

Before I get into my spiel on the importance of local commercial and industrial buildings and landscapes to Uptown's "character," let me get a few disclaimers out of the way:
  1. Historic houses are important, and do contribute to Uptown's character.

  2. I think it's wonderful that the Wedge is actively working to designate part of the neighborhood as a historic district.

  3. It's better to focus primarily (or virtually only) houses than on nothing.

  4. Every neighborhood in Uptown should have a committee, or at least an informal group of residents, who actively consider issues relating to local history, culture, and, where relevant, preservation.

That said, hearing about the updates on LHENA's historic district, as well as their hopes to engage other neighborhoods, leaves me practically shaking with frustration. Take, for example, the current wording of LHENA's NRP Phase II Action Plan, Strategy 1.1.2 (bolding mine):

"In order to preserve historic homes and thus maintain the integrity and character of the neighborhood, LHENA will explore the possibility of designating the Lowry Hill East neighborhood as an historic district.... LHENA may explore networking with nearby neighborhoods which share similar interest, goals and needs to historic preservation."

The Board voted on proposed changing to the wording (at the July 1 meeting; I wasn't there, but assume that it was approved) to expand the section (leaving the above part alone) to include a paragraph stating that the neighborhood would "raise awareness and interest in historic preservation, through means such as producing and issuing commemorative plaques to recognize neighborhood homes and structures aged over 100 years or that have otherwise made a significant architectural or cultural contribution, and other educational efforts."

I don't have a problem with these statements say, but I do have a problem with what they don't say. When homes are emphasized over all other "structures" then it becomes all too easy for people to forget about our commercial and industrial past. And while that may be a simple oversight, I also wonder if there are larger issues at play here, even if maybe only on a subconscious level. Some thoughts on history and historic preservation in Uptown (in a broad sense, and not just in the Wedge):

Uptown's commercial buildings are just as important as its houses . Uptown's older commercial buildings contribute greatly to Uptown's character. There are the obvious landmarks, of course - the theaters, Temple Israel, my beloved Buzza Building (Lehmann Center), the Calhoun Beach Club - but there are many, many other commercial buildings throughout the neighborhood that contribute immeasurably to local character. They may even contribute more to a sense local community than do most individual houses. Businesses serve as landmarks in a neighborhood; they're open to everyone, serve as destinations, and become a part of people's individual neighborhood histories and memories. My family home is historically significant to me and my family, as well as to those who lived there before we did; that's important (and it would be personally devastating to see it torn down or massively remodelled), but of more importance to the neighborhood as a whole would be if a building like the Bryant Building (Magers and Quinn's building) or the Uptown Theater were demolished. Those buildings and their various businesses have been etched into local Uptown history in a way that touches many more people than does an individual house. That's not to say that local historic homes shouldn't be protected, or that they don't contribute to area character (and certainly the wide-scale demolition of older homes would detract from neighborhood character), but that shouldn't mean that homes should get a higher emphasis than does the local commercial past.

Uptown has an industrial heritage, like it or not. This is where I start to wonder if there are deeper currents when discussing local historic preservation. I don't get the sense that many residents really care about Uptown's industrial past. One need only take a walk or ride down the Greenway for a reminder that the neighborhood has an industrial past. Manufacturers, lumberyards, and other often dirty, sometimes loud, utilitarian businesses lined the tracks. These businesses provided jobs for thousands of local residents. Not every warehouse or old building needs to be preserved, but we should collectively take a look at this corridor and have a broader discussion about what should be saved, what can go, and what, if anything, of Uptown's industrial past should be acknowledged. I've got to wonder, though, if part of the apathy towards the industrial past is because to acknowledge that Uptown's historical character included a lot of gritty, blue-collar, city history (and not just lake-oriented pseudo-suburban "character") runs the risk of opening up a can of neighborhood character worms. Overall, though, I think most people just don't think about industrial history very much, and have fallen into the trap of focusing on the "finest" examples of rich people's houses because that's what often passes as history in modern society.

Plaques are a nice starting point. I don't quibble with the idea that commemorative plaques will increase interest in local historic preservation. I think they're a wonderful idea, and a potential source of revenue. Perhaps the price of the plaques (which should be shouldered by the homeowner) can be priced to provide an extra pot of more publicly-oriented historic education money. This could be used to produce high-quality outdoor signage located throughout the greater Uptown area; these signs could provide basic, site-specific historical information. Maybe a couple along the Greenway, by Lake Calhoun, by the former West High School, in the local parks, and so on. Signage of this sort is a more democratic way to educate a broader public about local history and culture, as well as enhances community, and - dare I say - character.

I'll leave it at this for now. In short, good for LHENA for taking a stab at boosting awareness of local history and historic preservation, but please, please, don't let a focus on homes blind the neighborhood(s) to the very significant nature of our commercial and industrial heritage. The combination of all of these elements have shaped Uptown into what it is now, and a responsible, inclusive approach to historic preservation and education can serve to shape Uptown into an even greater neighborhood in the future.