Monday, March 11, 2013

It's a cool time to be at the U

If you haven't checked around the Twin Cities campus lately and noted how cool it is how much is being added, you are really missing out.

It has been cited several times that this is the largest University expansion since the West Bank push in the early 1960's. Among public, private, and institutional development, it all seems to resort back to the area east of downtown Minneapolis.

I started attending the U in the Fall of 2010, which happened to be the last sort-of hurrah for calm around campus. Bob Bruininks was still the president, Maturi & Brewster were tenured faces of athletics, and Washington Avenue had vehicles rushing back and forth like the past 90 years. The only new apartment development was the luxurious Sydney Hall, which - trust me - was all the rage for the first year or two. The Central Corridor Light Rail project seemed to be locked in dead heat against political forces and the University's sustained lawsuit against it. The only large project going on was the interior renovation of Folwell Hall (Oh no, we can't gain access to historic interior renovations? What are we ever going to do?), and projects like the 17th Avenue Residence Hall were not only non-existent, but weren't even on the long range plan set up the year before.

Looking back, 2010 was probably the best year to tour the quaint inter-city University as a high school senior.

Fast forward 3 years - everything, and I mean basically everything, has changed around campus.

The Public

The Green Line (Central Corridor) is still slated to open in 2014, and will change the environment of the University forever. It is hard to put into words how important the block between Harvard & Walnut Avenues will be, as no vehicles are allowed, but businesses still front the transit corridor. This will be the second pedestrian mall in the city, after Nicollet downtown.

Other than the light rail, other projects have already impacted the environment of the campus altogether. With buses being re-routed to Pleasant Street, the green-painted bike lanes have given riders a safer, if not less assuring lane to resort to. After the tragic bike accident in 2011, both the City of Minneapolis and the U have heightened awareness for proper biking techniques, and have installed the infrastructure for its success. Although the biking numbers around the city have actually slightly declined since 2010, the number of bikers recorded on 15th Ave SE have gone from 1,935 to 2,012 bikers per day, according to Bike Walk Twin Cities.

The Private

I would like to nominate the phrase "luxury apartments" as the phrase of the first half of the 2010's decade. I mean, seriously, holy crap. The private development around campus in the last two years has been nuts, especially considering that these highly-priced buildings are aimed at relatively low-income students (Thank you, public loans & parents from Wayzata!)

*On a side note, I have nothing against Wayzata. Honestly. I empathize with you guys a little actually.

Since Sydney Hall opened in the fall of 2010, there have been a whopping 5 significant apartment buildings constructed near campus: 412 Lofts, Solhaus & Solhaus Tower, Stadium Village Flats, and The Edge.

There are currently 5 complexes currently under construction: The Elysian, The Knoll, 7West, the controversial UTEC Site Development and The Station on Washington. Also, there is a smaller townhome-like development called The Cluster on 4th Street.

Most importantly, the biggest are yet to come. The Bridges and WaHu are planned and set to go. Both will be 11 stories, but will importantly break that 6-story stick frame limit. This tells me that the other apartments are doing well enough to take larger risks and build nicer buildings with steel & concrete frames. That is fantastic.

To be honest, these developments are not my cup of tea as far as living situation, but I love the fact that a good number of deep-pocketed developers are taking a chance on their city and on their University. I love the fact that Minneapolis is growing to be an actual city, rather than a large suburb with shiny toothpicks sticking out near the Hennepin Bridge. These will contribute to the street life, they will promote living near campus instead of commuting from Brooklyn Park and Eden Prairie, they will eventually help the businesses of Dinkytown and Stadium Village by contributing sidewalk traffic instead of park-and-shop, they will hopefully

P.S... Can I have the job of naming these things? I have some ideas up my sleeve: The Dash, The Pew, The Swag, The Swoop, The Hangover, The Stumblehome, The Backwardsflathatwearingd*****bag. "Hey man, don't forget to check out the party at QX7TL Lofts! It's sicknasty!"


Complain about the University you may, but you can't deny that they aren't building and renovating cool stuff right now. There are hundreds of projects going on at the U and the coordinate campuses right now, ranging from brand new classroom buildings to research lab renovations to re-roofing West Bank buildings.

In 2010, STSS was the star child of the year, with its glitzy perimeter facing the river and modern classroom formats. The campus will see more of it with the arrival of the Physics and Nanotechnology Building when it opens in November. The Rec Center Addition will feature an indoor track and thousands of added workout space, as well as a fireplace and a cafeteria. (Necessary? Not really. Awesome? Yeah.) The 17th Ave Residence Hall will open in the Fall, and will add much needed new dorm space for incoming freshman. I am glad to see that it was built very well, because it will probably take over Territorial Hall's party reputation after the first home football game in September. Nonetheless, the dining hall looks like it is going to be very nice, and the rooms themselves are set up in a more communal, less hallway-corridor-like way.

The Cancer-Cardiovascular Building north of TCF Bank Stadium will open this summer and will offer medical and biology researchers alike new facilities to conduct their work. On top of this, the planned private Research Park to the east of the stadium would provide an academic and economic support system for these researchers and aspiring students.

Finally, the renovations of building close to my heart will finish around the time the Green Line opens. The historic Northrop Auditorium has been gutted and is being reconfigured to host academic space and the U's Honors Program main office. Although the auditorium capacity is reduced, the architecturally-pleasant lobby area will hopefully be salvaged. Also, with Physics & Nano opening soon, a renovation of Tate Lab will hopefully begin soon. Other renovations either planned or currently under way include the St. Anthony Lab near the Pillsbury A-Mill, and Eddy Hall, the oldest building on campus. (Sorry, Old Main. You tried.)

Wrap it up

All in all, the new construction on campus tells me people are ready to invest in this type of work once again. Bike support is constantly growing, the light rail is going in, and apartments are being built at the same rate they are filling up. The University is battling criticism left and right, but still maintaining high standards of construction and facilities maintenance. The consistent growth pattern in the last 2-3 years has been extremely promising, as it not only reflects the individual investments of said parties, but also illustrates the improving economy as a whole.

So, the next time you complain about all the construction on campus, just remember that this place will look great in a year and a half. (Sorry for everyone graduating next May. Don't worry, I'm included in that group too.)

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Why Stadium Village will become the 21st century Dinkytown

It is a local myth that Bob Dylan's 1965 hit "Positively 4th Street" was written about our own little University commercial node. The well-known shopping, eating, and party-spilling area of Dinkytown does indeed have a strong history, starting as its own streetcar node before the University was the true powerhouse it is today and essentially took it for its own. Dylan's implant is seen everywhere around Dinkytown, whether in the Loring Pasta Bar (where Dylan once lived) or the mural around the eyewear store on 13th Avenue. The presence of such a force has epitomized Dinkytown and its conservative, non-changing form. Other than Sydney Hall, the area hasn't expanded its retail in several decades, and the now well-known controversies with the House of Hanson site and the UTEC Building truly epitomize the resistance to the change in that four block area.

This makes way for Dinkytown's kid commercial node, Mr. Stadium Village, to pick up the pieces and run with them. "SV" doesn't have the history or historic aesthetics like Dinkytown does; it doesn't have 4th Street, Al's Breakfast, or the experience of this on a regular basis.

What it does have, though, is a willingness to change, adapt, and grow.

The Conflicts of Interest

Many people think that Dinkytown is fully expanded and no longer needs to grow and adapt, as evidence by sites like Save Dinkytown. Several businesses have expressed serious concerns, and according to interviews, some say that it would drive businesses out of the area. Even though slightly outdated, the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Master Plan, which includes Dinkytown, states that Large scale (large footprint) buildings or buildings taller than four (4) stories in Dinkytown that con´Čéict with the existing character of the area.Although the concerns are warranted, the neighborhood has and is constantly changing. The new developments allow a much more transient student population to live closer to campus, thus inducing more demand for corner grocery stores and restaurants.

Whereas Dinkytown seems to be resisting change, the opposite is the case for Stadium Village. Within the past four years, the development along the Washington Strip has boomed - even with the Green Line Construction at full swing. The businesses along the stretch have done reasonably well, considering the circumstances, thanks to the foot traffic from the growing local student population. As far as a plan for the future, the Stadium Village / University Avenue LRT Station Master Plan desires new density, for not only housing, but for a retail hub and research center. In the new development study areas, 8 land areas are included within the artificial limits of  Stadium Village (arbitrarily chosen as between Harvard Street & the new LRT Station). Among these 8 areas, one has already been developed, one is currently under construction, and two are slated to begin shortly. All of these new developments are at least 6 stories, which add much desired density to the area. Also, according to several records of minutes at Prospect Park / East River Road Improvement Association, a large portion of the permanent population want to see the density occur.

The bottom line: Stadium Village wants to grow, and Dinkytown wants to keep living the Glory Days.

But why is this the case? Why would two similar commercial nodes within a mile of each other have completely separate attitudes to change, even as they both offer the same type of businesses?

1) Bad (nostalgic) habits die hard

In 1970, a locally famous protest occurred right along 4th Street across the Varsity Theater. A fast food joint called Red Barn, which already had a location in Stadium Village, was planning on building a second location in Dinkytown. It escalated so much that a class-action lawsuit was file against the developer and the wrecking crew that was planning on tearing down the old building. Eventually the Red Barn was red & dead, but the mural by Tonys Diner & Camdi relive the memory.

Fast-forward to 2002: After the Gopher Hockey Team won the National Championship for the first time in a quarter-century, celebration riots began in Dinkytown, where a mob of ~1,000 jumped on cars and started fires in trash bins (A fun reverie for your reading pleasure).

The two similarities to these two moments: Both were rooted in Dinkytown, and neither occurred in Stadium Village. Even though you could count the boycott of the Stadium Village Red Barn as inclusion, as well as the formations of mobs in the Wash-Ave area, they did not hold the action in the area. 

Memories do stick around, especially ones possibly filled with a tipsy mindset around a group of your close, young, able-bodied friends. Thousands of students have come and gone through the U, and every single one has created a memory in Dinkytown. Until very recently with the construction of TCF Bank Stadium, the Stadium Village area was considered more or less an after-thought. Changing a major element of Dinkytown is changing a memory for tons of former and current students. Changing a major element of Stadium Village, for many students, is like creating a brand new commercial node altogether.

2) NIMBYism - Student Edition

Take a quick glance at an aerial map of campus and the surrounding areas, and note the neighborhoods bordering the University. The neighborhood outside of the commercial Dinkytown are spotted with large fraternity and sorority houses, along with other architecturally significant mansions built by mill magnates before the U became the powerhouse it is. South of Stadium Village lies what is known as the Motley neighborhood, an area which was stripped of its official neighborhood name decades ago and was eaten up by the University. What was once a fairly large working-class, single-family residential area was slowly replaced by the Superblocks and the Moos Towers of the area. The neighborhood that remains south of Washington Ave is a rag-tag group of derelict sublets and 60s-era apartments, mixed with a couple reinvestments centered toward medical students.

Thanks to the much larger structures of Dinkytown, the University grew south from its origins near the Knoll area off of Pleasant Ave instead of hopping over 4th Street. Washington Avenue became the center arterial rather than Unversity Avenue, and the varying neighborhood characteristics are probably the cause. 

Because of this, Dinkytown and the neighborhood has simply been around longer, thus citing a higher demand to keep the aging. Although the streetcar-era buildings that house staples like the Big 10 Restaurant and Stub & Herbs are well-known, the lack of non-dorm student housing around the area until recently left Stadium Village open for change. The Dinkytown neighborhood has consistently fed the businesses in the commercial area, and unlike Motley, permanent residents do reside in the area. That emotional connection to the "roots" of the commercial core are stronger, and therefore result in more NIMBYism. 

3) Transportation & Development Revolution

When the University officially dropped the lawsuit against Metro Transit to allow the CCLRT to be constructed down Washington, the plans for commercial transformation began in Stadium Village. The four-lane mess that once was will now become a beautiful transit mall, incorporating green spaces between stations and will feature 3 city blocks of non-automobile lanes. The block between Walnut and Harvard will be especially important, as they will be vehicle-less but will still have businesses facing the street. Larger sidewalks and bike lanes have already been endowed upon the Avenue between Church and Huron, thus creating a truly pedestrian-friendly atmosphere.

With this transportation revolution occurring, the call for density in the area has been matched significantly. Even though the Doran-built Sydney Hall was first in the University area when it opened in August 2010, only one other apartment has opened in Dinkytown since (412 Lofts, also by Doran). In a matter of two years, four new apartments have opened in Stadium Village within a radius of a half mile. One is under construction on the former Mercil's site called The Station, and the six-story uniformity across from the McNamara Plaza resembles a miniature Central Park setting. Two significant developments are being planned by CPM - the 11-story WaHu Housing on the former Arby's site, as well as a new 6-story development on the strip where Sally's is. These developments have been met with little resistance from the surrounding neighborhoods thus far, and have only run into trouble with the complicated zoning of the area. The development is also favorable for the new transportation realignments, as the new apartments are being built on parking lots which will not be needed nearly as much as they used to be. The Station and WaHu are both being/will be constructed on lots that had a significant asphalt area.

Moving Northwest, Dinkytown has no current readjustment of transportation on 15th Ave or 4th Street.   The Minneapolis streetcar study calls for a new train eventually running down University or 4th Street, but this will probably not happen for at least another 10 years. 4th is a like a clogged river during evening rush hour and after sporting events, as it is set up with 3 one-way lanes moving West. The businesses in Dinkytown do get good exposure from vehicles, and a street life does exist, but the often fast moving cars are enough to make even the most experienced scholar anxious.

As far as development, Sydney Hall and 412 Lofts initially set the boundary of commercial Dinkytown, but the new House of Hanson site and the UTEC development have been met with large local resistance. These developments are at risk of never happening simply due to the powerful neighborhood and surrounding business resistance. The parking worries are also another thought. Whereas Washington no longer needs the vast asphalt that it already has, Dinkytown still has the large rushes of vehicular traffic on 15th and 4th Street, and does have a warranted worry of losing parking. With the influx of students living near campus, the amount of parking that resembles post-WWII era needs is unnecessary, and Dinkytown should embrace the incoming population of permanent student residents. (Also, large parking lots in urban areas are bad.)

The Future

Dinkytown will always hold a place in every Gopher heart. The great restaurants and shops of the area will be and are constantly appreciated. Students will probably always head there after parties, and parents will probably take their kids to McDonald's after their first football game.

However, the curse of Bob Dylan memories may be the ultimate curse of the area. When Dylan was the talk of the world, the country was engulfed in vehicle-fever, and a modernist efficiency for parking emphasized the suburban sprawl of the Cities. Dinkytown hasn't changed much since then. Although the businesses are mostly new, the two-story mixed-use buildings reminiscent of streetcar days line the streets just like they did 50 years ago.

Stadium Village is another case. With its status as Dinkytown's often forgotten little brother, its window for improvement and growth is much larger and moves much more liberally. Stadium Village, with the new Green Line about to open and the new apartments lining the environmentally-conscious avenue, is quickly becoming a model for Universities nationwide. The transit corridor that it will host will be seen as a top-tier example of how a campus can run an efficient and safe area outside of the academic buildings.

Don't be surprised when the fans spill out of TCF Bank Stadium on a warm September evening and head to Stadium Village, where they can walk around and enjoy the bustling, vehicle-free street life and  observe the frequent light rail vehicles moving east and west. The new apartments hosting the ground-level Bar & Grill, est. 2013, will seem as old and as established as a famous diner in Dinkytown.