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Minneapolis extends historic protection to the North Loop, causing concern among developers, neighbors

Minneapolis’ historic preservation agency began on Tuesday to exert an extra layer of regulation against redevelopment in the North Loop, a district of crusty old warehouses and stylish new condos on downtown’s northwest edge.

Minneapolis’ historic preservation agency began on Tuesday to exert an extra layer of regulation against redevelopment in the North Loop, a district of crusty old warehouses and stylish new condos on downtown’s northwest edge. Because the district has emerged as the hub for most of the metro area’s future transit lines, it holds huge potential for urban-style redevelopment.

Action by the city’s Historic Preservation Commission threw a blanket of uncertainty over the district’s future. The HPC voted unanimously to launch a North Loop historic designation study with the aim of more closely guiding its future design. As an interim measure, the HPC clamped a moratorium – or “interim protection” in the preservation world – of at least six months on the construction of new structures.

With the economy in the dumps, no major new projects are waiting impatiently in the wings. But construction of Target Field, the new Twins ballpark, is humming along. Developers are quietly grooming plans for nearby blocks in hopes that the economy will revive. And new light rail and commuter rail lines are being installed.

A central crossroads
Those transit features make the district a central crossroads for the Twin Cities and a prime location for high-density housing and commercial activity in the years ahead. In planning terms, the North Loop is the region’s most important transit-oriented development opportunity.

Plans for a “union station” (PDF) next to Target Field have been forwarded by Hennepin County. And Hines Interests, downtown’s largest real-estate holder, has plans for buildings that would adjoin, or perhaps rise above, the station. Those plans may now face an extra layer of review and regulation. The ballpark itself is not included in the proposed historic district.

A crowd of worried developers and neighborhood residents showed up at Tuesday’s hearing to urge that the study be delayed. Commissioners decided to move ahead, citing recent development pressures that threatened the district’s integrity. Neither the ballpark nor the transit hub was involved, HPC officials said. But two or three small projects have emerged that, unless changed, would violate the historic feel of the district, they said.
“It’s not our intent to stop development,” commission Chairman Chad Larson told the audience. But two interpretations of that are possible. One is that the commission wants to protect developers from their own worst instincts by establishing an extra layer of review to make certain that the emerging district is attractive and attuned to its historic past. The other is that the commission, in spite its best intentions, will erect unreasonable barriers that unwittingly stifle the district’s potential.

Reason for fears
There’s ample reason to fear the second scenario. Past commissions developed a purist reputation for viewing historic neighborhoods as artifacts rather than places for people to live and work. Past commissions, for example, discouraged the planting of trees along some streets, arguing that trees were not present there at certain times in history. It argued against the enlarging of condo windows and the addition of balconies because those features weren’t historically correct. It restricted the height of buildings and generally frowned on mixing contemporary and historic structures, preferring that new buildings imitate old ones. In other words, for the sake of historical purity, it often prevented the environmental and architectural features that make old industrial neighborhoods adaptable to modern living.

Karen Rosar, a member of the North Loop neighborhood board, said on Tuesday that she resents the commission’s “heavy-handed taking control of our community development.” She told commissioners that she fears that new historic restrictions will “severely obstruct” the district’s potential for greener streets, greater density, higher tax base, smart growth, transit features and economic stimulus.

She and others asked a number of questions: Would new rules restrict the planting of trees and the adding of storm-water ponds and other green features? Would they disallow balconies on condo-conversion buildings? Would they prevent the district from getting new federal stimulus money aimed at hastening transit development? Would new rules affect the ballpark and transit hub? Would they prevent green technologies from being used in retrofitting older buildings? Would new rules supersede zoning status, thus restricting the height of buildings? Would streetcars of modern design be allowed in the district? Would skyways be prohibited?

A complication at a fragile time
“This is a fragile time in our economy,” said Chuck Leer, a leader of 2010 Partners, a group pushing for successful redevelopment of the ballpark-transit hub area. “This complicates our efforts at a sensitive point.”

Jack Byers, supervisor for the HPC staff, said Wednesday that most of those fears are misplaced. Along with the North Loop study, the commission intends to rewrite its outdated guidelines. When written in 1978, those rules did not fully anticipate people living in abandoned factories and wanting to forge communities in old industrial zones, Byers said. “They didn’t look three or four decades down the road,” he said.

New guidelines will welcome trees and other green features, Byers said. They will recognize the market desire for balconies and other neighborhood features. At the same time, they will encourage infill buildings compatible with the scale and architectural tone of their surroundings. Guidance from neighbors, developers and community groups will be encouraged in devising new rules, he said.

A series of meetings and public hearings will be scheduled.

My own view is that the current lull in activity makes this a good time to update the city’s obsolete historic preservation guidelines. New rules should recognize that the North Loop and similar neighborhoods are not museums but communities hoping to become more livable and hoping to attract more homes and businesses to fill in parking lots and other open areas. The HPC should consider especially the North Loop’s huge potential for adding vitality, density and tax base to the city. It should accommodate the need for green technology, storm water management and other 21st century features. Commissioners should make sure they enhance rather than stifle the revival of the metro area’s most important redevelopment district.