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City council and NIMBYs adopt scorched earth policy to 'Save Dinkytown'

streets.mn
gopherette
streets.mn
One shouldn’t be attracted to a rodent.

By now you’re familiar with the Dinkytown story. The last few years have seen a wave of development around the University of Minnesota campus. The Dinkydome (my old haunt) transformed from a weirdly depressing food court into fancy apartments. The auto repair shop in Stadium Village  (my mom’s favorite) is becoming apartments. Sally’s (home of the creepily attractive gopher) is temporarily closed while a new apartment-proximate Sally’s is born. Dinkytown’s odd “incubator” school and massive parking lot is becoming apartments and a grocery store…

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And last week neighborhood pressure stopped rezoning of the surface parking lots and one-story buildings along 5th Street into mixed-use apartments. (To their credit, the local Marcy Holmes neighborhood group voted narrowly to approve the project, but others have been protesting vociferously.) Much has been said alreadyLots of people seem angry for some reason, but the current sitution seems like a lose-lose for everyone. The businesses that occupied the site of the proposed development have already moved out, yet the City Council is recommending halting the project. Meanwhile these surface parking lots still sit in the middle of the city’s most pedestrian-oriented neighborhood. It’s hard to see this situation resolving elegantly.

map of development
City of Minneapolis
The (mostly surface parking) layout of the proposed development.

City is shooting local business owners in the foot

save dinkytown
savedinkytown.com
A sepia-toned 70s gas guzzler is a perfect symbol.

The present situation is made worse by the fact that all the affected businesses have already moved or closed. This is a fact seemingly missed by the “Save Dinkytown” movement, somewhat coreographed by the owner of the Book House (a decent used bookstore in a town that lacks them, BTW).

On the car-centricly sepia-toned Save Dinkytown page, they describe the horrible effects of the new development:

Local small businesses that face immediate closure or dislocation include: The Podium, The Book House, House of Hanson, Casablanca Hair Designer, and Duffy’s Dinkytown Pizza. The Dinkytown Parking Facility would be redesigned to accommodate residents of Opus’ proposed development.

Of this list, the only business still operating is the Dinkytown Parking Facility (and even they aren’t happy: see below). For their part, the Book House has already moved. While I’m sure it wasn’t easy, according to their Facebook page, the store says they are “settling quite nicely into our new location” (also in Dinkytown).

As for the House of Hanson, the corner store has been in decline for a long time and its owner, Laurel Bauer, seems to be looking forward to closing it. She provides an interesting quote ina recent Minnesota Daily piece on the development, worth quoting at length:

Laurel Bauer, who owns grocery store House of Hanson and the three buildings the Opus project would displace, said she expected the committee to approve the rezoning.

“I hope they come to their senses,” Bauer said. “Nothing historic is leaving Dinkytown.”

Two affected businesses, The Book House and The Podium guitar store, have already relocated, with only The Book House remaining in the area. The Podium has moved its business to another guitar shop on Minnehaha Ave.

Bauer planned to close House of Hanson on July 31 to make room for the development, but now she’ll leave her store open through at least the weekend.

“I’m hanging on day-by-day,” Bauer said.

Bauer said she has two other offers for her land that wouldn’t require rezoning, but Bauer said the other projects wouldn’t be as good for Dinkytown as Opus’.

Elsewhere, in another long Daily interview, Bauer had described how the new CVS two blocks away had taken half her business, how she’ll never survive the opening of a grocery store across the street, and how profits have gone down while expenses have gone up since her father owned the shop.

Meanwhile, most of the Opus footprint is owned by Pat Duffy of Duffy’s Pizza shop. (The bulk of it is a surface parking lot, with a barber shop and a pizza place in old wooden duplexes.) Here’s what Pat Duffy has to say:

Duffy manages the parking lot that combines space owned by him, Bauer and other Dinkytown landlords. When his wife bought the property 15 years ago, he said, Dinkytown had been granted a 10-year tax exemption to subsidize parking. Since that expired, the taxes have increased to $35,000 a year.

“We’re taxed at the value of the most commercially successful use of the land. And that’s not surface parking,” he said. He supports the Opus development, adding that his buildings are rundown will have to be replaced. Under current C1 zoning, he said, he could build a new four-story residential building without parking and it wouldn’t be as nice as the Opus development.

“If they are not going through with it, we will do it another way. We can with C1 zoning build a box up to four stories and rent apartments. We can do that. We won’t have a choice,” he said. “The Save Dinkytown people need to look around,” he said. “Dinkytown is not all Vescio’s and Al’s Breakfast anymore, and no amount of pretending will make it so. Dinkytown is not a destination. The only destinations are the Loring Café, the Varsity, and Al’s Breakfast.”

According to these stories, Pat Duffy had been looking forward to opening up in the new building, and the only reason these parking lots still exist is because they received a big tax write-off for many years. These are not historic land uses with a future.

Stopping Opus now is a lose-lose solution

building
Opus
Apart from the huge (required) underground parking lot, this is
an ideal land use.

Squashing the Opus proposal at this point will mean 1) vacant buildings and surface parking lots for at least another year and 2) the eventual construction of another similar development, but likely with less density.

Proponents of stopping this proposal have been employing a slippery slope argument, claiming that letting this proposal go foward means “open season” on the rest of Dinkytown. They’re basically saying that if we build apartments on this surface parking lot, Al’s Breakfast will turn into an Apple store.

The truth is that stopping this proposal now will mean vacant storefronts and a worse overall result for density, student housing, and streetlife in one of our city’s most interesting and historic commercial districts.

While I understand the desire to complete the small area plan, and I sincerely hope that the new plan gets ride of onerous residential parking minimums that are the real thing making new student housing expensive, at this point stopping the Opus project is “preserving” surface parking lots and vacant storefronts. While that might seem like a moral victory to some, to me it seems like scorched earth in one of my favorite parts of the city.

parking lots
streets.mn
I hope you like looking at vacant buildings in a surface parking lot…

This post was written by Bill Lindeke and originally published on streets.mn. Follow streets.mn on Twitter: @streetsmn.

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Comments (17)

The issue with these developments...

Especially since the real estate bubble catastrophe, is whether or not we're building to meet the needs of the community or the needs of the developer. This article is creating a false dichotomy, the people who opposed this project don't love the parking lot, they just didn't like this developer's plan for the space. There will be other plans, the site is prime for development. This looks like a cookie cutter design to me that will be outdated by the time the first batch of students move out for spring vacation.

Let's also remember that the space can be used in a variety of different ways, it just have to be either a cash cow for a developer or a parking lot.

Is there any evidence

that Dinkytown, Stadium Village, and in particular this set of parcels (a mere 2 blocks from the entrance to a campus with 30,000 full-time undergrads and another 10,000 full-time graduate students) will see a burst of this bubble any time soon?

It's not a false dichotomy. Opponents to the project are using any and all angles to gain emotional support. This includes claiming the development will remove the character of small businesses by having retail spaces unaffordable to local owners, a degradation of architectural character in the area, a loss of parking that supports the desperate small business owners that remain, and the "slippery slope" argument that a single spot-zoning decision guarantees the rest of the parcels are open game for redevelopment (assuming it were even financially feasible in the first place).

I don't understand it either

Over the last ten years I've thought Dinkytown has gotten more and more rundown, so why anyone would reject a much needed new development there is beyond me. Even the Podium has already moved and frankly their old digs in Dinkytown were getting pretty funky.

With all due respect, an unsatisfying article.

You recite the opponents' arguments, but instead of replying to them you describe the unsatisfactory outcome if the rezoning is not allowed at this point. This is called talking past the other folks. I haven't followed this closely & may be wrong on the facts, but it appears that the issue is rezoning without planning, or spot rezoning, and the precedent that would set not just for Dinkytown but everywhere, particularly at the fringes where behemoths (e.g., UMn, stadiums) drive development spikes & poorly planned building is very destabilizing. Dinkytown can benefit greatly from an evolution in land use, but rezoning before there is a supported, adopted small area plan suggests that a number of folks, from the city to the property owners to Opus have dropped the ball, not the opponents. Sunk costs (which is what you are citing for your argument) do not justify just acceding to the wrong outcome. Complete the planning - in the context of a moratorium, if necessary - and you may get Opus, or you may get something better. But at least you've followed the process aimed at ensuring the best public outcome.

Not spot zoning

This is not a case of spot zoning. The city's last two comprehensive plans have designated this site as part of the Dinkytown Activity Center, which is envisioned to accommodate the sort of mixed-use, relatively high-density development Opus proposes. So at any time over the last 15 years, a developer could have applied for a rezoning to C3A Community Activity Center district and it would been supported by adopted policy. This policy was most recently reaffirmed in 2008, at which two councilmembers (Goodman & Gordon) who voted against the rezoning to C3A voted in favor of a policy that encourages C3A zoning at this site. In contrast, spot zoning is when zoning changes to something that has not been planned for. The Save Dinkytown group has been irresponsible spreading this type of misinformation.

Not convinced by your reasons...

OK, Chuck and Paul. Cited problems include: 1) the developer will make money, 2) the design is ugly / boring, 3) its not in the city plan?

The first is not really an issue is it? It's not like we're subsidizing the project. The second is your opinion. I like this design, except for the underground parking lot which students (or anyone else living this close to campus / downtown / many transit lines) won't need and shouldn't have to pay for. The third is a bit more complex, but "spot zoning" means doing something that's no supported in the comp plan. The local neighborhood group supports this proposal (http://tcsidewalks.blogspot.com/2013/08/marcy-holmes-neighborhood-associ...), the property owners support this proposal, and the city plans support the proposal. I'm not a lawyer, but the city planners who supported this change don't think its spot zoning. Here's a comment from the Phyllis Kahn piece that seems convincing (http://www.minnpost.com/community-voices/2013/08/one-developer-should-no...):

"Spot zoning is when a parcel is rezoned into a district that is not supported by guidance from a comprehensive plan. Minneapolis' last two comp plans designated the parcels in question as Activity Centers. The proposed new zoning district for these same parcels is C3A, officially titled "Community Activity Center District." The City of Minneapolis makes their comp plan and entire code of ordinances available online for anyone to verify this information. Save Dinkytown and Rep Kahn should take a moment to inform themselves instead of mindlessly impugning the hard work of the talented Minneapolis CPED staff."

William (& Alex above) -

As I noted in my comment, it rested on an assumption that might have been wrong, and it sounds like it was. I presumed that the city's zoning code conforms to the law, which requires that the code be amended (within 9 months) after a change to the comprehensive plan in order to be consistent with the plan (MS 473.865). A knowledgeable friend advises that the city revised its comp plan in 2009 and has not revised the zoning classifications, so that a rezoning now as Opus requests actually would bring the zoning classification into conformance with the comprehensive plan. So I accept the correction.

However, I also asked my friend if the present zoning classifications are sufficiently nuanced to distinguish between a project that reflects sound community design and one that does not. Her reply was emphatically no, and she added that some relevant parts of the zoning code have not been revisited for over 40 years. I take it that a small area plan is an attempt to bring more precision to the very blunt instrument that is a zoning code - because the real issue is not whether the proposed development fits into a crudely defined zoning classification, but whether it fits a sustainable community design for the area. Again, I don't know enough about this controversy to have a view on it, but preempting completion of the small area plan certainly would seem to make it less likely that it does.

Which is why

a form based code would be a far more appropriate tool for Dinkytown and Minneapolis at large. It shows how we want buildings to look and interact with the street. What goes on inside (residential, commercial, even light industrial like a blood bank, for example) is meaningless if you set expectations for things like noie, water runoff, access to light, and delivery schedule. Zoning by land-use is antiquated and burdensome to both the city, developers, and even the neighborhood because it's not a tool that can give a fine-grained path for how neighborhoods can look/act as they grow. I would love, LOVE, to see the Dinkytown Small Area Plan implement a true form-based code that addresses the 4-5 block core as well as how the rest of MH interacts with it.

more zoning wonkery

I think you're right that Minneapolis crafts its comp plan land use designations to be broad enough that it potentially includes a number of different districts, thereby avoiding conflict with the statute you cite. I've always been amazed by its 'Urban Neighborhood' classification, which could potentially encompass around half of the zoning districts (R1-R6, C1 & C2, and OR1 & OR2). As for SAPs bringing precision, some do, some don't. My guess is that the Dinkytown SAP won't be all that more specific than the Marcy-Homes Master Plan, since there frankly isn't enough consensus as to what physical form the neighborhood should take. Instead I expect more general statement of values that hopefully will provide ammo to preserve those parts of Dinkytown with a more consistent street wall (e.g. most of 4th St) and allow redevelopment on those that are more dominated by parking lots (e.g. most of 5th St).

I'd be curious to know which sections of the code your friend considers to be stuck in the 60s. The city has extensively revised the code starting in the late 90s (in fact they consider the code to be on version 3.0, although I see lots of similarities to the 1963 code). The setbacks are perhaps the area that have received the least attention, from what I can tell.

Please get it right if your going to respond

It's dishonest to deliberately misstate someone's point so you can disprove it. I did not saying making money was a problem, I said building a project that insults the neighborhood just so a developer can make money is a problem. A project that made money for a developer and benefited the community would be the ideal development. Obviously the neighborhood doesn't like this development. You may disagree, but don't distort other opinions in order to make them seem irrational. You may write about streets, but these are not YOUR streets, you share them with others.

You are by the way stating YOUR opinion here, so the fact that also doing so does not constitute a coherent rebuttal.

You seem to think that either this project gets built or nothing at will ever get built, that's a false dichotomy.

In what way

does this development insult the neighborhood?

Mixed use in Dinkyton makes sense

Having residential apartments over street-level commercial given that the University of Minnesota is a next-door neighbor is obviously practical. Sure, the new apartments may be more pricey than older housing nearby, but there are plenty of U of M staff that might like living near where they work. The rezoning isn't a radical departure, it's a tailoring that does suit the future of Dinkytown.

Wat a second, folks. There is

Wat a second, folks. There is a small area plan, drawn up for and by the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association about ten years ago (revised in, I think about 2011, regarding the neighborhood's fringes' development along 15th Ave. SE and 8th St. SE, etc). It has been officially incorporated into the Minneapolis Plan and SHOULD therefore take precedence over the master-plan wholesale designations of the latter. That's what happens with Small Area Plans in other, perhaps more influential, areas of the city. The people, including CM Schiff who knows better, who ignore that small area plan are undermining Minneapolis's city planning and the self-determination of any neighborhood in Minneapolis (those who cry NIMBY are usually not residents of the area in question).

So, the established plan is being contradicted by the Opus development, which needs an exemption to proceed.

Still compliant with Marcy-Homes Master Plan

The Marcy-Homes Master Plan merely stated that development in Dinkytown should comply with the zoning code and match the scale of surrounding structures. Opus' proposed development does so, especially considering the pronounced step-back, because of which the 2 story sections will be most noticeable to passers by.

I concur with ugly in the assessment but more importantly

because that is just a personal opinion (oh look it's Hopkins in Dinkytown) it does not however fit the character of the neighborhood. This kind of development would be more suitable for West Bank or Stadium Village then Dinky town.

The charm of Dinky Town was that my father who went there in 1948 could still recognize the buildings. I think that the character of Dinky town should come from the adjacent campus which has some of the older buildings in the complex.

water

All water under the bridge now. Let's revisit this conversation in a couple of years and see how things look.

Had the Opus proposal met the

Had the Opus proposal met the zoning district requirements of the MH master plan (incorporated into The Minneapolis Plan), it would not have required a spot-re-zoning. Had the Opus proposal been several stories shorter, it would not have required a special city exemption from the zoning rules.

It did not meet the requirements. That's why it's been controversial, and why those commenters who still live in or near Dinkytown on more than a semester-by-semester basis are worried about setting precedents for breaking the rules at will.