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Dinkytown throwdown: Why the neighborhood has preservationists and urbanists on a collision course

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Dinkytown, though altered by redevelopment, retains a batch of original buildings around its core, the intersection of 14th Avenue SE and 4th Street SE.

The Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission just delayed what might be inevitable.

By recently extending interim protection for a small commercial section of Dinkytown, the commission gave its staff more time to determine whether the district should become the city’s newest historic district. But based on the criteria and the research done so far, it’s likely that the commission will agree that it should be.

Whether the City Council agrees, however, is less certain. That’s because the decision is about more than Dinkytown and the area’s dozen early to mid-20th century storefronts, or even the memories those buildings evoke. It’s about the tension between preserving a neighborhood’s character and a goal of current city leaders: increasing housing options and population density that support transit use and walkability. In short, more than any place in the city so far, Dinkytown is where the goals of two often-idealistic groups, historic preservationists and new urbanists, collide.

What’s historic?

To gain historic designation, a resource must be both old — at least 50 years — and historically significant. The criteria for listing are based on federal standards that include being associated with historic events, activities or people as well as having architectural significance or historic context and integrity. A building or district that meets just one of seven criteria can be considered eligible in Minneapolis.

Dinkytown, though altered by redevelopment, retains a batch of original buildings around its core, the intersection of 14th Avenue SE and 4th Street SE. Originally, the area was not only the heart of where the University of Minnesota community shopped, ate and played, it also was the center for the residential areas to the north and west.

Later it became the epicenter of the 1950s beat culture, the 1960s counterculture and the 1970s anti-Vietnam War movement. And even though his time there was brief, any conversation about the history of Dinkytown eventually gets around to the area’s most famous former resident: Bob Dylan.

“It sounds like it meets criteria for designation,” said Laura Faucher, chair of the preservation commission. It was Faucher who nominated the district for consideration a year ago, after a developer requested permission to demolish three buildings to construct a mixed-use complex, the type of density that more than a few local politicians say is perfect for areas like Dinkytown.

Density and preservation aren’t contradictory concepts in theory. Walkability scores are usually quite high in older commercial nodes. But attempts to increase density on those same areas often trigger the replacement of low-rise early 20th-century buildings with mid-rise mixed-use development.

That’s not a coincidence. Commercial districts marked by low-rise buildings with stores and restaurants grew along streetcar routes and at the points where transit routes intersected. That remains true today. But designating a district as historic doesn’t only provide protection for the most significant structures. It protects even less important buildings that are still considered contributing to the context and integrity of the entire district. In Dinkytown, a historic designation would not only protect recognizable buildings  — like those that house the Loring Pasta Bar, Annie’s Parlour and the Varsity Theater — but also numerous less iconic and even anonymous buildings that contribute to the sense of the district’s history.

Density isn’t the issue

The ongoing effort to protect Dinkytown as a district grew out of a successful campaign to protect one building. More than a year ago, Kelly Doran proposed a six-story project that would include a hotel and retail across the street from the Varsity Theater. The preservation commission not only denied Doran’s request for a demolition of three buildings for the project, it voted to give the entire district interim protection.

The City Council disagreed on two of those decisions, but it did agree to block demolition of the oldest building — a brick-faced single-story retail building at 1319 4th Street SE. In response, Doran walked away from the project, saying he couldn’t build around the building.

Some on the council argued that 1319 wasn’t protected under the interim historic district because the designation hadn’t been put in place when Doran applied for his demolition permit. And since the building is probably not eligible for historic protection on its own, the council had no legal standing for blocking the demolition.

Council Member Lisa Bender, who voted to let Doran demolish the building, chairs the council’s Zoning and Planning Committee. Her reasons for voting to tear down 1319 were both specific to the issue – and reflective of her general concerns over what she calls “reactive” historic preservation.

Because 1319 was not protected by the interim district designation, the council should have made its decision based on the worthiness of that building alone, she said. Such decisions make development uncertain and expensive, which in turn makes development of housing that is affordable more costly. And Minneapolis doesn’t have tax benefits to help with the reuse of historic properties.

“We’re in a time now where we see increased demand to live in the city,” Bender said. “If we don’t provide additional housing, we’ll have wealthy people who can live in the city and others will be displaced.” 

For her, the broader issue is less about increasing density than about having housing options for people of all income levels. That said, Bender considers herself an advocate for historic preservation and has recently used her authority as a council member to nominate a residential area in Lowry Hill East for designation. 

“I think there is a huge benefit for preserving history,” Bender said. She thinks the current designation process for a Dinkytown district is an example of the pro-active preservation process that she favors. 

Doran wasn’t the only business person frustrated by the decision. Jeff Myers owns 1319 and saw a sale agreement fall apart because of the vote.

“There is nothing historic about my building,” Myers told the preservation commission before it voted to extend the interim protection. He said he thinks the story of Dinkytown, an area he grew up around while his father owned a business at 1319, is the way it changes. While some buildings have remained, he said, “everytime you go up there, there’s something new.”

Kristien Eide-Tollefson has owned the Book House since 1976. Now located upstairs in the 4th Street Dinkydale building, the Book House had once been a block away, in a building that was displaced by the Opus mixed-use project at 14th Avenue and 5th Street. The new construction, she said, lit a fire under preservationists, neighbors and some merchants who think the district is at a critical point.

Who’s responsible for striking a balance?

Eide-Tollefson said that a series of studies, surveys and recommendations have all reached the same conclusion: that Dinkytown has a story and a streetscape worth preserving. But one more significant loss of a building in the core of the district might remove enough of the story to make it incomprehensible.

“The cohesion of character is its niche,” she said of Dinkytown. “If you lose that, it’s just going to be a few old buildings. People are already so disoriented by the new buildings that they stay away.” And Eide-Tollefson points out something she considers revealing: The new apartment buildings that have sprung up both in the core and the periphery of Dinkytown use the history of the area to sell their product. The new Bridges apartment building at 9th and University, for example, touts its nearness to Dinkytown: “It is where students stand in line to get a seat at the counter of Al’s Breakfast, experience great entertainment and music at the Varsity Theater and hang out at the Loring Pasta Bar — located in a building where Bob Dylan once lived,” the website proclaims.

If approved by the state Historic Preservation Office and the council, a Dinkytown Historic District would be near the oldest part of the University of Minnesota campus, and situated among two other districts with historic designations: the U of M Greek Letter Chapter House District and the Fifth Street Southeast Historic District. Even with the designation, Faucher said, there are plenty of areas close by to accommodate redevelopment and increased density. The entire proposed Dinkytown district doesn’t even cover the entirety of the four square blocks between University Avenue SE and 5th Street SE and 13th Avenue SE and 15th Avenue SE.

Faucher, an architect specializing in historic properties, supported the demolition permit for 1319, but also made the motion to give the district interim protection. She said she frequently feels the tension between preservation and density.

“In design school, I was trained that ‘sprawl bad, density good.’ But it’s not our job to resolve that tension. The city as a whole, yes, has to work to resolve it. If the City Council does not designate it, that’s their choice. But if there is significance there and there is evidence to support it then, yeah, it’s our job to bring it to the city and say this is important.”

Bender said the council is responsible for striking a balance. “It is one thing to talk about districts that are the most historically significant,” she said. “But the city is filled with one-story commercial buildings that came in with the streetcars. We can’t accommodate growth of the city and preserve them all.”

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Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Aaron Olson on 01/29/2015 - 11:41 am.

    Keep the core, redevelop the firetraps

    High density housing that is friendly to transit is certainly important. What so often seems to happen in redevelopment like this is the construction mid-rise apartments/condos with some kind of retail on the ground floor. That retail is so often filled with national chain that have no connection to the neighborhood at all. While the old commercial buildings in the core of Dinkytown may not be historic themselves, it would be a shame to lose them and the vibe that surrounds them and have them replaced with Walgreens, Panera, and Starbucks. If there must be redevelopment, there are plenty of very run down houses very close by – I’ve lived in them, I know. Why not demolish some of them, increase housing density, as well as commercial space. I really hope the core of Dinkytown is still somewhat recognizable ten years down the road.

  2. Submitted by David Markle on 01/29/2015 - 12:09 pm.

    Who are colliding?

    As usual Peter Callaghan has written well and thoughtfully, but the title suggests that preservations are on a collision course with urbanists. It seems to me that the raw power of economics–in the form of big developers–and city government’s love of tax revenue doom Dinkytown. As a result, independently owned small business gradually vanishes from the neighborhood, replaced by generic franchise operations. So it’s not just a matter of nostalgia, but loss of neighborhood character and a more humane circum-academic environment.

    It’s become pretty clear that one of the economic drivers in this process has been the increasing numbers of foreign students who apparently wish to live in the immediate vicinity of the University campus and have the financial resources to pay more than the locals. (Do they care about neighborhood atmosphere?)

    We have a very small example on the West Bank, where Augsburg College tore down the small commercial building on Riverside Avenue that helped give the street a nice atmosphere. (Martin Sabo once lived there.) The present Oren Center now more than occupies that spot; it’s a useful facility but generic in character.

    Indeed, on the West Bank the only thing that has prevented the kind of development that threatens Dinkytown is the prevalence of officially designated low income housing that prohibits occupation by full-time students, locked in place by limited partnership tax shelter financing. And that has its own downside, literally, although ironically the West Bank has been much safer than the East Bank in recent years.

  3. Submitted by Bjorn Awel on 01/29/2015 - 12:37 pm.

    1) many of the one-story buildings are already filled with national chains so redevelopment is not an issue there
    2) other than a few buildings I don’t see the need. Most of the one-story buildings also have been so retrofitted that they really lack any character.
    I hope the city finds a way to balance allowing certain buildings good protection but not prevent future redevelopment like the ones mentioned in the article.

  4. Submitted by Adam Miller on 01/29/2015 - 02:05 pm.

    The answer for Dinkytown

    Has to be both density and preservation. People want to live there and shouldn’t be prevented by doing so because we have nostalgic memories of how the place used to be.

    There are definitely historic buildings in the area that should be preserved. There are definitely non-historic (and downright ugly) and underused buildings in the area that definitely should not be preserved. We can and should do both.

    And sometimes we should compromise in things like preserving old facades while redeveloping around them.

    There need not be a collision course, but preservation needs to be focused on actual things, not amorphous “character” and development needs to be thoughtful.

  5. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 01/29/2015 - 04:15 pm.

    There’s a sense in this discussion of a lack of knowledge of how drastically Dinkytown and its immediate surroundings have changed in the last five years. Many, many residential properties dating from the 1870s and 1880s have recently bitten the dust, some “dilapidated” only because of neglect in the last generation–they were actively cared-for private homes before the 1990s real estate speculation. Check out the blocks between 5th St. SE, 12th Ave. SE and 15th Ave. SE, for many examples.

    Historic buildings–one from the 1850s–have been torn down for stick-built (i.e., wood construction rather than metal/concrete) five and six-story apartment buildings with interior designs that no one but young single adults would ever want (four or five roommates with a couple of bathrooms and a small kitchen area where the group can sit). These apartments are NOT what anyone would consider “affordable” housing. Check out the rents paid per unit! And, how cheaply built they are.

    And, please, can we not confuse those who deal with abstract concepts with any form of idealism. The new urbanists too frequently speak from abstract general principles, with little or no real information about what an particular area is all about, including what it was like five or ten years ago.

    There is, today, very little left in Dinkytown of the “character” it once had. Not quite three square blocks remain since tear-downs after 2005.. And the East Bank campus of the U of MN itself, not too long ago protected from demolition by President Mark Yudof and the Alumni Association, has recently been attacked by demolitionists in the U’s own planning department: Wesbrook Hall is recently gone (for a bus stop area), as is Norris Hall, and the old Music (YMCA) building. These were historically designated on the national level, not that it mattered to the U.

    • Submitted by Wayne Coppock on 01/30/2015 - 08:16 am.

      Not to defend stick construction, but you can’t automatically declare a cut-up old single family home that’s fallen into disrepair as ‘historic’ just because it’s old. I won’t defend the slumlords of dinkytown either (I lived in such a slummed-up old house when I first moved here, it was gross), but this is all a very natural part of redevelopment and increasing density when there is demand for it. There are thousands of houses from the 19th century around town and you can’t save them all. It’s better to focus on ones that are truly historic and are worth preserving.

      Also, those rent prices are, sadly, pretty standard for new construction. But new construction is always going to be more costly than older buildings with sunk costs already paid off. You can’t fight financial reality. In another 10ish years these places will be much more affordable. Everyone hates new development for some reason, but it’s future affordable housing. You can’t just put up a new building and charge the same price that someone with a house that the mortgage is mostly paid off on is renting out to 5-10 people. The economics don’t work. If you want any new housing units added, they’re going to have to be more expensive than run-down slums for a good decade or two. But if you fight any new development tooth and nail you end up like San Francisco where no one can afford to live and crummy closets in the tenderloin are still out of your price range.

  6. Submitted by Matt Haas on 01/29/2015 - 04:55 pm.

    The sad thing

    I can understand the need for housing and all, but can anyone honestly tell me that the building going up are going to age very well? As mentioned previously, the floor plans are suspect, the exteriors are ugly, and from what I can see from the signage, most are not full. What happens when the economy tanks again, what happens if student preferences change say ten years out, what happens if students truly cannot afford it? I see the same with the vast tracts of condos in Uptown, each exactly like the other, they look wonderful were I 20something and rich, but nary a swingset in sight. What happens when the burgeoning millennial population ages, or decides to start families, retires? Can anyone see 60 year olds residing in building like those? Is everything really just designed to last until the next big demographic shift?

    • Submitted by Wayne Coppock on 01/30/2015 - 08:49 am.

      There will always be students at the U

      To be fair, there will always be a big student population at the U. Even with whatever demographic shifts, there will not cease to be a younger generation that will need to go to college (unless we enter a “Children of Men” scenario, in which case we have bigger worries). Just like there’s always a need for some senior housing, there’s always a need for some student housing. Whether it’s overbuilt is another question, but honestly they could probably still add another 5+ huge buildings and be ok unless the U turns into primarily a commuter campus.

      • Submitted by Matt Haas on 01/30/2015 - 09:07 am.

        Yes

        But catering to a population currently swimming in debt by buidling ridiculously expensive housing doesn’t strike me as a wise business decision. Also, if the “sunk costs” argument were reality, shouldn’t those slumlord properties be renting for a lot less? They certainly didn’t when I was there.

        • Submitted by Wayne Coppock on 01/30/2015 - 12:39 pm.

          They can get away with overcharging because there’s such a limited supply of housing near the U. One thing these new buildings are doing is putting a lot more supply out there and suddenly if you and your friends can rent a brand new unit for almost the same price as a run down slum, that slumlord is going to have to lower rent or fix the place up. But when I was there it was definitely cheap–I paid something like $250/mo for a bedroom in a cut up old house, but that was almost ten years ago.

          And again, I don’t know what world people are living in where they expect brand new construction (of whatever quality) to be the same price as 20+ year old buildings. The supply needs to be added and the longer you wait the worse it gets. Complain about the price all you want, it’s not going to magically make putting up new buildings cheaper or investors want less of a return (especially when they can take their money to another market and put it in another project just as easily).

  7. Submitted by David Markle on 01/29/2015 - 05:13 pm.

    A further note

    Completing the picture in Augsburg’s Oren Center (not a residential building) are a Starbucks and a Barnes & Noble.

    The University has diminished the flow of customers to eateries near its campus, both East and West Bank, by installing a number of franchise eateries in its own buildings, very likely making buyout by a big developer more attractive to owners of small commercial properties.in Dinkytown and making life more difficult for private operators on the West Bank. Of course the University probably makes money that way.

  8. Submitted by Casey Finne on 01/30/2015 - 09:51 am.

    Bender Contradiction

    ““We’re in a time now where we see increased demand to live in the city,” Bender said. “If we don’t provide additional housing, we’ll have wealthy people who can live in the city and others will be displaced.”

    Yet she voted to evict low income residents of a boarding house to build luxury apartments. Quite a contradiction.

  9. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 01/30/2015 - 02:45 pm.

    Way to go…

    Tear down Dinky Town; strip that old scene of all character…and don’t forget the students who will become drones of a sort, could be you know….paper doll selfies so steeped in sameness well proportioned in mind and body and clean to the point of being cool,sterile scholars floating off drawing boards in planner boardrooms to be lead by the very atmosphere of the new modular D town reconstituted into glass and steel with dress being almost evolving into uniforms in their sameness to fit the scenario as time passes swallowing up a once definitive diversity of mind, body and heart; the better to weave through this new campus order you could say -a universe of glass and steel sponsored by corporate developments of similar glass and steel ambitions…and cold conformity arrives with such ease no one even notices or cares for who cares if you think alike, walk alike, dress alike and sleep alike for the QUESTION is no longer relevant; stripped of one’s vocabulary; essentially dumpster-ized by lack of use as all is the same and acceptable because who really cares at this future point in time if you can sleep well and eat well sans any shabby deviations…ah what grand student daze to look forward to,eh?

  10. Submitted by Britter Ritter on 07/19/2017 - 11:10 pm.

    I Love Vescio’s

    What about preserving Prospect Park neighborhood? As the University gobbles up more and more space, surely this lovely neighborhood is threatened. How far do you go with preservation? It is the hideousness of modern architecture that makes preservation so necessary.

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