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

A bid for historic designation has exposed tensions between those who want to maintain the area’s character and a major goal of current city leaders.

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”