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Dinkytown should get historic designation, says Preservation Commission

The overwhelming sentiment — one endorsed by former Vice President Walter Mondale — is that the area is at risk of being replaced by large residential and commercial buildings.

The overwhelming sentiment is that Dinkytown is at risk of being replaced by the types of residential and commercial buildings that have been pushing in from the north and west.
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson

The Minneapolis Heritage Preservation commissioners were unanimous Tuesday night: They want a four-block area in Dinkytown to be the city’s latest historic district.

The vote followed two hours of testimony, during which most speakers favored recognizing the district west of the University of Minnesota campus for its place in commercial, cultural and social history, even though a handful of building owners worried that the designation would make it difficult to repurpose their buildings. 

“Everyone has Dinkytown in their heart,” said building owner Brett Naylor. “They want the best for Dinkytown.” But he fears that his building won’t last forever, and that the designation might make it impossible to replace.

Yet the overwhelming sentiment — one endorsed by former Vice President Walter Mondale via a letter — is that the district is at risk of being replaced by the types of residential and commercial buildings that have been pushing in from the north and west. And that its history and character should be preserved.

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“Dinkytown has always been life-sized and indeed dinky and I’m very afraid that if we destroy the small-scale buildings themselves it will erase those memories and meanings and therefore the history will be seriously impaired,” Mondale wrote.

The commission’s vote is only a recommendation to the Minneapolis City Council, however. And the creation of the district is more in doubt there. Issues of preserving the old versus increasing the density of the city in commercial zones like Dinkytown will be played out there as they were a year ago.

City planning staff has recommended approval of the historic district, saying that the less-than four square block area near the U of M met five of the seven criteria needed under city code to support designation. It qualifies for designation if it meets any one criterion.

Though altered by redevelopment, the area around the intersection of 14th Avenue SE and 4th Street SE retains a batch of original buildings. Once a spot where two major streetcar lines intersected, it eventually became the center of the U of M community, and also was considered a second downtown for the residential areas north and west.

It was also the area where the 1950s beat culture, the 1960s counterculture and the 1970s antiwar movement were centered. But the designation has also triggered a debate of sorts among preservationists and new urbanists, who are conflicted over whether preservation encourages or deters increased density and walkability — and the expanded use of transit.

The city planning staff’s report said the area was associated with significant events, people (think Bob Dylan), and elements of city history; that its architecture is distinctive; and that the area exemplifies landscape design “distinguished by innovation, rarity, uniqueness or quality of design or detail.”

Dinkytown sits between two already designated historic districts: the U of M Greek Letter Chapter House District and the Fifth Street SE Historic District. The new designation was supported by the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association but opposed by the Dinkytown Business Alliance, which feared it would be too restrictive on how owners can use their properties.

Creating the historic district has its own complex history. Long the desire of some who once or currently live and work in the district, the historic nature of the area was at the heart of a development fight in 2013. That was when Doran Companies proposed a six-story mixed-use project across 4th Street SW from the Varsity Theater. The project would have required the demolition of three buildings.

Dinkytown Potential Historic District
Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission
Dinkytown Potential Historic District

The preservation commission denied approval of the demolition and voted to give the area interim protection while the city prepared a report on whether it should be designated as historic. On appeal, a divided Minneapolis City Council said that two of the three buildings could be demolished but denied the permit to take down the oldest of the three, located at 1319 4th Street.

That decision essentially blocked the Doran project, and the company walked away. Critics, however, say the council majority ignored its own rules. Because 1319 had no protection when the demolition permits were requested, the only criterion the council could use to save 1319 was to decide whether it was historic by itself. While old, the small building meets none of the criteria set up in city code.

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If a new district is created, it will protect obviously distinctive buildings like those that house the Loring Pasta Bar, Annie’s Parlour, the Varsity Theater and the Dinkydome on University (the one building included that is not contiguous to the rest of the district). But it will also cover less-significant buildings like 1319, since they contribute to the character of the district as a whole.

If approved by the council, city staff will begin to develop design guidelines for how buildings in the district can be reused or updated. Generally, the guidelines only cover the exteriors of buildings in the district. The staff report concluded that “ideal guidelines would have flexibility so that Dinkytown can continue to evolve while ensuring that no one property owner can undermine that which makes Dinkytown appeal.”