Dinkytown should get historic designation, says Preservation Commission

MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson
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.

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.

“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.

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.”

Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by William Lindeke on 06/10/2015 - 09:32 am.

    This won’t really “keep Dinkytown weird”

    The area will still be extremely “hot” (in real estate terms) and likely to have lots of chain and redevelopment pressure, even if the buildings are preserved.

  2. Submitted by Pavel Yankovic on 06/10/2015 - 12:32 pm.

    The term,,

    “Historic” has come to mean nothing more than run down and tired and someone with nothing better to do wanting to keep it that way.

  3. Submitted by Richard Nelson on 06/11/2015 - 07:49 am.

    McDonald’s, really?

    The Heritage Preservation Commission does a disservice to the credibility of this process when they include the god-awful Dinkytown McDonald’s as a property “significant to post WWII and counter-culture movement.” Really? The same could be said for the cement-block structures on 4th Street, the two-story yawner that formerly housed a bank and its one-story neighbors that are now occupied by a head shop and the post office. Silly, and sad.

  4. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/11/2015 - 08:17 am.

    Oh for Pete’s sake

    Frat row is “historic”? If those brick block buildings with cheap facades are historic than Dinky Town is certainly historic ten times over.

  5. Submitted by Tom Johnson on 06/11/2015 - 08:24 am.

    Historic designation proxy war

    I’m really tired of the bickering in Dinkytown between the non-student NIMBY’s and the (anti-bike, kind of crazy) business association. This request for historic designstion is just a new chapter in their stupid fight. The legacy of our city’s “Dinkytown” belongs to neither of these groups.

    • Submitted by Chris Lautenschlager on 06/11/2015 - 10:46 am.

      Anti-bike business association?

      As someone who works for both the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association and the Dinkytown Business Alliance, I’d like to think that I have a fairly robust knowledge of what this supposed “fight” is.

      That being said, the Dinkytown Business Alliance has gone out of its way to improve bicycling and pedestrian infrastructure throughout Dinkytown. The organization wholeheartedly embraced the completion of the 4th Street SE bike lane (despite the fact that we knew it would cause the removal of 17 on-street parking spaces), and we secured a grant from the University of Minnesota, in April, to add on-street bicycle parking (which again, will remove 1-2 additional parking spaces). The DBA is working with the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association on their recently-awarded grant to provide better wayfinding and kiosk signage to/from the Dinkytown Greenway, and are making sure the University of Minnesota makes good on their intention to build a stairway from this Greenway to the street-level at 4th St SE and 15th Ave SE (the ball is in the UMN’s court, the city of Minneapolis already has provided funding). Is there a different business association that you are referring to?

      As for the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association, the Land Use Committee and Board of Directors have ultimately approved every new development in the eastern portion of Marcy-Holmes (what most people refer to as Dinkytown), with the obvious exception of the Doran hotel proposal.

      I would refer you to page 31 of our recently-completed Master Plan, adopted by Minneapolis City Council in August 2014, where we specifically note, regarding Dinkytown, the organization will “Support and strengthen business district vitality, enhance multi-modal transportation network and parking options, and preserve historic character while expanding the commercial area for redevelopment.” Are we concerned about historic character? Yes. Does the organization acknowledge the need for, and most often, embrace redevelopment? Yes.

      The legacy of “Dinkytown” belongs to both of these groups, despite their real or perceived differences, or it belongs to no one. The legacy of “Dinkytown” belongs to everyone. But in your estimation it belongs to everyone except the very groups who live here, own property here, conduct business here, or work here. That seems terrifically odd.

  6. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 06/11/2015 - 11:17 am.

    As I understand it, Kelly Doran has already demolished one of the three properties that were in question for his Dinkytown hotel project. Or his successor did (Doran, when his will is blocked, moves on rather quickly). It was a not-unkempt 19th-century house on 13th Ave. SE north of 4th St.

    There is a sadness about this recommendation to declare historic district status for Dinkytown: the area is not what it was even five years ago. The new high-rent dorm-like apartment buildings clash directly with what’s left of the historic area, making Dinkytown one of the ugliest neighborhoods in Minneapolis today. Its divided soul is painful to witness.

Leave a Reply