My Vote on the Opus Development
In yesterday's Zoning and Planning Committee, I voted against the rezoning for the Opus development in Dinkytown, in Ward 3. I wanted to take the opportunity to share some of what motivated this vote.
First, a little background. I think we need more density in Minneapolis, especially in our most walkable, bikeable and transit-friendly areas. Increasing density has many co-benefits: a greater percentage of trips made by foot, bike and transit; less suburban sprawl; more economic vitality; a healthier tax base. The edges of the University of Minnesota are good places for more density, and the neighborhoods around the U have recognized this. Marcy Holmes and Prospect Park have been especially strategic about supporting density in the parts of their neighborhoods closest to the U. This is why I have supported many, many developments in the Second Ward that have substantially increased density - after downtown, Ward 2 saw the most growth in housing units in the decade between 2000 and 2010. That growth trend is continuing, and it's a really good thing.
But it's also important to recognize that Dinkytown is something special. Like the Cedar Avenue corridor on the West Bank, it has an established character that works. It has been, and continues to be, a place where small businesses can start up and thrive. While there are a few chains in Dinkytown, most of the businesses are small and independently owned. The existing building stock in much of Dinkytown is worth preserving, especially the 14th Ave SE and 4th St SE corridors. I think that the buildings housing the Varsity Theater, Al's Breakfast, the Kitty Kat Klub, Espresso Royale and more are worth preserving.
One more piece of critical background information: there is a Small Area Planning process for Dinkytown underway right now. It started in March (before the Opus project had been officially submitted to the City, but after many discussions about it had taken place with area stakeholders), and will be completed sometime fall/winter of 2013. The purpose of this planning process is to "develop and refine the City’s land use and development policy for the Dinkytown activity center area." While the City has general plans for increasing density in Minneapolis, it is important to note that we have not yet adopted a policy for dramatically changing the character of Dinkytown.
The Opus development is not a terrible idea. Most of what it replaces is surface parking lot, and much of the public parking it removes will be replaced as structured parking. These are good things. The public parking in the Opus development is important, because the developer doesn't have to put it back in. We should have more people living two blocks from campus and a short bike ride away from downtown. The Opus development itself looks to be of high quality, and flexible enough to support multiple types of residents. (That is extremely important to me, because I fear that the student housing market may prove to be a bubble, driven by excessive and unsustainable student loan debt, and buildings that are too narrowly focused on the undergraduate student market are the most likely to fail if and when that bubble pops.)
My main objection to allowing this rezoning at this time is that it sends a message to developers that it is open season on the rest of Dinkytown. Even Opus recognized this concern, and talked about their project as a "bookend" to the five- or six-story redevelopment to the north, a way to transition from taller buildings into the existing two- and three- story character of Dinkytown. But many folks in Dinkytown don't believe it will work that way. There is already substantial redevelopment pressure on the rest of the area. I share their fear is that if the Council approves the Opus development without taking any other action, the Small Area Plan will be moot before it is complete. Where the Plan may call for retention of some or most of the existing C1 small business zone, the market will already have gobbled up the rest of Dinkytown and be well on its way to redeveloping it into buildings like, or potentially much worse, what Opus has proposed.
I want to be clear: there are parts of Dinkytown that could be redeveloped into something better, in my opinion. The 400 block of 15th Ave SE is a good example: right now it's a surface parking lot and a strange, sub-surface fast food chain restaurant. I could foresee a good Small Area Plan listing this as a potential redevelopment site, and making clear that additional density would be appropriate there. But I would also expect that the Small Area Plan would make an effort to retain what works, like the pedestrian-friendly, thriving 4th Ave SE corridor.
I recognize that there is substantial difference of opinion on this project and on the future of Dinkytown. Some of the "Save Dinkytown" activists do not want to see even the parking lots on 5th Street redeveloped. At the same time, some advocates of increasing urban density might not mind if all of Dinkytown was redeveloped into five or six story mixed-use buildings. I've received tens of contacts from folks who are against the Opus development (in addition to the more than three thousand people who signed the "Save Dinkytown" petition), and now that I've voted against the rezoning I'm hearing from folks who didn't like that vote.
I'm somewhere between these two positions, call them "Save Dinkytown" and "Redevelop Dinkytown." While I don't feel the need to stop all development in Dinkytown, I do think that tearing the whole area down and replacing it with six story, stick-built mixed use buildings is worth avoiding. I think a lot of people feel the same way.
For what it's worth, this isn't just a matter of scale or aesthetics for me. As I've noted, the small, independent business character of Dinkytown is one of the characteristics I value about the area, one of the aspects I think is worth preserving. In my experience, new development tends to charge much higher rents than existing buildings, and I worry that the only business types that will be able to afford those rents are large national chains (for example, this seems to be the case with the Opus project). While there's a place for chain stores, I think it would be tragic to push the small independent businesses out of Dinkytown entirely, and I fear that's what a wholesale redevelopment of the area would do.
The Opus project itself would neither keep Dinkytown as it is nor condemn the rest of the area to being torn down and replaced. But it would, without some other action by the Council, send the signal that the Council is ready and willing to see Dinkytown wholly transformed into something completely different.
I don't think that's a good signal to send. I think we need to give Planning staff and neighborhood stakeholders the time to finish the Small Area Plan, and to base our rezoning decisions for the area on that plan.