Earlier today, I voted with all of the rest of my colleagues to allow the demolition of the former Gluek's Tied House / Rainbow Gallery building. I see this as an unfortunate outcome, but the only decision I could make.
It is important to place this development in a broader philosophical context. As I see it, the Green perspective on density is that the more good-quality housing we can build in the right places – with good access to jobs, non-motorized transportation infrastructure, cultural, educational and recreational amenities, and transit – the more we fight the urban sprawl that destroys farmland and encourages auto dependency. Greater density doesn’t just have environmental benefits, either. We live in a city that was built for a population of 500,000 people (the peak that we hit in the 1950s), but which has a current population of less than 400,000 people. That means that we have fewer people paying into maintaining our infrastructure and supporting our local small businesses than it was designed for, increasing the tax burden on each individual property owner.
But we don’t want to dramatically upzone existing vital neighborhoods, because that would destroy their character. So we want more density for a host of reasons – environmental, financial, etc. – but we want it in the right place.
This site is the right place. The majority of this site has been blighted, un- or under-utilized land for decades. It is located within easy walking and biking distance of thousands of jobs in downtown and at the U, an existing light-rail station with access to thousands more, a new light-rail station with access to thousands more, and a robust bike trail network. The whole site (including the Rainbow Gallery parcel) is zoned R6, the City’s highest-density residential land use, which is a signal from the City that high-density residential is not only allowed there, but encouraged. When the City plans for smart, transit-oriented growth, this is exactly the sort of place we’re looking to direct that growth.
That’s why the Planning Commission and the City Council unanimously approved this new development. (You can find the staff report here.) It’s why the City has competed for and received funding from Transit Oriented Development funds the Met Council makes available, among other public sources of funding.
While I value the Rainbow Gallery building, the public hearing at the Zoning and Planning convinced me of three essential things. First, the building itself has not, unfortunately, retained its essential historical character. The things that made it a historically significant bar – the ceiling, the bar itself, etc. – are mostly gone. Second, many other examples exist of this type of historical building, and they’ve retained much more of their essential character. One, the Nomad World Pub, is right nearby. Third, I am convinced that incorporating the building into the new development or moving it to another site are not feasible. Even if this building was designated as historic by the state, federal or city government, which it is not, its preservation would be a challenge. This is why our professional Historic Preservation staff recommended allowing the demolition. It’s why the vote to deny demolition at the Historic Preservation Commission was a razor-thin 5-4. Given all of that, I could not find a legal basis to deny demolition.
I also want to make clear that there has, over the last eight years, been a good deal of lobbying and support from the West Bank Community Coalition (the neighborhood group for Cedar Riverside) for this project. The position of the WBCC on this building was to support efforts to preserve it, but to support demolition if those efforts did not succeed. At a Council meeting months ago, I moved to require the developer to move the building to a parcel they own across the street. Unfortunately, that is not feasible, in part due to the unwillingness of a nearby property owner to allow the developer to stage on his land.
I also want to note that, with a small group of active neighbors and support from staff and the Planning Commission, we did force the developer to make major improvements to this project. As originally proposed, the sidewalk that connects thousands of residents in Riverside Plaza to their green space at Curry Park would have been eliminated. I did not support that, and the Planning Commission did not grant that request. The sidewalk will remain.
I was very involved in the process to develop the Cedar Riverside Small Area Plan. It was something I pushed hard for right after being elected because I saw it as a necessary tool to provide guidance for efforts in the years ahead. I have to say that I see this development as entirely consistent with that plan, the City’s Comprehensive Plan, and regional plans. While the “future land use” for the Rainbow Gallery parcel is listed as “mixed use,” that does not make the planned development inappropriate: the entire first floor of the new development will be non-residential uses, making the whole building mixed use. You can find the small area plan here.
I would have supported stopping this development and saving this building if that is what I thought was a) the will of the community, b) consistent with the City’s adopted plans, c) a reasonable use of the City’s historic preservation powers, and d) best for the environment and other overarching goals. I don’t think such an action would satisfy any of those tests.
That said, I think that there may be growing interest in the community in saving other historic assets. This is one of the reasons I have been working to create a Conservation District ordinance, that would allow an area to decide to protect aspects of its existing character that might not be worthy of historic designation.