Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Portland is Just a Street in Minneapolis – The Pearl District vs. North Loop Smackdown

Dateline: 4:12 pm October 14, 2010 Filed under:

“Portland is just a street in Minneapolis,” proclaimed Minneapolis mayor R.T. Rybak. Sure, he was standing next to musician and bicycling advocate David Byrne at a “Policy and a Pint” seminar promoting bicycling. And yes, he was being a bit tongue-in-cheek, primarily to rouse a response from Minneapolis bicycle advocates who are tired of perpetually coming in second to Portland in terms of cycling. Still, and even Mayor Rybak knows this, Minneapolis could learn a thing or two from Portland (the one in Oregon) on urban design, effective creation of complete neighborhoods, and the attention to detail and financing involved to do so.

(In a subtle twist of irony, the Portland Avenue to which the mayor is referring is in fact a one-way street exiting the downtown, providing a quick escape by car from the urban core. But to its credit, Portland Avenue does have an on-street bike lane so bikers, too, can quickly escape the urban core!)

Mayor Rybak’s comment got me thinking. I visited Portland earlier this year to specifically do two things: ride a bike and to see the progress of the Pearl District in the seven years since I was last there. (Portland still has us beat in terms of biking, but we are catching up fast.) Like most larger cities in the U.S., Minneapolis has at least one neighborhood located near downtown that has emerged from largely industrial uses in the early 1990s to a thriving district of over 1,000 housing units and new retail and restaurants. Ours is called the North Loop, Portland’s is the well-known and beloved Pearl District. But like most other cities, from an urban design and overall creation of a complete, connected neighborhood, Minneapolis don’t hold a candle to Portland.

I decided to compare Portland’s Pearl District to the North Loop in Minneapolis, so I called David Frank, a local developer and resident of the North Loop who used to work for the Portland Development Commission – if there is anyone familiar with the evolution of the Pearl District and North Loop, it is David. I even got him to discuss the issue and lead a walking tour of the North Loop as part of the first event of the renewed Minnesota chapter of the Congress for the New Urbanism.

Please have a look at pictures comparing the Pearl District and the North Loop here.

So what is different? Why? How? David Frank explains that is exactly the issue – Portland created a much more complete plan for the Pearl District that included what, where, when, and critically, how to pay for it. There was greater attention to detail in building and urban design. Frank jokes that he could sit in a meeting with a Pearl District developer and count how quickly the price of their project was increasing. Developers paid more for all sorts of requirements that improve the urban environment, including in the public realm in front of their property. In return, developers were provided more certainty in the approvals process as well as public dollars.

1) Financing – the entire Pearl District was part of a tax-increment financing district that leveraged bonding of tens of millions of dollars to pay for things like affordable housing, parks, streetscaping and the streetcar. This approach has had a huge effect on the sense of place in the overall Pearl District, as it has provided public financing for parks and other public improvements that add distinctly and measurably to the quality of life.

Developers were also charged a significant fee per unit while being held to a higher design standard. In other words, they were expected to spend more on design aspects of their projects, but in return were provided with and a means to create affordable units in their buildings, for example.

2) Certainty – on the walking tour of the North Loop, David Frank pointed out that one of his firm’s projects was approved the same day as another new condo project a block away. Frank’s project was required by the city to include a brick facade to reflect the historic nature of the neighborhood; the other project was not required to do so. This is the sort of thing that, to put it mildly, frustrates developers. Why should one be required to add brick (and cost) to their project when the guy a block away does not have to?

Worse for us, the public who are attracted to a high quality public realm, the other building is largely a blank wall facing the street, with little redeeming value (the other side of the building, of course, looks great and has stellar views of the skyline), whereas Frank’s project has attractive individual unit entrances with private terraces overlooking decks (and a nice brick facade, AND a skyline view). The lesson here is design and attention to detail. Frank’s project addressed the public realm, but was not required to do so, as evidenced by the other building, which clearly did not.

3) Design Review – That brings us to design review. In Portland, EVERYTHING – the buildings, from density, size, height and massing to their windows and entrances, as well as the public realm right to the middle of the street – is addressed in the planning process.

In other words, when a building in Minneapolis relates well to the public realm, it is somewhat a result of good planning, but often because the developer went above and beyond to make it so. In Portland, good urbanism is simply required and fleshed out in the Design Review process. The Portland process is more thorough and occasionally maddening, but the result is far better.

This includes the public realm, for which the developer is typically on the hook for in Portland. The result is a complete, pedestrian-friendly public realm that serves the neighborhood as a complete entity.

4) Development Plan versus Small Area Plan. In the big picture, the plan for the Pearl District called for a complete neighborhood and answered what, where, when and how to pay for it. In 2010, this has been fulfilled.

The lack of a complete plan for the North Loop, laying out precisely what, where, when and a way to pay for it, has resulted in an incomplete neighborhood. The Pearl District has a full-service grocery store (two, actually), parks, a complete grid of streets, bike lanes, affordable housing and a streetcar line. The North Loop is largely missing these things. In order to even get a playground built, residents of the North Loop had to, through pure serendipity, have the good fortune of the Twin Cities hosting a playground builders conference – they were in need of a model, so they are footing the bill for a North Loop playground. I’d rather rely on good planning than on serendipity.

We could learn much from Portland. That the Pearl District has managed to create an entirely new, complete neighborhood with a range of housing retail, services, parks and transportation in a fantastically attractive urban setting was not by accident. That the North Loop is a pleasant but incomplete version of the Pearl District is not an accident, either.

But it is more than that. Certainly Minneapolis wanted good urbanism in the North Loop. They got some of it, but clearly not enough. To me, it seems to boil down to one thing – in Minneapolis the attitude towards developers is a little too much “here is your zoning, good luck,” whereas in Portland the massage seems to developers seems to be “this is exactly what we want and we’re willing to work with you and provide the necessary tools to accomplish our vision.” There was risk for both public and private, and this approach certainly isn’t for all develoeprs. Frank paraphrases the attitude of the PDC towards developers – “if you don’t like it, you can go develop in the suburbs.”

So the Pearl District which wins the urban Smackdown, hands down over the North Loop. But what is the solution? It isn’t for a lack of creativity or desire among our planners and developers in Minneapolis – we get it. I think it is more than that. Remember, the Pearl District came out of decades of public and political attention to good planning and urbanism. If Minneapolitans really want good urbanism, the public at large must demand it and elect officials that are willing to put the resources towards getting it. Perhaps one day the North Loop and many of our other urban neighborhoods will benefit as a result. Maybe then our street named Portland will be worthy of the city of the same name. For now, we’ll have to be content with our nonstop flight to Portland.

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