Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Same Old Minneapolis?

Dateline: 7:45 pm March 12, 2014 Filed under:

Wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to replace Shaun Murphy? What if we lived in a culture of urbanity in Minneapolis where the needs of pedestrians and bicyclists were addressed in a way that didn’t require the creation of a job with a title like “bicycle and pedestrian coordinator?” After all, Janette Sadik-Kahn and Gabe Klein were simply “transportation commissioners” for New York City and Chicago, respectively, and did more for walking and cycling than has been done in most other cities. To be sure, Shaun Murphy did a commendable job, and will be missed, but how great would our city be if we didn’t need a Shaun Murphy in the first place?

What if the new CPED director’s first question about new development projects in Minneapolis was “will it add to the beauty of the city?” We don’t need to overthink this – Minneapolis needs a CPED director who consistently finds ways to get deals done based first on good design principles (sometimes this means saying no, or being patient for the right development to come along). Measurable tax receipts often follow when this occurs and are much more sustainable long-term. The new CPED director is arguably as important as last November’s election, and the mayor’s decision will explain a lot about her priorities for Minneapolis.

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What if Minneapolis had a Design Review Commission. Whereas the responsibility of the Planning Commission is to advise the City Council on matters of zoning, development and capital improvements, what if there was a Design Review Commission to advise on matters of urban design, pedestrian- and bike-friendliness and the relationship between buildings and the street? After all, this works in Portland (yes, I said Portland).

Wouldn’t it be nice if more development was built as-of-right according to our zoning code? Particularly along commercial corridors where the comprehensive plan calls for infill, it seems the vast majority of proposed developments are allowed a certain height as-of-right, but are given a bonus for meeting certain criteria. Why give neighbors the argument against added height and density? Why not fix the height limit or eliminate it entirely? Consistently requiring a Conditional Use Permit for the kind of development encouraged by the comprehensive plan is a waste of everyone’s time. Of course, there are other ways to oppose new development, like historical designations, but I’ll get to that momentarily.


What if we welcomed talented developers to our fair city and challenged them to build even more innovative projects? When I say “we” I mean all of us. West River Commons is consistently cited as one of the better infill developments built in the modern era in Minneapolis. But remember, West River Commons isn’t a great urban building because it is 53 feet tall or 48 units per acre or has an FAR of 1.4 (who the hell really cares what an FAR is?). It is great because a talented developer and design team did a great job putting the retail storefronts in the right place, hiding parking and stepping the height of the building down appropriately to the existing neighborhood. And it only took dozens of public meetings? The brain damage required to develop a building in Minneapolis hasn’t gone away, and in many ways has become more pitched, despite when projects by the Lander Group deserve to see the light of day.

What if we could find a way to encourage developers to retain or add to the character of a place rather than abuse the historic preservation process to oppose developers’ proposals in places like Dinkytown and Uptown?

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All of this has a pretty common tie-in – if a street is pleasant on which to walk or a building is pleasant to walk past, we’ve probably done it right. We can measure a good city by VMT, energy usage, and access to shopping and employment, but we also intuitively know it when we see it. This is a qualitative process but must be addressed, and the first step of the approval process should take in to account rather than (or at least in addition to) use, density, height or traffic counts. There are many ways to do this, and I cannot claim to have all the answers, but it must start with our collective approach what we want our city to be like. Will Minneapolis be more beautiful and walkable in the future? Let’s hope so.

This is crossposted at


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