Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Better Urban Design From the Ground Up

Dateline: 1:49 pm April 23, 2015 Filed under:

The past couple months has seen a robust conversation about development in Minneapolis, starting with Tom Fisher’s Star Tribune piece and followed by Jason Wittenberg’s rebuttal. But taste is subjective, so rather than talk about what makes a building “ugly,” let’s instead discuss the ground floor and how it relates to the public realm around it. Building frontages are at eye-level, and together with the streets themselves, this is by far the most important element to get right for a vibrant, livable city.

In his post, Wittenberg cited the City of Minneapolis one-pager guide called Exterior Building Walls and Materials. But here is another one-pager dealing with building footprint and massing, context, entrances, and landscaping for medium- to large-scale developments. So yes, exterior building walls and materials are important, but less so than frontage and context, and the latter one-pager could be enhanced to get better urban design results for the city.

There is some good stuff; exterior walls “shall provide visual interest,” at least “one principal entrance shall face the public street,” etc. These guidelines are a start, but more can be done. For example: “blank walls that do not include windows or other architectural details shall not exceed 25 feet in length.” This particular guideline is insufficient if we want pedestrian-friendly streets, and makes the following legal:

Advance Auto

Frontages Like This Should Not Be Allowed “By-Right,” Much Less Encouraged in Guidelines

Why not strengthen that guideline somewhat? Maybe we should regulate retail frontages like (I hate to name-drop) Vancouver, for example, whose zoning for some commercial streets (among other things) requires maximum frontage of 25 to 50 feet. So, instead of being able to get away with nearly 25 feet of blank wall, you need a whole new storefront every 25 to 50 feet. Then you get humane, pedestrian friendly frontages this:

Picture 006

Commercial Frontage This Good Doesn’t Happen by Accident

As for residential frontage, Vancouver, for example, requires all ground floor units have entries off the street. Preferred setbacks for residential units are 12 feet, in order to allow some clear delineation about what is private and public. Also, whereas commercial entrances should in most cases be at-grade, residential units should be set above the sidewalk and street, specifically between three and six steps. I’d add that all front doors should face the street rather than be perpendicular to it. The following example from Portland provides a good example of the “intent” of a code like this and the desired results.

Picture 009

Why Not Require Every Ground Floor Unit to Have A Walk-Out Front Door?

The overall pedestrian experience of a street is important and is greater than the sum of its parts. The efforts of Minneapolis to improve the urbanism of the city are laudable. These guidelines sometimes save us from the worst that some developers have to offer, but sometimes they don’t. The other key is here in Minneapolis they are simply guidelines, whereas in places like Vancouver they are the code; that seems like a pretty big difference. Furthermore, the “intent” of the code is on the “human comfort” of the street, including the rhythm created by the proper spacing of things like doors, windows, articulation and trees. We need more of that embedded in our code.

An interesting comment came out of the rebuttal by Wittenberg. While the city has again made it legal to “do the right thing,” it “doesn’t make up for all the bad stuff still getting through.” The commenter was careful to say much of the blame should fall on the political process, not CPED staff. Fair enough. But let’s make it easier to “do the right thing,” by right. I just wish developers with a proposal showing great urban design could sail through the process, whereas developers proposing crap had to work for it.

The intent of this post is to perhaps suggest what should be the embedded in the code, not merely a guideline. I hope this conversation continues, and inspires better focus on good urban design, especially at eye-level in our city. Maybe we can update that one-pager of the site plan review guidelines, and maybe even help guide the dialogue to an all-out revision of the zoning code.

The order of importance for the development review process should begin with the ground floor and its relationship to its surroundings, followed by building mass and context, then by use. I hope this robust conversation continues, but let’s focus on the human comfort of our streets. Fussing less about materials and what is deemed “ugly,” and instead getting the ground floor right, will give rhythm to our streets and add value to the city.

Disclaimer: in-depth analysis of zoning is sometimes beyond my level of understanding. I willingly admit to not fully comprehending the process, and may get some terminology confused or wrong. However, I hope my intent, images, and explanation are understood, and I welcome clarifications and further discussion.

This was crossposted at

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  1. […] This was crossposted at Joe Urban. […]

    Pingback by Better Urban Design From the Ground Up | — April 23, 2015 @ 1:54 pm

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