Let's say you're a 5-foot-2-inch woman. Would you date a 6-foot-4-inch man? The answer seems obvious: It depends. Personality, mutual attraction and shared interests all likely play a part in deciding.
The same goes for buildings and neighborhoods. The Opus Group has proposed a mix of apartments and street-level shops in the heart of Dinkytown, the venerable urban village north of the University of Minnesota's East Bank campus. At their highest, the new structures would rise to six floors above the street compared to the 1-, 2- and 3-story buildings that dominate the district's central four blocks. Does that make for a mismatch? It depends.
It's easy to imagine a large ugly building destroying a traditional village atmosphere. But what if the taller building were particularly handsome? What if it had a pleasing personality at street level, with new shops (and maybe some of the old standbys) that proved attractive to the university crowd? What if it offered ample structured parking as well as nice landscaping and a funky feeling that harmonized with the Dinkytown vibe? What if it offered eco-friendly options for hundreds more students to live adjacent to the campus with all of its walking, biking and transit efficiencies? What if those new residents helped local businesses thrive?
Those are lofty expectations for any new building hoping to fit into a beloved and eccentric neighborhood, but they're not impossible. As critics of the Opus project suggest, Dinkytown is a special "village," one that is laden with memories for generations of college students and alums. Ghosts of Bob Dylan and the old Gray's drugstore, of post-game celebrations and cramming for finals, of old friends and younger days, all of those inhabit Dinkytown. Any changes to the district should be handled with care.
But how classic is this village, really? What would the new Opus project replace? In architectural terms, the House of Hanson building is a bleak, one-story fortress that adds nothing to the neighborhood's aesthetic character. A surface parking lot occupies most of the rest of the footprint. Indeed, to study an aerial photo of the district is to realize that a third of Dinkytown's four-block core is devoted to surface parking, something anathema to the classic village form. (A suburban-style McDonald's and the six-story Purple Onion mixed-use building, as well as the 20-story Chateau housing cooperative are all within or bordering the four-block core.)
By refilling a surface lot, the Opus project could conceivably add to, not detract from, Dinkytown's ambience. In an urban setting, the village is defined not by height but by activity at the sidewalk level.
Restoring pedestrians and buildings as the primary occupants of urban space while reducing the emphasis on cars has become a winning formula for successful cities. The current residential boom around the University of Minnesota is part of that happy trend. Drawing students, faculty and other employees closer to campus strengthens the university and the city. Offering the options of transit, walking and biking on a denser footprint enhances the environment and the city's financial viability. It's encouraging that investors and developers are showing so much confidence in Minneapolis, the university and student housing.
So, should the Opus project be built? It's too early to say. The company has just begun preliminary discussions with neighborhood groups and city officials. But in those discussions the question of height is not nearly as important as questions of overall design and compatibility at the street level.
An editorial of the Star Tribune, Minneapolis.