Here’s my commentary on a recent article in the Star Tribune about a suburban icon. This conflict exemplifies how many Americans hide their prejudices with superficial arguments. And they often come out when suburbs grow more dense.
City weighs its evolving footprint against residents’ resistance to apartment towers near Southdale.
By Miguel Otárola Star Tribune
The proposed seven-story 7250 France Avenue apartment tower has been redesigned several times, and it continues to draw opposition from surrounding neighborhoods. DJR Architecture.
Miguel Otárol’s recent article tells a classic story of NIMBYism coupled with public ignorance of urban and transit history. It’s a story happening all over the country.
Victor Gruen, the architect of Southdale, the world-famous original shopping mall in Edina, Minnesota, envisioned a suburban future when people could walk and find “culture” with active street life.
He originally hoped to design such shopping centers in city neighborhoods with density and transit, but the 1950s/60s market did not support that.
Now it does.
The Southdale district today is a prime inner-ring redevelopment area where empty-nesters, the young, and the elderly can all live together…strengthening the district’s stores, and linking to Bus Rapid Transit or other options. Rather than creating more car traffic, such Transit Oriented Development is the best way to reduce it in the future. But some neighbors foresee doom. And, worse, declining property values.
Mixed-use, three-to-five story projects reduce sprawl, driving times, and create more tax revenue. So why the frenzied neighbor outcry?
They proclaim the looming threat of greater traffic. The loss of trees. Children read from written scripts at public meetings—claiming to like trees more than buildings.
But the real issue here is not traffic or any kind of greenery in a commercial area richly paved with asphalt. As this Star Tribune article documents, traffic has dropped “from an average of 14,500 vehicles a day on 70th Street west of France in 1996, to 9,200 in the same area in 2015, according to city numbers.”
Across the country, “traffic” is the argument of choice against any kind of change. It’s made by those with little knowledge of urban history, real estate economics, and planning innovations nationwide. For them, the only life worth living is the one they have.
But what these neighbors really fear is change itself.
They fear the social implications of greater density. They fear that people who don’t look like they do might move in close by. They fear the implications of economic access to their realm.
In one of the most affluent metropolitan regions in the world, Twin Citians can no longer expect to live in close-in suburbs on large lots without any kind of added density.
When it opened in the late 1950s, Southdale lay right at the city’s southern edge, surrounded by farms and woodlands. Now, the region’s southern boundary is 20 miles to the south. That’s the real reason we have traffic.
Democracies and vibrant economies offer people choices—options in residential design, neighborhoods, and how to move around. Our free discourse concerning future growth breaks down when we use outdated claims to mask our deeper fears and prejudices.
We Like our Neighbors
I know many Minnesotans who actually want more neighbors. They’ve even formed an advocacy group here in Minneapolis appropriately named—Neighbors for More Neighbors.
With any luck, other towns will form their own chapters soon. And let’s hope that Edina, Minnesota—might be one of them.
[UPDATE: On June 5, the following day, the Edina City Council by vote rejected the housing project.]
Neighbors for More Neighbors:
When the five-block Downtown East project opened in Minneapolis, nearly every architect I knew complained about the twin 18-story towers built for Wells Fargo.
I admired the urban design and the new district that these towers anchored. Our differing perspectives made for a promising article—and here it is.
5 reasons Downtown East works (hint: it’s not because the buildings look cool)
Well-planned, if unremarkable, buildings have helped create a vibrant new neighborhood.
When Wells Fargo moved into its two office towers in Downtown East in 2016, many Twin Cities architects grumbled.
The twin, 18-story buildings looked like suburban office parks, they said.
Built to house some 5,000 employees, these towers would never have panache (or the budget) of the 50-story Wells Fargo Center on S. 7th Street designed by star architect Cesar Pelli. Still, some griped that the office towers should have been more fully clad with richer materials, like Kasota limestone.
At first, I could see their point. But I also saw the transformative effect of the entire five-building Ryan development. The in-house architectural team of Ryan Cos., the lead developer and designer, might have been able to articulate the towers more gracefully with materials other than precast concrete and metal panels.
But, after two years, I’ve decided that how the Wells Fargo towers look is less important than how they function in the emerging neighborhood. The towers, the new Ryan headquarters, and the Editions Residences achieve a 24-hour, mixed-use neighborhood that is all too rare downtown.
From a purely architectural perspective, the towers may be commercial backdrop buildings. But from an urban design perspective, they’ve helped create a vibrant district and a remarkable addition to downtown.
Here are five reasons why:
ONE. There’s a clear connection to downtown
For decades, the area had been a wasteland of parking ramps and lots split off from the downtown core. But the Blue Line LRT broke through with a stop at the old Metrodome. Then, Hargreaves Associates, landscape architects for the Downtown East Commons, created wider sidewalks linking the area with City Hall. Today, the office towers, new residential buildings, and the renovated Armory feel like a natural extension of downtown.
TWO: Open space and buildings work together
The Commons park opens up a dramatic outdoor room with two distinct blocks. There’s a well-framed sense of openness that sets the foreground for vistas to the skyline and surrounding buildings. This visual connection may seem natural, but the scale and setbacks of new buildings were carefully calibrated. Former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak recalls walking over to the Commons many times from City Hall to make sure that the Edition Residences didn’t block the view of the Armory, one the greatest WPA buildings in the Midwest.
THREE: There are eyes on the street
The financial districts of most American cities become ghost towns after 6 p.m. on weeknights and remain that way on weekends. But the Wells Fargo office towers are lined with four-story apartment buildings with patios and balconies, street-level cafes and retail spaces, all of which bring people to the sidewalks and the Commons. Fronting directly on the Commons, housing and a coffee shop at the Edition adds to this vitality, keeping eyes on the street and helping to discourage crime.
FOUR: A rich skyway journey
The Vikings required a skyway link to downtown. But a three-block run from the Haaf Ramp to the stadium could have been downright ugly. Instead, Ryan designed three skyways that run through the two Wells Fargo towers. Together, they offer expansive interior views of the building lobbies (plus a coffee shop, cafes and a convenience store), punctuated with dramatic exterior vistas of the stadium and the park.
FIVE: It’s part of the city
R.T. Rybak argues that the mix of buildings in Downtown East is really “like a family”. The office towers and residential buildings work together, without trying to outshine the massive U.S. Bank Stadium.
The Vikings stadium is arguably the only urban football stadium in the country—one not surrounded by parking ramps and lots. It’s the multi-modal transit and urban design of Downtown East that makes this possible.
“Great cities are made up of collections of architecture,” Rybak observes. “I don’t think you can evaluate any structure on its own. We need to think of them as a whole.”
The entire Downtown East project was delivered through the “design-build” process— essentially a developer-led team with strong cost controls. This is the way that many American commercial projects are now built.
But there’s more to buildings than meets the eye. The towers are LEED Platinum certified and anchor a new downtown district.
What can we learn from their urban design? Can design-build construction create high-quality architecture while still containing costs? Please comment.
Designed by VJAA of Minneapolis, the student center at the American University of Beirut is a brilliant response to climate, topography, and precedents in urban form.
FABRIC ARCHITECTURE September 1st, 2012
The Charles Hostler Student Center at the American University of Beirut.
By Frank Edgerton Martin
In arid climate cities, the way people use architecture and urban space changes with the time of day. Fabrics for shading, screening and evaporative cooling can be part of sustainable strategies to make these microclimates more comfortable. Throughout the Middle East, such commonsense tools have long been part of garden and architectural vernaculars.
Designed by VJAA, the Charles Hostler Student Center at the American University of Beirut is a masterful blend of historic Mediterranean urbanism and modern technologies. In its winning AIA design award submission, VJAA, Minneapolis, Minn., wrote that in Beirut, social activities “migrate” vertically and “condense” at various locations throughout the day. During the hot sunny hours, shop owners and families tend to use lower shaded spaces. At night they migrate to the rooftops.
Inspired by the city and the classic Beirut house that steps down hillside sites to catch sea breezes, VJAA designed the Hostler Student Center as a 3-D system of courtyards, passageways and roof gardens. Shading, breezes and the radiant cooling effects of water are all optimized in this 19,000m2 project.
An earlier campus master plan by Sasaki Associates Inc. had called for a large student building facility fronting a similarly large open space. But the VJAA team sensed that more fine-grained urbanism and local materials might offer lessons for energy conservation and comfort, both indoors and out.
At both the American University of Beirut (AUB) and Tulane University’s new Lavin-Bernick Center for University Life VJAA used metal mesh scrims to create cascading water walls offering both evaporative and radiant cooling benefits. Yet while Tulane’s water walls are set inside a large public gathering space, Beirut’s falling water is outside.Both projects merit comparison for the similarity of their student center building programs and theircontrasting climactic conditions.
Whereas summers in New Orleans, La., are hot and humid, Beirut’s semi-arid summers are typically hot and dry. There are cooler temperatures with some rain in December and January, but, for the most part, outdoor campus spaces are quite habitable for most of the year if their form and orientation can make the most of breezes and allow for user “migration” with the sun.
Founded in 1866 to offer an American style liberal arts education, AUB is located on a dense 30-hectare (73 acres) urban campus sited above the ocean that cascades down to the Corniche, Beirut’s grand oceanfront boulevard. In response to this unique microclimate and Beirut’s urban traditions, VJAA broke up the center’s program of athletic facilities, café and auditorium, creating a cluster of five buildings along courts and passages that could optimize changing breezes and shade.
Working with climate engineer Matthias Schuler of Transsolar, VJAA organized the buildings around a series of radial “streets” oriented toward the Corniche to catch the sea breezes. The campus’s steep topography promised many creative opportunities for responsive design. During the day, air cooled by the shaded portion of the tree-covered campus drops down toward the sea along the radial streets creating a flushing effect with cool air. At night, winds from the Mediterranean flow upward through the campus. Cisterns are located to capture winter rainwater for later summer use; gray water from building systems is recycled for irrigation.
Making use of the campus location, VJAA draws seawater from the nearby ocean (piped from 30m below the surface) into a central plant that provides chilled water for radiant cooling at the pool, gymnasium, squash courts and café. After desalinization, seawater offers radiant and evaporative cooling for the two cascading water walls similar to those used inside Tulane’s student center.
VJAA designed two large 6m wide by 7.7m high waterwalls to employ metal mesh panels for cooling the outdoor terrace level. Like fountains in Persian gardens and courtyards, Beirut’s two outdoor waterwalls (made of stainless steel mesh scrims) guide smooth broad “sheets” of falling water. Their cool mist radiates outward into seating areas and, when the dew point is high, the walls’ lower temperature can reduce surrounding humidity by condensing water out of the air like an ice-filled glass on a summer day.
In its proposal for the AUB’s new student center, VJAA argued that the best architecture grows out of understanding local climate and its effects on human activity. “The project is as much about human behavior, collegiate life and even politics, as it is about questions of architectural form.”
VJAA’s student center projects in New Orleans and Beirut teach us that fabric solutions in shading and water walls are only one part of a larger design strategy integrating site, seasons and daily weather. VJAA’s deep understanding of arid climates and architecture is almost certainly the reason it was awarded this student center project in an international competition. When time-tested local solutions are combined with new products and technologies for ventilation, cooling, heating and water capture, great gathering places can be built that draw people at different times of day simply because they are so inviting.