240 W. 52nd. Street NYC
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.
…an expanded version of a Streetscapes article for the Star Tribune written during the winter spectacle of the Super Bowl in Minneapolis
Design for the Cold
Winter Streetscapes don’t have to be Bleak—Five strategies for winter character
FRANK EDGERTON MARTIN February 17, 2018
Minnesota promotes itself as the “Bold North”. But our designs for winter streets and public spaces are weak and timid.
We have some of the most dramatic seasonal weather in the country. Summers can be steam baths and wind chills can fall to fifty degrees below zero. But you’d never know it from visiting many grocery store parking lots, bus and transit stops, and even high-design arts and civic projects.
All too often, civic landscapes like the Minneapolis Central Library on Nicollet Mall are designed for perfect weather. They photograph beautifully in the warmer months but are planned with little regard for winter color, texture, and the force of wind. Stepped back from the Nicollet Mall, the Central Library’s main entry plaza bakes in the summer sun. In winter, with its bosque of stark and leafless locust trees in front of Dunn Brothers, the entry is devoid of shelter from the wind.
You can find such bleak winter spaces throughout newer suburbs—in open treeless parking lots with no shelter from the northwest wind, exposed entries to new high schools, big box stores with no windows and the ubiquitous beige earth tones of houses and commercial buildings.
Why do Minnesotans let this happen? The sheltered practicality of Nordic farmsteads, towns, and cities has been lost to American wealth and technological prowess. It’s all too easy to build large climate-controlled settings and car-based cities where few people have to go outside to walk to a store or wait for a bus or train.
But there are time-tested solutions to thrive in winter. Architect David Salmela is a third-generation Finnish-American based in Duluth who combines older ways of building with modern materials for northern climates. Salmela is one of Minnesota’s most celebrated architects—yet he never received a formal architecture degree. His training happened while growing up on the Range.
“My father was born in a sauna,” he says when talking about design for the North. “The biggest lesson from Nordic architecture is to break a building into parts.” Finnish farmsteads consist of many buildings because people build as time and money allow.
“My father was born in a sauna because that was the first and most essential structure the family put up on their land in Vermillion Lake Township. By making several small buildings over time, you can have more windows and sunlight.” Salmela says. Oriented to the arc of the winter sun, such incremental farmsteads also grow to shelter interior courts and work areas. They offer powerful lessons for cities today.
The Twin Cities don’t need to tear out skyway systems to bring more people to the streets. We need more reasons to walk along them such as shops and stores made possible by affordable rents. We also need to learn how to design winter streetscapes as a celebration of all of the senses.
Here are five strategies to consider…..
1. Understand the Movement of Sun and Wind
Salmela describes how Finnish towns and cities are filled with buildings wrapped around interior courtyards and protected passageways, accessible from the street. In the Twin Cities, we can’t change the orientation of our downtown streets, but we can create sheltered outdoor rooms for a retreat from gusting winds.
Sometimes simple wind-blocking walls or glass panels can do the trick to optimize solar gain. Ideally, sheltered microclimates can be located on the north side of city streets where they catch the low winter sun. At the civic scale, Salmela cites Senate Square in Helsinki as an example where all of these elements come together. Set atop a hill, the Helsinki Cathedral looks south and into the harbor. University buildings shelter the plaza below. With their vistas, sun, and shelter, the Cathedral’s broad front steps are a nationally-known place for gathering.
2. Plant for Winter Character
Forget the locusts, the re-design of Nicollet Mall shows a wealth of trees and shrubs that are beautiful and rich in winter character. Field Operations, the landscape architects from Philadelphia introduced several plantings, such as indigenous Eastern Red Cedars and Red Twig Dogwoods rarely seen downtown. Winter color and berries can often come from understory plantings such as tall native and ornamental grasses and a variety of berry-retaining viburnums.
3. Create Beacons of Light for Long Nights
In cold climates when it gets dark by mid-afternoon, fire and light are an ancient lure. Salmela describes the welcoming quality of glowing storefront windows and displays along Nordic streets. Warm glowing colors in signs, spotlighting, and illuminated public art can also highlight architectural detail and create variety block to block.
4. Winter Fragrances and Atmosphere
Think of the moments when you discover the smells of wood smoke while on a neighborhood walk or visiting a city park. They wake us up and change our mood. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire have such a memorable effect that they merited a song. From food trucks to street vendors, we can bring these winter scents to cities.
5. Color is our Winter Friend
Why are we so afraid of color? In the Powderhorn neighborhood, several Mexican-American businesses are painted in bold yellows and reds. In Finland, David Salmela notes the presence of architectural color too, “but with more subtle ochers and orange tones.” On the southern edge of to Gold Medal Park, Salmela designed the headquarters for Izzy’s Ice Cream as a counterpoint to the Guthrie Theatre. Izzy’s is a mostly white low-slung building punctuated with bold patches of color that not only help to meet city code for façade variation but also visually sparkle—especially in winter when we need it most of all.
On the banks of the Rum River in Anoka, Minnesota, lies the long-neglected Windego Park Amphitheater designed by the celebrated Prairie School architect William Gray Purcell (July 2, 1880 – April 11, 1965). My story below for the Winter 2018 issue of Minnesota History outlines a remarkable design and the influential music educator behind it.
Landmarks: Windego Park Open-Air Theater
By, Frank Edgerton Martin
Completed in 1915 on the banks of the Rum River in Anoka, Minnesota—the Windego Park Open Air Theater is a rare work of open-air design by noted Minneapolis Prairie School architect William Gray Purcell. Gracefully set into a thirty-foot hill, Purcell’s design accommodated audiences of up to 1600 people on curving tiers cascading down to an orchestra pit and elevated stage. Beyond Purcell’s design and role, Anoka’s amphitheater is nationally significant in a larger story of City Beautiful planning and the drive for universal arts education in the Progressive Era.
In Ojibwe belief systems, the “Windego” was a terrifying cannibalistic giant who could never be satiated. From the late 19th century into the 1920s, there were rumors of Windego sightings in Roseau, Minnesota, possibly an influence on the naming of Windego Park. The ensuing amphitheater was the brainchild of Anoka resident Thaddeus P. Giddings, one of the most important American music educators of the twentieth century. As music department supervisor for the Minneapolis Public Schools, Giddings believed that “community singing” could bring music to all through participatory learning. Just as he was promoting funding for the amphitheater in Anoka, Giddings was also working with Theodore Wirth and the Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners to bring live performances and “community sings” to the Minneapolis parks and schools. By the 1920s, parks across the Minneapolis including Riverview, Logan, and Farview were holding evening sings—often attracting thousands of people.
But Giddings’ vision for arts engagement at Windego was his first large-scale success. When it opened over an August 1915 weekend, the outdoor theater proved to be an instant hit—and continued to draw thousands of visitors over the decades to come. In a 1916 talk to music educators, Giddings described the amphitheater on a summer night:
The stage is very lovely when lighted for a performance, or when the moon is glittering on the river beyond…. It is one of the most graceful places imaginable in which to sing or speak…. The steepness and curve of the seats, the orchestra pit, the river behind. Many well- known singers and speakers have appeared here and all praise the perfect acoustics. The softest tone is heard in the most distant seat.
Beyond Purcell’s intimate canopied design, it was Giddings’ ability to plan musical and theater events that made the open-air theater so popular. Here Giddings honed his skills as a community organizer for the arts—a talent that led him, in 1936, to become the founding director of the Interlochen Music College in Traverse City, Michigan—now one of the most celebrated arts camps in the world. Giddings’ departure left a void in Anoka and interest in Windego Park events declined, largely coming to a halt in the 1940s. Despite several restoration attempts by the non-profit Windego Park Society (founded in 1997), the amphitheater continues to deteriorate and is now fenced off—an unfortunate condition for a rare historic resource rich in stories of education, design, and populism in the arts.
Frank Edgerton Martin holds a BA in Philosophy from Vassar College and an MSLA from the University of Wisconsin in Cultural Landscape Preservation and Landscape History. He is a design and preservation journalist, a historic landscape planning consultant, and specialized writer for architectural firms.
Gebhard, David, and Patricia Gebhard. Purcell & Elmslie: Prairie Progressive Architects. Salt Lake City: Gibbs Smith, 2006.
P. Giddings, “An Experience in Community Singing,” MNSC Journal of Proceedings (McKeesport, Pennsylvania: The Conference, 1916), pp. 78-81. (Archives Anoka County Historical Society).