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: