“Dinkytown” is well-named for the tiny four-block neighborhood that sits adjacent to the University of Minnesota. The origin of its colorful name is lost to history, but it has long been an energetic and vibrant part of our city and the third ward that I represent. A current proposal to redevelop a sizeable portion of the neighborhood — a half-block parcel right in its commercial core — has, and should have, attracted lots of attention, debate and disagreement.
After careful study and conversation, I testified last week against the project, adding my voice to five of the 11 members of the Neighborhood Association, a majority of the city’s Zoning and Planning Committee, many locally owned family businesses and literally hundreds of concerned neighbors and citizens who think this project is a bad idea.
To understand why, some background is needed. Back in 2003, the city’s Master Plan anticipated the construction of the multi-story apartment buildings now going up along the major traffic corridors of University Avenue, Fourth Street Southeast and 15th Avenue Southeast, developments that are adding 4,000 new units of much-needed student housing near the University and on the outskirts of Dinkytown. The technical designation for this sort of zoning is “C3A.” That same Master Plan did not, however, call for the development of additional housing units within the commercial core of Dinkytown, which is zoned “C1.” The planners recognized — correctly — that allowing development within the core would harm the neighborhood’s unique character and its locally owned small businesses.
Over the last 10 years, Dinkytown businesses have invested in their neighborhood based on the precepts of that plan. They have opened stores, remodeled restaurants and expanded operations to better serve their neighbors and a decade of University students. Their hard work has kept this century-old iconic neighborhood from disrepair and decay.
All of that hard work will be threatened by this development and its zoning change to C3A; not simply by the project itself — though its impact will be substantial — but by the pressure it puts on the rest of the neighborhood to follow its lead.
“Up zoning” this parcel will create intense development pressure for all of Dinkytown. It is the kind of ad hoc development driven by economic speculation that threatens the traditional form of our city and particularly the fundamental place-making and civic engagement functions of neighborhood small business districts. Developments such as these reduce livability and diversity by pushing out small businesses that cannot afford the “redeveloped” rent, which leads inevitably to the appearance of more chain stores. They tear asunder a vital part of a neighborhood’s defining fabric that took many decades to create.
In truth, Dinkytown is the “canary in the coal mine” for such ad hoc redevelopment of neighborhood commercial nodes throughout the city.
The Zoning and Planning Committee’s recommendation to deny the project now goes before the City Council on Friday, Aug. 2. I will speak in opposition to the project and hope that a majority of my colleagues will join me. We have ample grounds to reject the rezoning application as it is “solely for the interest of a single property owner” and because rezoning Dinkytown is not proper if there are “reasonable uses of the property in question under the existing zoning classification.” By doing so, the City Council would let the planning process work.
This advance planning approach takes a little more time, but it is the only one that lets all stakeholders participate on an equal footing. There is no recourse once uncontrolled developments are underway. Preventive medicine, using the advance planning approach, is the only tool each neighborhood has to decide for itself — instead of letting developers dictate — what is best for its future development.
The delegates at the DFL City Convention overwhelmingly supported a resolution asking the Council to preserve neighborhood small business districts like Dinkytown from rezoning for higher density.
This vote is not just about one project or one neighborhood. It’s about managing high-density development in our neighborhoods that threatens to destroy the individual commercial cores that make so many of our neighborhoods special. I urge citizens to let all my colleagues on the Council know how they feel about this rezoning proposal before it reaches the Council on Aug. 2.