Debate tacklesCities’ expansion

Sascha Matuszak

The free market is eating the past when it comes to development in the Twin Cities, said a panel of experts Tuesday night. The question was whether the future can afford the diet.
The debate, titled “Must Building Our Future Mean Trashing Our Past?” was held in the Architecture building on the University’s East Bank. On the panel were five local development and preservation experts, moderated by Linda Mack, architecture correspondent for the Star Tribune.
About 60 people attended the debate, including development professionals, faculty members and students.
Thomas Fisher, dean of the College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, called for a stronger role for cities, especially Minneapolis, in directing development and preserving historic buildings. He said that too often, Minneapolis caves in to economic interests at the expense of aesthetic considerations.
“The city has lost the ability to dictate development within the downtown community,” Fisher said.
But Paul Farmer defended the city’s role in development, saying that the city has been active in directing planning but hasn’t kept its policies up to date. He described “disincentives” built into the city’s development policies and state tax codes that discourage building preservation.
Taxes on vacant property are as high as property with a skyscraper on them, Farmer said, which makes building a skyscraper more sensible than maintaining an older, smaller structure.
Robert Greenberg, a commissioner for the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Committee and downtown property owner, said that one solution is the creative marketing of existing tenant space. This could mean offering a historic building as an alternative to the slick glasstowers with Dilbert-style cubicles or seeking tenants other than the corporations and professional firms that now dominate the rental market.
Gary Shallcross, a University extension student and former city planner, said that a lack of “sufficient appreciation of historical architecture” tends to dictate the kind of tenants who fill downtown rental space. Razing an older warehouse to build office towers only reinforces downtown’s dependence on corporate and professional tenants, he said.
Bonnie McDonald, an art history senior, said developers can use this market feedback by preserving older structures and altering them to fit the needs of tenants squeezed out of the market by larger development. McDonald called this approach “adaptive reuse.”
Keeping the facades while manipulating the space within a building’s walls — turning an obsolete office complex into retail space, for example — allows buildings to be preserved and the market to be satisfied, she said.
Also on the panel was John Albers, vice president of architecture for the Minnetonka-based Opus Corporation.