North Loop

Most days you’ll find me traversing the vast parking lot plains of the North Loop neighborhood.  There are huge gaps in the urban fabric here, especially on the south side of 2nd St, between Washington and 3rd across from Tower Lofts, and again on the south side of 3rd.  Here is the map, where most of the parcels in red are currently parking lots:

So it was surprising to find a low projected population increase:  if all the high, medium and low potential parcels were developed, it would add just 3,563 residents.  That’s at 80 units/acre and 1.2 residents per unit.

This makes me think that 80 units per acre is too low.  Especially because I’ve included on my map one parcel for which a development (rehabbing for apartments an existing warehouse building) was just proposed: the Holden building.  In my calculation, its half-acre site yielded 38 units, for 42 new residents.

But the plans call for 120 units at this site, for a density of 240 units per acre!  This building is unusual for using almost its entire lot – most new buildings have a little patch of landscaping, and often there is a small guest parking lot.  But this is downtown we’re talking about – even new buildings sometimes use their whole lot.  Here’s an oblique of the Holden building, followed by an oblique of the Rock Island lofts, built within the last decade:

(Note that in the Rock Island Lofts image, the River Station condos are also shown.  They are from the same era as Rock Island, but around a quarter of their lot is used for parking.)

While dense buildings like Rock Island get built, they will not be the standard unless the city implements policies to encourage them – minimum FARs, incentives for density increases, minimum units per acre, etc.  There doesn’t need to be Manhattan-like densities here – there certainly will never be Manhattan-like rapid transit coverage here – but density on the level of Chicago or San Francisco would support rapid transit and high-quality local transit (streetcars) without drastically changing the character of the neighborhood or the city.

The problem is that I’ve never seen any political support at any level of government anywhere in Minnesota for the type of lifestyle change that would support a municipal initiative for higher-density living.  Some politicians talk about bringing European-quality transit here, but no politician has talked about bringing European-quality neighborhoods here.

But in the interest of optimism, fantasy and curiosity, I’ll calculate developable areas at higher levels of density:

Potential 80 un/ac 110 un/ac 140 un/ac
High 1927 2649 3371
Low 991 1362 1734
Medium 645 887 1129
Total 3563 4899 6235

Almost doubled the potential population – but still surprisingly few.  It seems that a few sizable parking lot clusters make the neighborhood feel more empty than it is, despite the reality that the North Loop is pretty well developed.  There may be a lesson here about design and making parking lots less noticeable – but that’s not really my specialty.

A couple words about my decisions about what is or isn’t developable:  There were some tough calls in the existing low-density industrial or office buildings.  Any one-story buildings I counted as medium-potential, even if they are new, i.e. the Franklin Bank building.  I think that the intensity of the neighborhood will lead these to be redeveloped sooner or later.  The Salvation Army building and the North Loop Business Park (at 3rd  & 10th Ave) include large sections of one-story, but other sections of four- to six-stories.  I counted the one-story sections as low-potential, since to me an addition seems less likely than a demo and new construction – but I could be wrong about that.  The one-story buildings along Plymouth I also counted as low-potential due to their synergies with the North Washington industrial district, but the argument could be made that the visibility of the site would make them better candidates for redevelopment.  The Star Tribune building, though, I did not count as a redevelopment opportunity at all – unless the paper goes down (god forbid), it is unlikely they will have the cash for a move of that magnitude, though it is possible that as they downsize, some portions of their site along Plymouth may become available.

Next district:  Market District/Twinsville!