Traveling in Moderation, part I: U of W/M

City and Lakes

For the last three years I’ve traveled to Madison over the Thanksgiving weekend to accompany my girlfriend on a visit to her grandmother.  Grandma Dee was born and raised in Madison, and has proven to be an excellent source for the history and culture of the city (beer and football, mostly).  In the course of these travels, I’ve accumulated some observations about Madison that I’d like to share.

This may be the inaugural post of an occasional series documenting my various Upper Midwestern excursions.  I travel fairly often but thanks to a combination of full-time employment and neurotic antipathy toward air transportation, my travel is mostly limited to Minnesota and neighboring states.  Madison is a particularly suitable city to kick off this series since it has implemented a number of experimental streetscaping techniques.  I’m going to start off with something more basic, though:

Why does UW feel so much more urban than the U of M?

Don't fence me out

The Twin Cities metro is around six times larger than the Madison metro, but somehow the UW campus feels urban in a way that the U of M doesn’t.  Madison’s main shopping street is State Street, which gradually accumulates more and more academic function until it terminates at the University’s Bascom Mall.  This side-by-side, close-knit nature is in contrast to the U of M, which literally fences itself off from Dinkytown.  Only a handful of University uses penetrate the half-mile perimeter trench that is University Ave between 11th and 17th Aves, and while everyone thinks of Dinkytown as the University Neighborhood, it doesn’t look terribly different from any other Minneapolis neighborhood if the streets happen to be deserted of the maroon-clad denizens.  The West Bank and St Paul campuses are a bit more integrated with their surrounding neighborhoods, in that they’re only separated by a broad lawn or parking lot rather than an actual fence.  Probably the area that is most integrated with its surroundings is Stadium Village, which is gradually being annexed by the University.  There you’ll find a few commercial buildings sharing a block with the University’s IT department, for example, in a coziness that wouldn’t be out of place in Madison but which the U of M apparently finds uncomfortable, as evidenced by their decades-long effort to demolish the neighborhood.

College kids getting high

But it’s not just proximity to the city that makes UW feel urban – even when you can’t see any building without a UW logo on it, you often still feel like you’re in a city.  The reason is right above you – buildings on the UW campus are tall.  UW has a cool interactive campus map tool where you can click on any University building and there will be a tiny little sketch of it, which gives you a sense of the heights of campus buildings (bing works too).  I encourage you to look around on those mapping sites, because the best confirmation I could find for my perception was Emporis, which lists 71% of UW buildings as being more than 6 stories as opposed to only 16% of U of M buildings (including St Paul).  The caveat?  Emporis only lists 34 UW buildings, but they list 102 U of M buildings.  So it may give a truer picture of the U of M campus than the UW campus.

Too close for comfort

Besides height, it seems like UW’s buildings have narrower setbacks, which reinforces the street wall and gives a more urban feel.  This first came to my attention with the Pres House apartments, only 10 feet from their namesake church, but neither of those are official campus buildings.  Still, there are plenty of buildings on the UW campus that are 30′ apart – too many to list here.  They would likely no longer be standing if they were on their western counterpart campus; the U of M tore down Wesbrook this summer for the crime of standing 35′ from Northrup.  And many of the close-standing UW buildings aren’t as ancient as Wesbrook, suggesting the UW administration doesn’t think an urban campus is a bad thing.

Or were they just drunk when they signed off on the site plan?  What accounts for the differences between the campuses?  Why does the U of M seek out a simple, park-like atmosphere while UW is content with the complex geometry of an urban campus?  I have no idea, but  wild guess is that geography was a prime contributor – UW’s location very near to Madison’s downtown and smack in the line of a primary growth axis for that city both restrained campus expansion (UW is now about a third of the area of the U of M, though they were likely originally about the same size) and allowed denser buildings to fit in with the surroundings.  The U of M’s more suburban location allowed for easier campus expansion and required more suburban building styles to match its streetcar suburb neighbors.

But I’d like to throw out a wilder guess:  I’ve noticed development throughout SE Wisconsin that seems denser that comparable developments around the Twin Cities.  Buildings seem taller, closer together and more fancifully adorned – while most of this is within a suburban context; by which I mean what in the Twin Cities would be a football field-sized parking lot is a soccer field-sized parking lot in SE Wisconsin.  (A small distinction, maybe, but I’ll take what I can get.)  Could this be the influence of that nearby modern megalith, Chicago?

On the other hand, maybe I’m just reading too much into the sheen that often accompanies new sights.  Maybe a Madisonian visiting the U of M would make similar observations.  Maybe I was just thrown off-balance by the presence of hills.  In that case, expect a couple more posts of unreliable observations, including one touching on a bike facility that makes a cameo in one of the above pictures.

Office Drones on Transit

A slice of life, for some

From the Atlantic (some kind of blog on paper I guess) a reminder that the decision to ride transit can be cultural.  This article focuses on an office park 37 miles from San Francisco that has a (presumably exceptional) 33% transit commute rate.  While the article is missing some key details, for example how this commute rate compares to other exurban office parks in the Bay Area, it contains some choice quotes:

…once riders begin leaving their cars at home they go through a stressful period of two weeks or so where they feel that they’ve lost the control they had in the car. But within three weeks they notice their overall stress levels are lower. “Transit requires that you go at a different pace. You have to wait. If there were roses, we’d smell them,” she says, “There’s not much of that in our lives.” She says HR people have called her saying some of their meaner workers have become pleasant people after switching to transit.

If we were playing a word association game, the first word I would think of after reading the first sentence is “addiction.”

The transit-oriented office park, Bishop Ranch, is huge, with 30,000 employees on hundreds of acres.  It is big enough that it basically has its own TMO, named Marci.  Marci does things like guilt tripping people about how dangerous and bad for the environment driving is.  Bishop Ranch has the same number of employees as an employment cluster that covers the Opus area of Minnetonka and the Golden Triangle area of Eden Prairie known as the Eden Prairie/Hwy 169 employment cluster.  “Cluster” is a relative term – Eden Prairie/Hwy 169 is about twice the area of Bishop Ranch.  It is covered by a TMO, but shares it with 5 cities in the southwest metro.  There are only 3 other TMOs in the metro area.  If it’s the Marcis that make the difference, the Twin Cities need to get some more Marcis.

While urban planners tend to see bus ridership as a design issue, Marci sees it as a cultural endeavor.

Hey dude

But it’s a design issue, too, of course.  I already mentioned the relative density of Bishop Ranch, but it also has a surprisingly rigid grid form.  This is presumably a legacy of its master plan, while in contrast most office parks are built pretty piecemeal.  Opus was also master planned, but is much more curvilinear.  I can only speculate about how walkable each area is, but I’ve found that one of the worst things about walking in the suburbs is that all the inconsistencies of the curved streets make every turn a risk, since you never know if you’ll turn down a dead end.  Grid patterns also tend to be easier to serve with transit, although Bishop Ranch doesn’t seem to have taken advantage.

Golden fleece

Transit, however, seems to be the key to understanding the high transit mode share in Bishop Ranch, but it is the level of investment rather than the design.  The Bay Area has the advantage of being served by a regional transit system, making it possible to generally get from anywhere to anywhere within the metro area.  The Twin Cities, on the other hand, has only the rudiments of a regional system, comprised of commuter buses with a radial focus on Downtown Minneapolis.  Opus is served by the 12 bus, making it accessible by transit to those who live in a corridor of the southwest metro.  Everyone else will have to catch a commuter bus downtown and then wait to transfer to 12 and endure the 45-minute local ride to Minnetonka.  On top of that, the 12 only goes to Opus as a rush hour extension, and actually has fewer runs than the 96X bus, one of several that serve Bishop Ranch.

Until the Twin Cities gets serious about a regional transit system, whether rail or freeway BRT, it is unlikely that any suburban office parks will have transit mode share anywhere near that of Bishop Ranch.  No offense to the Atlantic or Marci, but the success of transit in Bishop Ranch seems to have less to do with culture and more to do with, as always, money.

The East Bank’s new name: ULess Park

You're looking at a dead man

The U’s demolition spree is really starting to bug me.  I can’t help connecting it to the Republican Regents:  funny that after 12 years of being appointed by Republicans (edit:  the Regents are appointed by the Legislature, which only recently was conquered by Republicans, although it feels like forever.  I was confused by Peter Bell’s stint on the Regents; Governor No appointed him using the power of the Governor to appoint temporary replacement Regents, or RegenTemps.  It turns out that eviscerating our heritage is a bipartisan activity.), the U’s major plans are to tear down buildings in the inner city and build a huge suburb on the fringe.

Now Wesbrook, and and the reasons to demo either confusing or laughable:  too close to Northrup?  It’s an urban campus, and probably half the buildings fall into the shadow of another building.  Mold and water damage from Northrup?  Haven’t you had 80 years to fix that?

And the need for a transit plaza?  Well, the Daily reported that the ghost of Wesbrook “will serve as a waiting space for the light-rail line” – they should read the press release again.  Finance & Commerce was a bit more specific, implying that it will be the location of a new bus stop for buses that will likely be used as a shuttle to a light rail station.

This is probably a better stop location than the existing stops at Pillsbury Circle, being better spaced from the necessary stops at Dinkytown, and more interior to campus.  But the Regents must think we’re from General College if they expect us to believe that all that space will be needed for a bus stop.  The existing plaza to the south of Wesbrook has more square footage than will any Central LRT platform.

The Regents are just looking for an excuse to quit paying for an expensive old building.  They need to recognize that one of their responsibilities is to maintain our historic resources.

Times Square and Block E: D.O.A.*?

Today the New York Times celebrates the revival of its eponymous square, which in the past few decades “has been transformed from grubby to gaudy.”  The article is short and sparing of details, seeming to ascribe the renaissance to an uptick of corporate interest (then Disney bought this theater, then McDonald’s opened, etc.) rather than the likely hundreds of millions of dollars of government subsidy that likely went into the area since the redevelopment effort, which “outlived three mayors, four governors, two real estate booms and two recessions” began.  Minneapolis’ admitted and attempted Times Square imitator, Block E, has not been as successful, and the article has a few hints as to why.

The Times, as usual, does not skimp with their graphics: check out this panoramic collage comparing the facades on 42nd between 7th and 9th Aves as they were in 1989 and as they currently are.  Two things struck me:  one, the block is completely different today; two, the block is thoroughly unattractive today.  Billboards for fratboy booze bump up against flashy corporate logos, the battle spoils of the victory of capitalist architecture over humanistic or intellectual styles of the past.

Those very brash billboards were exactly what the Minneapolis city council of the mid-to-late 90s was going for when it conceptualized and largely paid for Block E, according to a consultant who taught a seminar I took at the U in 2004 or so.  He knew the developer of the project, whom he quoted as calling Block E the most difficult development of his career.  It seems that the Times Square-like signage that the council considered a crucial display of our prairie city’s sophistication were problematically illegal under Minneapolis zoning code.  In addition, he had qualms about the amount of retail space in what has been a slumping retail market for the past 70 or 80 years.

I think this is one piece that Minneapolis got wrong.  If you look at the graphic from the NY Times, there are several skyscrapers along the block, providing a fairly captive market for the retail uses at street level.  It is sort of baffling that Minneapolis didn’t work harder to get some office space into this building, which at two stories dramatically underutilizes one of the most central locations in the city.

The other thing that Times Square has is tourists.  Part of that is the fact that it is fucking New York City, but on top of that the article points out that “officials sign[ed] deals with Madame Tussaud’s wax museum,” implying that the city subsidized these attractions to shore up the retail attractiveness of the site.  Hell will look like Minneapolis on the day that Madame Tussaud’s opens a branch here, but there has to be some kind of museum that would be willing to open up here.  In fact, it is hard not to notice the lopsidedness of Block E’s retail today, with the 1st Ave side (facing Target Center) booked up and the Hennepin side vacant.

The aesthetics of Block E have been so roundly criticized that I don’t feel compelled to make citations here.  But this is again where Times Square is instructive.  As I mentioned before, blocks don’t get much more homely than the chunk of 42nd St highlighted in the NY Times article.  But the environment is uniformly exuberant, adding up to an experience that transcends the gaudiness of the individual facades:

The Disneyfied Block E is notable for how it manages to be bland and gaudy all at once, but for blandness it doesn’t hold a candle to the City Center ramp across the street, the Multifoods Tower on the next block over, or the fortress-like building that houses the Skyway Lounge and other mysteries behind its forbidding walls.

Yes, Block E is bad, but if it were surrounded by other gaudy buildings, it would at least be an experience.  Minneapolis has a few things to learn from Times Square:

  1. If you want exciting buildings in your city, you should allow them.  Create an Entertainment District zoning overlay that basically jettisons all the rules on signage, and then apply them to all non-historic buildings in the Theater District.
  2. Give people a reason to come.  Well, they’re working on this, I suppose, but a year-round attraction like a museum would buttress the existing entertainment features.
  3. Be patient!  Times Square took 30 years, and they had Giuliani.  Minneapolis’ Theater District is humming along, but real change may not come until (a) Downtown is a holistic urban neighborhood (with residents and businesses to serve them) and (b) a regional tourism network gets going again (think High-Speed Rail).

Now that I’ve written all this, I’m afraid I’ve given the impression that Times Square is a place I like and believe should be reproduced.  It is not.  When Minneapolis’ Theater District is as successful as Times Square, I will likely go there less often.  But in Block E, Minneapolis has made an investment in the Times Square model.  I humbly offer suggestions as to how best to continue that model to success.   Whether it should be done is a different question.

*the D.O.A. I refer to is the poem D.O.A. (Disneyland On Acid) by Danielle Willis

Whither the football?

An interesting pair of articles has popped up in the last couple days that could have a significant impact on Downtown Minneapolis.

Today, the Strib reports on discussions that the Vikings have been having with Ramsey, Anoka and Washington counties to build a new stadium at the Arden Hills Army Ammunition Plant site.  This gigantic site (with nice topography) has room for almost one hundred stadia (based on dividing the 2400 acres of the site by the 25 acres of the Metrodome site); the article mentions discussions about maybe putting a hotel or two around the stadium.  Although limited by the likely failure of imagination of the elected officials in Shoreview, there is room for significant development here, and a stadium could be a catalyst.

Meanwhile, Matt Yglesias, a man who seems to have an opinion about everything, makes a convincing argument that football stadia belong on the periphery.  He compares the facilities, which he claims are “empty 95 percent of the time,” to farms and airports for their low intensity of land use.  The desolate streets around the Metrodome seem to corroborate this comparison.

Even if we accept the argument that football stadiums make bad neighborhoods, and therefore they should not take up any space that has urban potential, we face the question of fair access.  In the United States, we have decided to require citizens to use a car to access the majority of our urban areas.  At the same time, stadiums can improve the general perception of transit, even if they don’t do much for ridership numbers.  Would a shuttle to Lakeville Stadium be enough?

Longfellow Station, or How the Tea Party Movement Could Save Us All If They Would Just Pick Up a Civics Textbook For Once

In the aftermath of the Tea Party Revolution, the world is the same:  we have to adapt or die.  Even though I find myself relieved that most Tea Party activists spent more time making signs than reading civics textbooks, there are moments when they seem to have a point.  One of those moments came when I was reading an RCA for the Longfellow Station project that was written for the November 30th Community Development Committee meeting.

The RCA (Request for Council Action) report is prepared by staff to give an overview of the action the City Council is deliberating, and the great thing about them is the history they provide.  Longfellow Station, for example, has history in the RCA going back to 2005, when it was included in a batch of applications for Met Council funding related to the Hiawatha LRT line.  The project itself may date back earlier, but certainly not long before the 2004 opening of Hiawatha.

Longfellow Station wouldn’t be up for discussion if not for the LRT line – a classic TOD (transit-oriented development) project, it features relatively high-density residential in walking distance to a transit station. The city has planned for this sort of development in the past and is apparently willing to pay for it. The Met Council and Hennepin County have granting programs to promote TOD as well – and it’s no wonder.  The density component of TOD is a boost to their bottom line – they get more tax dollars than a single-family home would provide and they have to spend less money laying sewer pipes and building streets.

There is a lot to dislike about Longfellow Station.  I won’t comment on the aesthetics, and I can’t imagine anyone would find much to say about it.  What I find alarming is that the building will be about 900 feet long – that is my estimate based on the site plan, which shows the project stretching from about 200 feet south of 38th St all the way to 40th St.  It is irresponsible to allow buildings more than 150 feet long, as longer buildings present insurmountable obstructions to pedestrians.  900 feet, frankly, is a Stalinist scale that will wall off the neighborhood behind, in effect more of a sound wall than a building.  Poor 39th Street, currently orphaned by railroad tracks, will have no hope of ever connecting with Hiawatha Ave or the transit station that lies tantalizingly on the other side of the highway.

But that criticism is not enough to withhold my support for some badly-needed density in Longfellow.  No, we need to dig into the history some more before Michele Bachmann starts getting some sympathy from me.  This project languished on the drawing boards for four or five years without the money needed to get dirt moving.  The initial developer, Capital Growth, finally relied on HUD for a mortgage for the project (through Section 221 (d)(4) of the National Housing Act).  HUD mortgages come with strings, though, and one thing that tied up Longfellow Station is that “HUD has indicated that it is unwilling to underwrite the commercial component as part of the 221 (d)(4) mortgage.”  So the new developer, Sherman, has separated the project into two single-use buildings instead of one mixed-use building.  In addition, HUD “increased costs for additional parking spaces in order to achieve a 1:1 parking ratio” – up from the .7:1 parking ratio in the original plan.

So HUD has made this TOD project more expensive, less dense, less mixed-use; in essence, less transit-oriented, according to most definitions (including the Met Council’s).  This from an agency that has made Livable Communities a focus, at least since the Obama administration has been in office.  It’s enough to make one paint one’s cat and march on Washington.

But thinking again about the Tea Party’s great unused Weapon X – the civics book:  Is it more useful to shake my fist at HUD or to sit down and think about the problem?

The Federal Government has three branches – but only two of them are (overtly) political:  the Executive and the Legislative.  HUD is a part of the former, but subject to the laws of the latter.  So the Livable Communities initiative is a product of a recently-elected administration, but HUD is still bound by the product of a Congress elected in the 1950s.  That mid-century Congress, operating under the delusion of American exceptionalism and giddy with zoning, ignored the historical reality that uses often mix with abandon in the same building.

Today, we know that mixed-use development has important public health benefits.  It is important that our laws reflect current scientific knowledge and technical practice.  Notwithstanding the recent obstructionism of the Republic caucus, the lesson we can take from the Tea Party Revolution is that government can and should be continually reformed.   Applying that lesson to  Section 221 of the National Housing Act would result in a better Longfellow Station.

Get in my head – downtown population

So one of the things I think about when I’m walking around is how to accommodate increased population density in Minneapolis.  Not because I think that population size is a good measure of a city’s vitality or success – since most American city’s borders no longer extend with growth, it is a meaningless measure.

Instead it is a selfish thought:  I prefer to use transit to get around, and in order to build a good rapid transit system with current levels of car ownership, the population density will need to be roughly doubled.

In my mind, the population allocation would be about 50,000 each to North and Northeast, and 100,000 each to Downtown and South (and I think South could probably take even more).  Can you tell I play SimCity?

Downtown is currently estimated to have about 30,000 people, of whom around 20,000 were counted in the last census (which makes the estimate seem reasonable, considering the explosive growth in residential buildings downtown in the last decade).  So is there even room for 70,000 more people?

That’s what I aim to find out:  I will use bing maps’ polygon generator tool, which automatically calculates the area of the polygon in square feet, to create a map of all the developable parcels downtown.

First I divided Downtown into 8 districts:

There’s North Loop, Market/Twinsville, Warehouse/Theater District, Harmon Place, Loring Park, Core/Gateway, Mill District, East Downtown, and Elliot Park.

All of these neighborhoods have identifiable characteristics that distinguish them from one another, although of course the borders are hazy.  Although East Downtown, and Twinsville don’t exist yet, they are areas that are currently distinct from their neighbors.  And I’ll admit, I made up the Market District because I abhor multiple modifiers (like East Lyndale Ave North), and the North Loop plan gives it the boring moniker “Upper North Loop.”

At this point I’m not sure what average density to calculate these parcels at.  80 units/acre seems to reasonable, as it would represent a balance of low-rise and mid-rise (four and eight stories, respectively, in my definition) with a few high-rises (ten stories or higher) thrown in the mix.

But a transit-supportive urban policy should really focus high-density development downtown.  If only developments of six stories or higher are considered (floor area ratio is really a better measure, but I’m not sure I’m qualified to guess at what is realistic – FAR=8?), then average densities could be brought to 100 or 130 units per acre.  I’m not sure it’s realistic to expect much more than that – Minneapolis will never be Manhattan and I probably wouldn’t want it to be.

So look out in the next few weeks for a district-by-district breakdown of what kind of population increase can be expected.  And cross your fingers that it will total 70,000.

Hawthorne EcoVillage

Coming home from my week-long vacation, I was eager to catch up with my imaginary internet friends – those bleary-eyed bloggers who continually spout their opinions about urban issues.  One of my favorites is Steve Berg of MinnPost, actually a blogojournalist who writes about things going on around Minneapolis and St Paul, and upon my return I found on his site an interesting juxtaposition of two articles that I’d like to mention here.

First, the most recent article is a discussion of the recent CEOs for Cities report called Driven Apart: How Sprawl is Lengthening our Commutes and Why Misleading Mobility Measures are Making Things Worse.  I’m looking forward to reading the report as it promises to be full of ammo for showing how land use patterns cause transportation problems that cost money and lives and degrade the environment.  Hopefully it’s getting attention from more than the usual band of knuckleheads because Americans usually hide their head in the sand when it comes to the consequences of their sprawling settlement pattern.

Which makes it interesting that the Berg article that immediately preceded was about the Hawthorne EcoVillage project in North Minneapolis.  This is a public-private urban renewal partnership between the City of Minneapolis and Project for Pride in Living focusing on a four-block area, according to Berg with a goal of “120 new housing units ultimately added to an improved existing stock.”

Certainly the stock needs improving:  the entire block face of the EcoVillage along Lowry is vacant, along with much of Lyndale and many of the lots on the interior streets as well.  Berg mentions that the first two properties to be developed in the EcoVillage are single-family homes, but PPL is planning multifamily as well, as depicted below in the plan from their website:

Looks like a New Urbanist wonderland, right?  It is a significant increase in density for the area, and should be a shot in the arm for the neighborhood-oriented businesses scattered along Lowry Ave.  And it is an example of the congestion-fighting land use pattern described in the “Driven Apart” report.

But I can’t help feeling that this site has much more potential than the EcoVillage project utilizes.  As the following illustration shows, it is at the intersection of two bus routes, and just off Interstate 94, which offers a visible, accessible location for businesses and the potential for a BRT station:

 

The EcoVillage area is shown here in yellow.

 


Maybe the Minneapolis HRA recognized some of that potential when they built the Lowry High-Rise, which weighs out at 64 units per acre (compared with the first EcoVillage apartment building, on the corner of Lowry & Lyndale, which is a decidedly middleweight 45 units per acre).  Then again, maybe they just got a good deal on land (at that time I-94 was just a line on a squiggly freeway fantasy map somewhere in St Paul or Washington).  Additionally, the late modernist design left lots of excess land for later infill.

The Lowry High-Rise is also an island of high-density zoning in a sea of R2B.  And here is the rub about the EcoVillage illustrating the concept presented in “Driven Apart:”  PPL is building it in spite of the zoning, not because of it.  The northwest block and the Lowry-facing buildings, shown in the plan as apartment blocks and mixed-use commercial buildings, will require a rezoning.  The 32 bus, running along Lowry on its journey from Robbinsdale to Rosedale, has regional aspirations that aren’t matched by the low-density zoning that lines Lowry Ave.  And Minneapolis doesn’t have a zoning designation to accommodate the transit villages that would be ideal along the BRT that will eventually be laid over its freeways (and is already beginning to be laid at 46th St).

Minneapolis better revise its policy and start devoting resources to land use patterns described in state-of-the-art publications like Driven Apart, or developments like the EcoVillage will be fewer and farther between.

the world through blue-and-yellow glasses

Google StreetView is probably the best thing that ever happened to any urban-planning nerd.  For example, take my recent discovery of the Ikea in Melbourne, Australia:

Part of a mall called Victoria Gardens, the street frontage is dominated by a parking structure, but is nonetheless pedestrian-friendly (even including a sheltered walkway!) and a bike lane rolls right in front.  Contrast this with the Ikea in Minneapolis:

Located in the crotch of two freeways, this Ikea has a wide moat of parking and then a double-deck of parking.  But pedestrians would be lucky to get that far, because first they have to deal with six lanes of traffic (most of which think they are already on the freeway) and intermittent sidewalks.

It was surprising to me to discover an urban Ikea, as the other Ikeas I’ve known have all been auto-oriented big boxes – and that includes the Ikea in Oslo, Norway, which we frequented for its affordable food (a hot dog for less than $5!).  My knowledge of Ikea history is not extensive enough to know whether Ikea Melbourne was an experiment in urbanism that Ikea hasn’t pursued further or whether Ikea Melbourne represents the future of Ikea – I hope it’s the latter, as I’ve always taken with a grain of salt my girlfriend’s insistence that Ikea is a mega-corporation with a conscience.