Home » Nooze » A Durable City

A Durable City

The noise of construction and the vision of cranes on the horizon has become a feature of urban life in Minneapolis and St Paul lately, at least in some neighborhoods. The construction industry is booming, and the structures of choice are large apartment buildings. The demand appears insatiable – and no one is building condominiums. It’s all apartments, reaching to the sky in large complexes of 100 units and more.

My own neighborhood, West Seventh, is one of the hot-spots for this development craze. But are these units a good idea? Is this what the city needs? Or are we simply building the slums of tomorrow, today?

A proposed 28 story apartment building at 333 Hennepin, Northeast.  Seriously, WTF?

A proposed 28 story apartment building at 333 Hennepin, Northeast. Seriously, WTF?

The need for these units is driven by two things – a booming local economy and demographics.

The twin cities have long been a center for job growth in Minnesota and beyond, pulling bright young talent from an area that reaches as far West as the Dakotas, East into Wisconsin, and South into Iowa. As a kind of capital of this part of the Midwest, the population that the economy naturally draws from is well over 8 million people. With an unemployment rate of 3.9%, one of the lowest in the nation, it even draws people nationally.

Who is being drawn? Given the peak Millenial birth years of 1990-1995, a lot of the people coming in are in the early 20s. Match them up with the peak Baby Boom of 1952-1958 and the population of empty-nesters that come from this and you have a large demand for apartments.

They're not all hipsters.  They're allright.

They’re not all hipsters. They’re allright.

But are these large units necessarily a good idea? 10 years from now, the Millenials will be looking to start families and perhaps start building equity by owning, not renting. Empty-nesters will be on the wane and possibly moving on to assisted living facilities. 25 years from now? The Millenials will be 50 and the Boomers will mostly be dead.

The future of these large buildings is a bit bleak if you look out any length of time, no matter how strong the economy is. Where there is certainly a strong demand now we cannot reasonably expect it to last.

What will the buildings look like in 10-25 years? At some point, the issue of quality comes into play. Buildings that are well built will always find a use of some kind. Perhaps they can be converted to condos? While far from an expert on the state of construction today, I have had some contact with several buildings. I’m not impressed. I don’t see how conversion will take place easily, with relatively small and highly attached units, and the speed with which they are rising brings the quality of construction into question.

The interior of the Northern Artists' Coop in Lowertown.  Flexible space has many uses.

The interior of the Northern Artists’ Coop in Lowertown. Flexible space has many uses.

What does the city actually need? Buildings which demonstrated a resiliency with time have two solid characteristics – flexibility and quality. Think about the warehouse lofts that started the trend. Most were made of thick brick and presented large, open spaces that can, and have, housed uses that included industrial, offices, and retail. Many are now residential. Why not?

We’re not building new warehouses, per se, but we can build units with a great deal more flexibility. A live-work unit, for example, might have a “storefront” on the first floor and a two-story rowhouse unit above which can be owner-occupied or rented. The first floor could make a small store, a dentists’ office, or even a small apartment. Whatever the economy needs it can satisfy it.

It also weaves in some owner-occupied anchors into the system, making for a strong neighborhood.

Post and Beam construction, done really big.  It's essentially a barn, but it works.

Post and Beam construction, done really big. It’s essentially a barn, but it works.

While we can’t tell developers what they have to do we have to find ways to encourage buildings which are permanent investments in the community. Quality is critical, yes, but resiliency and a strong owner-occupied component is essential. It also helps to have a good density gradient between neighborhoods and the trolley-line commercial streets like West Seventh – and even along them.

Given that construction is moving so strongly towards a trend that is clearly ephemeral with structures that are highly inflexible in design we have a problem in the works. It’s not going to be a serious problem soon, but it could be one day.

We have to find a way to encourage more resilient designs of higher quality that will serve the built urban environment as well as the old soldiers that they stand alongside. Anything else is not an investment in our city – it will, one day, be a threat. Good urban design has to be for a much longer term than we are allowing to dominate our cities today.

11 thoughts on “A Durable City

  1. Thanks Erik, this is very good. Most of the current housing construction is stick (dimension lumber) construction although I did see over the weekend one new building poured in place concrete about three stories up so far. I understand that people make difficult decisions as to buying or renting. I believe that the economy has created a host of renters not owners. Job instability and lowering of wage expectations in the above $15 and hour range make the renting choice the default not necessarily preferred choice. Quality of construction is a long term consideration, but the lessening of the long term commitment of owners to a specific neighborhood is unfortunate because, as you say “a strong owner- occupied component is essential. Unfortunately the long term quality of construction problem that you discuss will not make these buildings attractive to buy into in the future should unit ownership become an option.

    • That has been my main concern all along – quality. Buildings of quality usually find a re-use, unless they are very specific. But without quality we’re definitely building the slums of tomorrow today.

  2. I have a similar sense about quality of construction these days. It seems, for example, that school buildings from the last 20 years or so are often falling apart, moldy … whereas ones from the 30s are still basically sound. Energy efficiency requirements can have unintended consequences…..

    • That is definitely part of the problem. The cost of labor is also probably a problem, too, since construction is very labor dependent. It’s worth looking at more closely as to what’s really going on if we’re all convinced there is a quality issue.

  3. Cookie cutter, ugly, craptastic – there is nothing good about these new apartments. There must be some way they can be banned forever! They don’t belong in the city period.

    • Wow! Lotta hating going on! 🙂 Seriously, I think there are a lot of people who see this as you do. I do wonder if we can at least put the brakes on this stuff.

Like this Post? Hate it? Tell us!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s