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?
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.
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.
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.
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.