Donjek Project: Minneapolis’ Lowry Avenue Strategic Plan

Lowj Less than two miles north of downtown Minneapolis is Lowry Avenue, the focus of a project recently initiated for the City’s Community Planning and Economic Development (CPED) department. Partnering with Cuningham Group and Biko and Associates, Donjek is contributing economic development, market and finance perspective to the development of a Lowry Avenue Strategic Plan. Three nodes along Lowry Avenue hold particular significance as transportation access points and potential commercial hubs: Those at Penn Avenue, Emerson/Fremont Avenues, and Lyndale Avenue.

At a recent community meeting, Cindy Harper from the Cuningham Group organized an exercise where participants reviewed images of various building types and designs, and selected those best (and worst) suited to Lowry Avenue. Three groups of people undertook this process at once, and (with the exception of one image) each group selected the same five photos for ideal redevelopment types, and the same five photos to represent redevelopment they wished to avoid.

The consensus was interesting. Even more striking was the response I received when I asked a participant why she thought the five favored images had been chosen by each group. “They look like they’re going to last,” she said, and turned her attention elsewhere. Building materials can present evidence of commitment by investors and developers, or they can convey a short horizon and lack of interest in a structure’s relationship to its surroundings. 

Several of the preferred images reminded me of the scale of streetcar nodes still traceable in both Minneapolis and St. Paul. Along the many streets served by the streetcar system, observers can identify street-facing buildings of two to three stories centered around intersection points or other higher-traffic streetcar service areas. In part because the real cost of materials and labor was lower in the early 20th century, many of these buildings have proven durable and flexible to reuse. The future appears bright for such commercial space integrated into primarily residential areas.

Some suggest that fixed-rail transportation represents a similar kind of physical and financial commitment to a series of places strung together. But unless the marketplace shifts substantially – and private capital leads – I don’t see the streetcar network replicated by a 21st century fixed-rail version soon. So in lieu of fixed rail and affordable stone and brick materials, how do neighbors, developers and investors effectively signify that places are built to last?