Build Small, Not Tall.

If you haven’t noticed, there’s a prime piece of land sitting adjacent to the Veteran’s Memorial Bridge. It’s been empty for quite some time now, awaiting the construction of Bridge Plaza—a mixed-use tower with space for office, retail, and living.

There have been signs up for the better part of 2 years now, talking about Bridge Plaza without any indication of construction actually starting. I don’t blame them. It’s hard to get an anchor tenant so you can move forward on a huge project like this and I wish Brennan construction all the best in completing their building.

In the meantime, I’d like to think about something else that could go there. I’m not saying that this is a better idea, just a different one.

I’ve written before about the devastation that Urban Renewal inflicted on Mankato and I think that this building site would be a great place to make amends. This is a huge downtown lot, and, instead of building one large tower, I propose we build small mixed-use buildings with the same architecture (or at least facade) as some of the buildings that were torn down in the middle of the 20th century.

I’m going to spare you the actual calculations of how many buildings could fit there and rather am going to go with the tried-and-true “Photoshop and Google Maps” method of site planning.

Old Town will be our scale. We’ll take one mixed-use building out of Old Town and plop it on the site (at scale) to see how it looks (without getting into the nitty-gritty of how buildings are actually built.)

(I’m using Dan Dinsmore’s building as a reference, Coffee Hag is about the same size)

It looks OK. Now, what happens if we roughly duplicate Old Town on the site?

Wow. By my estimate, there are 32 historic buildings in Old Town that people would consider interesting (Hag, Mom & Pop’s, Dork Den, etc.) and you can fit about 24 of them on this one plot of land. Even on the low end, that would create close to 20 new downtown housing units. The “inside” of the lot could be used for parking. The city financed a ramp for the Tailwind project, I think they could do the same for this.

More importantly though, this would be a pedestrian friendly, efficient use of space. The economic impact of this would percolate out into the rest of the downtown neighborhoods and hopefully bring in a little redevelopment for blighted properties.

Again, this isn’t to say that Bridge Plaza would be bad, this is simply a thought experiment.

I think that this project would play in well to the Old Town redevelopment and would bridge the gap between Downtown and Old Town. It would also allow for plenty of new space for entrepreneurs and small businesses. Likewise, you could maybe even get more community buy-in as the development would not need to be owned by one company or a few wealthy investors. Anyone that could finance a building could be given a shot at developing their own property so long as it fits with the rest of them. This would be a nice way to limit fragility and create a sense of ownership.

Who knows? Maybe this would even set the stage for developing on the Veteran’s Memorial Bridge.

Likewise it was just announced that the six acre public works site will go on the market this winter. This is a huge opportunity for downtown, but should we spend it on one or two big buildings? Or should it be a collection of small, mixed-use buildings like downtown already has? Those are the buildings that give a city its character, that give it life. We need towers, but we never really built back our stock of small buildings after Urban Renewal. Now is our opportunity.

Big towers are great for certain things, but they really suck at activating the street. Popular neighborhoods across the country are never near towering buildings, they’re always in small places designed for people. It’s more fun to walk along the street and gaze through the windows of shops than it is to stare into some corporate office space while being dwarfed by 15 stories of glass.

These are the types of development that we should be promoting, not boring “townhouses” built nowhere near the town.

Now, who’s with me? Should I start a GoFundMe? If Jordan can raise $2500 bucks because he sucks at biking (kidding, buddy), I feel like there’s no way we wouldn’t reach our goal.

About Matthias Leyrer

Matthias Leyrer is a resident of Mankato looking to restore a fraction of its old glory. He writes about the economic, aesthetic, practical and financial issues facing the city of Mankato going forward.