I’ve written on Commerce Drive once before. The article was just my thoughts on how much wasted space we have up there and what we could do to make it better. It was also written in my early days when I was a much, much worse writer (debatably.)
You may have seen the news this week that the city of North Mankato is looking at redeveloping Commerce drive. They want it to be more of a “destination” and less of a “godforsaken eyesore.” The question is: How should we do this?
While I’m sure there are a myriad of ideas from every citizen in North Mankato, there’s really only one tried and true strategy that makes a place a destination for everyone: Density.
Density is critical in making the places that we love what they are. Even if you think of the mall as a destination, the things you want to do there are a pretty good form of density. Madison Avenue, on the other hand, is not dense and it, in and of itself, is not a destination. It’s basically a utility. No one lingers on Madison Avenue, they go where they need and get out. They execute objectives, they don’t stay for the atmosphere. Sure, you might remember that you need a five-gallon pail of pickles and a tub of frozen eclairs and swing by Sam’s Club, but that’s not the same a loitering in a place and experiencing what it has to offer; you’re just consuming.
This is the problem with big, single-use development that takes up a lot of space, it kills “place.” If we want Commerce Drive to be a true destination, then we have to remove the rules and regulations that prevent us from building dense, interesting places. My friend Andrew Price wrote an excellent piece on “Places versus non-places” that I suggest you read that deals with this such issue.
Here’s a good example: According to the Assessor’s website, the Walgreens on Commerce is just about 1.5 acres of land. Similarly, the entire 200 block of Belgrade, from Brunton Architecture to the parking lot owned by NaKato is also 1.5 acres. Think about how much more stuff there is to do on that side of Belgrade. You can literally get your dry cleaning done, pop in for a haircut, grab a cup of coffee, get some pizza and swing in for a beer. And this scenario is skipping over an empty commercial lot and an unleased storefront.
This isn’t to say that Walgreen’s is worthless, it serves a purpose, but when it was built, the setback codes were so arbitrary, that they forced the building to set aside land for no reason. The green space that flanks the sides, rear and front of the building serves no practical purpose and are essentially a tax on any business that wants to try and get their money’s worth out of a piece of land.
When we force businesses to build like this, we all lose. The business loses viable land to put in more square footage, the city and county lose because they aren’t getting as much tax revenue and the citizens lose because it makes gross buildings that are horrible to walk along.
No one likes commerce drive in its current incarnation, its ugly, entropic, and stark. Its grown up under the thumb of incredibly bad urban planning policy and a planning commission that either had no vision or a fetish for setbacks and asphalt.
I’m not a big fan of “government out of the way” market capitalism, especially when it comes to development. Strong rules create places that people want to hang out and places that are beneficial to the community. If you’d like to see what not to do, please visit the Marigold apartment complex and whatever those suburban chicken coops are that Drummer put up in Lower North. I recommend bringing along pictures of kittens to bleach your eyes with afterward.
I think that Commerce drive will need strong rules governing its development. As of right now, the North Mankato city council is banking heavily on putting up that multi-million dollar simulacrum to mulleted, keystone-drinking ice fairies, so they might as well get their money’s worth across the highway by making the development interesting, dense and profitable.
Imagine how surprised I’ll be when it turns out to be a Cracker Barrel, Men’s Warehouse combo with a patio overlooking the highway retention pond.