The Simple Building

Hey sorry, I know my content is slowing down over here. I have a few groups I’m involved with along with two other projects that I’m looking to finish up soon. Oh yeah and there’s that work thing that gets in the way sometimes…

Anywho, today’s article is brought to you by the simple building.

I think I’ve narrowed in on a major problem in real estate development in Mankato (at least, if not other places). Nobody does simple projects anymore. It’s all go big or go home.

What do I mean? Well, let’s take two prominent projects that are happening right now in Mankato or starting soon.

PROJECT A: BLOCK 518

If you’re not familiar with Block 518 it’s the new buildings that are going up on Front St. They’re being developed by The Tailwind Group. It’s the largest single investment in downtown Mankato since the mall went up over Front St. Sidebar: I’ve heard a lot of people complain about the architecture of the new buildings, to which I say: whatever. If you’re not a fan, that’s fine, I too prefer a more classical looking building, but this one organization may single-handedly rescue a large swath of downtown. Props to them for that.

I should mention that this isn’t really a criticism of “going big” just something I would like to see changed.

Block 518 is going to produce three new buildings. Two mainly commercial and one mixed use. However, this is a huge project, building three new buildings at the same time along with coordinating construction with the city, finding tenants, and advertising is no simple task. The project is great, but it’s massive. It’s something that can simultaneously draw huge amounts of praise and huge amounts of criticism. It’s large scale growth for a city that is growing quickly.

Here’s the flyover for the block.

PROJECT B: BRIDGE PLAZA

Bridge Plaza is a huge, multi-million dollar mixed use building plopping right down next to, well duh, the bridge.

The exciting part about this building is that it looks to bridge (no pun intended) the gap between “downtown” and “oldtown”

Again, I’ve heard complaints about the architecture, but it could be way worse. Who knows if it’s a hit, it could be a huge boon to both parts of downtown.

The developer, Brennan, is hoping to land those interested in high-scale condo living that enjoy nice amenities. I’m not going to get into the market demand of something like this. Personally, I don’t know if that market exists in Mankato yet, but that’s his problem, not mine. Props to him for building something on an otherwise abandoned piece of land. I also love the idea that you will feel a little bit of density crossing that bridge.

1-Bridge-Plaza-Rendering

Those are two examples of big projects going on in Mankato right now. Have you ever stopped and thought what makes big projects like this work? And what big projects in the future (at least in the downtown) will need? The same thing. Simple buildings. According to a lot of community members, the oldtown buildings were simply modest buildings in comparison to some of the old giants we used to have in town. Buildings like the Saulpaugh Hotel.

These massive projects are feeding off the simplicity of design that has been repeated for LITERALLY thousands of years. You build slow, modestly, and incrementally until the wealth of your community or your business allows you to build big.

I know that both Tailwind and Brennan started this way. If my memory serves me, Tailwind guys (Kyle and Landon) started their business by fixing up old homes and turning them into rentals. They then started Rent MSU and basically have been killing it ever since. I don’t know how Brennan got his start, but I know he fixed up the Landkammer building, where Number 4 is located, and that is phenomenal building. One of my favorites in town. So, they have done it right, they built slow, built their wealth and now are building large.

Now that these developers have made it big, we seem to be lacking the people in town with the guts and/or money to create the simple buildings we need to make a city great. A group of developers seeking to simple enhance where they live by adding incrementally to their community.

Oh! Right, almost forgot, I suppose I should tell you what a simple building is. Pretty much everything old on Riverfront and Front, but I’m actually going to use two examples of buildings that I love from Buffalo, NY along with one from a nonchalant town in Germany.

simple buildings

The first one is a picture my developer friend took while he was in Buffalo. Look at how simple, smart and scaled that building is. It doesn’t scream “look at me” it didn’t require TIF, massive amounts of parking, or anything other than common sense and traditional building style. Same with the second one, it’s simply a more beautiful version of the first building. The builder put in some accent brick and a third floor, but overall it’s a simple building that serves a purpose while being strangely comforting in it’s design. I say comforting in the sense that it’s design isn’t imposing or intimidating, it’s almost cliché in a good way. 

The third picture is from Eiesenach, Germany. A small town in central Germany that doesn’t see much tourism outside of Lutherans looking to tour the Wartburg castle. For most of it’s residents, it’s business as usual, not banking on tourism to drive their economics unlike cities such as Brugges or Venice. The traditional, simple building is what they know to work. It reflects cultural heritage along with a time-tested development pattern. There’s nothing really too special about those buildings, but they add to the city as far “sense of place” and livability are concerned.

Part of the problem with building these simple structures are zoning laws. If you want to check it out, here is the zoning map of Mankato and here is the land use map. WARNING: These are pretty big documents, so avoid if you’re on mobile or have a slow computer.

State statutes say that you can’t build outside of a land use type, or at least that’s what I’ve been told. Where would buildings like this have to be built? You guessed it, in commercial areas. Right next to the Wal-Marts, Targets, Starbucks, Caribous, Cubs, Walgreens, etc… How do we expect a simple building like this to go up against giant corporate shops? It’s not meant to. It’s meant to be built on the corner and service the people living in the immediate area.

I heard once that in the 1970’s Mankato had something like 30 independently owned and operated grocery stores, how many do we have today? I think one, Mocols. Euclidian zoning laws force people to drive because it lumps everything you need to do into one, unwalkable area. When you lump everything together, you kill the ability for small time entrepreneurs to succeed in simple buildings. And whether you want to believe it or not, big box stores and franchises suck wealth out of the community and send it straight to corporate HQ. Simple buildings don’t just make communities more liveable, they make them economically stronger.

Look at this Google maps attempt to walk to two basic necessities: Food and clothing. Let’s say you were dropped off at Cub (because really no one would walk to Cub) and were going to walk to Old Navy to shop. Holy heck, can you imagine trying to traverse that area? It would be dangerous and unpleasant. But it’s only about a ten minute walk, but I bet it feels like a lot longer.

walk

mmmmmmm…Asphalt

I know you’re probably not going to get a privately owned clothing shop in a neighborhood, but groceries? Definitely possible, especially in a simple building.

However, we still have a collection of simple buildings, ironically, the mall is where they all reside. They mall is nothing more than simple shop after simple shop, selling a niche product. The difference? They’re rarely privately owned and a lot of that money still gets sucked out of the community. Also it doesn’t do much in terms of beautification.

The fact of the matter is, we’ve made building simple buildings difficult. This, in turn, forces people to drive because it’s the most efficient way to get what you need. We’re essentially ruining the beauty, health, resiliency, sustainability and efficiency of our city by saying “go big or go home.” The simple building is one cure, but we often don’t allow it.

The simple building has the potential to restore so much to our cities if we would just encourage it. So, I say to you readers, could you build a simple building? Do you have the capital? If so, I would urge you to find your inner developer and work on making our cities “simple” again.

Build a corner store!

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.