Dinkytown: Is It Really Time to Grow Up?

Dinkytown is a beloved, close-to-campus commercial district interlaced with low-cost student housing, that has served the varied needs of generations of University of Minnesota students but faces another attempt at modernization. Existing buildings in the vicinity would be demolished to make room for new development if a plan destined for review by the Minneapolis Planning Commission Committee of the Whole gains traction.

CA Ventures, a Chicago-based developer, reportedly envisions high-rise development that would not only occupy an entire block in the heart of the diminutive funky center of Dinkytown, but that would displace the existing Golden Arches that have been a feature here for decades. The planned new construction, based on currently available information, would include a single building up to 25 stories tall, or two towers that could reach 16 stories in height, with up to 370 rental dwelling units, ground-level retail space and 240 parking spaces both on the surface and below grade.

The tract proposed for the new tower is slated for 15th Street, in the heart of Dinkytown, just a block from the main campus of the University of Minnesota.

How Dinkytown Came to Be

Currently a warren of low-slung old brick buildings, the character of the district relates to the stories rather than any architectural significance. Retail coexists with small eateries amid aging structures. Some established businesses have survived several decades; others come and go regularly. But the ambience remains, and Dinkytown’s diverse history predates the campus itself. As the first commercial district in the vicinity of the U of M campus, development has been somewhat organic, depending on student and faculty needs that existed at any particular time. There was once a rail line that dropped passengers near the Pillsbury Gates, the main entrance to the University’s main campus. Professors occasionally lived in Dinkytown, as did some students, occupying second-story rooms above local shops.

Local coffee houses, candy stores and ice cream parlors shared buildings and sidewalks with bookstores, music studios and small restaurants. There once was a high school at one end of Dinkytown, and a branch of Minneapolis’ retail giant: the Dayton’s University Store. During the height of the Vietnam era, Dinkytown was the center of student protest activity, and even gained national attention. Bob Dylan (Robert Zimmerman from Hibbing) lived above a drug store during his stint as a student, between 1959 and 1961, and played music regularly at the 10 O’Clock Scholar, before giving up his studies and heading for New York and fame. The coffee house moved to the West Bank in 1965.

In 2015, much of the commercial area within Hennepin County was designated a commercial historic district by the city. Land parcels and existing buildings dating from 1899 to 1929, situated around the intersection of 14th Ave. and 4th St. Southeast, are included in the designation, and well-known buildings constructed in later years were specifically mentioned in the documentation. The aura and appeal of Dinkytown still exist, and local sentiment to preserve the area much as it has always been is strong.

The Pros and Cons of Change

Students who live in fraternity houses along University Avenue and various sorority chapter houses, rooming houses and apartments abutting Dinkytown frequent the district, and it is convenient to residents of the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood just to the east. McDonald’s Corp. is the largest land owner to be affected by the contemporary development proposal. Their stake is a 0.63-acre tract that holds the current two-story restaurant with its adjacent parking. It is the latest and thoroughly modern incarnation of the iconic walk-up burger and fries outlet that opened on a Dinkytown corner in the early 1960s.

Although CA Ventures has not yet secured the land, it has already completed a similar project only about a mile away in Prospect Park. However, this is not the first time that a face-changing plan has been proposed, without success, for Dinkytown. Previous plans for a hotel, a 16-story apartment tower, and other ambitious plans over the years have met with neighborhood opposition, been delayed or derailed by the economy, or simply fallen out of favor for other reasons. Sleepy Dinkytown has really not seen a great deal of development in recent years. But, this proposal may be different.

Two options are said to be viable, one for a single tower of about 13,000 square feet, and another for two buildings, each lower in height, but with more total interior space, yielding more apartments. Part of the historic opposition to such proposals has been the question of need additional housing. Another concern centers around the affordability of such housing for University undergrads. Previous plans seem to have envisioned units targeted to graduate students or for faculty and staff.

Perhaps only time will tell. And that time, according to some reports, may drag on. One source notes that it could be 8 to 10 weeks, at minimum, before the developer even completes the city’s application process. For now, at least, it’s business as usual in Dinkytown.

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