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Q+A: David Graham, the city building architect, and his ecosystem approach to density

David Graham at Gold Medal Park and Zenith Condos

An architect and founding design partner of Elness Swenson Graham Architects, Inc. (ESG), in Minneapolis, David Graham has cultivated a city-building practice dedicated to urban revitalization. His practice is based on urban-planning principles that marry modern architecture’s spirit and invention with a profound understanding of history, urban evolution, and context. Graham’s designed more than 50 mixed-use infill buildings and more than 45 urban-redevelopment master plans that reinvigorate the urban realm through a creative mix of land uses, residential density, transit options, sustainability, and affordability. His award-winning Minneapolis projects include Midtown Lofts in the Lyn-Lake area, 301 Kenwood Parkway near the Walker Art Center, The Edgewater on Lake Street near Lake Calhoun, and Zenith Condominiums in the Mill District. He’s currently working on Nic on Fifth, a residential high-rise integrating an LRT station on 5th Street and Nicollet Mall.

Because of his visionary work, Graham was elected a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects in 2008. The year before, ESG was given the American Institute of Architects-Minnesota Firm Award for the “tremendous impact [the firm has] had on the Twin Cities and the region in the area of urban design and infill architecture.” In this Q+A,
The Line talked with Graham about the principles that inform and inspire a city-building architect, and how Minneapolis can meet its density goals with an ecosystem approach to city revitalization.

The Line: What, exactly, is a city-building architect?  

David Graham: What I mean by city-building architect is that it’s my job and my passion, as an architect, to mediate between the development community—the machine that brings the investment capital and financial profit goals—and a strong vision for a sustainable, viable, high-density city.

The Line: What major challenges are facing Minneapolis’ vision for sustainability, viability, and density today?

David Graham: Minneapolis’ Plan for Sustainable Growth and the Minneapolis Downtown Council’s Downtown 2025 Plan both have targets for population growth. The Downtown 2025 Plan calls for housing and amenities for 70,000 new residents “as a catalyst for driving downtown’s next wave of business vitality, social improvement, and cultural renewal.” My job is to figure out how to help make that happen.

For the past decade, we’ve been repurposing former industrial sites and surface parking lots as places for new housing, businesses, parks, and cultural facilities. The Midtown Greenway bike trail, in a former railroad trench, and the Mill District downtown are two great examples of how abandoned industrial sites are now hotbeds of activity in the city. The North Loop has also become a destination for urban living, in large part because of its fabulous restaurants, mix-used residential buildings both new and in renovated industrial buildings, and its proximity to the Mississippi River and the downtown core.

Now, we need to think about creating more activity along the main corridors of the city, which often run alongside established neighborhoods. One challenge developers and architects often run into is residents and neighborhood groups afraid of change. I strongly believe in context and maintaining the existing fabric and character of communities. On the other hand, I think “context” is often used to force the preservation of buildings without real historic merit. To grow a city, that city has to go through a transformation in morphology. You can’t freeze history.

I have a photograph of the historic A Mill when it was built, and right next to the mill is a little two-story building with people standing in front of it. They’re protesting the A Mill’s construction because it was out of context. Today the A Mill is the context within which we’re supposed to work along the riverfront. At what point in history do you stop?

There isn’t a problem with the Minneapolis Plan for Sustainable Growth. If Minneapolis is going to compete with other cities adding density, we need to have the courage and the leadership to decide where the density should go and put it there. The answer is high-quality, high-density design on corridors that run by neighborhoods, but not at the cost of adjacent single-family homes.

The Line: Why is density so important?

David Graham: The population of Minneapolis was at its high point in the 1950s, but began to steadily decrease thereafter with the development of car culture and suburban sprawl. The population has since increased to almost 400,000, as the philosophy about what’s right for cities has changed in concert with the rise of the creative economy, the Millennial Generation’s desire to live and work in the city, and the return of suburban empty nesters to urban areas.

To attract these people, to increase population density in the city, we need a range of housing options. And the best way to house the most people is in tall buildings. But those tall residential buildings also need to be close to restaurants, grocery and drug stores, coffee shops and yoga studios, specialty shops, and parks, museums and music venues, and other amenities. The new urban resident doesn’t want to have a car, but would rather walk or bike, or use mass transit.

In other words, there’s a synergism, a symbiotic or organic relationship between the density of housing, which brings people to the city, and the amenities that make living in the city a pleasure. It’s an ecosystem, if you will, in which density means people on the street who are actively visiting the cultural amenities, shops, and restaurants planned there to keep them there. There’s a strong correlation between high density and creating vibrant active streetscapes.

The Line: So what principles come into play to create this urban ecosystem and keep it in good working order?

David Graham: First, new residential buildings need to be tall, not wide, and innovatively designed and constructed with context-sensitive, high-quality materials in order to slip comfortably into existing neighborhoods, and in order to give adjacent historic and smaller buildings room to breathe.

Second, new taller residential high-rises need an active base architecture. This means the lower levels shape the streetscape, and sensitively relate in design and materials to the scale and activity of existing nearby buildings. The building's first and even second levels need to house a variety of shops, small businesses, co-work space, and community support spaces that fulfill residents’ needs.

Surrounding these residential buildings, which are often referred to as podium-point towers, should be a high-quality streetscape with greenspace, benches, public art, and sustainable landscaping for people to meet, gather, and enjoy. Visitors often say Minneapolis is a beautiful city, but are shocked at how gray and drab many of our streets are. So the answer isn’t only height, but how the building meets the street, and how the physical beauty of the building and streetscape invite residents and passersby.

The Line: What are the challenges to creating the urban ecosystem you’re describing?

David Graham: The cost—labor and materials—of constructing tall buildings has escalated at a pace that outstrips people’s ability to pay the rent or buy the dwelling unit. What cost $85 per square foot 10 years ago costs $150 per square foot now. The hand we’re dealt as architects is usually to go six stories high with a construction type that is somewhat affordable. But even with the six-story buidlings, the cost of construction is outpacing people's ability to pay enough to cover the costs of construction, and rents are getting dangerously high. That can hurt the viability of the ecosystem.

Fortunately, the Minneapolis Planning Commission recently lifted the minimum lot requirements, so we can create more and smaller units, which is a great step toward density. We also need to construct new residential buildings along neighborhood corridors throughout the city, to increase density and amenities. And we need to do this without gentrifying existing communities.

Moreover, we need to start seeing the city as an ecosystem, in which everything is balanced, and the city and its residents and businesses thrive. With change comes hardship and heartache, and the clashes between neighborhoods and density have to be carefully handled. But in the end, taking an ecosystem approach is a better investment than the way we’re building now. In the ecosystem, everyone has a place. Everyone can benefit.
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