Dinkytown is on the verge of the most visible transformation the University of Minnesota community has seen in decades.
The dynamics of Dinkytown are rapidly changing. The Opus Group, an area developer, is finalizing plans to build an apartment complex in the space once occupied by historic Dinkytown relics Book House, The Podium and House of Hanson. This is just one example of the trend to, in a way, gentrify the University community. Many residents of the area are supportive of a more gentrified Dinkytown, featuring an abundance of recognizable chain restaurants and high-end shops.
Changes to the local community are an inherent consequence of developing a student experience in line with the classic notion of the Big Ten university. On-campus college football — touted as a boon to local businesses and as a recruiting tool for the University — is only a veneer that fails to encompass fundamental changes to the socioeconomic model that Dinkytown and surrounding neighborhoods operate within.
Drawing more students to live on and around campus naturally forces changes to the clientele and the business model required to succeed in Dinkytown. Increased population density around the University creates winners and losers amongst different types of businesses operating in Dinkytown. This new trend favors services and nightlife for renters instead of specialty shops for permanent residents. The process was set in motion years ago with the strategic vision of the area’s largest institution as demand for land skyrocketed.
The new Dinkytown will be built on a foundation of University loans. Huge tuition increases from the past decade have changed the face of the University student. The average student now is wealthier or taking on more loans than previous classes. Costs, especially rent, are now increasing as students take out more loans and increase the money they are willing to spend. This could spell to be a dangerous cycle.
And while this trend may support the development of chains in the wake of historic, local businesses, these developers are giving the University community what it wants. Housing developers will face big hurtles in bringing old infrastructure up to modern building and parking codes and changing the face of iconic buildings.
Attempting to stop this process is likely futile — and despite the value of nostalgic Dinkytown, these developments are only natural responses to the trends of the community.
The fears of those who wish to preserve Dinkytown’s character are legitimate. It would be a huge loss to the University and the student experience if the area became little more than a strip mall containing businesses that could be found anywhere in the metro. Dinkytown is special, and keeping it that way is not an unreasonable goal for the residents who value it. However, the blame for Dinkytown’s changing dynamics should not be placed on local developers, which while benefiting from the student debt bubble, are only a symptom of the real problem.
As a public institution, the University should be looking out for its students’ interests. This includes working to provide inexpensive housing options in close proximity to the campus, especially as it transforms from a commuter school into being home to a more traditional student body.
The University is one of the state’s most cherished public goods, and even as it continues to expand and grow its reputation globally, it must remain accessible and affordable. With rising tuition costs and the continuing development of high-end student housing options, it’s difficult to see the University remaining a financially feasible option for the average Minnesota family in the future.