#TBT Window shopping, setbacks and fronting the street.

Well it’s that time again. The time where I complain about how things are now and how much better they used to be.

Here’s a gripe I have with modern building codes and zoning ordinances.

THE BUILDING SETBACK or sidewalk setback.

To me, it makes little to no sense, to an automobile orientated community, it’s probably the most logical thing you can do.

What am I talking about? Well I’ll show you and I’ll use Mankato examples to boot.

Let’s take this god-awful, unwalkable block from Madison avenue as an example of what not to do. Not that there’s anything wrong with it because we live in a post-modern world where all your feelings matter and truth is relative.

As you can see below, this is arguably the most uninviting block in Mankato (outside of what will be the new middle school).

I’ve highlighted some key factors here:


The red is the sidewalk. Where people are supposed to walk, but don’t because Madison avenue sucks to walk on.
The blue is the unpropitious, titanic gap between any would-be pedestrian and the business.
And finally the green is abandoned buildings. Note that it makes up about half the block.

No one looks at this and wants to spend time here, no one says, I think this block should be on a post card for Mankato.


It was worth a shot.

Now this brings me to the #TBT main image. The shot is of Crandall Jeweler, a local Mankato jewelry store that opened in 1900. You can read a little bit more about it from this Free Press article on the late owner.

Notice how his building is pulled right up to the sidewalk a.k.a fronting the street. You can look through the window at all the fancy stuff he had. It was effortless advertising and it was built this way before all of those “helpful” city setback ordinances.

Let’s go ahead and compare that to North Riverfront, a place that sees the most pedestrian commerce in the city (outside of the mall I guess–no setbacks in there!). Where would you rather be?

141. Old Town Streetscape


But it shouldn’t matter right? If you’re going to spend money, you’re going to spend money.

Well… not exactly. A study in 2012 found that pedestrians and bicyclists can spend more money monthly than those in cars. Why? Because you can see and/or smell things when you’re walking around, something you don’t really get from driving.

Imagine with me for a second. You’re on Front St. and it’s late. You’re down there for no particular reason when you walk past Pagliai’s pizza and hot dang does it smell good. You, in your perfectly un-inebriated state, go in, buy pizza and chow down.

If that building were fronted by forty feet of parking, do you think you would still go? Do you think you would even be able to smell the pizza?

This is how commerce has worked for hundreds of years. There were no Wal-Marts, there were no Targets or Hy-Vees. Just walking/galloping and shopping.

The sidewalk/curb setback came about as result of an automobile orientated society. We could pull up right in front of the store, walk in, hop in our car and go home. It was awesome right away when people started doing it, but now, it’s not so great because people don’t like to drive as much.
There’s also a lot of resistance from public assets such as fire departments to give them a nice wide area to operate while putting out your increasingly rare fire.

The fact of the matter is that cities need to update their ordinances and zoning codes. Most of them are stuck in the 60s and 70s. Some cities now are moving to Form Based Codes, a way better of shaping your city. In FBC a lot of the rules call for maximum setbacks. This eliminates that ocean of parking in front of your shop. The one I heard a talk on at CNU even called for a minimum of 70% transparency on the buildings front (between X ft and X ft) so that people can see in (commercial only I’m pretty sure).

Thanks for reading this rather long rant on setbacks. What you should take away is that building setbacks aren’t good for making your city walkable and don’t do anything for making a sense of place in your city.

As always, credit to MN Digital Library for the TBT image and to the Urban and Regional Studies Institute of MNSU for the shot of Oldtown.

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.