Life by Design
How Weiming Lu reinvented St. Paul's Lowertown (not to mention cities across the world)
With its historic warehouses, farmer's market, and a gorgeously landscaped park that hosts food trucks and music festivals—all within blocks of the light rail and Union Depot—the Lowertown neighborhood of St. Paul is a thriving manifestation of cultural creativity, artistic ingenuity, historic preservation, and urban redevelopment done right. But this hipster enclave in Minnesota’s capital city wasn’t always such a pleasant place to work, live, create, dine, and explore.
After a booming start during the steamboat days, when the neighborhood was the first port of access to the Twin Cities on the Mississippi River, the rise of automobiles, trucks, and the highway system—not to mention the Depression—led to Lowertown’s demise. By the 1970s, the 16-block district was full of abandoned and deteriorating buildings and empty parking lots.
Enter urban planner Weiming Lu (M.S. ’54), a Chinese immigrant who came to the United States to study civil engineering at the University of Minnesota. In 1979, Lu was hired to be the deputy director for urban design by then-St. Paul Mayor George Latimer and a group of community leaders who had organized the Lowertown Redevelopment Corporation, an organization initiated with the goal of not only creating a highly livable urban village in the midst of the city but also bringing new obs, housing, commercial development, and year-round activities to the struggling neighborhood. He was promoted two years later to executive director.
Lu’s inﬂuence on Lowertown and cities across the world—from Chattanooga to Winnipeg—has been profound. “He has long been recognized as one of the best, most well-respected planners and urban designers in the country,” says Tom Fisher, director of the Minnesota Design Center, and Dayton Hudson Chair in Urban Design at the University. “A consistent theme in his career has been humanizing the city and making it more people-oriented and less car-dominated. I don’t see another ﬁgure quite like Weiming in our midst right now.”
Now 89 years old, Lu lives with his wife in a senior community in Golden Valley. His light-ﬁlled apartment, with two balconies overlooking the complex’s central green space, includes numerous artworks and several pieces of mid-century modern furniture. He sips tea as he stands over the kitchen counter, on which he’s organized piles of books and documents that illustrate his career highlights.
Lu says Lowertown was one of his most signiﬁcant accomplishments. “The biggest challenge was how to envision a revitalized Lowertown, to protect its history while creating jobs and housing and work spaces,” he says, his voice a quiet murmur, with a hint of resolve.“ To see what other people haven’t seen and show them the possibilities for a whole new future. Then, ﬁnd ways to get it done.”
A Global Education
Born in Shanghai, Lu’s family ﬂed to Taiwan in 1949 due to political unrest. Lu was profoundly inﬂuenced by his father, a prominent architect and planner who was trained in China and France and admired the Modernists, including Le Corbusier. After graduating from Cheng Kung University in 1952, where he studied civil engineering, Lu moved to Minnesota on a recommendation from one of his father’s friends, who was a U of M graduate. He says he studied engineering “to complement all I’d learned from my father about architecture and planning.”
After graduating from the U, Lu attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he received an interdisciplinary master's degree in city and regional planning in 1957. The early years of his career took him to Kansas City and Europe, where he studied post-World War II reconstruction. As a visiting professor at Tokyo University, Lu says he absorbed the juxtaposition of intense urban life and Zen tranquility.
That global lifestyle came to an end when the City of Minneapolis hired Lu to be chief of environmental design for its planning department. For the next 12 years he worked on a variety of projects that dealt with neighborhood conservation, downtown development, and historic preservation, including initiatives involving Loring and Elliot Parks, the skyway system, Nicollet Mall, and Butler Square. “Our biggest challenge was how do you revive the city, which at that time was quite weak because everyone was migrating to the suburbs,” he says of Minneapolis in the 1960s. “Our goal was to make the city attractive so people would come back to shop, live, work, and play.”
Other cities took notice of Lu’s work. In 1971, he and his wife, Caroline Chang Lu, and their son, Kevin, relocated to Dallas after Lu accepted a position as director for urban design in the city’s planning department. According to the late David Dillon, the architecture critic for the Dallas Morning News, the 1970s were a golden age for Dallas city planning. “The key figure was urban design director Weiming Lu,” he wrote in his book Dallas Architecture, 1936-1986. “He began by recruiting an unusually diverse staff that included not only planners and urban designers but architects, geologists, environmentalists, and artists. The message in the method was that, far from being an abstract technical exercise, urban design was an integral part of city life, affecting everything from the layout of streets to the lettering on trash cans.”
To read more about Weiming Lu's work, visit the Minnesota Historical Society's archive of his personal papers and the U Libraries' collection of Lu's urban planning and design papers.
The project that changed Dallas, and propelled Lu’s career, was the historic designation of the Texas School Book Depository, the building from which President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. When Lu arrived in Dallas, the building was faced with either demolition or reuse as a commercial tourist destination. After years of testimony and hundreds of meetings, Lu and his team received National Historic Landmark Designation for the Book Depository. They convinced the county to relocate its administration offices to the historic structure, while the sixth and seventh floors are a museum dedicated to the building’s history. They also created the nearby Dallas Arts District and surrounding parks and housing.
Back to Minnesota
Thanks to his work in Dallas, Lu’s national reputation soared. Lowertown was his next challenge. “We really scoured the field and chose Weiming because of his outstanding reputation and established credentials in Minneapolis and Dallas,” says former St. Paul Mayor Latimer of Lowertown Redevelopment Corporation’s decision to hire Lu. “He had a fierce sense of architectural design and a fine sensibility for preserving and adapting buildings for reuse. But he also brought with him a diligence and a clarity that made a difference throughout the community. His integrity is extraordinary.”
Lu surprised the redevelopment corporation with an unanticipated expertise, Latimer adds. “He was a great budgeter. He treated the money as though it was a stewardship, husbanding the funds as leverage but never as a gift. Weiming’s diligence in mastering the resources really impressed our board.” An unprecedented $10 million grant by the McKnight Foundation, which Latimer promised would result in $100 million in investment, enabled the corporation to drive Lowertown’s revitalization. (During Lu’s tenure, it generated $750 million in investments, seven and a half times the original goal.)
“The word brilliant comes to mind when I think of Weiming,” says Kelley Lindquist, the president of Artspace, a nonprofit organization that develops affordable artist live-work housing throughout the United States. Lindquist says Lu fought for and prioritized creating affordable lofts for artists. “He helped put the value of artists into the minds of the visionaries redeveloping Lowertown. He had a really clear sense of what needed to be done.”
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, artists flocked to Lowertown, attracted by the affordable rents in the large, light-filled warehouse spaces. In 1983, the neighborhood was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The next year, the City of St. Paul designated the Lowertown Historic District as a heritage preservation site. Latimer believes “Weiming’s work in Dallas and Lowertown helped initiate the rise of the historic preservation movement.”
Lu’s impact on the Twin Cities also “reflects changes that were happening in urban planning,” says Fisher. In mid-century Minneapolis, during Lu’s tenure with the City, “a modernist view of urban development was in place, with an emphasis on the skyways and pedestrian thoroughfares like Nicollet Mall, which were designed to lure people back into the cities to live, shop, and play.”
By the time Lu returned to Minnesota to work in St. Paul, “the emphasis was on preserving historic buildings and creating historically sensitive infill,” Fisher continues, as a way to attract people back to the cities.
Lu remained with the redevelopment corporation for 26 years, overseeing Lowertown’s evolution over the decades. “The goal of Lowertown was to ‘create an environment where creativity is cherished and entrepreneurship is supported; where one can fill the needs for community and provide an outlet for civic spirit,’” said Lu in an interview in CRM: The Journal of Heritage Stewardship. “From the beginning, we aimed to build a community, rather than just do projects, and promoted a vision for a new urban village.”
To say Lu succeeded is an understatement. And while he went on to other impressive accomplishments, including the reconstruction of South Central Los Angeles following the 1992 riots, he has also pursued other passions, including calligraphy. Ta-coumba T. Aiken, a public artist known colloquially as the “Mayor of Lowertown,” remembers taking a stroll with Lu one day, several years ago, through Lowertown. They were studying a mural on the Jax Building (a former warehouse transformed into artist studio space) when two Chinese girls began taking photographs. Suddenly, the wide-eyed girls started whispering.
“It’s Master Lu!” Aiken recalls them saying. They had recognized the revered master of calligraphy. “It’s my great hobby,” Lu says. Using a brush and traditional techniques, as well as the computer, Lu has created a body of Chinese calligraphic work that’s been exhibited throughout Asia and the U.S., and has been collected by the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
Lu credits his many successes to perseverance. “I don’t give up easily,” he says. The combination of education, experience, and “the luck” of meeting other leaders with whom he could collaborate has given him the expertise and strength to face myriad challenges throughout his career.
Even after almost nine decades, Lu still looks for ways in which to “learn from different cultures, old and new, East and West, American and Chinese, to explore the possibility of creation. I’ve had so many ways to express myself, and I’m thankful. I’m grateful for the chance to serve.”
Camille LeFevre is an arts journalist in the Twin Cities who writes about architecture and design for numerous local and national publications.