MANKATO — An effort 25 years ago to tone down the exterior of certain commercial buildings in Mankato — particularly sometimes gaudy franchise restaurants — is about to be relaxed a bit.
A change in the city code recommended by the Planning Commission would drop the hard-and-fast rule that no more than 10% of a franchise business’s front facade can be in colors other than earth tones, which the current ordinance defines as “brown, gray, tan, beige, forest green and burgundy.” The limit on bright colors drops to 5% for the sides of buildings.
Developers and others applying to construct a new franchise business in Mankato have long complained about the inflexible standards, according to Associate Director of Planning Mark Konz.
“We wanted applicants to have greater flexibility in the design of their building, potentially have the opportunity to use more colors,” Konz told the Planning Commission this week prior to their unanimous vote in support of the change.
The rules date back to 1998-1999 when Mankato city officials were looking to improve the community’s image through stricter development guidelines. It mirrored a response seen in communities across the country to the prevalence of roadside fast-food chains and other franchise restaurants.
The use of bright primary colors was part of the strategy by many franchises in the competition to draw the attention of drivers, according to historians of architecture and design.
“The Ketchup and Mustard theory suggests that red amps the heart rate and yellow speeds the metabolism,” according to a 2018 essay in The Architectural Review. “Eat fast. Eat more. Leave.”
The publication illustrated the point with numerous photos of the often garish competition.
Many Minnesota cities were among those attempting to outlaw the gaudiest impulses, and some also prohibited cookie-cutter corporate architecture, according to a review by Mankato’s Community Development Department of other ordinances around the state and the Midwest. Corporate color restrictions and prohibitions are present, particularly for downtown districts and historic areas, in the city codes of Northfield, Plymouth, Woodbury, Lakeville and St. Michael.
Numerous other municipalities ban or limit trademarked corporate architecture.
But even more Minnesota cities don’t bother to regulate those design elements.
Mankato’s approach appears to be aiming for the middle ground. Limits would remain but they wouldn’t disqualify good design proposals simply because the non-earth-tone colors exceed the 10% and 5% thresholds. Currently, city staff have little leeway.
“A code is a code,” Konz said. “We can’t vary from that — only the council can do that. So what we tried to do is create more flexibility so the developers can have more of their colors and just colors in the community in general.”
The new rules, which still need to be OKed by the City Council following a public hearing, won’t give designers free rein. The primary colors of red, blue and yellow would still be limited to “accents that comprise less than 5% of a facade.” But the remaining space could use variations of those colors if they are muted or desaturated by adding gray or brown “to reduce their brightness and intensity.”
So designers will have more colors on their palette, but the code would continue to prohibit “those really bright colors that could become a noxious environment,” Konz said.
Planning Commissioner Andy Wilke applauded the changes.
Allowing corporate franchise colors “is important to the brands that are looking at our marketplace,” said Wilke, executive vice president of Greater Mankato Growth, which serves as the local chamber of commerce. “I like that there’s more of that discretion and flexibility.”
While people with a libertarian viewpoint might wonder why the city needs to regulate aesthetics at all, Konz said there’s value to the public in having some control over the appearance of public spaces.
“It continues to be the city’s role to manage how the community is shaped and landscaped. Color of buildings is a part of that work,” he said. “The ordinance update provides for less restrictive language and allows for more options.”
The City Council will be asked at its next meeting to set the date of a public hearing on the ordinance amendment, most likely March 25.