Nathaniel Hood

Nathaniel Hood is a transportation planner and blogger living in St. Paul. He writes for Strong Towns and Streets.MN.

Posts about Government

Minneapolis: Embrace 21st Century Transportation Options

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood Updated: March 6, 2014 - 9:12 PM

Minneapolis is almost one step closer to joining the 21st century. After months of dragging its feet, it should opt to do the inevitable: allow Lyft drivers to pick-up people within its borders. Well, the City is in the progress of making that happen.

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It was 2004. I remember looking in awe at the price tag of college textbooks: $100 for an introductory of macroeconomics textbook? I begrudgingly bought the book – a used copy no less – from the college bookstore and proceeded to use it (maybe) a dozen times throughout the semester. At the semester’s end, I brought it to book buy-backs only to find they’d upgraded to a new edition and weren’t buying back copies.

Shit. I remember feeling cheated. Like, the system was rigged.

Upon the recommendation of a friend (thanks Adam!), I decided to check out Amazon.com. I listed the book and sold it for like $75. I didn’t make money on the deal, but it was better than the alternative. Eventually I started selling my old textbooks.  When that wasn’t enough, my friend and I noticed the college bookstore would discard literally hundreds of “outdated” textbooks each month on a table with a sign that read, “free books.”

We’d grab our backpacks and laundry baskets, fill them up and list everything on Amazon. The college provided free packing materials at the time, so our cost was virtually nothing. I made around $3,500 the first semester and a couple thousand the following semester before the University started donating to Books for Africa.

To this day, I still sell books on Amazon. While my margins aren’t as big as they once were, I still capture value from something that I would never have prior to Amazon. The downside to all of this is that me – and countless hundreds of thousands like me – are putting stores out of business.

Technology disrupted the traditional marketplace. Cities can regulate against change, but here’s the catch: they can’t be ignored for long.

Lyft. Uber. Sidecar. Airbnb. These are technological disruptions to the status quo that cities are struggling to handle. While other reasons are often cited, this delay often comes down to money, and who gets it. For example; car services; while cities don’t balance a budget on taxi cab fees or taxes, the revenue they generate is not insignificant. When it comes to App-based ride-sharing services, cities like Minneapolis (or Seattle and even Paris) get little in the way of revenue.

Getting started in the taxi business can be expensive. In Seattle, getting started will cost you at least $50,000 for a license. In New York City, a “medallion” can run upwards of $1 million. The cost in Minneapolis is more sane, but the number of taxi licenses are limited. At best,  it’s protectionism by keeping the old guard propped up under the disguise of safety  At worst, it creates scarcity and a monopoly develops. [Note: If anyone in the process is getting pinched, it's likely taxi drivers who are subject to regulations and an out-dated "medallion" system. They aren't paid well, need to jump through all sorts of loops, have a dangerous job and little job security].

I can’t remember the last time I was happy about taking a taxi. If your cab shows up, the experience usually goes like this: it shows up late, the backseat is messy, the ride costs too much, the driver won’t take a credit card and insists his machine is broken and doesn’t have proper change.

I’ve used Lyft a handful of times, and it is, hands down, a superior service. It’s more reliable, more affordable and more comfortable. Unless given no other alternatives, I will likely never take a taxi again.

In many regards, Lyft is doing what Amazon did in the mid 2000s: it creates harm to the establishment for the benefit of the masses. Taxi cab drivers will need to either adapt or risk having to find a new job. The upside is that a lot of people like me can make $200 on a Friday shuttling people around. The downside is that people with full-time jobs in that industry are without one. It’s benefit to the many with little regard for the few.

These new services aren’t going to solve our transportation woes, but they are another tool in the toolkit. If a weekly Lyft ride helps just ten people ditch their own car, then I say it’s probably worth it.

Airbnb is in the same. While I haven’t had many negative experiences staying in hotels, they get expensive after a few days. If you need a place for 4 or 5 days, hotel price tag can add up. I was in Louisville last October, stayed in a loft with a few others for an extended weekend and my bill was a $110. That’s not bad. It was as nice as a Holiday Inn, but $250 cheaper.

The tax implication: the City of Louisville gets nothing. If I stayed at the Holiday Inn, they’d be getting a lot more (hospitality taxes are usually high – upwards of 13 percent). Louisville got nothing, but a person willing share a spacious loft gets $660 for an extended weekend. That helps cover the mortgage, homeowner association fees, etc. There’s some benefit there, but from the prescriptive of local government, it’s very indirect.

Here is the technological disruption that is occurring: direct vs. indirect economic benefit.

Every book I’ve sold on Amazon is a book that would otherwise have been sold elsewhere. Instead of someone buying it at a bricks-and-mortar establishment that provides jobs and pays taxes, they’ve chosen to save a little and put $10 in my pocket. It’s a system that has drastically effected a small number of people, but marginally benefited a great number of people.

The response isn’t to ignore, but to embrace. Update the city code, and in the meantime,  also make sure taxi drivers aren’t being pinched in the process. Make Lyft, Uber and Sidecar viable, but also make it easy to be a traditional taxi cab driver. If this happens, there is a space in the marketplace for everyone.

Should The Dorothy Day Center Relocate?

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood Updated: January 6, 2014 - 12:08 PM

“I hate being reminded how unequal things are in this city that I love. I hate that I’m forced to confront how little I’m doing about it. And I hate what my lack of generosity says about me, especially on the days I stop at the Starbucks one block down for a $2.15 tea.” – Amanda Erickson, Atlantic Cities

A few years ago, I worked at the Holiday Inn on West 7th St. in St. Paul, about a block away from the Dorothy Day Center. I operated the shuttle van – weddings, hockey games, college visits, bar-hopping, etc.. From short cuts to scenic routes, I learned the local landscape of where to take people, and equally as important, where not to take people.

Half of the job was giving directions, and wanting each visitor have a positive experience, I intentionally gave walking directions that detoured Dorothy Day. It wasn’t uncommon for 40 to 50 homeless people to be sitting, loitering, or sleeping outside at any given time; and having people in their Sunday best walk past made-shift sidewalk sleeping bags on a stroll to a live-recording of ‘A Prairie Home Companion‘ or the Children’s Museum made people very, veryuncomfortable.

More times than not, the place would make me feel uncomfortable too. It’d often spill out over into the hotel lobby. Homeless people would sneak into the lobby bathroom, and it was not a rare occurrence that I’d have to stop someone from washing their armpits out in the sink. One homeless man defecated on the floor. That, and it was always battle to stop panhandlers at the front entrance. Police calls, while not commonplace, weren’t exactly rare.

It was a constant battle that I found it endlessly annoying, and I think the Downtown St. Paul community feels exactly the same way.

Here’s the elephant in the room: the Dorothy Day Center is a “gift and a curse”. It provides much needed services: hot meals, health services and a temporary bed for those most in need. Yet, it is viewed by most as an uncomfortable eyesore and an impediment to downtown development.

According to the Pioneer Press,

” …  St. Paul’s largest emergency overnight shelter hosts up to 250 homeless men and women each night … The existing site, which opened in 1981 as a day facility for 30 to 50 clients, has become dangerously overcrowded. Meanwhile, annual counts show homelessness in Minnesota is on the rise.” Pioneer Press (1/02/14)

Should the Dorothy Day Center Relocate? I think there is a compelling case to why it should move. And, in reality, there isn’t much opposition to relocating Dorothy Day facilities [map: proposed relocation]. A new facility, one that mirrors Minneapolis’ efforts on long-term apartments, would be a good move. However, the move also seems unnecessary and it might be better to concentrate all facilities along W. 7th Street, near the existing facility.

In a criticism similar to that of the Saints Stadium, the process has had too little public input (Pioneer Press, 1/5/13). This trend needs to slow, and public engagement needs to be more proactive. In an effort to aid the conversation, I’m compiled a list of pro’s and con’s to the relocation:

Pro:

  • New Facility: A new, more modern facility that includes transitional and long-term apartment units would be beneficial to the homeless population. The existing facility is small and needs other improvements. This benefit cannot be understated.
  • Redevelopment [W. 7th]: The visibility of Dorothy Day in a prominent location in downtown St. Paul hurts the redevelopment opportunities across from the Xcel Energy Center. People feel uncomfortable around homeless people and developing office, residential or retail space is unlikely until relocation. The “2nd Phase” of the development will be long-term apartments and stay near the W. 7th site.
  • Better Location? [Lafayette]: The proposed relocation site is dominated by local and state government office space. These tenants are not likely to abandon space due to increased proximity to a homeless shelter.
  • Police Department, Regions Hospital, and New Mental Health Facilities: Having closer proximity to police and hospital facilities may be beneficial for public health and public safety reasons.
  • According to Mayor Chris Coleman, homeless and those getting services at Dorothy Day, “felt like they were on display there and they were uncomfortable with that location. We want to make it very clear that we aren’t trying to stuff our homeless in the corner somewhere, but do what is in the best interests of the clients that we’re serving.”Star Tribune, (12/20/14)

Con:

  • Cost: Relocating facilities is likely to cost more money. Each dollar spent on developing a site is a dollar not spent on care. This needs to be an important part of the conversation. The cost is estimated to be approximately $63 million (from private and public sources).
  • Redevelopment [W. 7th]: On the record, this is not part of the conversation. Off the record, it is the elephant in the room. If relocated, would private development occur? I am not optimistic. Apartments wedged between a hockey arena and an interstate, and along two busy roads, would be a tough sell to developers; and the office space market is weak and doesn’t justify new space. However, it should be noted that I do hope I am wrong.
  • Out of Sight, Out of Mind?: Oddly, having homeless people visible has its benefits. Income inequality is alive and well in our society, and pushing it outside, no matter how noble the cause, may not be in our society’s best interest. As uncomfortable as it makes us feel, we must acknowledge that it exists.
  • Transit: The proposed redevelopment area is less connected to local transit options (including the proposed streetcar line). This is a secondary concern, but should be considered in the decision-making process.
  • Overburdening the East Side?: Residents near the proposed site believe their neighborhood hosts a disproportionate amount of the city services, including the jail and detox clinic. Residents believe “cramming too many needy people into a handful of city blocks will hurt, not help, the poor” (Pioneer Press, 1/5/14). That’s a little misleading. I don’t think it’ll have a big effect on the poor themselves, but it’ll likely affect neighborhood perception negative.

The Dorothy Day Center  is an asset to the City of St. Paul. It always has been. The expansion should be a welcome addition. However, I want us to be making this decision for the right reasons, and not because we feel uncomfortable with Dorothy Day in its existing location. Although it hasn’t been part of the conversation, the redevelopment of the large surface parking lot across from the hockey arena is most certainly on people’s minds.

The current concentration of homeless that the building attracts can be intimidating and it is certainly unpleasant. As someone who worked in the area, I can certainly attest to that. Yet, I also think that the redevelopment potential for the site is overstated.

Should the Dorothy Day Center relocate or expand on it’s existing site? In my mind, there is no right answer.

Highland Park: Maintain Your Business District

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood Updated: September 14, 2013 - 9:36 AM

If we don't maintain what we have, it will fall apart.

My neighborhood is lobbying the City for $1 million in streetscape redesign money to match $4 million promised by our business district. At some level, this is a reasonable public-private partnership; businesses provide 80 percent of the funding and the city covers the rest. Yet, there is another side to this otherwise agreeable story.

The neighborhood has been arguing that our streetscape is falling apart and it needs to be fixed. They've been making this plea for a couple years. Maintenance is expensive, or so it goes, and it'd be just better if we tore it all out and built something new.

Here's what it looks like today:

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Bricks are missing. Retaining walls are sloping. The area is starting to age (well, it's almost 30 years old!).

Something has bothered me about the not-so-old bricked streetscape and the business district's complaint: there's nothing wrong that can't be fixed with a little duct tape and TLC. All of the neighborhood's minor chips and dents could be solved with about $5,000 of brick, mortar and the labor cost of an underemployed bricklayer.

But, if fixing what we have takes such little effort, why aren't we doing it? And why are we spending $5 million to boot!?! And, why should we trust someone with a new, more expensive streetscape if they aren't even responsible enough to minimally maintain the basics of what they currently have?

Let me give you a few examples:

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Ten bricks have fallen off, but no one has even bothered to pick the weeds?

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A tree has been removed, yet instead of re-planting a tree (total cost: $250 - $400), we let the soil collect weeds?

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A patch of weeds? How about some grass, a bench and a bike rack?

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Here's the level of disregard: I noticed the condition (left) had been poor for a couple weeks. I decided to get on my knees and get to work. Two minutes later I had rearranged the bricks (right). It's not a perfect, but it looks 10 times better (and it took literally two minutes). In weeks, not a soul who worked for the business or the city government thought to do something.

These are not streetscapes in front of marginal businesses. This is Highland Park in St. Paul. The photos were taken outside of a high-end yoga studio, boutique medical clinic, Barnes & Noble, upscale gift shop, popular book store and a busy sub shop. So, what gives?

The best analogy is that you buy a new house in 1985. For 28 years, you do nothing. Now, it's 2013 and the roof leaks water, the kitchen is out-dated and the basement is moldy. It's in a state of disrepair and you tear it down!

This, of course, is ridiculous. You wouldn't do that! The second the roof started to leak, you'd fix it. When the stove stopped working, you'd replace it. When the basement got musty, you'd clean it and buy a dehumidifier. Now, why aren't we doing this with local community infrastructure?

This is exactly what is happening with my local business district, and likely, yours too. The problem is that people involved assume it's someone else's responsibility. It's a byproduct of the top-down approach. The business district can contend it's the city's fault while the city claims the business district has it backwards. The real is answer that it's not clear. Nobody appears to know what's going on, so by default, no one does anything.

This model takes the constant "eyes on the street" to handle small issues away from locals, or at least, confuses them about what to do. The $5 million project is a big windfall that takes little effort on behalf of the businesses besides a financial contribution. They provide the money and the city rebuilds the sidewalks. Yet, constantly tending to bricks, picking weeds and planting flowers; well, that takes effort (but little money). It's the type of effort that can only be handled by the locals, those who experience and interact with the space on a daily basis.

We've bypassed the maintenance and defaulted to the "built it brand-spanking-new then leave it alone for 20 years and then say it's falling apart and we need a new one" policy. This is how we treat public infrastructure in the United States, be it a water main, public park, sports stadium or pedestrian mall.

There is one place that has a not-so-crumbling bricked planter. It's outside a wine and cheese shop and eye clinic. They've given the street some duct tape and it looks like this:

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Not bad. It's the same bricked planter as everywhere else in the neighborhood. It's missing a few bricks, but pieced together and has some flowers. Flowers aren't cheap, but their small investment makes the streetscape better by many times over. If nothing else, while walking past, one gets the impression that the business, and the people who run it, care about the neighborhood.

St. Paul giving $1 million to Highland Park to improve the streetscape is akin to watching your teenager beat up the old Buick and then deciding to buy him a new car because the old car is in such bad shape (that, and there are about 1 million better ways to spend $1 million locally).

The heart of the matter is that this isn't the way we should treat shared infrastructure. We need to constantly be on the lookout at the most local level and constantly care for its health. If we don't maintain what we have, it will fall apart. And it'll cost us a lot more money to fix it back up.

Dinkytown: How a City Ought to Grow

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood Updated: August 5, 2013 - 11:08 AM

Great places evolve over time. This is a healthy and historic form of urban growth.

The events that unfolded during the House of Hanson debate tell us a lot about Minneapolis. It uniquely touched on many facets of city life, and interestingly enough, these were cultural mêlées and nostalgic memories as much as they were land use battles. Dinkytown and Stadium Village are neighborhoods undergoing tremendous change as apartments and new spaces are built to accommodate the growing demand for student housing.

All of this is healthy.

Dinkytown’s newest addition is exactly how a city ought to grow; at least, based upon historical precedence. What started as a humble corner store on 5th St and 14th Ave. in 1932 will eventually transition into a six story brick building. It’s textbook successional urbanism; the idea that you start nimble and incrementally grow.

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[Original House of Hanson, Sketch, Cultural Construct blog]

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[Original House of Hanson & Flooded street, Star Tribune]

The first House of Hanson corner market wasn’t designed to be a permanent fixture. Made of wood, it was built to be cheap, efficient and to delivery food at the lowest possible cost. After about 40 years in business, it turned itself into a more permanent brick building.

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[House of Hanson, as seen today, Star Tribune]

The next step in the House of Hanson story is demolition. It’s being replaced by a mixed-use, six story building.

house3

Great places evolve over time. It’s a building pattern that is resilient: you begin with modest single-story buildings made of cheap materials, you improve upon that design, and when permitted by market forces, you develop upwards.

This single-story, bricked building maintained itself well over the following decades to become a memorable fixture of the Dinkytown scene. What many view as a run-of-the-mill corner store, others saw as something more;

“I come in here twice, three times a week,” said Connor Evarts, a U student from Eagan. “I like to support the Dinkytown that’s been here forever. House of Hanson was here when my parents were students, and my grandparents. None of them are happy to see it go, especially my grandfather. I’ll miss it a lot.” [Star Tribune]

The House of Hanson is not what the Evarts family care about. They are attaching a physical place to memories they had as young people. The discovery, excitement, adventure and the friendships; this is what happens during our formative years and we desire to hold onto these memories. We do so by placing them against the backdrop of place. House of Hanson is that place. It embodied the Dinkytown experience just as the new building will embody the college experience for students in the upcoming decades.

It all means that people care about this place – this dinky town – and it is this exact reason why it needs to expand.

St. Paul is the place to be

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood Updated: July 9, 2013 - 11:11 AM

“Minneapolis is booming. St. Paul is … growing.”

Minneapolis is booming. Development is almost everywhere: Downtown. Loring Park. The University. Uptown.

Yes, Minneapolis is being Minneapolis. Check the UrbanMSP forum and you’ll notice that the Minneapolis thread is alive and well. It even breaks down Minneapolis into four distinct categories; all of which have more posts than the single “St. Paul” thread. Even the thread “Suburbs” has more comments.

St. Paul is … growing. To put this in perspective: I was having a conversation at a happy hour over development in both core cities. A friend mentioned that all the action was happening in Minneapolis. I disagreed. St. Paul is happening, just in a different way. It’s composed of smaller, less exciting projects: no skyscrapers, nothing much over 5 stories, lots of mid-sized projects along the Central Corridor and a handful of multifamily projects in neighborhoods.

St. Paul isn’t Minneapolis; and as a resident of St. Paul, I am content with that. You can read about that here.

This is keeping up with the development tradition of each city. Minneapolis goes big. And when St. Paul strikes out, it’s usually because they shortsightedly decided to follow in Minneapolis’ footsteps. Too often I read a quote in a local newspaper that sounds something like, “Minneapolis got this, so it’s only fair that we get this too.” So, Minneapolis gets the Vikings Stadium. That means it’s only fair that St. Paul gets money for the Saints. Minneapolis gets Target Center renovation cash, so we have to improve the Xcel Center. The list could go on …

I don’t know if those asking for money know this, but the people of St. Paul don’t really care that it’s not Minneapolis. In fact, we wish that city leaders would stop trying to be the big city and just concentrate on the things that make St. Paul great.

What makes St. Paul great? And what can be done to aid downtown, if not for stadiums?

I think the answer lies within St. Paul’s strong and vibrant neighborhoods, where you’ll typically find a good mix of housing (both affordable and otherwise) coupled with solid neighborhood retail. When it comes to attracting people, the biggest catalyst is other people. The best way to do that is create a lively mix; that also means no entertainment or cultural districts. But, that’s not all. If St. Paul is looking to improve, I have a couple ideas:

Quick & Dirty Recommendations:

  • Expand housing options; aim for more mid-market housing, too.
  • Don’t be afraid to build small. We need buildings of all types in downtown St. Paul, not just Class A Office Towers.
  • Don’t be afraid of Corner Stores. They provide a great amenity to walkable, urban neighborhoods.
  • Require all new buildings to have an active street frontage. It’s better to have an empty storefront than a blank wall – at least the storefront has potential.
  • Kill the downtown one-ways and calm vehicle traffic.
  • Explore land bridges / highway caps over I-94 / I-35 connecting the Capitol and adjacent neighborhoods.
  • Moratorium on new skyways. We don’t need to tear down what we have, but let’s not expand it. We need people walking the streets of St. Paul.

Now, St. Paul needs to migrate the traits from other areas to form a successful to downtown neighborhood. It’s doing that with Lowertown (minus the housing mix). By the way, the trick is getting existing skyscrapers to behave properly in the pedestrian realm.

I’m basing these recommendations on one of my favorite areas of St. Paul: the stretch along Selby Avenue between Western and Dale Avenues. For starters, it has a surprisingly healthy mix of retail and a range of housing options.

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I captured the surrounding blocks and did a search for all available single-family homes, condos and townhouses $600,000 and under. The cheapest being a 3 bedroom townhouse for $155,000. There’s a single family home for $160,000 and a 1 bedroom condo at $100,00. On the other end of the spectrum, you can spend $400,000 on a high-end condo. If you captured Summit Avenue on the map, it could get a lot higher.

The wide range of housing option is within a healthy walking distance to shops, restaurant, pubs, bike lanes, corner stores and transit. And it’s cheaper, but still urban and cool. That’s what Minneapolis doesn’t have for it’s urbanism: as much affordability.

Herein lies St. Paul’s major strength, and the City shouldn’t be afraid to flaunt it. St. Paul isn’t Minneapolis-Lite. Minneapolis is St. Paul-bloated. By the way – could you buy this for under $200k in Minneapolis? 

Minneapolis is booming, but St. Paul is growing the place to be.

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