Nathaniel Hood

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

Posts about Politics

Should Minneapolis build an urban soccer stadium?

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood Updated: March 15, 2015 - 10:02 PM

Professional soccer is coming to Minneapolis, probably. 

Sports Illustrated reported last week that Minnesota United is likely the next addition to Major League Soccer. This is exciting news for many. For others, it brings up the question: do we need another stadium?

I'll leave the politics to Alex Schieferdecker. Instead, I wanted to ask a different question: Should Minneapolis build an urban soccer stadium?

History has shown us that downtowns are great for stadiums, but stadiums aren't always great for downtowns. If this dynamic was a Facebook relationship status it would read "It's complicated." To use myself as an example: As a fan, I would much rather see an urban stadium. Yet, as an urbanist, the suburbs may be better suited.

In many ways, Minnesota sports fans are lucky. Let me rephrase that: Minnesota sports fans are lucky we don't have any mega suburban sports stadiums (tax bills aside). This reality becomes abundantly clear when you visit a stadium that isn't located within a downtown.

I had the pleasure of escaping the bitter Minnesota winter and visiting Florida's Gulf Coast. Conveniently, my beloved Minnesota Twins were in nearby Fort Myers for spring training and I picked up last minute tickets for the nearly sold-out game.

Hammond Stadium is a nicely designed small park that's lovely on a 70 degree Florida night. It fits a good crowd without being too crowded. But, there's a problem with the atmosphere outside the stadium; it's a suburban stadium in arguably one of America's most suburban cities.

fort myers twins stadium

Hammond Stadium is a long drive from nearly everywhere. You'll find yourself dodging "Florida Drivers" along the five lane stroad until you hit the Little League fields. A volunteer will take your $10 and instruct you which field to park on (important tangent, it is oddly exciting to drive and park on a baseball field). Then you've got a long walk through another parking lot. The view is good, in so much as you don't look left or right.

I must thank Fort Myers for allowing me to truly appreciate Target Field.

As a fan, the experience of the suburban stadium feels restrictive. It's a business model designed to capture every dollar akin to airport retail; you've gone through security so you're stuck with the flimsy $11 turkey sandwich and $4 bottle of Diet Coke. This model thrives in the suburban environment where a team can better monopolize parking revenues, food and beverage, and other miscellaneous sales, such as t-shirts, hats, and over-sized foam "#1" fingers. While it's a good business model, these stadiums operate as a near monopoly; prices are often higher and food choices lacking.

It's clear that the fan experience just doesn't compare to a good urban stadium, which when done well, puts the team on display as much as it puts the city on display. It is this element that is so appealing to city leadership. Yet, there is a dark side to urban stadiums. If they are built in a way that isn't context-sensitive, they're a mixed bag when it comes to urbanism, city finances, and future development.

Professional stadiums can be isolating places. Look around the former Metrodome (or the Xcel Center in St. Paul), they haven't produced great land use results. Stadiums, more times than not, neutralize the space around them and kill the streetscapes. Famous British urbanist, Charles Landry, once commented on Minnesota Public Radio regarding the Vikings stadium back in 2012;

"In general, stadia neutralize the space around them and kill the city- as an urban construct ... So really, the question is to think through in a physical sense - how the stadium is helping foster that sense that we're in a city, rather than there's a point occasionally where an event happens." [MPR]

The funding of stadiums is also controversial. In an era of limited municipal resources, it begs the question of priority. Furthermore, downtown stadiums that don't get financing will typically be tax exempt and take valuable downtown real estate off the property tax rolls.

I have been skeptical of stadiums for quite some time [you can read about it herehere, and here]. Stadiums are inherently a suburban style land use imposed on an urban core. Yet, this outcome still feels better than having stadiums in the suburbs.

Urban stadiums provide a much better all-around experience. It is for this reason that you can't blame anyone for wanting a stadium to co-exist amongst the exciting urban revival of most major American cities. That is to say, there appears to be something more to sports than just sport.

Yet, it's difficult to make the argument that city's always win-win by having an urban stadium. Their bottom-line may be better for something else. On all of these matters, there are always trade-offs; and it will be interesting to see where the Minnesota United will land.

An Open Letter to Katherine Kersten

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood Updated: September 22, 2014 - 9:05 AM

Dear Katherine,

Please stop writing the same article over and over and over and over and over and over again.

Being polite Minnesotans, with exceptions being granted to those commenting anonymously on the Star Tribune's website, we have tried rather unwillingly to disregard your repetitive assertions that our regional government agency is akin to George Orwell's 1984.

The assertions in your most recent column ("Met Council's 'Thrive' Plan has a bullying effect") can best be described as click-bait. One day, I would love to address them, but diagnosing the problem and offering alternatives would render this article dry and exhaustively nuanced, and therefore unreadable. I'll leave that task to someone else.

There are real issues in reforming the Metropolitian Council. However, the mud-slinging, or more politely, the constructive-less criticism, harms healthy debate.

I have criticisms too. It would likely serve our region better if our representatives were democratically elected. I believe that local government should have more control over funding and that subsidizing large-scale affordable housing complexes near a highway exit in an exurb is silly. I also believe that we've allocated limited resources towards some rail projects, specifically the Northstar line, that could have been better used elsewhere.

Believe it or not, there is a surprising amount that we can agree upon. We should approach the debate in this manner.

I may be jumping to conclusions, but I think it is fair to say that you've found your base. That being, a group of like-minded souls following you precisely because you'll give them exactly what they want. You write to the blood-thirsty hyenas as if they are caged and starving, and you're tossing them a freshly cut steak.

You also know how to strike a chord with the opposition. You do this by twisting admittedly overused planning industry buzzwords and placing them within quotations. "Sustainability". "Equity". This is how you express mockery onto the subjects without having to address the root issue. These words have, without question, been greenwashed and co-opted. But, when you examine the heart of these concepts, they're things we as a society should genuinely care about; and more importantly, they are neither left nor right.

Transportation and land use are nuanced, and we need to treat them as such. To say light rail is always wrong, or conversely, that never building another road is good, is to not understand urban geography. It is fair to say that masterplanning can never be perfect, but it's unfair to say that our status quo, that being of suburban expansion, has resulted in what the consumer wants. Historically speaking, the free market has not driven the suburban infrastructure and development you claim to support. Ironically, it has been that of massive government intervention at the federal, state, regional and local level.

I don't need to lecture. You already know this. And, when did you fall down that perilous, slippery slope and into the Phil Donohue school of policy making? Such Met Council bashing only makes your most admiring supporters feel good about themselves, but it's unlikely to make much of a dent in the problems we face. A smart person once quipped that.

As someone who would like to see real change at the Metropolitan Council, I would like to politely request that you please start writing critically about it, examining nuances and offering real suggestions. You have a great platform and it'd be a shame to squander such a great opportunity.

Sincerely, -Nate

Nathaniel Hood
St. Paul, MN
Sept. 21, 2014

Where Not To Build A School

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood Updated: July 6, 2014 - 12:22 PM

We need an entirely different approach to where we locate schools and how we build them. Our current model – notably in small and mid-sized towns – is that of the destruction of our neighborhood schools in favor of the suburban campus model.

The campus model is a burden on our system: built on an inhuman scale, unwalkable by design, with a disregard to long-term operational costs and devaluing our existing neighborhoods.

An example is happening in my hometown of Mankato, MN. If the school district decides to go through with their new plans, they should immediately start applying for a Safe Routes to School grant. They’re going to need it.

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The blue square on the bottom left is Mankato’s new school; right on the corner of US Highway 22 and County Road 83. The yellow squares are soybeans that may become Mankato’s newest low-density residential neighborhood. This should be cause for concern, beyond that of its speculative nature, and I can speak from experience.

After years of walking to and from Roosevelt Elementary, a classic neighborhood school, I was suddenly relegated to catching the bus or begging my parents to zip me off to the new middle school at the edge of town. It didn’t help that the school’s architecture doubled as a minimum security prison. I remember hating this.

Teenage years are awkward, and being shuttled off to a low-slung building surrounded by soybeans doesn’t help. It took away one of the few freedoms young teenagers have:transportation. I went from walking to school to being reliant upon others, specifically my parents. But, it was mostly a burden on my parents. For elementary, if I needed a ride on a cold day, it was a nice short drive – not miles across town.

The large campus model standard is built on such a large scale that it’s hard to put into perspective how inefficient they are as a land use. Mankato’s new middle school covers 65 acres. So, I created some maps to help visualize.

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Here’s how Mankato’s two existing high schools fit:

two schools

Both fit comfortably, along with four parking lots, two football fields, full-sized tracks, and a baseball and softball field. Let’s take it a step further:

college

Over 85 percent of the entire campus of Minnesota State University, with an enrollment of 15,000 plus students, can fit into the site (with room to spare).

The campus model size is unnecessary and wasteful considering Mankato has plenty of available space in existing neighborhoods nearby the former middle school. Site constraints were apparently so tough, this far-out parcel was the only option. Good to know, just in case Mankato wants to comfortably fit four Target Fields (with a capacity 158,016 people) onto the site one day.

It’s widely accepted that many schools built in the last 20 years were deliberately designed to discourage walking. What’s puzzling is that more people weren’t concerned about this? The freedom to roam was one of the most rewarding experiences of growing up. It teaches us not only navigational skills, but personal responsibility. Children need to experience this.

It might be forgivable if student walkers were overlooked, or just an afterthought. That’s not the case. They were specifically considered and the general consensus was to ignore them. It was a conscious decision to save money on initial land costs.

Being smart with limited resources can go a long way. What do you think it’ll cost the district now that it’ll have to provide a bus option for every single middle-school kid on the sprawling east side? Imagine the cost reductions of having 25% to 50% of students within walking distance. Not to mention the savings of having our children share outdoor faculty or our faculty sharing parking lots; both of which are currently over-supplied (If you’re interested in reading more, I recommend checking out: “Subsidizing Inefficiency”).

We must consider alternatives because not even the most fearless 13 year old boy would trek thissidewalk-less highway intersection (the new site has an impressively low “2″ Walk Score).

Let’s stop and reevaluate. Let’s assess what’s really important in our community. Building an over-sized school on over-sized road on an over-sized parcel strikes me as irresponsible. We need to return to a neighborhood model. We need to find the locations that don’t need a Safe Routes to School grants and build there. The places we are collectively building are places that our children hate. They’re inhuman, disregard our existing neighborhoods, cost us more money and unnecessarily burden parents.

Let’s make a change. 

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.

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