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

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:

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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:

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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.

Life After Public Purpose

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood Updated: August 27, 2013 - 3:35 PM

 The Star Tribune recently ran an article about Minnesota’s 2006 law change that prevents cities from pursuing eminent domain for public purpose economic development schemes. It prevents cities from condemning property and reassembling it for projects (such as the Best Buy Corporate Campus along I-35 and I-494),

“It used to be that … you could use eminent domain to assemble some or all of that [redevelopment] site, and resell it for private use,” said Larry Lee, Bloomington’s community development director. “We can’t do that now.

“What cities still have eminent domain for is to use it for a public purpose: a city hall, a fire station, a park, a trail.”

Quick refresher. Prior to 2006 in Minnesota, eminent domain allowed for the public taking of private land for a public use and public purpose. The “public purpose” has been removed from the equation, and probably for the better. It had a very malleable definition, as one could argue that a public purpose was to take property for economic development, jobs and increased property tax revenue.

It appears as if the law is working as intended and cities are now only using eminent domain for projects that fit a public use, such as utility upgrades, street improvements, sidewalk expansions, bike trails, etc.

Eminent domain has had a spotty history across the country. The most tragic being the use of land takings in Connecticut, where City of New London (pop. 26,000) acquired vast amounts of property and tore down a historic neighborhood so drug-giant Pfizer could move in (see Kelo v. New London). The company spent $294 million on a 750,000 square foot suburban complex only to abandon it 8 years later (the New York Times has brilliant coverage on the story and Strong Towns covers the issue well).

Here’s what New London looks like today, post-public purpose eminent domain: http://www.dr5.org/kelo-v-new-london-the-aftermath/.

The Best Buy story isn’t as tragic, yet. However, Best Buy has been experiencing trouble and has reduced its workforce from around 9,000 to around 4,500 employees at the corporate campus in Richfield. Rumor has it that one of the four towers on site has never been occupied.

The problem with ‘public purpose’ eminent domain is that it typically aims to provide the silver bullet approach; one big project comes into town and the next thing you know, a town’s got jobs and tax revenue! Reality is a little harsher as these projects, as they fail, typically leave the municipalities who championed them holding the ball when all hits the fan. Pfizer can always relocate and Best Buy close-up shop and dissolve assets to shareholders, whereas the City of Richfield and New London aren’t going anywhere.

When it comes to economic development, our thinking is too 1995. One quote from Richfield’s Community Development Director in the Star Tribune article stands out as an example of this;

“… [the Director] said if Best Buy were looking for big plot of land today, without a tool like eminent domain Richfield probably couldn’t compete with an outer-ring suburb that could point the company to a cornfield.

Now that the economy is picking up, Stark said, it could be just a matter of time before legislators begin looking at cities and asking why certain areas are suffering from disrepair and disinvestment.

If Best Buy were looking to relocate today, they certainly would not be looking at a cornfield in Lakeville or wetlands in Chanhassen. They’d be looking for office space in downtown Minneapolis. The tables have turned and the competitive advantage is no longer cheap land, its amenity.

The mega suburban corporate campus is a dying model that, once empty, is hard to lease. It’s also a model of development that is insular and has few positive spillover effects. Why no spillover effects? Because it’s designed to keep employees under one-roof and to not engage them in the wider economic activities of a metropolitan area. This model kills innovation by eliminating casual encounters and knowledge spillovers.

It’s also wrong to think that disrepair and disinvestment in cities or inner-ring suburbs are a result of a lack of large economic development projects. Cities that can’t grow out must grow up, both literally and figuratively. The economic gardening approach, which is safer, lower-risk economic development approach, needs to be the status quo – not the exception. Whatever the case, a city needs to create a template for incremental growth; which includes small-scale density improvements over time, transit and transportation access, urban design improvements, the growth of existing business and the welcoming of small, growing businesses.

The cities that have been the most successful over the course of the last 20 to 30 years are those that have embraced small business growth through innovation, and those that have been nimble, urban and welcoming to change. And, eminent domain that supports large, insular development such as corporate campuses (or large master-planned development, football stadium, etc.) is likely to not add much to a community in the long-run.

Eminent domain for a public use is only fair; although I’m confident it’s been used for bad projects. Nonetheless, there are certainly good and reasonable uses for it. The broad-ranging public purpose, which is now a relic of the past, is something entirely different. It’s the taking of land for what essentially amounts to a gamble; that a baseball stadium or convention center or corporate campus will help revive a town that’s too lethargic to put in the hours and grow from the ground up.

[Read some great comments on this topic at Streets.MN]

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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