Nathaniel Hood

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

Should Minneapolis build an urban soccer stadium?

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood under Politics, Soccer 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.

Here's why money won't fix our transportation system

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood under Government, Physical infrastructure, Road and highway construction Updated: February 23, 2015 - 9:38 AM

As legislatures reconvened these past two months, there has been an active lobbying effort to boost transportation funding across the country. Countless newspapers, magazine, and television programs have dedicated time and space to covering the plea for more money, including a high-profile 60 Minutes segment that didn't include a single dissenting opinion.

The general consensus in the mainstream media has been that we need more funds in order to have a "21st Century" transportation system. If we don't, our bridges will collapse. That, and we won't be able to compete globally (what does this even mean?).

The opposition's opinion can't be summed up as easily. It goes something more like this: "It's complicated." The nuanced opinion challenges the underlying assumption as to what makes a good transportation investment. In other words, more money alone won't fix the system, and it might actually make it worse.

But, what does this look like? Well, it looks like this ...

Perham is a quintessential small town in central Minnesota with fewer than 3,000 people. It's a sleepy community with a traditional Main Street and surrounded by lakes. If it's not the basis for fictional Lake Wobegon, it might as well be.

It recently received a "Transportation and Economic Development" grant to build a new $6.7 million interchange. The State pitches in $3.5 million and the local government covers the rest ($3.2 million). This project might make sense if the town didn't already have three interchanges leading to the same highway. As if a fourth interchange is just what this town needs to catapult its economy into the 21st century.

What you're looking at is not unique.

In fact, I selected it because it is average. And, it's exactly the type of transportation infrastructure that our current system is looking to fund more of. But more importantly, it's not just this project - it's the countless hundreds like it.

You've heard the broken record that we can't afford to fix our crumbling roads? Well, projects like these are the reason why. It's an unneeded piece of infrastructure that diverts funds from maintaining what we have. A recent report by Smart Growth America outlined this systemic problem; States have dedicated 57% of their transportation revenues to new projects.

As Angie Schmidt of Streetsblog brilliantly opined in "More Money Won't Fix U.S. Infrastructure If We Don't Change How It's Spent";

But throwing more money at the problem overlooks the fatal flaw in American transportation infrastructure policy: The system is set up to funnel the vast majority of spending through state departments of transportation, and those agencies have an absolutely terrible track record when it comes to making smart long-term decisions. As long as state DOTs retain unfettered control of the money, potholed roads and decrepit bridges will remain the norm.

The reason our bridges are crumbling is because we've made the conscious decision not to repair them. Instead, we've chosen to build new things (more specifically, mostly roads). And now, we're tasking the same people who created the problem to help get us out of it?

The status quo will claim there isn't money to bring existing bridges up to today's standard, yet will simultaneously spend $25 million to save 7,000 vehicles a day 53 seconds on a commute (see here) and drop $680 million on an environmentally-compromising bridge to cornfields in Wisconsin (see here).

The Perham infrastructure expansion highlights another key issue: the expansion of a road that hasn't had significant increases in traffic volume in nearly 15 years. In 1998, it had approximately 5,000 vehicles a day. In 2012, that number was 5,300 [MnDOT]. For a comparison, the neighborhood street adjacent my house (with sidewalks, on-street parking and a tree-lined median) carries over 9,000 vehicles a day.

Vehicle traffic in Perham mirrors the population growth, which added around 400 residents between 2000 and 2010. This number is significant in the sense that it hasn't decreased - much like many other rural towns - but it isn't a booming community that would justify transportation infrastructure projects.

In fact, a report from the Center for American Progress found that 50% of roads likely aren't carrying enough traffic to cover their maintenance expenses (see also Streetsblog). I have a good feeling that Perham is one of these places. Of course, this isn't to say we should have disinvestment in communities (we shouldn't), but we need to acknowledge that if we're going to support these places, more highway infrastructure is not the way to do it.

More money for transportation won't fix the system, and it won't help places like Perham. Places like Perham need something else. So, why do we do it? Because it worked in the past? We don't know what else to do? I think it's the latter.

Recommened reading: One Lonely Stroad.

Then and now: Minneapolis' big urban transformation

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood under Physical infrastructure Updated: February 17, 2015 - 8:47 PM

Minneapolis has undergone a tremendous amount of urban growth in the past seven years. And, for all the complaints constructive-criticism that exists (head-nod to streets.mn), it should be noted that Minneapolis has truly transformed into a better, more dynamic urban place.

Google Streetview has opened up its archives (dating back to 2007 in the Twin Cities) and we can see the transformations at the ground level. While Streetview doesn’t completely capture the change, it’s a good place to start.

Here’s a look at a few of Minneapolis’ success stories.

Washington Avenue through the University of Minnesota campus, has made the most drastic change; from a road choked with cars to a pedestrian-friendly transit mall. What were once small buildings are now six-story apartment buildings.

wash1

Next, is the Mill City District on 2nd near the Guthire Theater. If you could rewind time to 2005, this would look even more drastic. I use to tailgate for Minnesota Twins games on what is now Gold Medal Park. At that time, it was an open surface asphalt parking lot littered with broken beer bottles.

millcity1

Uptown may have had the greatest population increase. It has successfully transformed industry land and under-utilized empty space into apartments along the Greenway.

lakeigrard

greenway1

You don’t have to look far to see other urban transformations, such as Park & PortlandUniversity AvenueCentral Ave in NENorth Loop, and  behind Target Field. It’s good to see Minneapolis is moving in the right direction …

The Beautiful Inconsistencies of a Grand Avenue

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood under Society, Government, Physical infrastructure Updated: January 27, 2015 - 11:52 PM
beautychaosst
Grand Avenue: Diversity and chaos can help create beautiful, walkable streetscapes

Gerber Jewelers is a small business situated on one of St. Paul's most desirable streets and it's trying to extend its storefront to the sidewalk.

"Gerber Jewelers' bid to extend the front of its building at 945 Grand Ave. to the sidewalk has been rebuffed. On a 7-0 vote ... St. Paul City Council rejected owner Rafic Chechori's appeal and upheld the Board of Zoning Appeals' previous denial of a setback." - The Highland Villager, Jan. 21, 2015

The Council is upholding a requirement that the front-yard setback from the property line be 25 feet. Dave Thune, out-going Ward 2 Council Member, said "granting the variance would have set a bad precedent and would have encouraged other property owners to extend their buildings to the sidewalk as well, destroying the residential character of Grand."*

This is a bad decision and the entire Grand Avenue plan needs to be revisited to acknowledge the real urban character of the street, improve walkability, to help local businesses, and improve the City's overall tax base.

The problem with the City Council's decision, and the zoning code in general, is that it's trying to impose a character that doesn't exist (and shouldn't exist).

Grand Avenue is not a street with a residential character. For starters, literally every building on this particular 900 Block is either commercial or mixed use (residential + retail). This includes the building immediately to the Gerber's left with a 0ft (zero) setback.

gerberts jewerly setback
Gerber Jewelry was denied the right to look like it's neighbor immediately to its west.

Grand Avenue can be chaotic and disorganized, but unquestionably beautiful. This is the character of a city! This is the character of Grand Avenue. No two blocks are alike, and this is something that should continue. In fact, there is nothing more consistent about Grand Avenue setbacks than that they are entirely inconsistent.

It is not uncommon to see a single family house, next to a 4plex-turned-cooking-store, next to a two story office/burrito/real-estate/pastry/yoga/hair-salon - and all of them have different setbacks! This is the Grand Avenue norm.

house, cooks, com
Nothing is more consistent about Grand Ave. setbacks than the fact that they are inconsistent.

Gerber's block on Grand Avenue includes everything from a gas station, dance studio, sandwich shop, quality dining with sidewalk patio seating, a cigar shop in a house, a small frozen yogurt shop on the sidewalk, and more than a handful of other small businesses.

These small, unique spaces are one of the reasons that Grand Ave has a disproportionately high percentage of local businesses. It is precisely these types of businesses that we want to thrive as they are more likely to use local services (such as marketing, legal, accounting, etc.) and more of their profit stays within the community. This is precisely the type of incremental growth we should be trying to encourage.

There are few things more important for creating walkable spaces than giving people something to experience at the sidewalk level. The social value of a storefront is too important to pass up, and rejecting Gerber's application is an unfortunate error in judgement.

This decision is also costing the city money. The adjacent building abuts the sidewalk similar to the new proposal and pays nearly 2.3x times more in property taxes ($31,130 vs. $13,919).** This alone is a drop in the bucket, but when you consider the long-term ramifications it can have some costs.

The entire Grand Avenue plan needs to be revisited, and we need to take into consideration the viewpoints of people other than the Summit Hill Associations. We need to acknowledge the real urban character of the street, improve walkability through more sidewalk storefront, to help neighborhood businesses grow to improve our local economy, and improve the City's overall tax base.

__

* Quote is not a direct quote, but a summary of Thune's quote taken from The Highland Villager, Jan. 21, 2015.
**
 It's fair to say a similar new addition would yield similar results. However, you never know since valuations are based off a number of factors, such as building materials, etc.
*** Related ReadingAnthropologie: A Storefront Not Worthy of Grand Ave.

The Rise and Fall of Sonic the Hedgehog (and Sega)

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood under Video games Updated: December 7, 2014 - 1:27 PM

For a brand to thrive, it needs to constantly reinvent itself. Sega isn’t doing that and the once unstoppable hedgehog has been diminished to mere nostalgia.

The icon that helped launch Sega ahead of Nintendo during the Console Wars has been relegated to second-class superhero status from an overabundance of sub-par appearances and reckless business practices. As a staple of my childhood, I find this disconcerting.

Originally released in 1991, the inaugural Sonic the Hedgehog had unique gameplay, previously unseen graphics, and fast gameplay. Experiencing Sonic in the early 1990s was akin to the previous generation watching color television for the first time. This was the Launchpad of an iconic brand.

Sega followed up with an impressive sequel that gave most players their first-glimpse at the 3D gaming world through expertly-designed bonus stages. This feat should not be understated. Quality games (and a skilled marketing team) helped bring Sega from a market share of less than 10 percent to the dominate player in the industry.

Sonic ended the 16-bit era with a bright future despite some forgettable spin-off flops, such as Sonic Spinball (Sonic + Pinball = Disappointment). As Sega would soon learn, one failed spin-off is fine, but multiple failed spin-offs is not.

Sega’s mismanagement during the 32-bit era created doubts about the company, including the business decision to release a new console (Saturn) without a title of its hottest intellectual property (Sonic). Doubts amplified as Sega faced increased competition from Sony’s Playstation.

The decision to release Saturn (and then immediately pull the plug) was a move that likely cost Sega billions of dollars. There was a four year period between 1996 and 1999 with no major titles. Imagine this timeframe in the mid of a young gamer: going from eight to 12 without the creation of brand nostalgic. In the minds of these kids, Sonic is irrelevant.

This absence of Sonic during this period allowed Nintendo to dominate, and Mario 64 and Pokémon helped create a near monopoly on this age group while Sony converted mature gamers onto their platform (one of those gamers was me, and I still remain largely loyal to Playstation).

For better and for worse, Dreamcast got the jump on the next generation with the clever “9/9/99” campaign. They had learned from their mistakes and released the new console with their flagship franchise (Sonic Adventure). In 1999, you had Sonic Adventure and everything else. Sonic was back! The game was a hit and was a much needed breath of fresh air for Sega fans.

Yet, it wasn’t enough. Despite a successful launch and masterful Sonic games, the Dreamcast couldn’t compete with Playstation 2. Sega soon abandoned the console market to become a software company. Since the demise of Sega’s console business, the Sonic brand has been a collection of mostly misses. It’s an unfortunate truth that Sonic has been damaged to such a degree the gamers approach new releases with caution, not excitement.

When Sonic does best, it’s through nostalgia-aimed releases like Generations. But new versions of the franchise have failed to revive the brand. One journalist hinted that Sonic 06' was one of the worst games of the year and the re-branding that resulted in Sonic Boom: Rise of the Lyric had people scratching their heads. Both appeared to be rushed to market at the expense of gameplay. Continually releasing an unrefined product is a good way to kill a franchise.

Sonic now operates primarily in the nostalgic realm. There are still hardcore fans, but without a landmark release like Sonic Adventure, there isn't much hope for the revitalization of the Sonic brand. A business can run on nostalgia only for so long.

The question is: How can Sega appease the nostalgic fan base while moving the franchise into the future?

This is the question Sega will need to answer if Sonic is going to be around for another 20 years. Sega appears to be making the smart move of tackling the youth market dominated by Nintendo. This is a crucial age group to capture from a marketing perspective. The problem with this approach though is that Sega is challenging Nintendo's market share while still being reliant upon them to release their games on Nintendo consoles.

Sega's faults have been that they've been absent when competition was strongest and over-eager to release inferior products when unnecessary. I want to see Sonic thrive for another 20 years. To do so, Sega will need to drastically improve the quality of flagship Sonic games, aggressively target emerging gamers, and find a way to control their distribution (e.g.: not being reliant on Nintendo).

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