Nathaniel Hood

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

Posts about Society

A First-Timer Plays Dungeons & Dragons

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood Updated: November 3, 2014 - 9:39 PM

Has there ever been a better time to be a nerd? No, probably not. So, I wanted to dive in deeper ...

My first adventure into ultimately nerdery has left me with one resounding conclusion: if you have never played Dungeons and Dragons, whatever you think you know, forget it. You are wrong. It's not the broad common assumption supported by mainstream media and it's certainly not the Simpson's Comic Book guy.

It's something else.

Dungeons and Dragons is a game I have been anxious to play for quite sometime, but up until recently, I never had that special someone to introduce me. After what felt like a decade, my friend Chris invited to join his group. I finally had my date. Wednesday night. 7pm. Roseville. Fantasy Flight Games Event Center.

On Facebook, a friend suggested I pick up a bag of Cooler Ranch Doritos, Twizzlers and some Mountain Dew. These were surely the needed rations. With giddy delight, I texted a photo of the junk food to my Dungeons and Dragons playing friend. It was only a few seconds later that I was alerted that "Sadly you can't bring that into FFG :( ".

It is at this point that I realized that I had absolutely no idea what I was walking into. Is Dungeons and Dragons even possible without Mountain Dew?

It hit me. I experienced something I hadn't in the longest time: unreasonable teenage angst. As if I was going on a first date. I even mentally beat myself up over what I should wear. It was prom night and I was unprepared and unsure of myself. I could do nothing but drive north on Snelling Avenue and sip Mountain Dew in anticipation.

The FFG Event Center shattered any preconceived notions I had as it more closely resembles a post-modernist downtown hotel than your high school friend's parent's basement. Which, frankly, was both disappointing and relieving. I quickly grabbed a coffee at the cafe and my friend picked up a Surly on-tap before the game (yes, local craft beer is available).

I was a halfling rouge teamed up with an elf and two dwarfs. It was an unbalanced team consisting of two rookies, a mid-career professional and an experienced veteran. And the ruthless Dungeon Master? A friendly dude named Brian.

After a quick explanation of the rules, we were off. The first mission: get a dragon egg from a barn.

Okay - this is where I'm going to lose a few people. I agree. Getting a dragon egg from a barn doesn't exactly sound epic. I was along for the ride, even if the whole deal seemed shady. I distrust anyone, fictional or otherwise, willing to exchange money for a dragon egg in a barn. It worked out beautifully though and it was a great beginners story to learn a few tricks and strategies.

For our successful completion (oh! we dropped a few bad dudes in the process), we were granted 200 gold coins by a man I can only assume was going to use that dragon egg for nefarious purposes. Regardless, we got our coin and traversed into something a little more frightening: a goblin cave.

An crying woman's family had been kidnapped at their now-ransacked farm outside of town (advice to humans living in the world of DnD: buy Goblin Insurance).

Here's where the real fun began. So, two dwarves, an elf, and a rogue halfling walk into a goblin cave. We head into the cave and it's at this point, maybe an hour and a half into the game, that I get it. I decide to take two items and use my imagination (lantern + flask of oil) and toss all of them into the cave. The result was a medieval Molotov cocktail with a side of chaos. One fried goblin later, we're inside and rescuing some humans. Success!

Two missions down, literally thousands to go ...

What's astonishing about Dungeons and Dragons is the learning curve. It's easy to get started, but the game can get insanely complex. It's your job to use your best improvisational skills within the boundaries of the game. It's about asking questions, improvising, and moving within a loose framework. It creates this beautiful platform where you can play the same series of events 10 times and never have the same outcome. It's a table top game with near infinite possibilities.

What did you do last Wednesday?

I helped rescue some humans, drop some evil goblins, bought a dragon egg, and made a few friends in the process. Heroes in our own minds. Nerds in the minds of others. But who cares? There's never been a better time to be a nerd.

If you haven't played Dungeons and Dragons, I think you really should. Grab a coffee (or Surly on-tap) and join us each Wednesday in Roseville's FFG at 7pm. If you have the courage to show up, I can guarantee you'll have a great time.

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.

What is the Value of Closing a Street?

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood Updated: November 9, 2013 - 12:46 PM

We need to move beyond Open Streets.

Open Streets closes down auto-oriented streets in Minneapolis and St. Paul along major corridors and opens them up to pedestrians, cyclists, strollers and skaters. The transformation is astonishingly beautiful. But, when the streets turn back into uninhabitable congested roadway the following day I’m left asking myself “What’s the point?”

Herein lies a problem with tactical urbanism and Ciclovía-styled events. They must go beyond the event and aim for a greater good. Open Streets must be a tactic in a broader strategy, and merely raising awareness may not be enough to accomplish their mission of enhancing healthy living, local business, sustainable transportation and civic pride.

I mean no disrespect to Open Streets. They’re an excellent organization and I support them 100 percent. But, amongst all their other much needed work, there needs to be collaboration on behalf of the cities beyond just permitting it. They need to join forces to help make these needed infrastructure adjustments the other 364 days of the year. 

We have one of the best examples in our own backyard: Milwaukee Avenue.

Milwaukee Avenue South by Franklin Avenue

Milwaukee Avenue Historic District runs for 2 blocks in South Minneapolis and is composed of small homes built for lower-income residents between 1880 and 1890 on quarter-sized lots. Deterioration occured throughout the second World War and preservationists in the 1970s helped save the homes and turn the street into a park. Today, Milwaukee Avenue is a magical place (especially after a fresh snow).

Closed streets have livablity, but what does that mean? It’s a soft, open-ended concept that doesn’t mean much. I wanted to see if the livability of a closed street created any monetary return. I took Milwaukee Avenue and compared the property values against a similar nearby street open to vehicle traffic.

mil26th

There are no perfect equivalents when comparing complex urban environments. Here are important notes about the comparison:

  • The homes along Milwaukee Avenue are small compared to their neighbors, but have better architectural character.
  • The homes on 26th Avenue were likely built for middle-class residents, whereas Milwaukee Avenue homes were built for the city’s lower class.
  • Commercial properties on the corner of each street at the intersection of Franklin Avenue were excluded.
  • 26th Avenue South included three (3) tax-exempt properties owned by Hennpein County. In an effort to be fair, since no value is assessed on public record, I assigned each property the mean value of all other properties ($209,986).

Here is what I discovered:

  • Milwaukee Avenue has 47 properties with an average value of $223,647 with an overall market rate taxable value of $10,511,400.
  • 26th Avenue  has 38 properties with an average value of $209,986 with an approximate market rate taxable value of $7,979,458.

In this comparison, the closed street has a total taxable value of $2,531,942 more than its neighborhood (approximately 31 percent). Again, I’d like to put this into perspective: Milwaukee Avenue has smaller lots, smaller homes and was originally built as affordable housing. This means the City of Minneapolis takes in about $43,043 more in property tax revenue per year on these two blocks.

There are wide streets all over Minneapolis that have limited functionality in our grid network. Upon repaving and/or reconstructing, we need to  really examine whether or not we actually need these streets for vehicles, especially if the homes have adequate alleyway access.

This is where Open Streets comes back into the equation. How can they (and we) help sell this idea of a closed street as a permanent fixture for creating a permanent and tangible community value? I don’t believe that Open Street events are just “feel-good projects”, they are real economic development if transitioned into infrastructure. Imagine the value that could be created by the City of Minneapolis if they were to replicate the success of Milwaukee Avenue?

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Note: If you support creating more vibrant, healthy places, consider donating to Open Streets Minneapolis.

Hire a Marathon Planner

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood Updated: October 8, 2013 - 10:57 PM

What’s the best way to see a place? Run a marathon. There is no better way to experience a city than running through it.

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Okay – so I used to play A LOT of SimCity. Thanks Jordan. I appreciate the support (and humor).

Here’s my advice: hire a marathon planner. Look at the selected route, find where it goes and why. You’ll see the strengths of your community. Try to double-down on that.

Seeing much of any American city on foot can be difficult. How and where to navigate? Which route to take? Will I be going through places worth seeing? These questions, and about a thousand others, prevent people from truly seeing a place.

Run a marathon. As someone who loves urban places (and public health), I can’t recommend it enough. Waking up at 5:45am on a dreary October morning and preparing to experience inevitable pain is worth it. Embarrassing example of pain: here.

Any given marathon route tells you a lot about the city, or in my most recent case: the Twin Cities. Marathon route planners want to show off the city. Typically you’ll start off at some notable focal point of the city (downtown Minneapolis, for example) and route through nice neighborhoods (Kenwood) and onto geographic landmarks (The Lakes District, Minnehaha Creek, Mississippi River), and then ending with a long straight run down beautiful, tree-lined Summit Avenue and ends at the State Capitol.

marathon

Marathon routes tell us a lot about the host city and what we aspire to. In the Twin Cities, we do appreciate our downtown, regardless of how poorly we may treat it sometimes, and we still love the beautiful Bueax Arts, Cass Gilbert designed State Capitol Building. These are great places. But, in between is what we Minnesotans aspire to: a nice house with a modest yard near a body of water. That’s why we cut through Kenwood, instead of taking a route down Hennepin Avenue or Lake Street.

I haven’t run many half and full marathons, but I’ve run enough to say with certainty this theory of city and cultural aspirations holds true on at least three continents. You can tell by the different cities you run through.

  • Barcelona: 98 % urban and 2% beach view [map]. You run down beautiful urban boulevards, past some beach and finish at the 1992 Olympics Park. Even from my limited time in Spain, this route and “course feel” summarize the aspirations of Catalonians.
     
  • Sydney: 75 % urban, 15% waterfront and 10% park [map]. You traverse around Sydney Harbor over the Bridge to the huge urban park, into neighborhoods and ending at the Opera House. I lived in Australia for nearly two years, and I couldn’t have picked a better route to summarize Sydney culture (possibly a hint more beach, but otherwise spot on!).
     
  • Duluth: 90% lakeshore, 5% residential and 5% urban [map]. The lake and the power of nature are the most unforgettable elements of the race, and this truly embodies the experience that is Duluth, Minnesota.

Even when you look at smaller and less notable destination marathons, like in Mankato [map], you’ll start at the college (a small, but important civic establishment) and run along the river to the rolling prairie and end in downtown. It’s almost as if it was intentionally designed to bypass the town’s sprawl, which for some reason, it continues to still want to build.

One of the many beauties of marathons is how people control the road. There is something empowering about running downtown Minneapolis in the middle of the street – a space typically dominated by cars. You experience the buildings passing you by from an entirely different angle. Every time I do it, there is something refreshing about it. It gives me the idea of what a space can look and feel like when the pedestrian is in control.

Beyond that, marathons typically bring out the best in a given community. Seeing friends, families and strangers holding handmade signs is something that makes your heart melt amid the pain of running 26.2 miles (even if they are smarmy).

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.

house0

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

house1

[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.

house2

[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.

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