Nathaniel Hood

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

The Bypass of Commerce

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood under Physical infrastructure, Transportation, Road and highway construction Updated: November 26, 2013 - 9:39 PM

Let me start off with a question: Do Nicollet or Courtland need bypasses?

__

We have a cultural misunderstanding about the economic benefits of mobility.

There is no better example than the State of Minnesota’s new $300 million “Corridors of Commerce” program designed to foster “economic growth with transportation investments.” This is a noble goal and it’s worked well in the past, so why not keep it up?

First, we built highways that connected places that were never before directly connected. This was an enormous benefit to rural populations and opened up to more marketplaces. Towns that were once a 5 hour journey apart turned into an easy 1 hour trip. There is no question that this created an economic benefit.

But, we’ve continued building and expanding this roadway system to much diminishing return. The Corridors of Commerce project is just another example of this misapplication of limited transportation dollars. The most glaring example is the Highway 14 Nicollet Bypass.

nic-bypass

The proposed $15 to $25 million Nicollet Bypass

Nicollet is a small town of approximately 1,000 people situated 15 miles outside of the region’s center, Mankato. The proposed $15 to $25 million four lane divided bypass and entrance ramp will replace the two lane highway (with center turn-lane) that runs along the town’s southern edge.

There are three justifications given for this project;

1) Improves safety
2) Enhances mobility for commercial traffic
3) One step closer to a regional goal of a 4-lane highway between New Ulm and Rochester

Let’s examine each justification to see if there can be another alternative.

Does it improve safety?

Here is where our misunderstanding of mobility comes in. We are aiming to improve safety by building a new. expensive highway at the edge of town without examining why the original highway was dangerous in the first place.

accesspoints

There are nine highway access points. Six are privately-owned driveways (red) and three are intersections (blue)

There are nine access points where collisions are likely to occur along the 1.1 mile corridor. Three intersections connect to local roadways and six are driveways to private entities, include a taxidermy and self storage business, trailer park and a gas station (low ROI land uses). This roadway combines fast moving through-traffic with slow, turning local vehicles.

If safety was truly the priority it is claimed to be, the rational response would be to reduce speeds from 35 mph to 20 mph, close (or seriously limit) access to the six driveways, and realign the most dangerous intersection (TH99 in northwest) to allow a less abrupt merge. This would cost virtually nothing in comparison to the proposed $15 to $25 million project.

Does it enhance mobility?

When determining the cost-benefit of a project, we place emphasis on improved mobility, or in other words: time savings. Time is important, but how important? The existing speed limit is 35 mph and the expansion will be 65 mph (conforming to speed limits of other divided highways). According to my calculations, the project will have a travel time savings of nearly 1 minute.

Speed Limit (MPH) Distance (miles) Travel Time Time Difference (+/- 35 mph)
20 1.1 3m 18s  + 85 seconds
25 1.1 2m 38s + 45 seconds
30 1.1 2m 12s + 19 seconds
35* 1.1 1m 53s 0
45 1.1 1m 28s - 25 seconds
55 1.1 1m 19s - 34 seconds
65 1.1 1m 0s - 53 seconds

 

Fostering commerce is important, but it is difficult to make a convincing argument that one minute in travel time savings justifies such an expenditure for less than 7,000 vehicles traveling through on any given day weekday [MnDOT Traffic Data].

Does it move towards a goal of a regional 4-lane highway?

No. We have it all backwards.

As for right now, why would you create a two-lane highway that turns into a four-lane highway for a 1.1 mile stretch as it passes through a town just so it can turn back into to a two-lane highway? If having a regional 4-lane highway is your goal, then the money could be better spent doing the opposite. The goal should be to first create a four-lane highway outside of towns and then reduce size and speed while traversing through towns.

This 1.1 mile new bypass has the same cost as expanding 15 miles of existing highway in four lanes between Mankato and Nicollet.

The need for Highway 14 enhancements has been a regional concern since the early 1990s. It’s been long known as a dangerous corridor where speeding is prevalent, where there are limited opportunities for passing and where there are countless access points and intersections that can be dominated by slow-moving farm equipment.  Hence, I do not question the need for Highway 14 safety improvements, including the adding of passing lanes along with improved forgiving design elements along rural stretches.

We have a cultural misunderstanding about the economic benefits of mobility. Constructing new roadways to bypass small towns at tremendous costs won’t improve safety as the old highway stretches are often left in the same unsafe state. Meaning, local vehicles will continue to use the unsafe roadway. Not to mention, there will be a stretch of auto-oriented businesses on the old highway which will be abandoned and rebuilt closer to the bypass. I do not mourn the loss of a Super America gas station, but I do question the value of it closing down one location just to re-open a half mile down the road.

These one-time State transfer payments like Corridors of Commerce seem to go to the most wasteful projects. The DOTs are unwilling to fund these out of their dedicated revenue streams, primairly because they are no top-priority projects, so these are reliant upon political justifications and quick transfer payments.

One-time 2011-2 Transpoortation and Economic Development (TED) Grants from the State went to similar projects, like the fourth interchange ramp in Perham, Minnesota.

perham1

Perham is a small town in central Minnesota that is getting a new interchange that will support an estimated 240 jobs. TED will be providing $3.5 million of the $6.7 million project. This project might make sense if the town didn’t already have 3 interchanges leading to the same highway.

perham2

These are the types of investments that do little or nothing to boost economic vitality in local small towns or distant communities. And, the kicker, it’s not going to speed up traffic or make us any safer.

Will the Nicollet Bypass project generate wealth? Will Perham ever add the economic juice that town needs? Will these projects ever pay for themselves or create a genuine societal or economic benefit? If the State of Minnesota, for whatever reason, were to ever ‘turnback’ the highway, would the County or Town of Nicollet be able to maintain?

Hopefully these considerations are conducted prior to the authorization of spending millions of dollars to bypass Courtland (pop. 611) [MnDOT], which has yet to receive funding, and the countless other projects that divert limited resources to low returning projects.

“What will speed up that change is an understanding of the fact that our transportation investments are not creating wealth, they are destroying it. Now I’m not talking about just the investments where the old Target store at the old interchange is induced to move into the new Target store at the new interchange four miles up the road. I mean almost all of our highway spending. It costs more to build and maintain than it generates in returns and, therefore, will only continue so long as we have the capacity and the desire to delude ourselves.” - Chuck Marohn, Paved with Good Intentions

_____

If you're feeling generous! Please help a blogger!

What is the Value of Closing a Street?

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood under Society, Physical infrastructure, Transportation 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?

__

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

Hire a Marathon Planner

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood under Society 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.

1383004_10100141919254872_238689335_n

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).

Highland Park: Maintain Your Business District

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood under Government, Politics, Physical infrastructure 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:

IMG_3549

IMG_3550

IMG_3565

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:

IMG_3567

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

IMG_3547

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

IMG_3561

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

IMG_3573

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:

IMG_3559

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 under Best Buy, Politics and government, Politics 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]

ADVERTISEMENT

Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT