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

So, I was watching HGTV ...

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood Updated: July 26, 2013 - 4:07 PM

So, I was watching HGTV and there is this show called House Hunters. If I’m bored late at night, you might find me sneaking a peak at this guilt pleasure. The producers of House Hunters usually take a young couple on their first home-buying experience, drag them to three houses, tape them weighing the options and the couple picks one.

The episode last night just happened to be taking place in what I thought looked like the least sustainable community in the United StatesCape Coral, Florida. I jumped on Google and found myself both fascinated and horrified.

The red outline is an area of Cape Coral that is fully supported by road and canal infrastructure, yet – the homes are few and far between. In fact, there are so few homes relative to infrastructure that it boggles my mind on why they just kept on building it out.

The above image is not an anomaly. The majority of the landscape in Cape Coral looks like this. How are 42 houses going to support the infrastructure maintenance of the roads, sewers, electricity, canals, etc.? These are not high-end homes – most are pretty modest and range from about $80k to $200k (from a quick Trulia search). Since I couldn’t believe what I was looking at on Google Maps, I had to double-check with Bing Maps just to see that the Google imagery wasn’t out of date.

Nope. It looks like Bing gives us the same results, which is to say, not good. I’m confused here – why would they keep building roads if no one was building there? Why did they build NW 8th Terrace when they only sold one house on NW 7th Terrace? Or, better yet – why did they build NW 9th Terrace when no homes were sold or built on NW 8th Terrace?

Of course, not all of Cape Coral is empty. Approximately 1/3 is appropriately built up … in the most mind-bogglingly sprawl-ish way. The canal system might have been a good way to sell real estate, but I’m guessing it’s going to become quite the liability. In the age of climate change and rising sea waters, well – I’m curious to see what will be of this former swamp in 50 to 75 years.

And, from the looks of it – you’ll have trouble walking anywhere. At least from what I could see on House Hunters, it looked like there was a lot of free parking though! To abruptly move on, I was reading through a local Cape Coral blog, and ran into a promotional flyer that appears to sum up the community and their aspirations [speaking of which, Cape Coral even makes this suburban-disaster slide show look tolerable].

It is a flyer for a “Family Fun Walk” to celebrate the “Grand Opening” of a road! I can’t imagine anything less fun than walking with children next to a 6+ lane road. I wonder how many people turned up to the event? I did find this chunk of information though: “The total cost for the right-of-way acquisition, design and construction of both the roadway and bridges came to $42 million.” [Source].

Of course, I looked up the weather report and average winter temperatures are a little nicer.

Why Beards are like Good Urbanism

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood Updated: May 2, 2013 - 10:07 AM

I always enjoyed a good challenge. 

 

 

A beard isn’t something you grow overnight. Neither is a city.

Both these seemingly unrelated entities need to mature, fill in and be properly groomed, yet still maintain their distinct ruggedness. But why when it comes to urbanism do we attempt to do it overnight?

With few exceptions, our made-from-scratch urban districts and suburban expansions never seem to turn out as we’d like. We’re never happy with them. That should be no surprise. It’s like gluing on a fake beard onto a pristinely shaven face. It looks ridiculous and no one respects you.

We need incremental urban growth that can mature. This includes not only architectural context, but also urban design. Let me explain. So, we’ve got yourself some stubble. It looks good, but doesn’t quite cut it. If you let it grow for a week or two, you’ll notice that the hair gets slightly longer, but it mostly fills in. It isn’t until the beard truly fills in that you have yourself the start of a good thick, dense and rich beard. This is precisely when the beard gains character.

That is what our cities and towns need: to fill in the blank spaces.

Incremental scale grows into something successful. It’s usually small and builds slowly over time, but it is tremendously resilient. However, it’s not going to be easy. This new economy, which I firmly believe we are transitioning into, will require multiple players who can produce small scale, incremental development. This is how urbanism will be accomplished in the next 20 years.

Growth will have to come from within. If you can’t get hair on credit for that beard of yours, then it likely won’t happen with your downtown.

No two beards are alike. Neither are cities. Facial structures differ like geographies. Results everywhere are likely to be different. Some will succeed, others will be tolerable and a few will fail. That’s okay. It’s like having a patchy beard. With time, some spots will grow in. Others may not; but that formula overtime will lead to a place with a heck of a lot of character.

There is something sophisticated, intriguing, and dare I say irresistible about a man with a mature beard. The same can be said about a city. Each piece of hair is like a citizen; some gray, others are frizzy, while some are crimped and ingrown. Each may not be much individually, but together as a whole, they can accomplish something great.

In the end, it’s all about creating a place where people can live, work, interact, and most importantly, be happy. And in a world of limited resources, the city and town structure have demonstrated the most efficient and effective way to make this happen. We need to fill in our towns with people to keep this big experiment going.

A city doesn't grow its people. A people grows a city. 

Anthropologie: A Storefront Not Worthy of Grand Avenue

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood Updated: April 10, 2013 - 10:27 PM

Grand Avenue would be a better place if the neighborhood organization was more concerned about good street frontage than petty parking minimums.

What was once a neighborhood coffee shop, high-end camera shop, kitschy nick-knack decor shop and Birkenstock storefront is now a high-end boutique. It appears as if the gentrifiers are being gentrified out. The clothing store Anthropologie recently renovated a corner of Grand Avenue's Milton Mall and has drastically changed the street scape of one of America's prettiest neighborhoods.

Grand Avenue has a great tradition of holding storefronts accountable and forcing businesses to address the sidewalk and the pedestrian. This is why I kept thinking that this project was still under construction. I was wrong. This is the finished project.

On the Milton Street side, large windows and bricked entryways have been covered up with a drab paneling and include glossy “windows that aren't windows".

On the Grand Avenue frontage, large windows have been covered up and a door has been closed off and glossed over in drab teal.

Along Milton Street the large windows have been covered up with blank walls (and one smaller window has been created).

The blank panels are large, these probably measure upwards to 10 to 12 feet tall. At such a busy pedestrian intersection it’s hard to imagine that a store wouldn’t want to use this space to at very least advertise their products.

The corner window does offer pedestrians a glimpse of whats inside. Yet, the teal green is off putting and doesn’t comfortably mesh well with the historic brick facade. The whole renovation gives off a cold vibe.

Anthropologie added a wooden outset display window along Grand Avenue. Again, the look is cold and empty and doesn’t offer much beyond a confusing window display. This is yet another example of how the streetscapes of the Twin Cities have devolved. Let’s use this “historic photograph” (i.e.: about two years old and from Google Streetview) as a quick learning tool and analyze what exactly went wrong here.

The image above is the corner of Grand Ave and Milton Street. It’s not flashy, but it offers awnings to protect pedestrians from the elements (rain, sun, etc) and shelter for those using the bus stop. Most importantly, it has windows that function and doesn’t have a single “blank wall”.

The Milton Street frontage had a coffee shop that had pleasant outdoor seating. Unfortunately, in their redesign of this space, Anthropologie completely ignored all the elements that made this building successful in the first place. It’s too bad. Maybe if the neighborhood wasn't busy fighting a 6 car parking variance, they might have noticed that a great building was being renovated into something with a soulless street front.

Strong Towns on Tap

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood Updated: April 3, 2013 - 11:24 AM

“Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”  - Ben Franklin

What better way to bond than over beers, laughs and a good ideas from some of Minnesota's finest young urbanistas?

Strong Towns is hosting "On Tap" on Tuesday, April 9th from 5:30 pm – 7:30 pm at HUGE Theater in Uptown Minneapolis (Lyndale Ave & 31st).

The April “on Tap” will be a series of fast-paced, highly-visual presentations on the topics of land use, transportation, urban development, placemaking, urban design, municipal finance or any other Strong Towns-related topic. The event will be recorded, videotaped and produced.

Oh yeah, there will be free food and a cash bar! This is a great venue and we really want to get as many people there as possible, so please plan to attend, invite your friends and neighbors and let everyone in your social networks know.

I hope to see you there!

___

Strong Towns is a non-profit, non-partisan organization that helps America's towns achieve financial strength and resiliency. For more information, please visit www.StrongTowns.org.

 

St. Paul: Lowertown doesn't have a parking problem

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood Updated: February 23, 2013 - 12:17 PM

Lowertown in St. Paul doesn’t have a parking problem. I take that back. It does have a parking problem – there’s too much of it.

lower park

Here’s a snapshot of downtown St. Paul. These blue spaces represent off-street surface parking lots and parking garages; but do not highlight on-street or underground parking. Also, they represent only, to the best of my knowledge, available public parking. There are a few more small parking lots but Google Maps limited me to 75 shapes per map.

I bring this up because there’s a debate going on in Lowertown about removing up to 22 on-street parking spaces to expand a sidewalk to accommodate outdoor dining.

“The proposed sidewalk expansion would remove 21 or 22 parking spots from either side of the street, allowing sidewalk cafes near the Barrio, Bulldog and Bin Wine Bar restaurants or future bars. Building owners Dave Brooks and Jim Crockarell have embraced the plan and would pay for the sidewalk widening through assessments …”Pioneer Press [1/3/13]

If you think that 22 spots is a mere drop in the bucket, you’d be right.

Grid.mn brings up that “It seems remarkable that business owners not only want less parking, but are willing to pay $300,000 to do it.” This is true. The most important thing to note is that it seems like a change in attitude, at least from the business stand-point, of how city life should operate.

The opposition to the sidewalk expansion isn’t without a good argument; “Some downtown residents have said that parking lanes act as a buffer between moving vehicles and pedestrians on the sidewalk and that removing those lanes could be a safety hazard.” [Pioneer Press]. This is a good argument straight out of the Jeff Speck Walkable City Playbook. It’s true. Cars can create a great pedestrian buffer zone.

In my mind, this whole debate is moot and has leapfrogged into the realm of ridiculous, including an implied comparison of the construction of Interstate 94 through downtown and the destruction of a historic neighborhood to that of a one-block sidewalk expansion proposal. The sidewalk proposal was also rejected by the Historic Preservation Committee, confusingly so I might add. What’sWhy is the moot? Because the real culprit isn’t parking or cafes, and it shouldn’t be viewed under just those two lenses.

This debate about city life (parking vs. cafes) has a uniquely American bend. I say this because we are ignoring the role that the street plays in this debate. Why does a street through the heart of our downtown need to have two through-lanes? Why can’t we impede upon the traffic flow?

ThruLanes

We have all of this space for an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 cars per day [MnDOT]. While it’s not downtown’s sleepiest road, it certainly doesn’t have a lot of traffic compared to other areas that many would consider successful commercial, residential and retail streets. For example, this stretch of street has about 1,000 to 2,000 fewer cars than (smaller) Selby Avenue.

One of the failures of St. Paul is that it’s refused to let go of one-way coupling streets; a move that would be likely lauded by planners and citizens alike (with St Peter St. and Wabasha St. being possible exceptions). St. Paul is still being held hostage by out-of-date auto-oriented transportation planning. And worse yet, it’s so ingrained in our psyche that a situation like sidewalk cafes and parking comes into our public dialogue and we don’t even consider that one-way couplings and our tenacity for traffic flow might be our biggest impediment to a successful downtown. Instead, we pit on-street parking versus cafe seating. Little do we consider that, if we were to slightly impede peak traffic flow, that we could actually have both.

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