Nathaniel Hood

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

Posts about Government

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.

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.

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

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[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.

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[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.

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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.

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.

Minnesota Vikings Stadium FAIL

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood Updated: May 13, 2013 - 11:25 PM

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The architecture of the Minnesota Vikings Stadium: take it or leave it?

Personally, I think it looks like a cross between a laser jet printer, a drunk Frank Gehry and something out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. This is not a compliment. However, be this as it may, preference on architectural styling, no one should be surprised as this is the usual forgettable stuff that post-modernist firms like HKS Architects have been creating for quite some time.

I’ve been a critic of professional sports financing for a long time and will continue to be; but now that it’s a reality that the Vikings will get a new home, I’d like to see it be as good as possible. That means we need a combination of respectful architecture and urban design. This proposal fails on both fronts.

For all it’s faults, the City of Indianapolis built Lucas Oil Stadium. It’s a large, expensive taxpayer subsidizes stadium, but it does pay homage to classical architecture. It doesn’t always have the best street frontage, but it still pretends the pedestrian exists. Going into tonight, I had my fingers crossed that we’d get something similar to Indianapolis.

The architecture and urban design of the new Vikings stadium are bad, at best. I’ll ignore architecture here. The urban design isn’t shaping out to be an improvement over the current footprint of the Metrodome. Urban design is very important, and for this reason, I ask the City of Minneapolis Council to consider that upon their approval of the site plan.

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Along the plaza, facing the current Metrodome light rail station, a large plaza opens up to large glass walls. This will likely be an impressive sight from inside the new stadium, but it won’t do much for pedestrian activity or promoting a lively streetscape during non-game days. The plaza needs more activity.

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It’s a large building that adds a small park to the Metrodome’s existing footprint. We need more. But, what’s a green space with an active surrounding? The park like space will likely be empty without adjacent buildings nearby to add activity.

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There are no new improved transportation connections between the Downtown East neighborhood and the rest of downtown or the River. It’s basically a new, modern rendition of the Metrodome: an over-sized, unquestionably ugly spaceship that adds nothing to the built environment.

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The large plaza will be lively during the football season, but will likely be a wind-swept space during regular 9 to 5 Monday-Saturday. It’s a large, nondescript plaza that pays homage to the stadiums large set of windows, and not to the surrounding environment.

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This will arguably be the worst part of the stadium. It’s a large, multistory blank wall. No activity here except a parking lot and some emergency exit doors. It’s blank, dark and ignores the urban environment. This is unacceptable – a 5 to 6 story blank wall? No windows. A few doors. Lots of emptiness.

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There really isn’t much here that will act as an improvement in the urban design department, and it is hard to see how a building like this will promote additional development. Who would want to live by a monolithic, mega church of a building that only occasionally pays homage to the cultural Gods of Football. It’ll be empty 95% of the time and chaotic the other 5%.

Now, with e-pulltabs being as they are, all we need to do now is find a way to pay for itself (and, if you don’t care for it, well – if history repeats itself, it’ll likely be torn down in about 20 years).

Lowertown’s Parking Challenge!

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood Updated: March 12, 2013 - 7:46 PM

This map sparked a few disparaging tweets, including a small #twitterwar with a City Council member. As it turns out, people get riled up about parking. It is as if they feel they are entitled to parking and the benefits thereafter.

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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. If you think that 22 spots is a mere drop in the bucket, you’d be right. I went out to prove it.

The Lowertown Parking Challenge

[YouTube: Lowertown Parking Challenge - St. Paul]

The rules were simple:

  • Drive to Lowertown
  • Take the same route everyday
  • Park as close as possible to Mears Park
  • Park for free

Findings of the “Challenge”:

  • Furthest distance: 600 feet of Mears Park everyday between the hours of 5:30 to 7:30pm
  • Closest distance: During three of the trips I found a spot directly on the park
  • Cost: I never once paid for parking
  • Shortest time spent finding a spot: 2 minutes and 15 seconds
  • Longest time spent finding a spot: 3 minutes and 41 seconds

This is not an academic study. I merely sought out to prove that, under current conditions, a person can drive into Lowertown and park with relative ease and do it for free. I also wanted to mention that I’m keenly aware of the limitations of this challenge (e.g.; time of day, work week, etc.).

Lowertown is arguably the most successful area of downtown St. Paul. Coincidentally, although it has a lot of parking, it still has noticeably less parking than everywhere else. I do not think that is a coincidence. That being said, I think there is something to say about on-street parking.

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. Why 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?

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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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