Nathaniel Hood

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

Posts about Politics

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.

trulia

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

fly-thru5

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.

fly-thru1

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.

fly-thru2

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.

fly-thru3

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.

fly-thru4

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.

fly-thru5

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.

fly-thru6

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).

Reconsidering the Nicollet Mall Redesign

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood Updated: April 16, 2013 - 1:03 AM

There is a $20 million sum of state money that may be dedicated to redesign Nicollet Mall. While $20 million could bring some impressive changes to the pedestrian mall, these funds would represent an unfortunate misapplication of limited resources.

We need to reconnect Nicollet Avenue- not re-design Nicollet Mall. It's being discussed over at Streets.MN, too.

ericroper_1365803137_NicolletMall

Nicollet Mall, the nation’s first pedestrian transit way, is one of Minneapolis’ great success stories.  It’s the heart of downtown Minneapolis and has history of being the Minneapolis’ Main Street.

The Mall came about in a time of urban turmoil across most of the United States. Cities were desperate to attract people downtown while residents were fleeing to the suburbs. Minneapolis got stakeholders together and created what was really one of the few urban success stories of the 1960s. Many cities followed suit. Most of them failed.

Fast forward to 2013. Nicollet Mall is still a great artery running through the heart of downtown. It’s bike, walk and transit friendly. It has retail, food and good amount of street life. One could even argue that Nicollet Mall is downtown Minneapolis.

Minneapolis is still waiting on $20 million in state funding to redesign for the State government. However, the city is still moving forward on a design competition. This is a bad idea for two reasons:

  1. There is nothing particuarlly wrong with how Nicollet Mall looks or functions that can’t be fixed by land use tweaks, and
  2. To achieve a much higher return on investment, the money would be better spent onother needed projects

First of all - there is nothing wrong with Nicollet Mall that can’t be fixed by a little land use tweaks (and adding some more amenities on the north side of the mall besides parking). If you traverse Nicollet Mall, you’ll quickly notice that building don’t always address the street frontage in a responsible way. That is the main culprit. As a pedestrian space, it’s already really, really good.

Now, there might need to be a brick that needs to be fixed here and there. Add a few climate-appropriate tree. The sidewalk heating system might need some updates and some fountains re-tooled. The Mall was reconstructed in 1991. At the time, a sidewalk heating system was installed – and it’s not worked since. And guess what? It doesn’t matter – the Mall still works because snow shovels still work (and they are much cheaper).

The main problem is that the buildings need to do a better job of addressing this pedestrian elements of the Mall. It needs more cafes, more food trucks, and more informal activity that integrates with building programming. But, by and large, the street does well. If anything, Nicollet Mall needs more small storefronts. It’s as simple as that. It adds to the diversity of the environment and gives people something to enjoy. Large monolithic towers may look good from afar, but often do little for the street.

There is also something to be said about Nicollet Mall as a historic place. While other cities were giving up, Minneapolis fought back. There is something beautiful in that. It not only fought back in 1965, but also in 1991 (which was another decade of big city mistakes). Minneapolis’ endevour worked, and it should be celebrated because it tells the great urban story of resiliency.

Re-design or not – the Mall will still be a central part of Minneapolis life. In the process of acquiring this $20 million in State money, there might be some great re-design submissions. And, I certainly do not mean to criticize city officials for trying to make downtown as great as it can possibly be, it’s just that money can be spent more strategically elsewhere.

If the City of Minneapolis is looking to really create a noticeable difference in a world of limited resources, they need to look at the corner of Nicollet Avenue and Lake Street. One would be hard pressed to find a single decision that would have a greater impact on the lives of Minneapolis residents than opening up south Nicollet to Eat Street and connecting them to the Mall in downtown.

A redesign might make Nicollet Mall more modern, “green” and more landscape urban-y. But, I think we need to concentrate on places where we can get the highest return on investment. When I say, “return on investment” – I’m not just referring to the city’s financial bottom line, I’m talking social and culturally. We can take a hub that has been depressed for 30 years, connect it north and south to downtown – not just for automobile – but for pedestrians and cyclists.

___

It’s been talked about for years; and people are going to keep talking about it until it’s fixed:let’s re-connect Nicollet Ave! Let’s get people together and let’s get politicians on board! Today is DFL Caucus Day in Minneapolis – bring it up in your ward! Let’s do something about Nicollet and Lake!

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.

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.

lower-park

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?

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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