Nathaniel Hood

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

Posts about Physical infrastructure

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.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

LEED Photo of the Month

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood Updated: July 3, 2013 - 3:33 PM

LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is an ecology-oriented building certification program run under the auspices of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). LEED concentrates its efforts on improving performance across five key areas of environmental and human health: energy efficiency, indoor environmental quality, materials selection, sustainable site development and water savings.

I found this image on a website for a developer.


[Click on Image for Larger Size]

Experts in LEED? Interesting. In my mind, if it's not LEED-ND then it's not LEED.

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Happy 4th of July!

The Politics of Dumb Infrastructure

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood Updated: June 11, 2013 - 12:04 PM

We have a political situation in the United States where Democrats are too eager to build anything if it creates a job and the Republicans are too willing to call a project a boondoggle without first investigating its merit. It is this standstill that Josh Barro argues in How Republicans Made Both Parties Stupid On Fixing Infrastructure:

Republicans aren’t interested in coming up with smarter, more efficient ways to build rail infrastructure. So;Democrats fear that if they don’t defend wasteful, ill-conceived rail projects, they won’t get any at all. 

Barro uses the example of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie killing a proposed $10 billion railway tunnel into New York City;

The project was overly expensive and the terminal, in particular, was unnecessary — New York Penn Station, which currently receives trains from New Jersey, has plenty of platforms, they’re just used inefficiently today. We could much more cheaply build a new tunnel to serve the existing station.

It’s hard not to apply a local context. The Southwest Corridor light rail alignment comes to mind. The preferred local alternative is one of compromise: taking federal money while it’s still available, getting it done quickly, and bypassing Uptown in the process.

It leads us to a political question of cost-effectiveness.

This requirement puts elected officials in a quandary: should they work to build the most effective transit network possible, or should they limit their ambitions for fear that the federal government will rule out any funding at all? – The Transportation Politic

The densest, most urban neighborhoods of Minneapolis will be passed up partly because we want to get it done quickly, and our decision-makers will argue that something is better than nothing. The result: we’ll build a $750 million project through the least dense neighborhoods of Minneapolis where we’re likely to see the least ridership and the least associated spillover development (there are excellent maps on Net Density outlining population densityaccess to employment and access to automobiles along both routes).

There is certainly merit to building transit in a cost-effective manner, but it shouldn’t necessarily be done at the cost of creating an efficient system that connects meaningful places.

In order to receive money from Washington, Metro will have to show that the proposed route meets national cost-effectiveness guidelines, which are stringent enough to sieve out a large percentage of proposed new transit lines. ­–Transportation Politic

Minneapolis is getting the lesser of two routes due to a lack of political consensus on what makes good infrastructure.  It’s this orderly, but dumb, system that makes planners and politicians play to a bureaucratic equation that is supposed to guide local officials towards the best alternative. Only it never actually works out that way and it usually forces smart people into making highly compromised and less-than-ideal decisions.

With local officials wanting the Federal government to pick-up a majority of the tab on the Southwest Corridor, they are going to play ball with the cost-effectiveness ratio. Getting all the money locally, or through the State Government, would be an impossible political task regardless of the merit. Can you imagine asking the Republican Party of Minnesota to pay for the entirety of a light rail line? In fact, you’d have trouble selling the idea to most Democrats.

Why must we have a cost-effectiveness equation? Is it to select the best projects? No, it’s merely to prove that we’re doing infrastructure in a supposedly financially responsible manner, primarily concerning initial capital costs.

Yet, this equation won’t save us money in the long run because it leads to, above all, cutting corners. We should be cutting the corners that need to be cut, but cutting corners for the sake of cutting corners with no regard for what we’re cutting is to say that all infrastructure projects are created equal. They aren’t and they shouldn’t be viewed as such.

We do need to build infrastructure other than big highways, new bridges and shiny sports stadiums. However, not all rail projects are necessarily a good investment (e.g.: Tampa Bay to Orlando High Speed Train). Democrats should be mindful of this. But, Republicans need to stop saying that everything is a boondoggle. The more they do this, the more they lose credibility and appear out-of-touch.

Republican needs to get off the obsession with big roads and highway spending (in all fairness, Democrats are proponents of large road-related infrastructure projects too). Michelle Bachmann, the Tea Party representative of Minnesota, constantly laments wasteful government spending … expect when it concerns widening I-94 to St. Cloud or spending $750 million to connect exurban Hudson. It is this, I believe, why Barro writes;

But Republicans aren’t interested in building better rail projects — they just don’t want to build them at all. Christie hasn’t made a priority of building a smarter, cheaper Hudson tunnel to replace ARC; instead, he’s widening the New Jersey Turnpike.

Bachmann would be doing her district a much bigger favor if she advocated for a transit line (rail or BRT) that connected downtown Stillwater to St. Paul or to extend the Northstar Line to St. Cloud. Both of these projects could be done for nearly the same cost as the projects she is advocating, but would have a bigger, more meaningful outcome. These could be done in a reasonable and arguably conservative way.

Barro has some more suggestions for Republicans;

Republicans ought to own the issue of American uncompetitiveness on infrastructure costs. They should seize on a report out today from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, about how America’s regulations on rolling stock prevent us from using the same kinds of train cars that European countries do. Our trains have to be custom-designed and heavy, which makes them more expensive, less efficient and less reliable. This is dumb and we should fix it.

Word.

[Note: the requirements of cost-effectiveness have been loosened since 2010, but the Southwest Transit route remains the same].

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