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

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:

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.

Convention Centers: It's a race to the bottom

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood Updated: August 21, 2013 - 8:45 PM

There was a haunting piece of information in The Atlantic Cities that should send shivers down the spines of city leaders across the country.

Over the last 20 years, convention space in the United States has increased by 50 percent; since 2005, 44 new convention spaces have been planned or constructed in this country alone. That boom hasn’t come cheap. In the last ten years, spending on convention centers has doubled to $2.4 billion annually, much of it from public coffers. [Is It Time to Stop Building Convention Centers?]

The desire for convention centers is simple: it brings in visitors with outside money who consume things that are taxed at higher rates (alcohol, hotel rooms, rental cars, etc). From the city’s perspective, it appears to be a win-win. But, these investments come at a cost. In this case, the cost is increased competition.

The article continues,

There aren’t really enough conventions to go around. The actual number of conventions hosted in the U.S. has fallen over the last decade. Attendance at the 200 largest conventions peaked at about 5 million in the mid-1990s and has fallen steadily since then. [Is It Time to Stop Building Convention Centers?]

The number of conventions and total number of people going to conventions has decreased since it peaked in the mid-1990s. The situation we have now is that of more cities are competing for fewer dollars.

It's a classic race to the bottom.

The problem with convention center developments are numerous: there are usually a lot of bad urban design outcomes, they’re large buildings that are essentially single-use that don’t lend much to street life, and they cost local governments a lot of money.

Here’s the bigger problem. Convention centers aren’t limited to just our major cities. Most mid-size cities have them, too. In Minnesota – it’s not just Minneapolis and St. Paul, it’sMankatoSt. CloudDuluthRochester and even Bemidji!

The State pays for most of them. The confusing part is why a State would subsidize Bemidji’s convention center that will directly compete with its other State-aided convention centers in Mankato, St. Cloud, Duluth and Rochester. The cities are competing against each other to provide more space for fewer events and fewer people?

Minneapolis and St. Paul may struggle to make payments on conventions center operating cost overruns or debt service payments, but are big enough to absorb some bad decisions. But, towns like Mankato (pop. 40,000) and Bemidji (pop. 15,000) shouldn’t be risking economic growth on a convention center (or convention center expansions, of which is being seriously considered in Mankato).

I’m going to pick on Bemidji’s new convention-entertainment center. It cost $75 million.

[Image from www.ci.bemidji.mn.us website. Click to enlarge]

The problems here are numerous. Much has been written on convention centers andsporting arenas and their failures at delivering even the most modest of economic gains. This is a concern. But, I wanted to take a different angle.

It’s not just that these projects are economic losers. They more than often destroy prime parcels of real estate with little or nothing to show for it except lots of parking.

Here’s the location.

It’s approximately 1.4 miles from the center of town, occupies a large parcel of prime land on the south shore of Lake Bemidji, doesn’t add any real value to the adjacent neighborhood and won’t pay any property taxes. A better use of this land could be doing something as simple as just continuing the street grid and added single family homes.

This is a sample of 10 blocks of mostly taxpaying single-family homes that will easily fit on the parcel. Coincidentally, this is approximately the same space dedicated to parking.

To make matters worse, it’s about the same size as Bemidji’s charming and loveable downtown. Financing of the project aside, we need to scale down the size of our developments – especially those in small towns.

Continuing to expand convention center space is the economic development equivellent of gambling aginst someone with a stacked deck. It's not going to end well.

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.

house2

[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.

ADVERTISEMENT

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

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT