What’s the plan now? That’s a good question.
I’ve often contemplated what this election mean for America’s towns and cities? I’m not really sure. My guess is that is resembles something like what Bob Collins’ tweet was hinting.
In my mind, one of our political faults is that we ignore how we build places and don’t have anything that resembles a consensus on urban and rural infrastructure development. Our collective culture is still set in the idea that large infrastructure projects will help us grow our way out of debt [See "Debate Questions" on the blog and the related podcast].
The establishment, both liberal and conservative, view projects like the $750 million St. Croix Bridge and the $125 million 169/494 interchange as catalysts of growth – not agents of future debt and long-term maintenance obligations. It’s embedded in our economic culture and how we develop our landscapes.
A great example of lacking a consensus is my hometown: Mankato, Minnesota.
Mankato really wants a vibrant downtown. They’ve pulled out all the usual stops: promote mixed-used development, a historic building facades grant program, improve street, pedestrian and bike connections and reacquaint the town with its riverside. The plan is good, but the City has absolutely no idea how to make it happen.
All the money and time spent towards revitalization efforts is moot if Mankato doesn’t stop subsidizing large competing suburban infrastructure projects that add no real value to the community and quickly become financial liabilities. Public officials on all sides of the political spectrum want the best of both worlds: 1) more quick tax revenue windfalls from easy-to-build suburbanism, and 2) a vibrant downtown. This point is best illustrated by Mankato’s new expensive intersection and its relationship to “new mall building.”
This 1.2 mile blue line represents one of the biggest urban planning blunders in Mankato history. In fact, it probably represents upwards of a $1 billion in extra cost to the small City and its residents over its short 20 year existence. What is the blue line you ask? Well – it is the shortest route that connects Mankato’s Madison East Mall (built late 1960s) to the newer River Hills Mall (built early 1990s). This also ignores that they also built a mall downtown (destroying good urban fabric) in the 1980s.
In the early 1990s, instead of expanding the existing mall and using existing infrastructure in the (still) vacant land surrounding the Madison East Mall, the decision was made to sprawl out the town an extra 1.2 miles. The question I wish would have been asked in the 1990s is: how much financially better off would the town be if it didn’t build the additional roadways, exit ramps, water and sewerage pipes and electric lines?
All of this needs to be maintained into perpetuity. Not to mention that every driving trip for the majority of Mankato’s population burns 2.4 miles more in gas. And for what? In return for the newer mall where city residents get virtually the same stores in a different location? Needless to say, the town is still recovering from this decision, the old Madison East Mall is a ghost town and the buildings that once abutted the commercial hub have gone through 25 years without reinvestment.
My favorite example is the Burger King at the entrance of the old mall. It’s now abandoned. The Burger King closed after access to the fast food restaurant was decreased as a result of a $25 million intersection “improvement” project that was designed to accommodate more traffic towards a newly built intersection ($4 million) and away from an old (and “congested”) intersection adjacent to the River Hills Mall. I’m not mourning the loss of a fast food chain, but merely shaking my head in disappointment and begrudging acceptance at the desolate environment that will continue to ensue once the building starts to fall into disrepair along Mankato’s busiest road.
This cost $25 million. It effectively saves drivers upwards of 1 minute in time and prevents people from having to turn left. This is in addition to another $4 million to build yet another intersection (just slightly down the road) at local Highway 14. All of these expenditures are necessary because of the Mankato’s chosen development pattern. Unfortunately, all of this cost a lot of money and doesn’t pay for itself. Imagine what could be done if Mankato decided to spend the $29 million spent on sprawl-inducing intersections and instead used that money to improve its already existing public infrastructure downtown or neighborhoods?
To give you an idea of the total costs of public infrastructure: The total land and construction of Mankato’s new elementary school costs $8 million less than its two new intersections. At the end of the day, Mankato has money to spend on infrastructure. The town just isn’t spending it in the right places.
This is the problem we have and this is where I agree with Bob Collins’ Tweet: What’s the plan now? For development of infrastructure and our built environment, it looks to be more of the same. If politicians were looking for a stronger economy, they should look to build Strong Towns.
There is something great about experiencing an election with a group of strangers over a beer in a public place.
Unlike the last Presidential election, I stayed in this year. It was quite the juxtaposition to 2008 and 2010 (read: Sweeny’s Pub, plenty of ale and countless mini-corn dogs). Last night I enjoyed my girlfriend’s delicious Midwestern-style dinner of chicken and biscuits and a nice, relaxing night in – yet, it didn’t quite rival the excitement of experiencing election results with a large group of strangers over a pint. There is something excellent about being surrounded by people from both parties, cheering for different candidates, all in the same space.
We need to create built environments all over this country where these interactions can happen more often. It’s one reason that I stress our need for more quality “third” places. Twitter is a good place to communicate, but a great third place is tough to beat.
While it'd certainly be fun to be surrounded by like-minded supporters, I can't help but think there is something missing at single-issue / single-party campaign party get-together. You'll expirience one emotion at these places: joy or despair. But, when sharing a space with a diverse group of people, while you might not get the extremes, you'll hopefully have a relatable expirience with the person of opposing viewpoints. It makes your political opposition human and relatable when sharing a place in close proximity.
Well America – that was fun, but can we please get back to upbeat television ads about fast food, laundry detergent, beer and shiny electronics?
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I was reading through the Star Tribune comments section on an article about LED lights. It was a good article, if you happen to be into that, and in all fairness, it does deal with issues outside the realm of what I’m about to write about. That being said, the comment section left me shaking my head at our misguided ideas about being both economical and environmental. The most glaring being a rebuttal comment to the writer’s small jab at the Toyota Prius:
[...] I drive a 2005 Prius. I bought it used with 3000 miles on it. I know have 200,000 miles on the car and drive 80 miles a day. My average gas mileage is 54 miles per gallon. This is finest and most ECONOMICAL, reliable car I have ever owned. I don’t understand the dig in your article. I would buy another Prius in a moment but have never had too. Just sets of new tires!
Let me offer some insight: nothing about driving 80 miles a day is economical or environmental.
We have a major disconnect in this country on what is and what isn’t economical and environmental.If you really want to make an impact on your wallet and the environment, there are a few simple things you can do (and no, buying a Prius is not one of them).
1) Where we live. What would be more economical than driving 80 miles in a Prius would be to drive 2 miles in a Chevy Suburban (or better yet, walk or bike). Living close to work is one of the most economical decision you can make. This is what I call the David Owen / Ed Gleaser argument [by the way, David Own has a new book out that deals with this very issue].
2) The places we build. I don’t want to lament on the suburbs anymore than I have to (it’s a dead horse), but we’ve tricked ourselves into thinking we can make it green. Here’s an example from a local developer’s website:
A half-empty big box parking lot fully illuminated during the night? This makes as much sense as putting a small voltage electrical vehicle charging station miles from anything that matters [the best defense I've read of this is LID and NU].
3) Don’t eat meat (as often). I don’t think vegetarians are vegetarians because they are cheapskates. Not eating meat, or eating it less often, is a great, and easy, way to help your pocketbook and the environment. Meat consumes tons of resources – environmental and otherwise – and cutting it out just one or two days a week would do as much as buying any new green gadget.
The key to making a difference (economically and environmentally) for yourself or some greater existential good, you need to not change what we are buying, but how much we are buying (and not what you are living in, but where you are living).
Zoning can limit supply, but not demand. This is an important thing to remember.
I had a chance to sit down with the co-chair of the student group opposing St. Paul's new regulations, Andrew Hasek, along with Streets.MN contributor Bill Lindeke, to discuss the issue on a podcast. I recommend checking it out. You can download it here!
“3 BDRM Home just outside of Student Rental Ban Area! 2 blocks to Macalester! 235 Amherst Ave!!”
These words will probably scare anyone who owns a home just outside of the Student Housing Overlay District. It is a headline for a rental housing advertisement in St. Paul. [Note: This is a nice house in a nice neighborhood - Google Streetview].
The description continues:
“This is a beautiful home that is one block outside of the Student Housing overlay district. That means that as a St. Thomas student you can rent this house without having to worry if your landlord has a Student housing permit because this house does not need one!!”
It is clear that the student housing overlay district is already starting to fail after only a year. The demand for student housing hasn’t ceased and the limited supply near St. Thomas is spreading students further apart, and deeper into other neighborhoods. This is why I was surprised that the Mac-Groveland and Highland District Councils were overall supportive of the measure.
The issue revolves around the University of St. Thomas and its long battle against its neighbors. In this case, the City of St. Paul passed a moratorium on converting owner-occupied dwellings into rentals. The stand-off is summed up brilliantly by a local Twin Cities blogger, Spencer of City of Lakes Urbanism and Streets.MN;
Lots of houses near the campus have been converted into duplex or triplex housing for students over the years. This angers homeowners, who prefer quiet at all hours and unhindered access to on-street parking in front of their homes. Given the nature of local politics, City Council members are more likely to respond to the needs of their homeowner constituents than their student renter constituents. In this case, St. Paul City Council members are considering banning students from entering into the neighborhood, purely because the homeowners don’t want them [Link].
He’s 100 percent right.
Homeowners are not happy about the spreading student population, and you can get a feel of their negative reactions in Finance & Commerce articles. Residents have reason to be concerned because students aren’t always the best neighbors.
Here’s a small work sample (circa 2004) from my days as a student in the neighborhood. It was a friendly prank on a group of friends who happened to live on Portland Avenue, but neighbors were likely displeased.
To really understand the problem in 2012, you need to rewind to 2003 / 2004. St. Thomas had just spent a decade expanding its student population to around 4,500 plus, and despite new on-campus residential buildings, student populations started to creep further and further into the neighborhood. Part of this was a result of affordability. On-campus housing at St. Thomas (and almost everywhere) is expensive!
Well-intentioned members of the City Council decided to increase restrictions on rental properties and limiting each rental home to include only up to four (4) unrelated people per household. Meaning, large 5, 6 or 7 bedroom houses could only house 4 students.
St. Paul tried to defy the laws of supply and demand. Now, this is where the law of unintended consequences kicks in. They restricted the supply of student housing while the demand remained the same. The market reacted and two things happened as a result:
Today, we now see advertisements boasting that they are close, but not too close, to the University. Who could have predicted this? Well – lots of people. The City of St. Paul just didn’t listen. Beside fellow bloggers, there was a student group that is currently lobbying against the proposal ["Like" them on Facebook].
There are other great issues that come up in regards to this topic. My favorite is from Bill Lindeke. He outlined his case very well on a recent Streets.MN post;
For me, though, the main issue is whether or not it’s ethically acceptable to legally limit where a certain types of people can live. Just because students are an “unprotected class” who are “generally transient” (as the city planner informed the commission), doesn’t mean they’re not equal citizens, and aren’t entitled to the same rights as anyone else. The whole thing reminds me of some of the more shameful moments of US urban history, things like restrictive covenants and redlining. There’s no way that we would single out a group of people according to race, class, religion, or sexual orientation, limiting where they could live. Why is it OK to do this with students?
The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) doesn’t know what it’s doing.
Want proof? The third highest ranking “economic development” project in the State of Minnesota is a parking ramp in Duluth. It ranked 92 out of 100, beating out rural health facilities, wastewater and recycling plants and senior housing.
The methodology relies heavily on short-term construction jobs and dead ideas. The available money is going towards “economic development” (emphasis on the quotations). However, you can file most of the proposals under four basic ‘old economy’ folders:
Why is it that we still view convention centers, parking garages and “if we build it, they will come” small town industrial parks as economic development? Haven’t we been over this before?
The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development doesn’t know what it’s doing. Let me rephrase that: We don't know what economic development is. It's not just DEED.
The desire for convention centers is a simple. While it brings in outsiders who consume things that are taxed at higher rates (alcohol, hotel rooms, rental cars, etc), it almost never justifies the expenditure. From the city’s perspective, it appears to be a win-win, but these investments come at a loss in the long-term.
The number of conventions and total number of people going to conventions has decreased since it peaked in the mid-1990s. During this same period, the number of conventions centers has rapidly expanded. We have now is that of more cities are competing for fewer dollars. It's a classic race to the bottom. Parking garages are the same. People are increasingly driving less, but parking spaces are still built with abundance. Why are we still calling these projects "economic development"?
There is good news for my hometown though. Mankato dodged a bullet! They didn’t get funding for their convention center expansion.
City officials don’t see it that way. They’re upset DEED didn’t consider them a priority on $47.5 million in state bonding money. The city is demanding information as to why DEED ranked their request below other projects [Source].
I want to see Mankato succeed, but filling up more prime downtown real estate with more rarely used buildings seems like a bad idea. Mankato has made enough downtown destroying decisions, and they don’t need to make another one. [Note: In one of the most confusing pieces of urban planning history, Mankato’s Civic Center removed a street, built a pedestrian mall and then put a skyway directly over the pedestrian mall].
If you look at the DEED projects [Excel], it’s hard to tell what has merit and what doesn’t. There are a handful of small town wastewater and recycling plant requests. These are basic necessities, but it’s hard to say if the qualify as “economic development” - even if I am sympathetic to their request. On the other hand, you have unnecessary old economy projects that may create a lot of short-term construction jobs, like a parking garage in Duluth, but ultimately have no economic benefit and arguably hurt municipalities with long-term maintenance obligations while damaging the urban environment.
The majority of the projects resemble Mankato’s application.
The city’s request, deemed the State’s 17th most worthy, was for $14.5 million to expand their existing convention center. The officials claim the money is needed to keep the 19 year old facility competitive, a common cry when looking for money. The City is upset that it ranked behind other civic center projects. It’s not just that, but Mankato feels it has been overlooked as other towns received convention center money in the past decade while Mankato has been left penniless. It’s true. Mankato raised its own money and is dedicating its own food and beverage tax while the State of Minnesota has single-handedly funded their competition.
Mankato discovered that having a convention center only works if somebody else pays for it. That’s why no other city is doing what Mankato did. It just doesn't make sense.
An expansion to a convention center facility in Mankato might be nice for Mankato (the hockey team would be happy). A new baseball field in downtown St. paul would be nice, too. I like baseball and downtown St. Paul. The proposed economic development parking projects, like those of Duluth and St. Cloud, would make a lot of people's lives easier. No question about it. These projects are a lot of things, and might even be justified under some type of social good; but we need to stop pretending they are economic development.