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

St. Paul: Lowertown doesn't have a parking problem

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood Updated: February 23, 2013 - 12:17 PM

Lowertown in St. Paul doesn’t have a parking problem. I take that back. It does have a parking problem – there’s too much of it.

lower park

Here’s a snapshot of downtown St. Paul. 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.

“The proposed sidewalk expansion would remove 21 or 22 parking spots from either side of the street, allowing sidewalk cafes near the Barrio, Bulldog and Bin Wine Bar restaurants or future bars. Building owners Dave Brooks and Jim Crockarell have embraced the plan and would pay for the sidewalk widening through assessments …”Pioneer Press [1/3/13]

If you think that 22 spots is a mere drop in the bucket, you’d be right.

Grid.mn brings up that “It seems remarkable that business owners not only want less parking, but are willing to pay $300,000 to do it.” This is true. The most important thing to note is that it seems like a change in attitude, at least from the business stand-point, of how city life should operate.

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. What’sWhy 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.

I Love Rice Park

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood Updated: February 13, 2013 - 10:56 AM

 

Rice Park is a perfect urban park.

pan

There’s never a bad time of year in Rice Park. In the winter, it illuminates and warms up downtown. In the summer, it has beautiful tree cover. In the fall, you can enjoy the changing colors of the leaves against the beautiful backdrop of the St. Paul Hotel, Central Library and Landmark Center. In the spring, you can walk around and snap photos of Peanuts characters or measure yourself up against the stature of St. Paul favorite writer/alcoholic F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Rice Park is a beautiful island surrounded by equally beautiful local landmarks. It feels almost European.

The park is historic. In fact, the park is a few years older than the State of Minnesota. And, one of its amazing attributes is that it’s changed over time in that sort of beautiful urban adaptability type of way. It was first used to dry laundry and graze animals. A fountain and bandstand were added in the 1870s and electric lights in the 1880s [source]. Now, it’s a pleasant outdoor room with activities, ice sculptures, an occasional hockey rink and kitschy, yet-interesting and well-done statues.

Rice Park is a park, but it’s also an outdoor room surrounded by some of St. Paul’s most distinctive architecture.

The Landmark Center

land

The St. Paul Hotel & Lawson Commons

hotel

The Ordway Center for Performing Arts

ord

St. Paul Central Library

central

Ice Hockey Rink

hoc

Rice Park is magical. I love it. Happy Valentine’s Day!

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Streets.MN is doing an "I Love" series for Valentine's Day Week. To see what other people love; visit Streets.MN.

St. Paul isn’t Minneapolis (and that’s a good thing)

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood Updated: January 21, 2013 - 11:25 PM

If you were to read the City of St. Paul’s legislative wish list, you’d see a list of big projects such as:

  • $14 million to improve the Children’s Museum
  • $7 million for parking and transportation improvements at Como Park
  • $32 million loan forgiveness tied to the Xcel Energy Center (in an effort to not pay down debt, but still collect a special sales tax revenue increase to fund a professional hockey practice rink across the street)

Last year the City asked for $25 million for a new baseball stadium in Lowertown, and they got it.

The odd thing about these projects is that they aren’t what the average resident of St. Paul really cares about. It appears as if these funding requests are typically large ticket items aimed at attracting people from outside St. Paul to come visit.

Most of these projects are part of this senseless game of “let’s compete with Minneapolis.”

Newsflash: St. Paul isn’t Minneapolis, and the residents of St. Paul are content with that.

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.

I live in St. Paul because I like St. Paul.

I like the neighborhoods and the tree-lined streets. I like the Groveland Tap and Grand Avenue. I love the slower pace of life, the cheaper rents and about a thousand other things. I like that I have the keys to my neighbor’s house, you know, just in case. I like that when I leave my trash bin out that my neighbor will bring it back and place it in my backyard. Yes, these things occur in Minneapolis neighborhoods too, but I have experienced them in my neighborhood in St. Paul.

Sure, I’d like to buy cupcakes on Grand Avenue and have a few more bike lanes, but I can get by without them. No place is going to be perfect.

The easiest way to make life better in St. Paul would be to listen to its residents. The city would find that most suggestions are small, reasonable and affordable. I was having this conversation with my girlfriend and I asked her “What could be done to make St. Paul a better place?”

Right away, off the top of her head, she responded with two great suggestions:

  • The need for a mid-range grocery store in our neighborhood, and to
  • Connect the Sam Morgan Regional Bike Trail (that runs along the Mississippi) with the Bruce Vento Trail (that heads towards White Bear Lake and Stillwater).

Both of these ideas would benefit thousands of people and are really cheap (or, at least cheaper than a baseball stadium and the Children’s Museum expansion). The mid-range grocery store would certainly help me. In Highland Park, we’ve got high-end and low-end. Mississippi Market, Kowlaski’s and Lund’s are great, but they break the bank. Then we’ve got Cooper’s Super Value. It’s cheap, but good luck finding fresh fruit. And bridging the disconnect between the two bike trails would entail nothing more than adding a mile or two of bike lanes and some better wayfinding signage. Simple.

I asked myself the same question. I want a place within walking distance to grab a beer that isn’t Tiff’s and I think it’d be great if we could make West 7th Street into something other than a busy collector road. Also, it’d be nice if we got some protected bus shelters.

I asked my neighbor. His suggestion was even more basic: add sidewalks along Davern Street Hill and Edgecumbe Road so the kids who have to walk up the hill to high school don’t have to walk in the street.

That’s it! That’s what people actually want: a sidewalk, bike trail, neighborhood pub and an affordable grocery store.

Okay, before you write something in the comment section, I want to say: Yes, I’ve used a very small sample size. I recognize this. The St. Paul demographic that I know would be those living south of I-94 and those without children. I’m sure if I asked this question to some parents or anyone living anywhere in St. Paul, they’d tell me something about their neighborhood, their public school and possibly something about crime.

The point I want to get across is that people want things that are small and localized. They want the proverbial pothole fixed, and while they may enjoy the occasional visit to the Science Museum and possibly a Wild game or two, that’s not what they really care about. That’s not what makes them want to live in St. Paul.

If St. Paul does the small things right, then I think the big things, like sports stadiums and science museums will fall into place.

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Bored? Follow me on Twitter at @Nathaniel1983. Also - stop by Strong Towns and Streets.MN.

Hanging Mankato's History

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood Updated: December 26, 2012 - 6:43 PM

There is a memorial service down the street in honor of the 38 Dakotans executed during the Dakotan Conflict as I sit here at a bagel shop in downtown Mankato. There are a good number of people in attendance and police are directing traffic. You can read about it here.

The largest mass execution in United States’ history happened here. It’s been 150 years and there is going to be a new monument. It’s a 20 foot scroll with 38 names located across the street from the execution. A public library and a few statues sit on the actual execution site while a bridge leaves the site in its shadow.

The monument is an island. You can check out the Google Streetview here.

Riverfront Drive, a major arterial road, cuts on the north side of the site. All the decorative lights and flower planters in the world won’t help improve the joy of walking along Riverfront Drive, which hasn’t been connected to the Minnesota River in 5 decades. It should be called Concrete Wall Front Road. The new statue, along with the statue of the now-locally vanished American Bison, is wedged between this busy road, an industrial railroad track and a concrete retaining wall protecting the City of Mankato from a 200 year floods and from good, scenic views.

The monument is an island, and it’s practically located under a bridge. It’s not exactly hidden, but it certainly doesn’t have a prominent location or good civic location.

Unless you knew the local history, you’d never know it was an execution site. Maybe that’s intentional? By virtual of its location, it is a “drive by” statue. Ninety-nine point nine percent of people will experience the monument by automobile. I bring this up because I think it effects how we relate to our history.

I lived in Edinburgh – a city with an exciting (but tremendously violent) history. It’s hard to walk a few hundred yards without seeing an execution site, unmarked grave or an advertisement for a haunted catacombs tour (where countless anonymous black plague victims were tossed). These tragedies are part of Edinburgh’s history – and they are embraced. And by the way, this brief paragraph doesn’t even begin to describe the historical atrocities that occurred in and around Edinburgh’s city walls.

I can’t say whether or not the Scottish people are embarrassed by these tragedies, but I can say that they have embraced them. It’s not just Edinburgh, but violent histories have been accepted so much that they even play into the realm of marketing of place. There is a pub across the street from a public execution site in Edinburgh that, as the marketed history goes, gave a free pint to the soon-to-be executed. The execution block still stands, as does the pub. The last public execution there was on the site: June 21st, 1864 (FYI: the Mankato Mass execution: December 16th, 1862).

The difference is that those hung in Edinburgh’s public square were likely criminal, to what severity I do not know. Mankato’s victims, while many may not have been innocent, were victims of a much wider and complex set of scenarios (Listen to the This American Life episode titled, “Little War on the Prairie”). Minnesota doesn’t have a long history, so maybe that makes tragedies things stick out? Of course, what community wants their claim to fame to be “Home of the Largest Mass Execution in United States History”?

History is written by the victorious. In the United States, we have a history of tearing down our history – just look at our built environment. I feel that holds true more often than not, but destructing the Dakotan Conflict execution is seemingly more difficult. We acknowledge that it happened, but we don’t fully embrace it. We’ve built monuments to the event, but we place them practically under bridges.

Best of 2012 @ Streets.MN

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood Updated: December 20, 2012 - 1:00 AM

The best of 2012 - Local Urban & Transportation Style! You voted. We wrote it all up.

The first couple 'best of' have already been posted:

It's not every day you get such a specific 'best of' opportunity. I wrote on New Urbanism's Excelsior and Grand and it's victory as the best simulacrum of Main Street.

That isn’t to say Excelsior and Grand isn’t without criticism, but it’s the best we’ve got. In fact, it’s hard to take other Twin Cities New Urbanist projects seriously. Arbor Lakes? No real residential. West End? Same problem, but with too much parking and it’s half-empty. Burnsville’s Heart of the City? I’m really happy they are trying. Woodbury Lakes? You can’t be serious?

I had this college summer internship that paid me too much money to basically drive aimlessly around the metro. Coming from a small town and moving directly to an walkable, urban-university setting, this internship was the first chance I had to experience suburbia. I’d drive from suburban office complex to strip mall to industrial park, and repeat. One day pre-ubiquitous GPS systems, I remember coming off Highway 100 while coming down from one of Blaine’s excruciatingly depressing industrial parks. I made a wrong turn and somehow bumped into Exclesior & Grand.

I remember thinking it was a mirage, an oasis in the suburban desert. This place couldn’t be real?

There are a few elements that put Excelsior and Grand ahead of the competition. The location is aided by its proximity to Minneapolis. That, and it’s surrounded by a partial traditional street grid. The strip malls nearby are old by strip mall standards, but they look quaint relics of the bygone years when compared to the expansive Power Center Strip Malls of the late 1990s and early 2000s. In a way, Excelsior and Grand is still surrounded by suburbia, but a humble suburbia in its first generation. The type of suburbia that still had some traditional patterns and acknowledged that Minneapolis, the big city, actually existed.

Excelsior and Grand is not an island (a criticism I have with all the other NU projects on the list). It’s connected to the neighborhood to the south and the few apartment / condo buildings to the north. As long as those walking are willing to brave Excelsior Blvd. The pedestrian connections aren’t that bad and walking within is a pretty pleasant experience. The project doesn’t feel too out of place either – it’s as if it is less than 10 years old, but already part of the neighborhood.

The retail currently occupying Excelsior and Grand is doing well. My only complaint is that the businesses are boring (CVS, Panera Bread, Starbucks, etc.). This isn’t a bad thing for most people. Eventually, as rents and markets change, businesses will come and go. That’s part of how a these things operate and I’m confident the Panera Breads of the world won’t stay forever. I’m just glad that we’ve got a place with good bones – even if the shops are bland.

If you're looking to see the rest of the "best of" series - you can find it here on Streets.MN.

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