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 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.

Shipping Container Housing is a Terrible Idea

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood Updated: December 1, 2012 - 12:58 PM

I bumped into an article on how Detroit will join some European nations and build America’s first shipping container building. It got me thinking: shipping container housing is a terrible idea. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Why? Because it’s the “same shit, different day” and “experiment on the poor” urban planning faux-avant garde-ism that has failed so miserably in the past. Let me explain.

It’s a trailer park in the sky, a testament to bad taste. - The Free Lance-Star (out of Fredericksburg, Virginia), April 22, 1994

The AP wire picked up on the story and newspapers around the country ran with it: the City of Mankato was going to buy one of America’s ugliest buildings – four stories of stacked trailers – and tear it down.

It was 1995 and the Valley View Apartments or as I knew them, Tornado Towers,  were in the process of being demolished.

The day was memorable. I remember driving up in my Mom’s minivan as the bulldozers razed the site. My father drove up shortly thereafter, snapped some photos from inside his new Buick LeSabre and drove away with a $160,000 check from the City of Mankato (to this day, my dad still has the photos and a newspaper article framed in his office).

The name Tornado Towers, from my understanding, is an ironic testament to what can best be described as good luck. Before the building’s original owners went into default sometime in the mid-1980s, a tornado came through town and leveled nearby buildings and farm fields. One building remained: the stacked trailers (who’da thunk it, right? – as if the stacked trailer homes held together loosely by concrete pillars wouldn’t have been the first to go?).

I spent a good part of my childhood at Tornado Towers helping out as only a child could. In other words, my parents didn’t want to pay for a babysitter, so my brothers and I would pick up small pieces of trash while trying not to get in the way, break something, get hurt or all the above.

I don’t have many memories of the place. My dad recruited a few college basketball players to live there and I remember thinking as a child that one of them was the tallest man alive. There was the Hmong family that tied a goat to their trailer on the ground floor. That got a few complaints. Going up and down the staircase was scary and the elevator never worked (the empty shaft eventually turned into storage space). That’s about it.

The heating bills were astronomical, but it was tolerable since rent went for around $250 per month. In 9th grade science class, years after the tear down, our eccentric teacher handed students a book on heat loss in buildings. The thermal imaging of the building was one big red block. The Tornado Towers was used as a worst-case example.

Tornado Towers was originally an “experiment on the poor” system of public housing units. The idea of the late 1970s, when it was built, was to have cheap, mass-produced subsidized housing that could be moved at the owner’s will. For example, you’d get a trailer, eventually buy it from whomever, own it and move it to another location if you earned enough money to do so. That never worked out, and eventually the place found itself in mortgage default. Next, my father bought them … under my mother’s name (as he tells the story, the bank was offering anything short of giving it away and my mom must have had a better credit score at the time).

Tornado Towers turned around – not visually, but financially – the units were rented to college students and immigrants. It was close to the college and offered affordable housing. The place ceased being government-subsidized housing and turned into good old fashioned affordable housing – mostly by virtue of its ugliness and poor insulation [it was eventually replaced by something almost equally as ugly].

The place was hardly utopia, but was rich with culture and social diversity. The place was dumpy and borderline unsanitary – but never unsafe (it always passed health, safety and any other inspection strategically thrown its way in the City’s apparent attempt to get it condemned). The buildings looked terrible, but operated well.

___

Image from WellHome.com

Shipping containers are the new stacked trailer homes. We should avoid building them at all costs. It is, as many like to say, same shit, different day.

It’s not that we shouldn’t build affordable housing – it’s that we shouldn’t build experimental affordable housing to fit the needs of a few green, trendy, idealistic populations who won’t be living there. The desire to recycle these unwanted containers is noble, but doesn’t lend itself to being as green as a building that can be built and stand its ground for hundreds of years.

It’s not always cost-effective either. Containers need to be converted to habitable places, apparently there are a lot of really bad chemicals involved, and moving shipping containers between locations doesn’t isn’t cheap either.

While I have fond, nostalgic memories of Tornado Towers, it was an unsightly and unfortunate place that could only attract poor students and poorer immigrants. It was built in the late 1970s and less than 15 years later, the townspeople were begging to have it torn down. There was so much pressure to get rid of it that the City Council approved buying the property for a third more than its market value just to tear it down.

The shipping container model is really no different: it’s the push for cheap, mass-produced housing that pawns itself off as an affordable, yet stylish and cool, housing option. They are still sold to the public as mobile units. The problem with this model breaks down quickly as the only people willing to live in these quarters are poor themselves, and those who dwell in them view them as merely a stepping stone to a better place. In some ways, shipping container housing is actually worse than stacking trailers – at least trailers are originally designed with humans in mind, not shipping mass-produced items across thousands of miles of ocean.

Shipping container housing may make some sense in impoverished areas, like the favelas of Rio de Jeneirio, or as shelters after disasters in Haiti. They should not, however, be assembled to meet the needs of the first-world poor. We should view these are nothing more than a passing novelty – especially in areas like the Midwest. Real estate in Detroit is already affordable, and it’s confusing that small, cramped shipping container units would be viewed as a better alternative than just building brick buildings (according to one source, shipping containers save only 5 to 10 percent on construction costs).

Growing up, I was embarrassed about my direct relationship to Tornado Towers (and how they were apparently ranked as one of America’s 10 ugliest buildings - relatives in Arizona sent us newspaper clippings from their local paper). Now, I embrace Tornado Towers for three reasons:

  1. I’m glad I got to experience a localized version of urban planning history first-hand, the good and the bad;
  2. the City paid my father enough to clear any debts, launch his own business and do well enough to help support our family, and;
  3. I can hopefully pass this message along enough times to stop, halt or delay any ridiculous shipping container project that may come up

Vikings Stadium: Bad Neighbor

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood Updated: November 25, 2012 - 2:42 PM

Who would want to live by a football stadium? It’s virtually empty or seriously under-utilized 355 days a year and chaotic for the other 10 days a year. That sounds miserable.

A recent Star Tribune commentary asked the question, “Vikings stadium: Good neighbor or not?”.

Historically, the answer has been not; and based on all the renderings I’ve seen, the answer will continue to be not. Actually, I take that back – the stadium won’t be either a good neighbor or a bad neighbor. Why? Because it won’t really have any neighbors.

While not the final design, the most recent building renderings resemble nothing more than Metrodome version 2.0 – (it looks like someone sliced the dome’s roof to let in some air and then added a glass facade). North of the stadium, there are three city block sized open surface parking lots. To the west of the site, there are what appear to be two blocks of undefined plaza space. There is some green space and a few small building on the east side of the site, but since this space is currently an interstate highway, it’s not really clear what will happen there.

The only neighbors it would inconvenience are those who are already currently inconvenienced by the stadium. It’s likely the new stadium won’t spark new neighbors either. Do Stadiums Bring Development? Usually not.

I’ve written about this and shared these images a lot over the past year, and I continue to do so because I believe they are powerful in visually showing how little stadiums actually help.

If we build it, they will come? This argument doesn’t hold up under even the most modest of scrutinies. The Twin Cities own experiences should serve lesson that large sport and convention center venues do not create a catalyst for development.

[Minneapolis, Minnesota - 1991, 2002, 2009]

Notice the development around the Metrodome? Neither did anyone else. North of the Metrodome, near the Guthrie Theater, residential development has occurred, but little of which can be attributed to proximity to the Metrodome. The Mississippi River, cultural amenities and other forces play a larger role in redevelopment.

St. Paul has had similar results with the Xcel Energy Center.

[St. Paul, Minnesota - 1991, 2002, 2009]

The taxpayer-subsidized arena was supposed to act as a catalyst for development in St. Paul. Ten years later, there isn’t much to show for it besides renovated pubs along West 7th Street. All of which are fantastic (McGoverns, The Liffey, Eagle Street, Tom Reid’s), but the success of these local watering holes is hardly worthy of hundreds of millions dollars in taxpayer subsidizes.

Stadiums prompting development in the immediate surrounding area of new stadium construction certainly sounds like a plausible argument as large infrastructure projects do typically yield private development. However, sport stadiums appear to be the exception to the rule.

[Indianapolis, Indiana - 1992, 2007, 2010]

The new Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis is pictured above. Notice the RCA Dome in the 1992 and 2007 images. It’s a now a convention center – a non-private sector development.

[Philadelphia, Pennsylvania - 1992, 2002, 2011]

Philadelphia’s sports district has seen little improvement in two decades. Sports stadiums seemed to beget only more sports stadiums … and open surface parking lots. A similar story exists in Phoenix, Arizona, where not even the seemingly omnipresent speculative housing subdivisions of Phoenix desired proximity.

[Phoenix, Arizona - 1992, 2003, 2011]

Even urban success stories of the 2000s (such as Denver and Pittsburgh) with large influxes of people clamoring for downtown and inner-city real estate struggled to fill in the empty surfaces surrounding their sport stadiums.

[Pepsi Arena, Denver, Colorado - 1992, 2002, 2011]

[Coors Field, Denver, Colorado - 1993, 2003, 2011]

[Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania - 1993, 2004, 2010]

Is Minneapolis the exception to the rule? Will we somehow beat this stadium vacuum? It’s unlikely. When a large building fails at creating a lively mix of retail, residential, commercial and civic space – it creates an isolating space not worthy of the public affection. Developers, unless enticed with subsidizes, will likely avoid these places.

It doesn’t help that these stadiums aren’t cheap – taxpayers usually end up taking on the initial bill, and all the risk. Stadiums and their surrounding districts are the new “Bilbao anomaly”, are the new urban mall, are the new downtown casino, are the new urban renewal.

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