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:
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.
Following up with my Dead Malls article, I felt it was only fair to visit some of them. I trekked over to both the Knollwood Mall and Bandana Square (okay, admittedly it wasn’t a trek, I work near Knollwood and live in St. Paul).
Knollwood Mall [St. Louis Park, Minnesota]
It’s unfair to label Knollwood a “dead mall” – it is very much alive. While not thriving, there is activity over the lunch hour and some suburban retail staples exist (e.g.: Applebees, DWS, AT&T Store, TJ Maxx and the Home Goods store). To survive, Knollwood has done what a handful of other struggling malls have done, they’ve turned themselves inside-out.
The exterior, which isn’t connected to the mall, has a healthy existence. The Cub Foods draws a crowd and small shops include typical strip mall additions, such as Subway, Leeann Chin and Caribou Coffee. The inside has a few tenants, but is eerily empty as you walk further away from the main entrance.
There is some action by the Kohl’s clothing store, but the emptiness clashes with the glossy wide-open interior corridors. The space isn’t in disrepair. The mall is in good shape, minus the empty spaces. I’m not sure if Knollwood will ever be the mall it used to be in the traditional sense, but with a location like St. Louis Park, I’m positive there will some redevelopment.
Bandana Sqaure [St. Paul, Minnesota]
This is a more peculiar case. I’ll let an author on DeadMalls.com explain it:
This would be one of the coolest malls in Minnesota – if only it was still a mall. Bandana Square was an early twentieth century railroad station converted into an enclosed shopping center with a historic feel. Somehow it didn’t go over very well – perhaps because it is far from the freeway in St. Paul’s industrial Energy Park. [Link] [See also]
The buildings are phenomenal. The arched windows, the historic brick facade and even the tree layout make Bandana Square a beautiful place (minus the countless empty parking spaces surrounding it). The DeadMalls.com poster is 100% correct: for a mall’s sake – the location sucks. It’s not just that it is away from the highway system, but it’s surrounded by similar style suburban redevelopment industrial parks and 1980s large-scale apartment / condo buildings.
By the way – this might be the most confusing skyway in the Twin Cities. It connects the back parking deck to the main Bandana Square building by bridging a gap over a surface parking lot. It’s hard to imagine that anyone thought this was a good expenditure of money?
At the end of the day, Bandana Square is a magnificent building that has adopted to a life outside of retail. It has a lot of really good tenants, including a hotel, numerous small businesses and a good-sized medical clinic (Aspen - who gave me great help when I couldn’t breathe out of my left nostril – thanks by the way).
There is a larger narrative here, and one that I hope to touch on in the future. That is the story of adaptive re-use. For anyone interested in the topic; here’s a reading recommendation. And here, too.
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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