Nathaniel Hood

Nathaniel Hood is a transportation planner and blogger living in St. Paul. He writes for Strong Towns and Streets.MN.

St. Paul is the place to be

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood under Government, Politics, Physical infrastructure, Transportation 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.

LEED Photo of the Month

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood under Physical infrastructure Updated: July 3, 2013 - 3:33 PM

LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is an ecology-oriented building certification program run under the auspices of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). LEED concentrates its efforts on improving performance across five key areas of environmental and human health: energy efficiency, indoor environmental quality, materials selection, sustainable site development and water savings.

I found this image on a website for a developer.


[Click on Image for Larger Size]

Experts in LEED? Interesting. In my mind, if it's not LEED-ND then it's not LEED.

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Happy 4th of July!

The Politics of Dumb Infrastructure

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood under Physical infrastructure Updated: June 11, 2013 - 12:04 PM

We have a political situation in the United States where Democrats are too eager to build anything if it creates a job and the Republicans are too willing to call a project a boondoggle without first investigating its merit. It is this standstill that Josh Barro argues in How Republicans Made Both Parties Stupid On Fixing Infrastructure:

Republicans aren’t interested in coming up with smarter, more efficient ways to build rail infrastructure. So;Democrats fear that if they don’t defend wasteful, ill-conceived rail projects, they won’t get any at all. 

Barro uses the example of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie killing a proposed $10 billion railway tunnel into New York City;

The project was overly expensive and the terminal, in particular, was unnecessary — New York Penn Station, which currently receives trains from New Jersey, has plenty of platforms, they’re just used inefficiently today. We could much more cheaply build a new tunnel to serve the existing station.

It’s hard not to apply a local context. The Southwest Corridor light rail alignment comes to mind. The preferred local alternative is one of compromise: taking federal money while it’s still available, getting it done quickly, and bypassing Uptown in the process.

It leads us to a political question of cost-effectiveness.

This requirement puts elected officials in a quandary: should they work to build the most effective transit network possible, or should they limit their ambitions for fear that the federal government will rule out any funding at all? – The Transportation Politic

The densest, most urban neighborhoods of Minneapolis will be passed up partly because we want to get it done quickly, and our decision-makers will argue that something is better than nothing. The result: we’ll build a $750 million project through the least dense neighborhoods of Minneapolis where we’re likely to see the least ridership and the least associated spillover development (there are excellent maps on Net Density outlining population densityaccess to employment and access to automobiles along both routes).

There is certainly merit to building transit in a cost-effective manner, but it shouldn’t necessarily be done at the cost of creating an efficient system that connects meaningful places.

In order to receive money from Washington, Metro will have to show that the proposed route meets national cost-effectiveness guidelines, which are stringent enough to sieve out a large percentage of proposed new transit lines. ­–Transportation Politic

Minneapolis is getting the lesser of two routes due to a lack of political consensus on what makes good infrastructure.  It’s this orderly, but dumb, system that makes planners and politicians play to a bureaucratic equation that is supposed to guide local officials towards the best alternative. Only it never actually works out that way and it usually forces smart people into making highly compromised and less-than-ideal decisions.

With local officials wanting the Federal government to pick-up a majority of the tab on the Southwest Corridor, they are going to play ball with the cost-effectiveness ratio. Getting all the money locally, or through the State Government, would be an impossible political task regardless of the merit. Can you imagine asking the Republican Party of Minnesota to pay for the entirety of a light rail line? In fact, you’d have trouble selling the idea to most Democrats.

Why must we have a cost-effectiveness equation? Is it to select the best projects? No, it’s merely to prove that we’re doing infrastructure in a supposedly financially responsible manner, primarily concerning initial capital costs.

Yet, this equation won’t save us money in the long run because it leads to, above all, cutting corners. We should be cutting the corners that need to be cut, but cutting corners for the sake of cutting corners with no regard for what we’re cutting is to say that all infrastructure projects are created equal. They aren’t and they shouldn’t be viewed as such.

We do need to build infrastructure other than big highways, new bridges and shiny sports stadiums. However, not all rail projects are necessarily a good investment (e.g.: Tampa Bay to Orlando High Speed Train). Democrats should be mindful of this. But, Republicans need to stop saying that everything is a boondoggle. The more they do this, the more they lose credibility and appear out-of-touch.

Republican needs to get off the obsession with big roads and highway spending (in all fairness, Democrats are proponents of large road-related infrastructure projects too). Michelle Bachmann, the Tea Party representative of Minnesota, constantly laments wasteful government spending … expect when it concerns widening I-94 to St. Cloud or spending $750 million to connect exurban Hudson. It is this, I believe, why Barro writes;

But Republicans aren’t interested in building better rail projects — they just don’t want to build them at all. Christie hasn’t made a priority of building a smarter, cheaper Hudson tunnel to replace ARC; instead, he’s widening the New Jersey Turnpike.

Bachmann would be doing her district a much bigger favor if she advocated for a transit line (rail or BRT) that connected downtown Stillwater to St. Paul or to extend the Northstar Line to St. Cloud. Both of these projects could be done for nearly the same cost as the projects she is advocating, but would have a bigger, more meaningful outcome. These could be done in a reasonable and arguably conservative way.

Barro has some more suggestions for Republicans;

Republicans ought to own the issue of American uncompetitiveness on infrastructure costs. They should seize on a report out today from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, about how America’s regulations on rolling stock prevent us from using the same kinds of train cars that European countries do. Our trains have to be custom-designed and heavy, which makes them more expensive, less efficient and less reliable. This is dumb and we should fix it.

Word.

[Note: the requirements of cost-effectiveness have been loosened since 2010, but the Southwest Transit route remains the same].

Minnesota Vikings Stadium FAIL

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood under Government, Politics, Physical infrastructure, Road and highway construction, Vikings Updated: May 13, 2013 - 11:25 PM

fly-thru5

The architecture of the Minnesota Vikings Stadium: take it or leave it?

Personally, I think it looks like a cross between a laser jet printer, a drunk Frank Gehry and something out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. This is not a compliment. However, be this as it may, preference on architectural styling, no one should be surprised as this is the usual forgettable stuff that post-modernist firms like HKS Architects have been creating for quite some time.

I’ve been a critic of professional sports financing for a long time and will continue to be; but now that it’s a reality that the Vikings will get a new home, I’d like to see it be as good as possible. That means we need a combination of respectful architecture and urban design. This proposal fails on both fronts.

For all it’s faults, the City of Indianapolis built Lucas Oil Stadium. It’s a large, expensive taxpayer subsidizes stadium, but it does pay homage to classical architecture. It doesn’t always have the best street frontage, but it still pretends the pedestrian exists. Going into tonight, I had my fingers crossed that we’d get something similar to Indianapolis.

The architecture and urban design of the new Vikings stadium are bad, at best. I’ll ignore architecture here. The urban design isn’t shaping out to be an improvement over the current footprint of the Metrodome. Urban design is very important, and for this reason, I ask the City of Minneapolis Council to consider that upon their approval of the site plan.

fly-thru1

Along the plaza, facing the current Metrodome light rail station, a large plaza opens up to large glass walls. This will likely be an impressive sight from inside the new stadium, but it won’t do much for pedestrian activity or promoting a lively streetscape during non-game days. The plaza needs more activity.

fly-thru2

It’s a large building that adds a small park to the Metrodome’s existing footprint. We need more. But, what’s a green space with an active surrounding? The park like space will likely be empty without adjacent buildings nearby to add activity.

fly-thru3

There are no new improved transportation connections between the Downtown East neighborhood and the rest of downtown or the River. It’s basically a new, modern rendition of the Metrodome: an over-sized, unquestionably ugly spaceship that adds nothing to the built environment.

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The large plaza will be lively during the football season, but will likely be a wind-swept space during regular 9 to 5 Monday-Saturday. It’s a large, nondescript plaza that pays homage to the stadiums large set of windows, and not to the surrounding environment.

fly-thru5

This will arguably be the worst part of the stadium. It’s a large, multistory blank wall. No activity here except a parking lot and some emergency exit doors. It’s blank, dark and ignores the urban environment. This is unacceptable – a 5 to 6 story blank wall? No windows. A few doors. Lots of emptiness.

fly-thru6

There really isn’t much here that will act as an improvement in the urban design department, and it is hard to see how a building like this will promote additional development. Who would want to live by a monolithic, mega church of a building that only occasionally pays homage to the cultural Gods of Football. It’ll be empty 95% of the time and chaotic the other 5%.

Now, with e-pulltabs being as they are, all we need to do now is find a way to pay for itself (and, if you don’t care for it, well – if history repeats itself, it’ll likely be torn down in about 20 years).

Why Beards are like Good Urbanism

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood under Society, Physical infrastructure, Urban living Updated: May 2, 2013 - 10:07 AM

I always enjoyed a good challenge. 

 

 

A beard isn’t something you grow overnight. Neither is a city.

Both these seemingly unrelated entities need to mature, fill in and be properly groomed, yet still maintain their distinct ruggedness. But why when it comes to urbanism do we attempt to do it overnight?

With few exceptions, our made-from-scratch urban districts and suburban expansions never seem to turn out as we’d like. We’re never happy with them. That should be no surprise. It’s like gluing on a fake beard onto a pristinely shaven face. It looks ridiculous and no one respects you.

We need incremental urban growth that can mature. This includes not only architectural context, but also urban design. Let me explain. So, we’ve got yourself some stubble. It looks good, but doesn’t quite cut it. If you let it grow for a week or two, you’ll notice that the hair gets slightly longer, but it mostly fills in. It isn’t until the beard truly fills in that you have yourself the start of a good thick, dense and rich beard. This is precisely when the beard gains character.

That is what our cities and towns need: to fill in the blank spaces.

Incremental scale grows into something successful. It’s usually small and builds slowly over time, but it is tremendously resilient. However, it’s not going to be easy. This new economy, which I firmly believe we are transitioning into, will require multiple players who can produce small scale, incremental development. This is how urbanism will be accomplished in the next 20 years.

Growth will have to come from within. If you can’t get hair on credit for that beard of yours, then it likely won’t happen with your downtown.

No two beards are alike. Neither are cities. Facial structures differ like geographies. Results everywhere are likely to be different. Some will succeed, others will be tolerable and a few will fail. That’s okay. It’s like having a patchy beard. With time, some spots will grow in. Others may not; but that formula overtime will lead to a place with a heck of a lot of character.

There is something sophisticated, intriguing, and dare I say irresistible about a man with a mature beard. The same can be said about a city. Each piece of hair is like a citizen; some gray, others are frizzy, while some are crimped and ingrown. Each may not be much individually, but together as a whole, they can accomplish something great.

In the end, it’s all about creating a place where people can live, work, interact, and most importantly, be happy. And in a world of limited resources, the city and town structure have demonstrated the most efficient and effective way to make this happen. We need to fill in our towns with people to keep this big experiment going.

A city doesn't grow its people. A people grows a city. 

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