Nathaniel Hood

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

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. 

Reconsidering the Nicollet Mall Redesign

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood under Politics, Physical infrastructure, Transportation, Road and highway construction Updated: April 16, 2013 - 1:03 AM

There is a $20 million sum of state money that may be dedicated to redesign Nicollet Mall. While $20 million could bring some impressive changes to the pedestrian mall, these funds would represent an unfortunate misapplication of limited resources.

We need to reconnect Nicollet Avenue- not re-design Nicollet Mall. It's being discussed over at Streets.MN, too.

ericroper_1365803137_NicolletMall

Nicollet Mall, the nation’s first pedestrian transit way, is one of Minneapolis’ great success stories.  It’s the heart of downtown Minneapolis and has history of being the Minneapolis’ Main Street.

The Mall came about in a time of urban turmoil across most of the United States. Cities were desperate to attract people downtown while residents were fleeing to the suburbs. Minneapolis got stakeholders together and created what was really one of the few urban success stories of the 1960s. Many cities followed suit. Most of them failed.

Fast forward to 2013. Nicollet Mall is still a great artery running through the heart of downtown. It’s bike, walk and transit friendly. It has retail, food and good amount of street life. One could even argue that Nicollet Mall is downtown Minneapolis.

Minneapolis is still waiting on $20 million in state funding to redesign for the State government. However, the city is still moving forward on a design competition. This is a bad idea for two reasons:

  1. There is nothing particuarlly wrong with how Nicollet Mall looks or functions that can’t be fixed by land use tweaks, and
  2. To achieve a much higher return on investment, the money would be better spent onother needed projects

First of all - there is nothing wrong with Nicollet Mall that can’t be fixed by a little land use tweaks (and adding some more amenities on the north side of the mall besides parking). If you traverse Nicollet Mall, you’ll quickly notice that building don’t always address the street frontage in a responsible way. That is the main culprit. As a pedestrian space, it’s already really, really good.

Now, there might need to be a brick that needs to be fixed here and there. Add a few climate-appropriate tree. The sidewalk heating system might need some updates and some fountains re-tooled. The Mall was reconstructed in 1991. At the time, a sidewalk heating system was installed – and it’s not worked since. And guess what? It doesn’t matter – the Mall still works because snow shovels still work (and they are much cheaper).

The main problem is that the buildings need to do a better job of addressing this pedestrian elements of the Mall. It needs more cafes, more food trucks, and more informal activity that integrates with building programming. But, by and large, the street does well. If anything, Nicollet Mall needs more small storefronts. It’s as simple as that. It adds to the diversity of the environment and gives people something to enjoy. Large monolithic towers may look good from afar, but often do little for the street.

There is also something to be said about Nicollet Mall as a historic place. While other cities were giving up, Minneapolis fought back. There is something beautiful in that. It not only fought back in 1965, but also in 1991 (which was another decade of big city mistakes). Minneapolis’ endevour worked, and it should be celebrated because it tells the great urban story of resiliency.

Re-design or not – the Mall will still be a central part of Minneapolis life. In the process of acquiring this $20 million in State money, there might be some great re-design submissions. And, I certainly do not mean to criticize city officials for trying to make downtown as great as it can possibly be, it’s just that money can be spent more strategically elsewhere.

If the City of Minneapolis is looking to really create a noticeable difference in a world of limited resources, they need to look at the corner of Nicollet Avenue and Lake Street. One would be hard pressed to find a single decision that would have a greater impact on the lives of Minneapolis residents than opening up south Nicollet to Eat Street and connecting them to the Mall in downtown.

A redesign might make Nicollet Mall more modern, “green” and more landscape urban-y. But, I think we need to concentrate on places where we can get the highest return on investment. When I say, “return on investment” – I’m not just referring to the city’s financial bottom line, I’m talking social and culturally. We can take a hub that has been depressed for 30 years, connect it north and south to downtown – not just for automobile – but for pedestrians and cyclists.

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It’s been talked about for years; and people are going to keep talking about it until it’s fixed:let’s re-connect Nicollet Ave! Let’s get people together and let’s get politicians on board! Today is DFL Caucus Day in Minneapolis – bring it up in your ward! Let’s do something about Nicollet and Lake!

Anthropologie: A Storefront Not Worthy of Grand Avenue

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood under Society, Politics, Physical infrastructure Updated: April 10, 2013 - 10:27 PM

Grand Avenue would be a better place if the neighborhood organization was more concerned about good street frontage than petty parking minimums.

What was once a neighborhood coffee shop, high-end camera shop, kitschy nick-knack decor shop and Birkenstock storefront is now a high-end boutique. It appears as if the gentrifiers are being gentrified out. The clothing store Anthropologie recently renovated a corner of Grand Avenue's Milton Mall and has drastically changed the street scape of one of America's prettiest neighborhoods.

Grand Avenue has a great tradition of holding storefronts accountable and forcing businesses to address the sidewalk and the pedestrian. This is why I kept thinking that this project was still under construction. I was wrong. This is the finished project.

On the Milton Street side, large windows and bricked entryways have been covered up with a drab paneling and include glossy “windows that aren't windows".

On the Grand Avenue frontage, large windows have been covered up and a door has been closed off and glossed over in drab teal.

Along Milton Street the large windows have been covered up with blank walls (and one smaller window has been created).

The blank panels are large, these probably measure upwards to 10 to 12 feet tall. At such a busy pedestrian intersection it’s hard to imagine that a store wouldn’t want to use this space to at very least advertise their products.

The corner window does offer pedestrians a glimpse of whats inside. Yet, the teal green is off putting and doesn’t comfortably mesh well with the historic brick facade. The whole renovation gives off a cold vibe.

Anthropologie added a wooden outset display window along Grand Avenue. Again, the look is cold and empty and doesn’t offer much beyond a confusing window display. This is yet another example of how the streetscapes of the Twin Cities have devolved. Let’s use this “historic photograph” (i.e.: about two years old and from Google Streetview) as a quick learning tool and analyze what exactly went wrong here.

The image above is the corner of Grand Ave and Milton Street. It’s not flashy, but it offers awnings to protect pedestrians from the elements (rain, sun, etc) and shelter for those using the bus stop. Most importantly, it has windows that function and doesn’t have a single “blank wall”.

The Milton Street frontage had a coffee shop that had pleasant outdoor seating. Unfortunately, in their redesign of this space, Anthropologie completely ignored all the elements that made this building successful in the first place. It’s too bad. Maybe if the neighborhood wasn't busy fighting a 6 car parking variance, they might have noticed that a great building was being renovated into something with a soulless street front.

Strong Towns on Tap

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood under Society, Education and literacy, Continuing education Updated: April 3, 2013 - 11:24 AM

“Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”  - Ben Franklin

What better way to bond than over beers, laughs and a good ideas from some of Minnesota's finest young urbanistas?

Strong Towns is hosting "On Tap" on Tuesday, April 9th from 5:30 pm – 7:30 pm at HUGE Theater in Uptown Minneapolis (Lyndale Ave & 31st).

The April “on Tap” will be a series of fast-paced, highly-visual presentations on the topics of land use, transportation, urban development, placemaking, urban design, municipal finance or any other Strong Towns-related topic. The event will be recorded, videotaped and produced.

Oh yeah, there will be free food and a cash bar! This is a great venue and we really want to get as many people there as possible, so please plan to attend, invite your friends and neighbors and let everyone in your social networks know.

I hope to see you there!

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Strong Towns is a non-profit, non-partisan organization that helps America's towns achieve financial strength and resiliency. For more information, please visit www.StrongTowns.org.

 

Lowertown’s Parking Challenge!

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood under Government, Politics, Physical infrastructure, Transportation Updated: March 12, 2013 - 7:46 PM

This map sparked a few disparaging tweets, including a small #twitterwar with a City Council member. As it turns out, people get riled up about parking. It is as if they feel they are entitled to parking and the benefits thereafter.

lower-park

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. If you think that 22 spots is a mere drop in the bucket, you’d be right. I went out to prove it.

The Lowertown Parking Challenge

[YouTube: Lowertown Parking Challenge - St. Paul]

The rules were simple:

  • Drive to Lowertown
  • Take the same route everyday
  • Park as close as possible to Mears Park
  • Park for free

Findings of the “Challenge”:

  • Furthest distance: 600 feet of Mears Park everyday between the hours of 5:30 to 7:30pm
  • Closest distance: During three of the trips I found a spot directly on the park
  • Cost: I never once paid for parking
  • Shortest time spent finding a spot: 2 minutes and 15 seconds
  • Longest time spent finding a spot: 3 minutes and 41 seconds

This is not an academic study. I merely sought out to prove that, under current conditions, a person can drive into Lowertown and park with relative ease and do it for free. I also wanted to mention that I’m keenly aware of the limitations of this challenge (e.g.; time of day, work week, etc.).

Lowertown is arguably the most successful area of downtown St. Paul. Coincidentally, although it has a lot of parking, it still has noticeably less parking than everywhere else. I do not think that is a coincidence. That being said, I think there is something to say about on-street parking.

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. Why 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.

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