Twin Cities

A Few Questions the Planning Commission Should Ask About TOD at Hiawatha and Lake

Streets.MN - 7 hours 45 min ago

In early December, Hennepin County and L&H Station (“the development team”) submitted plans for the development of L&H Station at 2225 East Lake Street, at the southwest quadrant of Lake Street and Hiawatha, a six-acre site immediately adjacent to the Lake Street station of the Blue Line. Below is the ground level plan submitted. In the context of the years of planning that led up to this submittal, and posts of my own, the following are a few questions I think the Planning Commission should ask.

Can meaningful improvements be made to activate the 22nd Avenue frontage? (see below for 22nd Avenue elevation) Perhaps the real question is why are 90 enclosed surface parking stalls even needed, given there are 350 underground? The CPED staff report cites the 22nd Avenue frontage as problematic, as it is too inactive and the main problem is the garage door that faces the neighboring YWCA. The development team’s answer to the neighborhood’s urban principle that parking be underground or otherwise hidden from view was to simply enclose the planned surface parking and skin it with the bike storage area. They added that the bike storage could maybe become a bike shop, which would be nice, but where is the letter of intent from that business? The development team also extended the windows farther south from the corner at Lake Street with the notion that the corner retail space be occupied by a restaurant with an active patio. That’s all well and good but what if a restaurant never materializes?

The southern third of the 22nd Avenue frontage is the planned apartment building whose lobby will face 22nd. The problem there is the plan shows a wall separating the sidewalk from the building (see below), which reduces a building’s ability to activate the public realm. So, whereas the development team argues that as much as two-thirds of the 22nd Avenue frontage could be active, in reality if no restaurant or bike shop moves in the active frontage will be closer to zero. Either way, the big garage door remains

Speaking of the hope for retail tenants, has the planned retail space, its design, ingress and egress and relationship to parking been vetted by retail developers and brokers?

Is the county really willing to spend such a large proportion of it’s the project budget on parking? Putting nearly 350 stalls underground at a ballpark figure of $25,000 per stall is $8.75 million, or 17% of the $52.5 million budget.  Even if all those stalls were needed, putting those stalls in a parking ramp at $15,000 each could save $3.5 million that could go to fund the farmers market plaza or other public amenities. On a related note, is all this parking needed, as the CPED staff report asks?

What is the plan for the market plaza and will a future owner materialize without additional public expenditure? Among the many things the Corcoran neighborhood wants is a permanent home for the farmers market and street-facing retail. While it is true that a location is being set aside in the plan for the farmers market, actual improvements to that location aren’t yet guaranteed. Aside from having to operate from a new location consisting of asphalt, the only guarantee is that they will have to move at least twice before this is resolved. Moreover, there certainly isn’t money identified as of yet to improve the plaza, much less provide management and programming for the plaza the other six days of the week when the farmers market isn’t operating. The development team themselves acknowledge this as an issue, and their hope is that a well-funded entity comes along to purchase the plaza from the county.

Is it really best for the neighborhood and farmers market to have the market plaza so isolated from the rest of the site? As perverse as this sounds, the current situation of the farmers market, open and visible from the YWCA, Lake Street and the Blue Line, albeit on an asphalt lot, is better than some future scenarios.

Is the Corcoran neighborhood really happy with the current plan? Although CNO has supported past iterations of the plan for Lake and Hiawatha, to my knowledge they have not officially voted to endorse this particular design. There is a difference between settling and striving for something better.

Just to be clear, the private green roof (shown below) located above the enclosed surface parking lot will be built as part of phase 1, but there is not yet a plan nor funding to build the public plaza that will be the home of the farmers market?

Is there a better way? While the Planning Commission’s job is to react to the submitted plan, even a little research in to past iterations of this project show prior plans had a much better public realm that was more porous and pedestrian-friendly (see 2010 plan below). So many of the issues that arise in the staff report stem from the fundamental layout of the site plan, which is primarily driven by the county’s pressing need to get their service center completed as soon as possible and the insistence that guests can arrive by car and directly enter the building without needing to set foot outside. What this does is puts indoor parking at the center of the site (with private green space above), which creates a ripple effect throughout the site, diminishing pedestrian connections, creating auto-dominated frontages and ultimately isolating what should be the centerpiece of the site, the market plaza.

We can do better. A group of concerned urban professionals including Bob Close, Pete Keely, Michael Lander and I came up with an alternative ground level plan (see below) that accommodates the county’s needs but also accomplishes the following:

  • A vastly improved public realm with additional pedestrian passages throughout the site, and a better relationship between the train station and both public and private spaces
  • Brings the private green roof down to the ground level as a public amenity
  • Provides a finished, permanent location for the farmers market to operate but that can also be used for a variety of everyday uses as well as programming space for the YWCA – all part of phase 1
  • Improves ground levels of buildings as they relate to the public realm (addressing, among other things, problematic 22nd Avenue frontage)
  • Provides a cost savings on parking and allows for a reduction in parking in a future phase if deemed unnecessary
  • Much more attractive and marketable retail space
  • An overall public realm shared by all and more socially equitable

It wasn’t so much that we wanted “our plan” to be used (we don’t even want credit for it), but rather that it serve as an example for how great this TOD could be. We believe that if you put 10 developers and urban designers in a room for a day (like a ULI Advisory Panel, for example), you could come up with a plan that meets the requirements of Hennepin County but also better results for everyone, particularly the public realm. A win-win.

Alas, Hennepin County is, after all, the key to this project, with a $52 million investment that frees up the site to be developed over time. Purely from the perspective of delivery of services for Hennepin County, this project meets their needs, and with the added benefit that clients can arrive by transit if need be. It is really exciting that Hennepin County is bringing an anchor tenant to the site, but the fundamental problem is they have designed a suburban-style facility that allows visitors to never set foot in public, urban space. That is fine in Brooklyn Center, for example, but not in the city, much less next to a train station. We should hold Hennepin County to a higher standard when it comes to TOD.

The old expression about not letting the pursuit of perfection get in the way of good results would apply here if the results were good, but the problem is they are so…disappointing, and as I already noted are a step in the wrong direction from earlier plans. We cannot accept mediocrity in the name of urgency. And the idea that this is the only way to accommodate Hennepin County’s needs is simply untrue. There can be a win-win, and for now it’s in the hands of the Planning Commission. We’ll see if their back and forth with the development team results in meaningful improvements to the plan, because we can do better, but time is running out.

This was crossposted at Joe Urban.

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Categories: Twin Cities

Selling Parklands to Save Them

Streets.MN - 10 hours 50 sec ago

Yesterday on Twitter I suggested selling part of Iris Park in Saint Paul to developers for housing.

Right across from Fairview Ave station is this desolate park. I say sell part of it off for building. http://t.co/QoqWrw1UTr

— Evan Roberts (@evanrobertsnz) December 17, 2014

The reaction was mixed. Lots of people love Iris Park; I am one of them. One of my favorite runs takes me to the Iris Park neighborhood where I do at least a couple of laps and then, for contrast, run home via the industrial areas just north of University. The southern 2/3 of the park around the pond plus another lawn area is a gem of a park surrounded by an interesting neighborhood.

Redevelopment possibilities

Now, it’s easy to say that a park in Minnesota looks desolate during a December thaw. But even at the best of times, the front third of Iris Park fronting University Ave is not well designed. It’s open space with a couple of trees, so people could use it for playing except it fronts a two lane road with no parking, so who would take their children to play there? Who would kick or throw a ball that’s likely to end up in traffic? Who would want to picnic in the sun 10 yards from University Avenue? Put some townhomes or a fourplex on this part of the park, and you’d buffer the park from the busy road. With a little fiscal creativity the proceeds from the land sale and some of the property taxes could be dedicated to improvements in the rest of the park.

Taking a wider view selling off Iris Park is not necessary, of course. The area around the Fairview Avenue station is packed with surface parking lots potential for redevelopment.

The vicinity of Iris Park is saturated with Car Parks.

Some redevelopment is so imminent that there are faded banners announcing new construction coming soon:

Prior Crossing is coming soon.

Respondents to my post pointed out:

@evanrobertsnz If anything University needs more green space, not less.

— S.B. Tuska (@AlleycatPhoto) December 17, 2014

Making unbuilt spaces into parks (or better built space)

Indeed! But let’s make that green space into inviting plazas, parks and gardens, not just “green space” (to use a term introduced by Andrew Price). At the moment about a third of Iris Park is “green space” that doesn’t encourage anyone to enjoy it. There are no benches, no fountains, no public art, nothing buffering it from the road. Open spaces like Iris Park should become high quality places especially as University Avenue develops.

Iris Park is not unique. All over Minneapolis and Saint Paul there are spaces we call “parks” that are really just unbuilt spaces. For example, here’s Bluff Street Park near the West Bank campus of the University of Minnesota and the Cedar Avenue bridge. Again, a pleasant open space. But the ground is bumpy, the grass is mowed irregularly and it’s hard to imagine what kind of ball game would ever be played on this park. Nor are there any amenities that would attract people to the park for other reasons. I pass by Bluff Street Park several times a week all year round and I’ve never seen anyone on it (In the winter I regularly see foxes in the evening). Why keep land as a park if it’s not going to be a good park?

Bluff Street Park near Cedar Avenue Bridge

Asking the question “Should we sell parks to developers” doesn’t imply the answer is “Yes.” But asking the question should prompt us to wonder if we’re making the best use of all the land we designate as parkland.

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Categories: Twin Cities

Is There a Fix for Cathedral Hill’s Parking Woes?

Streets.MN - Wed, 12/17/2014 - 7:26am

In a 7-0 vote, the St Paul City Council recently approved a somewhat controversial liquor license for The Salt Cellar restaurant on the NW corner of Selby & Dale in Cathedral Hill.

While they get kudos for their bike parking and kitchen window, I might deny Salt Cellar a license for base offensiveness. The lack of light, windows, architectural character, and connection to the street won’t reflect the glory of old Cathedral Hill as they’d hoped but the depressiveness of The Lexington. Smart eateries are decreasing their isolation and increasing their connectedness to the streets around them. Beyond sidewalk tables, places like Brasa, Wild Onion, Axel’s, and gobs of others are not only putting in large windows and other architectural elements that improve both the indoor experience and outdoor streetscape but are installing openable windows and walls that do everything possible to blur the line between out and in. We’ve never chosen not to eat or drink somewhere because of too many windows, we’ve often chosen not to eat somewhere because of a lack of windows and connectedness to the outside streets.

The controversy and lots of gnashing of teeth was over Bill Lindeke’s favorite sport—parking. The Salt Cellar has 13 spaces while city code requires about 30 for an establishment of this size that seats 180 fine St Paul folk.

The Salt Cellar owners contended that the lower number was grandfathered with the building.

Ted Glasrud and Assoc, who has the Blair Arcade across the street, along with local eateries Moscow On The Hill and WA Frost had fought the license and wanted the owners to add additional parking spaces. They said that parking is already tight in the area and this will only make things worse.  (It should be noted that I believe Moscow On The Hill provides about zero spaces so perhaps people in spaceless establishments shouldn’t throw stones and all.)

For what it’s worth, I sympathize with both sides. We eat in this area often and have occasionally had problems finding parking. Yes there is a parking problem. I’m not sure more parking is the answer though.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Most conversations before and since the vote have centered around how to get more parking spaces in this neighborhood. That’s certainly one option. However, what if we looked instead at reducing the need for so much parking.

Parking is expensive to provide and maintain. People that utilize it should perhaps pay for what they use, especially if it’s as valuable a commodity as it becomes in this area sometimes.

While I wouldn’t oppose charging, I’m not a big fan. So consider:

A Salt Cellar neighbor with a much better and more inviting streetscape and better windows and light inside and that truly does reflect the glory of old Cathedral Hill while feeling open and contemporary.

Someone who walks to any of these eateries requires zero parking spaces (and if sober causes no congestion nor adds air, noise, or dirty snow pollution to the neighborhood).

People who ride bicycles take up about 1/20th as much space as a car and likewise don’t add to neighborhood congestion or pollution.

What if all of these eateries, who I believe are the primary cause of parking congestion, provided a discount to people who walk, ride a bicycle or mobility scooter, or take transit to get there? In other words, a discount if they don’t take up a parking space or add to neighborhood pollution.

Perhaps a 10% discount for walking or bicycling and 5% for transit.

Why would they do this? What’s in it for them? Topping the list is pure altruism (yes, it does still exist) to improve their customers health and make the neighborhood better. They may also benefit more directly from the better neighborhood if people choose to eat here more often because it’s a more enjoyable neighborhood with more people on the streets and fewer cars. People who’ve ridden might also feel better about themselves and be more willing to spend money on food and … dessert.  People who are active and not driving may also spend more on the number one profit item for eateries—alcohol.

Another neighbor that better reflects the glory of old Cathedral Hill while feeling open and contemporary.

This wouldn’t be a bad PR move for these eateries either.

 

Parking Requirement Buyouts

Or maybe the city offers businesses a buyout option on parking spaces. In place of providing some number of spaces they agree to provide a discount to folks who walk, bicycle, or bus. After all, fewer cars benefits everyone including the city who can save on street maintenance and replacement costs.

What if residential landlords offered a discount to folks who agree to not keep a car or if homeowners received a similar discount on their property taxes? Why should someone pay for something that they don’t use, whether public on-street or private lot? This is a fairly walkable/bikeable neighborhood with decent (by Twin Cities standards) transit connections so foregoing a car is not at all unrealistic.

Another neighbor that reflects the glory of old Cathedral Hill while feeling open and contemporary.

All of these options would not only help with the parking concerns but make the neighborhood even more appealing than it already is. And that’s a win for everyone.

As well, people walking or riding bicycles are much more likely to make purchases in local stores than someone driving by in a car. Someone who drives 3 miles each way to an eatery spends about $5 just in transportation costs (not including parking). If they save this by riding a bicycle will they be more likely to spend that $5 (or more?) on purchases at local stores or eateries?

Who knows, maybe a crazy idea like this would work. I’d love to see the day when some of the parking lots scattered along Selby (and elsewhere) are no longer needed and can once again become something useful. Like a building with a store or eatery on the first floor and people living or working on the floors above.

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Categories: Twin Cities

Passenger Rail to Northfield?

Streets.MN - Tue, 12/16/2014 - 10:45am

Dan Patch Line (photo Northfield Historical Society)

Although freight trains move through Northfield daily, it’s been about 45 years since the last passenger trains stopped at the Northfield Depot. Now grassroots efforts to restore passenger rail from the Twin Cities to Northfield and points south are gathering steam.

Even talking about taking the train to Northfield has been difficult.  From 1910 until operations ceased in 1942, the Dan Patch line carried passengers from Minneapolis through Saint Louis Park, Edina, Savage and south. The tracks still carry freight trains, but the prospect of returning commuter rail to the backyards of suburban residents led Edina legislators to write the Dan Patch Commuter Rail Prohibition into legislation passed in 2002 expressly prohibiting government agencies from studying or allocating any funds for the Dan Patch line.

Speaking out about passenger rail

Not Dan Patch: Inter-city passenger rail routes

Several unsuccessful attempts were made to repeal this gag order, so Northfield state legislator David Bly and grassroots organizers have employed a different strategy this time around: it’s not the Dan Patch line and it’s not commuter rail, it’s intercity regional passenger rail.

At this point, grassroots action is focused on building a coalition of communities along the proposed corridor supporting increasing the priority of this project from Tier II to Tier I when MnDOT updates its rail plan (mandated every 5 years). As part of this effort, the Northfield City Council and the Economic Development Authority both approved sending letters of support to MnDOT. The 2010 Rail Plan envisions an “intrastate intercity passenger rail network” on existing freight lines connecting regional centers to “the new Minneapolis downtown terminal” and Union Depot in Saint Paul.

Encouraging MnDOT to make this a higher priority would help build passenger rail back into the planning and finding a way around legislative impediments to discussing, studying and planning for transportation alternatives is a necessary start.  Comments are accepted until January 31, 2015; here’s the link to add yours.

Planning priorities

I learned to love trains as a college student outside Philadelphia and have had the good fortune to spend time in England and Europe where intercity trains and their links to other transit make a car unnecessary. Current efforts to relocate and restore the historic Northfield Depot could dovetail with the restoration of passenger trains; plans to make the Depot a transit hub (a project worthy of its own post) in Northfield add to the mix. Reliable train service from Northfield to The Cities would have changed my career choices, expanded school options for my daughter, altered some of my longer distance travel plans and made living in Northfield much richer.  Yes indeed, I would take the trains from Northfield to the Twin Cities. But much as I love trains, I want to see passenger rail integrated into a larger picture of the regional transportation puzzle.

Northfield, not quite metro: Northfield teeters on the edge of the metro with most of the city in non-metro Rice County and a small piece in metro Dakota County (which is not under the Metropolitan Council’s jurisdiction). While almost in the metro with many workers heading north, we resist being the next Lakeville in character or development pattern. How should Northfield position itself in the rail (or any other state or regional transportation) planning?

Northfield, just off the map

Buses: Metro Transit bus projects like the Red and Orange Lines which reach or are planned to reach southern metro suburbs have been under development since the last Rail Plan took effect (Northfield’s Metro Express is also an important but limited service which could be part of the mix) and MnDOT documents suggest these services could siphon significant rail demand.  Reliable bus service might be less aesthetically pleasing to me, but would have worked to expand my Northfield horizons just as well as rail. Could Metro Transit and Northfield plan together?

Commuter or intercity rail? I fully appreciate the need to circumvent powerful political opposition to the Dan Patch commuter rail line and suspect funding falls into commuter pots and intercity pots of dollars, too.  But will most Northfield riders use rail service as daily, peak-hour commuters (more like the Northstar Line) or occasional travelers on intercity lines (more like Amtrak)?  Bearing in mind that Dan Patch discussions took place under the commuter rail heading (with the Dan Patch line having higher ridership projections than the Northstar Line), how does useful information from that conversation feed into the intercity debate? Or do commuters take buses and other travelers get on the train (and is this part of the discussion)?

I’d love to take the train from Northfield to the Twin Cities and beyond and support efforts to jumpstart planning.  After that, I’m more interested in a discussion considering all the options for regional transit including how state and Metro Transit discussions can occur together.

[A version of this post also appears on Small Town, Big Picture]

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Categories: Twin Cities

Chart of the Day: US Homeownership by Race 1994 – 2009

Streets.MN - Tue, 12/16/2014 - 10:34am

There was a fascinating post the other day on Matthew Kahn’s excellent Environmental and Urban Economics blog that detailed some counter-intuitive data about racial inequality in the US. One of the charts seems fitting for this site:

This is one of a few charts that Kahn uses to illustrate that, despite everything, the gap in racial equality has been slowly narrowing, at least when averaged out across the US. That said, Minnesota ranks particularly poorly on measures  like this. And when you’re comparing today’s problems to the racial inequality of the 60s and 70s, improvement is a low bar. So don’t get complacent.

(PS. This kind of data is one reason that “renters” is often a code word for race in urban conversations.)

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Categories: Twin Cities

What If We Took Half the Seats Out of Buses?

Streets.MN - Tue, 12/16/2014 - 9:00am

You clicked this post! Thank you! I am sorry for titling it with a question. That’s terrible. However, I have a question:

What if we took half the seats out of buses?

Sorry if that sounds crazy! But do you take the bus? A local route in one of the cities (Minneapolis and St. Paul) that gets used a lot, like a 6 or a 21 or an 18 or a 5? Anything that travels down Nicollet Mall or Hennepin Avenue during rush hour?

Wouldn’t it be better if we took all the aisle seats out?

Here are some buses:

Look at the stroller and walker! That’s crazy. That happens. I don’t blame them! What else can they do? Babies can’t drive! Or even Nice Ride.

I swear, one time, I was on a 10 or an 11 or something like that, and all the seats were arranged longitudinally, like the accessible two + three seats in the front of the bus near the driver just kept going to the back of the bus. Or at least halfway back, I can’t remember if it was a low-floor bus or not. That’s a great arrangement.

I’ve seen some of these and thought to take a picture at some point:

This is good! This creates an area where people are able to shift around and rotate and contort to get off the bus and/or move back in the aisle. On very crowded buses, lots and lots of time is spent finagling ourselves around each other to enter or exit the bus, and even more time is spent passive aggressively groaning loudly at one large person who stands in the aisle and doesn’t move back as six or seven more people are trying to board.

So what if we just took out all the aisle seats on the busiest local route buses, and turned the remaining seats so they’re up against the wall, facing the new, larger aisle? Or at least the first half, from the driver to the exit door.

Interior navigation would be improved exponentially! That would leave more than enough seats on your average bus for older passengers or younger passengers carrying kitty litter. After it clears downtown and stops a few times, it thins out a bunch, and people can sit down if need be. Throw some more graspable tie things on the bars on the ceiling, and you’re set.

Other benefits:

  • More than one stroller or one wheelchair would not ruin everything
  • Many people still take up much less space while standing than while sitting
  • The psychological space of the interior would feel a lot different–you’re not picking one person to sit by or not sit by and vice versa
  • The absolute worst part of transit, the Nicollet Mall and/or Lake Street cattlecar experience, would be way, way better

Am I missing something? Is this idea crazy? Is the company that makes the buses actually a subsidiary of the company that makes the fabric on the bus seats, à la Sheinhardt Wig Company/NBC? Am I underestimating the amount of people who are already standing on the 17 all the way to St. Louis Park? Why have we not done this already?

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Categories: Twin Cities

The Curious Case of Luxury Student Housing

Streets.MN - Mon, 12/15/2014 - 8:00am

The American gentrification story will sound familiar to many: A historic neighborhood, home to traditionally transit-oriented apartments and modest single family homes, slowly becomes destitute and outdated as the automobile era drives population away from city centers. The neighborhood becomes derelict and neglected, but eventually, the bohemian counterculture — the artists, performers, musicians, and designers of a creative class — occupies and slowly kindles mainstream interest back into the area. Aside from retired, amenity-seeking empty nesters moving back into urban areas, most of these newcomers are young adults. There is a trend in these urban population shifts that is not often discussed — the study of college-aged students and their corresponding living patterns. Unlike other burgeoning urban neighborhoods, students occupy and dwell in a unique, confined location in close proximity to their college campus.

Land-grant universities like the University of Minnesota were commonly located in centrally-located cities within their respective states, and many slowly transitioned to rely on their respective college for economic growth. As enrollment increased, the pre-automobile era neighborhoods in close proximity to the classrooms slowly became student-occupied. Recently, a new form of student-focused gentrification has arisen, breaking the decades-long trend and stereotype. New amenity-filled apartment buildings, almost exclusively advertising to students, are being constructed close to college campuses. One would think this form of student-centric gentrification — “studentification,” as some scholars have defined and acquiesced — would follow the path of the gentry and price original populations out of the area.

However, if the original population of these college neighborhoods were historically occupied by a similar group for decades, are students simply pricing out other students?

The Marshall & The Venue – new student apartments in Dinkytown (Source – Google Street View)

Hypothesis

In a unique, demand-constrained market that college neighborhoods establish, the supply of housing fluctuates and increases based off of targeted students’ lifestyle desire. Normally, increased population density through the construction of dense dwelling units would continually attract population; however, the desirability to live in a student neighborhood is likely limited, and has been shown to appeal to students only. Therefore, the population in college neighborhoods is consistent with student enrollment, and does not increase as rapidly as would be observed in a traditionally gentrified area. I hypothesize that as the quantity of upscale student housing supply increases, the interest in older housing stock proportionally decreases. I estimate that these new, amenity filled units might have more allure to students and their parents. This may result in a situation where landlords who control the older stock need to lower prices or renovate property in order to compete with the new apartments. Unless the landlords have the capital to renovate outdated properties, rental rates will decrease, allowing thriftier students to realize cheaper living situations at little consequence.

Due to the unique student housing market, many landlords may attempt to sell their now obsolete cash cow, and since the desirability of the area is low to non-students, home sales prices may also decrease. In the long term — and past the scope of this post — the trend to commute to campus from distant areas may become less popular, and the amount of students living near campus could increase. However, assuming enrollment stays constant or grows at the slow rate that it has been over the past several decades, a housing saturation point will be reached, and the restricted nearby population will create a hyperlocal and highly competitive rental market.

700 Washington in Stadium Village (Source – 700washington.com)

Current Trends

Social and economic controversy has arisen in this new development phenomena in college neighborhoods around the country, with opponents citing many concerns that have paralleled common gentrification fights. In Madison, WI, residents in the student-majority Mansion Hill neighborhood fought a proposed development that would include 59 units and tear down an old apartment building called the Highlander House. In November 2013, opponents cited the higher costs, the removal of existing affordable units, and the effect of the construction on the historic nature of the neighborhood as main concerns. Meanwhile, the city council in Iowa City, IA — home to the University of Iowa — proposed a zoning ordinance in February 2012 that would limit the number of bedrooms in new development apartment units from five to three. This proposed change originated from the fallout of three student housing proposals that were cancelled in response to large opposition from neighbors. Jeff Davidson, the city director of Planning and Community Development, was quoted in a February 17, 2012 article from The Daily Iowan, stating that “the projects were very controversial… (they) involved taking out older buildings and replacing them with large student apartment buildings.”

In Minneapolis, a visible student housing boom since 2010 has put the surrounding college neighborhoods on edge and has made long-time residents weary of the rapid change. The construction boom has progressed in the past five years, and has bucked a decades-long trend that the University’s enrollment consisted primarily of long-distance commuters. After several similar projects came to fruition with little opposition, tensions flared when Minnetonka-based Opus Development proposed a six-story, 140-unit, mixed-use building in the quasi-historic Dinkytown business district on the northern edge of the University of Minnesota. Local business owners and a few long-time residents created a group called “Save Dinkytown” to combat the proposal from coming to fruition; in a June 2013 op-ed in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, a leader of the Save Dinkytown movement requested citizen action to “preserve the historic and eclectic character of the four-block Dinkytown commercial district.” The author also stated that only well-off students could afford the complex — providing attention to the odd fiscal divide between parent-backed “wealthy” students and financially struggling students. The building was approved in a controversial vote by the Minneapolis City Council on August 2, 2013. The building was completed in August 2014.

In addition to the Opus project, several large developments opened for the 2014-2015 school year, including the 215-unit “Metro Park East” project, a 337-unit project called “The Marshall,” and a 211-unit project called “The Bridges.” This large influx of apartments has driven visible competition for tenants. In an October 2014 Star Tribune article, it was revealed that the owners of Metro Park East hope to be three-quarters leased by the end of the year — a low estimate compared to previous projects’ lease-up numbers. However, the article also quoted local developer Kelly Doran, who believes that the percent of students that live near campus has increased from 25 to 60 percent in one generation.

The Bridges, opened in August 2014 (Source – urbanplanet.org)

Methods

Due to the local importance and media coverage of the many new student housing projects, the student neighborhoods around the University of Minnesota were utilized as the main study site. Property-specific rental information in college neighborhoods that primarily consisted of 18-20 year old individuals within one mile of a campus boundary were used. These areas consisted mostly of the Marcy-Holmes, Southeast Como, and Prospect Park neighborhoods in Minneapolis.

Juxtaposing individual rent listings, general vacancy rate trends were researched on a census block basis to attempt to reaffirm trends. Vacancy rates were found from 2010 Census data and 2012 Census estimates, and PolicyMap was utilized to extract and map the data. This data allows for either further confirmation or heightened discrepancy in trends. To cross-analyze further student rental trends, other college-focused cities that have had new student housing projects completed in the past five years were also studied. Three cities that host Big Ten universities were studied: Madison, WI; Iowa City, IA; and Champaign & Urbana, IL. Census block groups from student neighborhoods in Minneapolis were also utilized. The blocks were chosen in a similar fashion as the individual property research and took vacancy information from areas where the 18-20 year old demographic consisted of more than 10% of the total population. The vacancy rate data for these college-specific blocks was compared to citywide vacancy data in order to attempt to demonstrate the former blocks’ volatility.

To find individual property rental listings, the real estate website Zillow.com was utilized. Zillow uses both user-listed advertisements as well as data from public record sales and other websites to compile intricate property information lists. Although a limited number of properties have extensive Zillow profiles, those that do have historical rental listings and rent price changes. These historical rental listings and changes were retrieved and analyzed for this post. Zillow has basic information on all properties, but college neighborhood properties with Zillow profiles often contain these rental rate data points.

Analysis

In the vacancy rate exercise, census block vacancy rates from 2010 and 2012 were retrieved. The Madison and Iowa City data both consisted of nine census blocks, whereas the Champaign-Urbana and Minneapolis data consisted of twelve and ten census blocks, respectively.

In every city, vacancy rates increased from 2010 to 2012 as new student apartments opened, whereas the average vacancy rates for the city stayed relatively consistent. The vacancy rates for the student blocks were all lower than the city averages in 2010, but in 2012, three of the four studied blocks averaged higher vacancy rates than the city averages. The outlier in this trend — Iowa City — had less development occur in the two years due to neighborhood opposition; however, student block vacancy rate averages increased to a rate only one-tenth of a percent lower than the city averages by 2012, further validating the overall trend. The two outlying census blocks in the Minneapolis analysis where vacancy rates decreased between 2010 and 2012 were areas where new student housing was constructed, and therefore likely impacted the lowered vacancy rates. These rates for 2010 and 2012 are listed in the green rows, and are compared to the citywide vacancy averages in the blue rows.

In the property-by-property rental pricing analysis, a total of 49 units were found in the student neighborhoods near the University of Minnesota. Thirteen units had 2013-2014 rental data, 45 units had 2014-2015 rental data, and 10 units had data from both school years. The dwelling units mostly consisted of single houses and subdivided duplexes, with a few apartment unit listings in older buildings. No apartment listings from the newer, luxury-advertising buildings were used. Units were considered leased when the rental was no longer listed as available on Zillow. Rental prices from the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 school year were utilized to compare the full effect of new-build student housing near the University’s main campus. The analyzed properties are marked in red on the maps below.

Como & Marcy-Holmes Analyzed Properties (Map Source – City of Minneapolis Neighborhood Maps)

In the 2013-2014 school year leasing season, units were usually rented at their original listing price. Eleven of the 13 units listed in 2013 were leased at their original price; however, 2 units decreased their original listing price before the listing was taken down. In the 2014-2015 leasing season, more aggressive rental price reductions were observed. Out of the 45 researched units, 20 decreased their rental prices before their respective listings were taken down. The average rental price of all studied units decreased from $1,915/month at initial posting to $1,806/month at final posting. For the units that did drop price, rental listings decreased from $1,842/month to $1,563/month. This equates to a 15.2% decrease on rent — an almost $300/month reduction from the initially advertised price.

Conclusion

It was predicted that, due to the large and rapid influx of new student housing units infiltrating college neighborhoods, that a unique population-controlled housing market would arise, and rental prices would decrease in older housing units while overall vacancy rates in the areas would increase. Although much of the data is very new, the values retrieved have confirmed this initial hypothesis.

Unlike traditional gentrification situations where increased housing units and density attracts more population, the studentification only attracts a specific, already present population and skews the surrounding market. The rooted student neighborhoods don’t appeal to non-student populations, and therefore do not attract any age-diverse growth to the area. Therefore, the only population that sees the area as viable are the students themselves, which are limited by enrollment. In fact, at the University of Minnesota, the total enrollment has actually decreased from 56,338 full-time students in 2010 to 55,717 full-time students in 2014, thus further portraying a major population attraction issue.

The vacancy rate census block data for the three other collegiate cities also confirms the notion of strict population supply. A basic supply and demand economic principle arises as the supply of housing increases and the population stays constant. Taking the census blocks as a whole, growth will likely only be seen in larger tax bases, as the newer student apartment buildings likely generate more taxes for local governments than decrepit homes.

There is room for growth, however, specifically to the University of Minnesota and other traditionally large commuter-based campuses. Since the construction boom moved faster than evolving lifestyles, and professionals like Kelly Doran and University of Minnesota officials see a shifting attitude towards living near campus, there is likely still room to attract students who would otherwise be commuters. This will likely be a long-term adjustment as more traditional commuters seek the advantages of living closer to campus over time.

Nevertheless, the college neighborhoods will prospectively only attract students, and a housing saturation point will be reached in close conjunction with enrollment and surrounding stock. This means that college-based cities like those studied in this report will reach saturation more quickly, and future student housing will not be as attractive as it has been recently.

Necessary assumptions were made in this report in order to find conclusions, and would take further investigation to confirm. The assumption that leases were signed at the most recent Zillow price was needed in order to illustrate the trends, but true rents could vary from that value. The dataset is also not fully indicative of the surrounding neighborhoods, as only 49 properties could be studied out of potentially hundreds of rentals available. The impact to overall property values and respective home sale prices also demands further research, as it was not addressed in this post.

Still, the data that was discovered is revealing. As discussed in the literature review, the high premiums seen in the luxury housing market are very likely not borne by the students themselves, but rather by a third party, like parents or relatives. It would seem that since many students are indeed choosing to live in these newer apartment buildings, that the hyper-localized pricing structure does not matter for money-bearing parents, and therefore see the new builds and vast amenities as a positive for their college-aged children. In an ironic consequence, those students that desire living in a low-amenity house with other roommates reap the price benefits of other students choosing to live in new buildings. It seems that, in fact, the new student housing projects and the youth that live in them actually lower the rent cost for other students, making living near campus more affordable on average.

Note: This post was abbreviated from my senior paper submission to the Urban Studies program at the University of Minnesota. I say abbreviated because, yes, the paper itself was actually quite a bit longer.

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Categories: Twin Cities

Miller High Life–Alternative Fuels

Streets.MN - Mon, 12/15/2014 - 7:20am

Featuring bicycle transportation as a way to stick it to foreign oil oligarchs, this is one of the more progressive ads in the series featuring Errol Morris produced by Miller in the early oughts.

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Categories: Twin Cities

NSC Velodrome in Danger — What Metrics Matter?

Ride Boldly - Sun, 12/14/2014 - 11:47am
The NSC Velodrome is in some danger of demolition. The facts are pretty straightforward. A wooden track, built in 1990, is beyond its design lifestyle — especially in a climate like that in Minnesota. Repair isn’t cheap ($750,000); reconstruction isn’t … Continue reading →
Categories: Twin Cities

Sunday Summary – December 14, 2014

Streets.MN - Sun, 12/14/2014 - 7:07am

Here’s the week on streets.mn rolled out and carefully cut into seasonal shapes for pre-holiday nibbling. Conversation was particularly lively here on streets.mn this week with more posts provoking more comments; more comments are more than welcome.

Holidazzle Market

Two seasonal posts this week consider the Minneapolis Holiday Market at Holidazzle Village, the Minneapolis Downtown Council’s new event (replacing the Holidazzle Parade). Nothing Says Community Like a $6 Entry Fee did not have a good time at the Market with criticism of the physical design as well as the price; commenters find more to like while chewing over the questions.  What’s German for Bah Humbug? is a later post which attempts to deflect some of the criticism, but the comments revolve around the design of Peavey Plaza with detractors and defenders of its design.

Conversation starters: Big ideas

This week brought some meaty posts which got people talking; they could also be used to generate lively dinner table debate this holiday season (streets.mn takes no responsibility for food fights).

Two transportation related posts: Creating a Low-Carbon Transportation System for MSP: Part One, Baselining takes a look at the Metro Council’s Draft 2040 Transportation Policy Plan‘s provisions for reducing transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions and finds it falls short by failing to establish the baseline from which to measure improvements. That’s Transportainment did not generate many comments, but perhaps it should. If transportation network investment decisions are made by people who don’t use the facilities, how can scarce resources be allocated to build a network that really works?

And two others: Soccer as Political Football previews prospects for a new sports stadium in the Twin Cities for a Major League Soccer expansion team, where it might be located, real football vs. American football stadiums, and more. Commenters kick around these issues plus who will pay for it, transit connections, and more. Density Without Mixed-Use Baffles Me generated the most comments with its catalog of  higher density housing around the metro where residents still can’t walk anywhere. Comments carry on the conversation about density, zoning, financing, and other factors which make mixing uses more difficult than building density.

Conversation starters: Particular projects

Boring Public a Culprit in Loss of Treasured Businesses starts with the news that Nye’s Polonaise Room is closing and goes on to think about what it takes for local business to succeed (“Businesses will appreciate your patronage considerably more than your likes on Facebook”). The many comments discuss local vs. chain businesses, city and suburb, financing smaller places and has suggestions for barbers, too. Rethinking 66th Street previewed the Richfield City Council’s approval of plans for improving 66th Street (the proposed design was approved!) including adding protected bike lanes; this one is not just great detail about the project design and official process, but the grassroots work which helped make it happen.

2014 Retrospective Department

The end of the year is always a time to take a look back. Ten Highway Projects of 2014 identifies ten projects the author found notable, both in and mostly out of Minnesota. Much more intensely local,  The Quarterly Transit Report – December 2014 reviews transit in the Twin Cities in the last quarter with much consideration of the Green Line impact (previous quarterly report is here); comments add additional fine-grained observations about particular routes and issues.

Saint Paul

The Bike Loop Makes Economic Sense for Downtown Saint Paul reviews the possible benefits for the proposed bike loop (more on the Saint Paul Bike Plan here) with a little pushback from commenters. Pave Saint Paul! continues the Snark Week theme by pushing the “need more parking” idea about as far as it could go. A more bucolic look at Saint Paul happens in Bopping Around the Midway, a return to summer with another bike ride around Saint Paul (other rides are here). Saint Paul Plays Catch-up on Roadway Construction in 2015 itemizes planned street improvement projects in Saint Paul including the Terrible 20 and projects funded by the one-time 8-80 Vitality Fund and the ongoing Streets Vitality Paving fund (SPSVP).

Audiovisual Department

Podcast #78 – Real Views of Minneapolis with Joe Scott is an audio visit with the visual guy behind our Friday Photo series of images which capture the not always obvious bits of the urban landscape with both creativity and political acumen.  And, of course, we have Charts of the Day: Square-Meter-Minutes per Commute ModeUS Transit Ridership over Time and Millennial Mode Share in Different Cities (1980 v. Today). The lone video this week Are You MN Enough? | Yearounders | TPT Rewire is one installment in the short video series “Are You MN Enough?”; this one follows the male folks who bike year round who say “Beards aren’t mandatory, but they certainly help.”

The snow has melted from Minnesota streets just in time for Hanukkah. Perhaps we will see a Miracle of Transportation Funding where dollars only sufficient for one project miraculously persist to pay for eight, but I’m quite sure the streets.mn Maccabees of transportation activism will continue their scrappy fighting for better streets in the New Year. Enjoy holiday lights, clear sidewalks, and have a great week!

 

 

 

 

 

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Categories: Twin Cities

2014 Book Recommendations

Thoughts on the Urban Environment - Sat, 12/13/2014 - 10:24am
Here are my 2014 Book Recommendations* (the top five favorite books of the year):
  • “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea” by Barbara Demick – This is a tale of ordinary North Koreas who have escaped to South Korea. It tells multiple tales of every day life that include struggles to survive and dealing with strict government repression. It beautifully details daring escapes and adjusting to life in the modern world. Where this book deviates from other North Korean-related non-fiction is that it tells a much more emphatic story, that of tight-knit loving families fighting famine and the (albeit nostalgic) benefits of not living in the modern world (such as not being constantly distracted by media).
  • “Console Wars” by Blake J Harris - In the early 1990s, Nintendo ruled. Console Wars is a story about how Sega, a new competitor, went from having 5% market share to over half and toppled a monopoly. Sure, it’s a story about video games, but it’s more than that. It’s a story of smart start-up who didn’t play by the rules and had to use creativity. Sega was ‘lean’ before ‘lean’ was a thing.
  • “Masters of Doom” by David Kushner – Side-scrolling ruled early 1990s video game. This is another story of rebellious outsiders who dominated the computer gaming industry and did it all themselves. They went around publishers, warehouses, middle-men, and took atypical methods to change the way we view video games. Ultimately personalities tore them apart, but it’s a great tale of passionate programmers and businessmen. Note: Yes, another video game book recommendation.
  • “Hitch-22″ by Christopher Hitchens - Smart. Poignant. Funny. I had not followed the life of Hitchens while he was alive, and reading this book made me regret that fact. I once heard Sam Harris say, “Hitch had more personality than some civilizations” and I do not doubt this. It tells the personal life of Hitchens, who left school as a Socialist activist and his journey into becoming Americas most loved/hated capitalist, atheist, and political outsider.
  • “Flash Boys” by Michael Lewis – Almost everything I know about Wall Street, I have learned from Lewis. I loved this book; it was short, sweet, and to the point. Lewis knows how to tell a good story, and he continues to do this with his newest book. It’s a great narrative of how two outsiders are challenging a rigged system. My fingers are crossed that they can succeed.
*Thanks to Mr. Charles Marohn of Strong Towns fame for giving me this idea!
Categories: Twin Cities

3 Reasons Why I Re-Blog the Highland Villager

Twin Cities Sidewalks - Fri, 12/12/2014 - 12:11pm
For five years now, I have been re-blogging the Highland Villager, a print-edition-only local newspaper that focuses on Saint Paul local issues. I started doing this back in May 2009 because, as I explained at the time:Basically, the problem is that the best source of local streets / sidewalks news in Saint Paul is the Highland Villager. This wouldn't be a problem, except that it's not available online. The editor / publisher Michael Mischke (who I've never met) clearly doesn't like the internet for some reason. But there's a lot of good stuff in this local bi-weekly about developments and street debates.So basically, I'm going to have a twice-monthly post about what I discover when reading the Highland Villager. Maybe it'll encourage you to go get your own copy, available anywhere that's anywhere in Saint Paul. Or maybe I'm reading the Highland Villager so that you don't have to? Either way...until this newspaper goes online, information must be set free.So, every two weeks for five years, I’ve been attempting to summarize the main local politics articles in the paper. I haven’t missed very many, and am up to 120 summaries and 8 op-ed reprints at this point. Because I can’t help myself, I also add a bit of commentary into the stories [clearly demarcated in red italics] with either a) important context missing from the piece or, b) sarcastic snark.From time to time I get a bit of flak about this. (For example, one prolific Highland Villager reporter doesn’t seem to enjoy my summaries, as you can see in the comments here.) For this reason, I thought I’d outline three reasons I think it’s important to re-blog the Highland Villager, and why I intend to keep doing so until they bring their content online.#1) The Coverage Area Exacerbates Income Disparities[Highland Villager demographics.]The Highland Villager focuses primarily on the wealthier parts of the city. Though on the masthead they technically claim to represent “Highland Park, Lex-Ham, Mac-Groveand, Merriam Park, Snelling-Hamline, Summit Hill, Summit-University, West 7th, Longfellow, Nokomis, Lilydale, Mendota, and Mendota Heights, I’d estimate that over half of their content focuses on Highland Park, Grand Avenue, Summit Avenue, and downtown areas: in other words, the wealthiest parts of the city. This disparity is intentional; in order to attract advertisers, the Highland Villager even brags about their reader demographics on their news-less website.  (The inclusion of Mendota Heights, my wealthy suburban hometown, into the readership area seems like proof enough.)I won’t begrudge anyone for trying to make a profit, especially a print newspaper (dying out everywhere). But the Highland Villager’s thorough coverage of Saint Paul's wealthier areas has the perverse effect of amplifying the voices of the well-off. This means that any time a neighborhood issue pops up on Grand Avenue, Summit Hill, or Highland Park, you can be sure that it will attract more attention. Meanwhile, stories in the poor parts of the city (e.g. the North End, Frogtown, East Side, or the West Side where I live) will not attract much attention. This is as much about the failure of today’s news media to cover local and neighborhood issues as it is about anything else. The solution is to have economically stable local newspapers in all parts of the city, or to have a city-wide newspaper like the Pioneer Press retain the staffing levels that would allow them to cover every neighborhood equally. Those seem like pipe dreams, and until internet bloggers somehow get paid to do their own reporting about city issues, our local news media seem destined to amplify the voices of the wealthy.[The Highland Villager's coverage area does not include the city's poorest parts.]#2) The Highland Villager’s Issues have Extra-Local RelevanceThe second big reason to re-blog the Highland Villager is that information is power. Those that are well informed about local political issues - such as plans for a road expansion or a new building - can have more active roles in shaping those outcomes.But because the Highland Villager is not online, there ends up being unequal access to information. Those people in the Highland Villager coverage area have the information delivered to their doorstep, while those outside the coverage area have to seek it out at the downtown library. This information disparity is important because Saint Paul local issues are not just for people in the neighborhood, but for everyone in the city (and even the larger region). The classic example is downtown, which doesn’t just "belong" to the people who live or work there, but to the whole city. It’s one of the few places that should be truly public. Anyone in Saint Paul should feel welcome to walk through the streets, parks, and museums downtown. The same is true of local issues. Though I might sometimes tease Highland Village, I also buy tea, coffee, latkes, cat food, and film tickets there. Ford and Cleveland, or Grand Avenue, or West 7th Street, are important parts of my city, even though live in a completely different part of Saint Paul.Heck, even someone from Minneapolis who bikes through Saint Paul, or a Macaester Student who only spends four years in Saint Paul, should be allowed a voice in community conversations about its future. In order to make sure that everyone can participate in our community, we need to make information as accessible as possible. To reach a broader audience, especially younger people, the internet is an important tool.#3) The Highland Villager Has a BiasTry as we might to be neutral and objective, all newspapers have a bias, as does this blog. A lot of this comes from questions of audience and journalistic methodology: who are we talking to? who do we interview for stories? what kinds of stories do we cover?  How we answer these kinds of questions is important. But as I’ve been carefully reading the Highland Villager over the last five years, I’ve gradually become more frustrated with the way that the paper frames stories. For example, the Highland Villager seems to amplify concerns about parking and traffic while minimizing voices that view development or change in a more positive light. Maybe this is intentional, or maybe it’s just giving the readers what they want. Maybe is the inherent nature of media; after all, conflict grabs readers, and nobody wants to read about how everyone agrees with each other. [Well, I do kinda, if it's done well.] But to me, the Highland Villager often frames issues in ways that exacerbate divisions around issues like street design and development that I find to be crucial for the future of Saint Paul.In fact, having more positive and inclusive urban conversations is one of the main reasons why I helped to start streets.mn, along with a whole bunch of friends and colleagues from across the city. That website is "dedicated to expanding the conversation about land use and transportation issues', but implicit in that mission statement is a critique of existing conversations. I know how hard it is to be a reporter, and I know how difficult these things are. But unfortunately I sometimes feel that the Highland Villager inflames people about parochial issues at the expense of more collective values.As I’ve said, every kind of media has a bias and specific audiences that they (try to) reach. For example, nobody without internet and a computer can read this blog. I like the Highland Villager and appreciate the fact that it’s out there covering neighborhood meetings that, otherwise, wouldn't get noticed. That's why I believe the Highland Villager is a net positive for Saint Paul.But I also wish it spoke to, and about, all parts of the city. I worry that its economically unequal coverage and framing of particular voices can sometimes agitate city discussions in negative ways. That’s why I feel compelled to keep re-blogging the Highland Villager. I think its important to make sure that everyone has theoretically equal access to information and that broader perspectives are included in conversations about our city. See you next fortnight![Some Highland Villagers waiting in the cold.]
Categories: Twin Cities

Chart of the Day: Square-Meter-Minutes per Commute Mode

Streets.MN - Fri, 12/12/2014 - 10:54am

Here’s a fun chart [actually a graph] from the VTPI (via Planetizen) that combines speed with the amount of land required to support the different modes, resulting in the fun unit of measure “square-meter-minutes”:

 

According to the author, the chart reveals that:

Since each car requires road space plus two to six parking spaces (at home, work and other destinations), a car uses more land than most urban residents’ homes. Walking, cycling and public transit require far less space.

Basically, transportation and land use are connected because of these disparate ratios. How we move has strong correlation with the kinds of spaces in which we live and work. A lot of this has to do with parking.

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Categories: Twin Cities

The Bike Loop Makes Economic Sense for Downtown Saint Paul

Streets.MN - Fri, 12/12/2014 - 8:00am

[This post first appeared on the Saint Paul Smart-Trips blog.]

“Someone is sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.” – Warren Buffett

Over the last several years, the city of Saint Paul has made great strides to improve the bicycle infrastructure within our city.  One of the most exciting things I have anticipated recently is City Council voting to create a protected cycle path in downtown Saint Paul.  As a homeowner, cyclist and business owner, I applaud this use of my property tax in order to invest in the city I call home.

Recently, some people in the downtown community have been making the case that this investment does not make economic sense because of the automotive parking spots it will take from downtown.

Although I respect their desire to improve Saint Paul, I feel many studies prove this idea to be misguided.  Bicycle Infrastructure has been shown to be a boon to local economies, as bicyclists spend money at local businesses at a much higher rate than motorists, especially in downtown areas.  I personally shop 3-5 times weekly in downtown Saint Paul at locations where there is easy bike parking such as LundsThe Amsterdam or Eclipse Records.

Some residents worry that putting in a protected bike lane, like the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, will reduce parking revenue.  They neglect to note that currently Indianapolis shows both increases in cyclists and record meter revenue.  Indianapolis is seeing an increase in revenue across the board because they chose to invest in their city, modernizing both their meter system and their pedestrian infrastructure.

Although there has been noted resistance from older residents, the city of Indianapolis has been widely praised for entering into a parking system that increases revenue from existing meters using revenue sharing privatization while freeing money to allow cities to do what they do best: build and maintain public infrastructure such as bike lanes.

I believe making a good economy and a diverse civic portfolio requires spending money, albeit wisely.  But I know, based on the evidence that I have read repeatedly: bicycle infrastructure is a good investment for Saint Paul.  But don’t just read my opinions, read the research yourself.

Read studies based in similarly cold climates such as Toronto that show bicycle infrastructure shows significantly better return on investment than on-street parking.  Read how cutting back on subsidizing car usage downtown can show tremendous economic benefit to cities.  Look at Portland where residents have invested $800 million into their local economy by not driving.

You can’t grow a tree without planting a seed.  And likewise, you can’t build a city without investing in it.  Trust the research and invest.  You won’t regret it when years from now your investments grow into a prosperous local economy that you call home.

I applaud the mayor for his vision and look forward to when the wise actions of investing in pedestrian infrastructure reap a healthy civic reward.

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Categories: Twin Cities

What’s German for Bah Humbug?

Streets.MN - Fri, 12/12/2014 - 7:30am

So it seems our little Holidazzle Market has some critics. Apparently, it’s not stroller or kid friendly enough. Apparently it’s outrageous to stop offering the same old free entertainment the patronage for which was insufficient to induce downtown businesses to continue supplying it. Apparently it’s just uncouth to ask visitors to contribute a small amount of money to cover the costs. Apparently the organizers are supposed to be thankful if people just browse for free.

And, apparently it’s both so devoid of patrons as to be unappealing and too crowded to be able to see what vendors are offering.

But one thing is for sure, the organizers absolutely nailed provoking the maximum amount of whining.

So maybe a shot of the day it was closed due to a water interruption isn’t the way to go.

First, let’s recognize a few realities about this event to set our expectations.

– Peavey Plaza is an inaccessible mess. The city wanted to change that, but was thwarted.

– There aren’t many spaces available that could host this event downtown. Remember that whole lack of a downtown park thing? Maybe in the future they can use the park formerly known as The Yard (can’t remember what they changed it to and it doesn’t matter enough to look up), but for now, Peavey Plaza is about all we’ve got for an outdoor venue that’s public and near retail (which even The Yard would not be).

– Shoehorning the market into the plaza means patrons are going to have to deal with the vertical elements of the plaza’s design. Maybe you want to thank those who fought to keep it the way it is?

– The market sells alcoholic beverages (hot German drinks and beer). These beverages are culturally relevant to the event and part of the fun.

– Selling alcohol likely comes with restrictions (if I wasn’t writing this for free, I might research that point some more), which may include restricting access.

With those things in mind, let’s look at what, in my opinion, organizers got right:

The market looks nice. From the street it fits in an interesting way into the multi-level space (although obviously, no fences would look a lot nicer). The “village” portion of the event – the reindeer pen, story stage, glass blowing exhibit, whatever they are calling the other stage –  integrate reasonably with a fully pedestrianized (why can’t we have this all the time?) stretch of Nicollet Mall. The offerings are decent, featuring mostly culturally interesting German items and things like knits and clothing that fit in the cold. For someone like me who doesn’t particularly enjoy shopping, there is an appropriate emphasis on food and drink.

What maybe could be better but might be subject to limitations that I, a lowly internet commentator, can’t really evaluate:

There’s an entry fee and access to the market is controlled. The German mustard stand has not been open the three times I’ve been.

So, yeah, we can all be outraged about the lack of mustard. I’ve got pork in the slow cooker with sauerkraut here, people. You expect me to eat it without Koenig Senf? That’s one part short of three parts of deliciousness, friend. A staffer told us that the mustard shortage was a result of FDA or importation issues, so maybe the real blame falls on Obamacare or something.

As to that other pesky issue, having enjoyed the Cologne Christmas market on a vacation past, I was disappointed to learn about the fee. In a perfect world (and a good German Christmas Market can get pretty close if you ask me), it would be free so that people could more easily wander in and out and so that the event would be open to everyone.

But we’re not in a perfect world. We’re in a world where a fair amount of expense went into building, setting up, operating and maintaining the market and surrounding (free) holiday village activities.

If you’re disappointed because you just wanted a quick pop in and didn’t think the cost worked for you, that’s unfortunate. But maybe you also need to ask yourself two questions: (1) was this event organized for people like me, and (2) should it be? I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it’s a one time fee and that return trips are free. Maybe it’s okay to have an event that prioritizes patrons who will be interested in a return visit? Maybe catering to the lightly interested hasn’t worked in the past (see all those parade viewers who didn’t shop downtown) and can’t reasonably be expected to work now? Maybe people who live, work and spend time downtown won’t mind paying once, because they can come back. If you’re thinking, “I’d rather be at the Mall of America,” I’m talking to you.

Which brings me to the last category, things that may not be how you’d like them to be but don’t make them mistakes:

The market is much less kid-centric than the parades of the past.

Pretty much everything on offer in the market is for adults, most notably the alcohol, or at least not terribly likely to hold kid interests (Christmas ornaments, soaps, beer steins, knits, etc.). I can’t help but think that’s intentional from the organizers, as families with small kids may not be the ideal patrons for nighttime retail in the city. Go figure.

I’d say I’m sorry that there isn’t enough here for your kids, but I’m not really. We have no shortage of family-first events. It’s okay to have adult-first ones too.

 

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Categories: Twin Cities

Creating a Low-Carbon Transportation System for MSP: Part One, Baselining

Streets.MN - Fri, 12/12/2014 - 6:00am

Thrive MSP 2040, the new regional plan for the 7-county metro adopted by the Metropolitan Council, includes moderately strong language about addressing climate change.  But the main implementation tool we’ve seen so far from the Council, the Draft 2040 Transportation Policy Plan, doesn’t go nearly far enough.  In fact, it doesn’t even start where it should, with a baseline of emissions.

In this and future posts, I’ll try to do what I think the Draft Transportation Policy Plan (TPP) should have done – identify where we’re starting from and where we need to go in terms of transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions. (In case you need a reminder, it’s vital that we get serious about reducing carbon pollution now.  We can’t afford to wait ten years until the next version of the regional plan, and local comprehensive plans, are drafted.)

Some background

The “Outcomes” section of Thrive MSP establishes the basis for acting aggressively on climate change:

The Council is committed to building a resilient region that minimizes its adverse contributions to climate and air quality and is prepared for the challenges and opportunities of a changing climate. Recognizing the importance of climate change mitigation, adaptation, and resilience, the Council will use climate impacts as a lens through which to examine all of its work. The Council will look for opportunities to use both its operational and planning authorities to plan for and respond to the effects of climate change, both challenges and opportunities.

The Council recognizes they aren’t acting unilaterally; this position is consistent with state law, which says Minnesota should reduce emissions 15 percent by 2015, 30 percent by 2025 and 80 percent by 2050.  The Outcomes document also says that “By tracking regional greenhouse gas emissions, we will identify opportunities to reduce emissions in the region.”  This makes sense, as you can’t determine how close you are to a goal without measuring progress.  In addition, a greenhouse gas inventory helps to identify the multiple sources of emissions, and each source may require different emissions reduction strategies.

The Council has broad authority over land use and transportation planning and funding in the region, and the Outcomes document identifies transportation-related options for emissions reduction. Unfortunately, the recently released TPP (the document that provides implementation details for the regional vision) includes neither an analysis of existing sources and trends in greenhouse gas emissions, nor a serious look at what pathways or strategies would be necessary to get the region to our emissions goals.

(To be fair, the Transportation Strategies section of the plan does contain some language on what the Council will do in the future to inventory emissions and plan reductions.  However, this is really inadequate as the plan already lays out an investment strategy.  If the Council is serious about emissions reduction, they should have a rich understanding of the emissions impacts of different investment scenarios before they make any decisions about priorities.)

Into this void, we can insert some real data to help understand the magnitude of change that would be necessary to reduce emissions from the transportation sector to a level consistent with state goals.

Inventory approach

There are a number of methods or “protocols” for community-scale greenhouse gas inventories, but the most rigorous is probably the ICLEI USA Community Protocol for Accounting and Reporting of Greenhouse Gas Emissions.  The protocol identifies the data sources necessary and methods for estimating greenhouse gas emissions (CO2, CH4, and N2O) from road transportation, as well as other transportation sources.

If I had access to the regional traffic model (and knew how to use it), I could access the data necessary to use ICLEI’s preferred approach for estimating GHG emissions from on-road vehicles.  This approach is called the “Origin-Destination” approach, and does a good job of “assigning” emissions recognizing that we live in a regional travel shed.  However, I don’t have access to that model, and anyway almost no city or region has used that approach for their inventory to date, so I feel comfortable writing about their alternative method.  (When/if the Met Council does an inventory, they should use the Origin-Destination model since they have a lot of smart people who know how to the use the traffic model, plus they could probably brag that they were the first region in the country to do it.)

The alternative method, sometimes called the “polygon” approach, basically estimates all emissions happening within a certain boundary (in this case, the 7-county metro), and assigns those emissions to that political/geographic entity.  You can see the limitations – for commuters from Hudson for example, only the portion of their trips (and associated emissions) from the border of Washington County to their destination will be counted.  Such is the limitation of the polygon method.  Recognizing our estimates will be imperfect should not stop us from taking action however, so let’s keep going.

A major data source for this approach is vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in the region, which is meticulously measured/estimated, catalogued and shared by MNDOT.  Other important data points that need to be collected are the composition of the vehicle fleet (heavy vs. light duty, diesel vs. gas), the average fuel efficiency of each type of vehicle in the fleet, types of fuel consumed, and the emissions factor for various fuel types.  All of these assumptions come from public data sources.

I’ve collected all these data sources, and put them into a spreadsheet that calculates fossil and biogenic greenhouse gas emissions from on-road transportation for the 7-county metro using the ICLEI USA Community Protocol methodology.

Results

The results show that while vehicle miles traveled in the 7-county metro has grown very slowly between 2005 and 2013 (about 1.5 percent), greenhouse gas emissions from on-road transportation have actually fallen (probably about 4 percent).

On-road vehicle miles traveled in the metro and related greenhouse gas emissions

This is due primarily to increasing fuel efficiency in light cars and trucks. This will continue to improve regardless of any local action thanks to the federal fuel efficiency standards that will improve the efficiency of new vehicles through 2025.  This is important to keep in mind when developing future scenarios, which I hope to do in a future post.  Other changes include the Minnesota biofuels mandate for diesel fuel, which has increased from 2 percent in 2005 to 5 percent in 2010, and increased again in summer of 2014.  This decreases tailpipe greenhouse gas emissions from diesel vehicles.  The biofuel mandate for gasoline has remained the same at 10% from 2005 to 2013.

Emissions results for 2013 have a dotted line in the chart above because they use Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates for fuel efficiency, which seem to frequently change, and are always higher than those produced by the US DOT in their annual National Transportation Statistics report.  So I don’t really count those savings in the 4 percent figure cited above.

Sources of on-road greenhouse gas emissions, 7-county metro, 2012

Meeting state goals?

If you assume that Minnesota’s greenhouse gas reduction goals should be split evenly across sectors and geographies (an assumption which could be debated), we’re not doing enough to meet goals for transportation emissions in the metro.  This is consistent with what is being seen in other sectors and other geographies.  To meet the state’s goal for 2015, emissions from transportation in the metro would have to fall about 4 percent each year between 2012 and 2015 (again, I’m assuming MPG numbers for 2013 are still uncertain).  After 2015, emissions would have to keep falling by 2 percent each year to meet 2025 goals.

Observed transportation emissions and linear trend necessary to meet Minnesota goals.

What is missing?

Obviously on-road transportation is only part of our regional transportation system.  I chose it because it constitutes by far the largest slice of the emissions pie, it’s the easiest to inventory, and I would argue the Met Council has the most influence over it versus other modes.  When/if the Council does a full inventory, they should also include emissions from freight and passenger rail, barges, off-road vehicles, and aviation.  Depending on how you count, aviation-related emissions just at MSP could include a third again as much as on-road emissions in 2012.

Looking ahead

Will changes in fuel efficiency standards and current VMT trends be enough to bring metro area transportation emissions down to state goal levels?  What other strategies should be included in the Transportation Policy Plan to actually get the region on the right track?  These are questions I hope to explore in future posts.

In the meantime, I’m also watching the Climate Solutions and Economic Opportunities (CSEO) process, being undertaken by a large group of state agencies and led by the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board.  This process is a reboot of the state’s previous climate action plan, called MCCAG.  CSEO promises to analyze specific land use and transportation “policy options”, like planning for a different urban form, impacts of the current draft Transportation Policy Plan,  transportation pricing, and electric vehicles.  These analyses will undoubtedly be better than mine, and should be very informative for policy makers as they consider adoption of the TPP in January.

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Categories: Twin Cities

Creating a low-carbon transportation system for MSP: Part One, Baselining

Net Density - Fri, 12/12/2014 - 1:00am

My latest at streets.mn does the carbon accounting which should have been part of the Draft 2040 Transportation Policy Plan developed by the Met Council.

Thrive MSP 2040, the new regional plan for the 7-county metro adopted by the Metropolitan Council, includes moderately strong language about addressing climate change.  But the main implementation tool we’ve seen so far from the Council, the Draft 2040 Transportation Policy Plan, doesn’t go nearly far enough.  In fact, it doesn’t even start where it should, with a baseline of emissions.

In this and future posts, I’ll try to do what I think the Draft Transportation Policy Plan should have done – identify where we’re starting from and where we need to go in terms of transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s got charts, so you’ll want to read the rest.

Categories: Twin Cities

Reading the Highland Villager Op-Ed Extra #8

Twin Cities Sidewalks - Thu, 12/11/2014 - 2:01pm
[Empty spaces on Wabasha in the middle of the day, fm Ken Paulman's twitter.]High cost, loss of parking argue for a better bike loopBy Bill HoskoOn Tuesday, December 2, downtown St. Paul residents and business people gathered for a follow-up discussion of Mayor Chris Coleman's plan for a "bike loop" in downtown. An earlier meeting with business people and residents on the bike loop was held on November 12. Public comments to the city were due by December 8.[I went to one of these meetings, and listened to the following testimony from one elderly resident: "I’ve been a resident for just about a year and seeing a poster on a little deli was the first I’ve heard that 15 spots on Jackson might no longer exist. One of the biggest factors for us relocating to downtown from the suburbs, and we took six months to decide, was the parking for people who wanted to come visit us."]The bike loop, as proposed, is an $18 million designated, curbed and landscaped bike path that would connect Wabasha, 10th, Jackson, and 4th streets. [The exact alignment for the loop hasn't been decided, though Hosko did choose my preferred streets as his example.] It would eliminate 147 metered parking spaces on top of the 131 metered spaces that were previously removed as a result of the construction of the light-rail Green Line downtown.St. Paul has been working on a comprehensive citywide bike plan for the past three years, and released a draft of the proposal last winter. [Three years is a long time!] The plan, if fully implemented, would add 214 miles of bikeways in the next few decades to the 144 miles of bikeways the city now has. It includes two already-identified projects: the downtown bike loop and the completion of the Grand Round, a 27-mile route around the city on either bike lanes or off-street bike trails.The bike plan has received the support of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce and the Greater St. Paul Association of Buildings Owners and Managers, and limited endorsement by the downtown CapitolRiver Council's executive and parking committees. [Note that Hosko pulls many of the strings for the CapitolRiver council, unfortunately.] Mayor Coleman has already budgeted $8 million of the city's $42.5 million 8-80 Vitality Fund to rebuild Jackson Street as the first segment of the bike loop--two months before the public comment was to end. [Yeah, that's how this city works.]Before I go any further, I should mention that I'm car-free, bike year-round, and view the draft bike plan as largely an excellent document. I'm also certain that most of those who live and work in St. Paul support the thoughtful, cost-effective expansion of biking opportunities throughout the city. [Before I go any further, note that the bike loop really isn't designed for people who are already biking around downtown Saint Paul, but for people who aren't biking in downtown because they don't feel safe. Downtown curb-separated bike lanes are something that even kids should be able to ride on comfortably.]In August, Mayor Coleman expressed great concern in an article published in this newspaper about a projected $9.6 million city budget shortfall. ("Budget cuts and tax hikes may be in store for 2015.") Coleman was quoted as saying, "Imagine having to cut every year for the last eight or nine years and then year we need to cut more. It gets very difficult." Was the mayor's concern sincere?Mayor Coleman was elated in October when the City Council awarded the bike loop project $8 million to start the first phase of construction: rebuilding Jackson Street between 10th and 4th streets. That project alone would permanently eliminate 46 metered spaces -- as well as significant parking meter and ticket revenue -- and 10 loading spaces. [Parking revenue doesn't go away, actually. It moves around. That's why parking revenue needs to be seen as a whole. One great way to increase parking revenue in downtown Saint Paul would be to extend meter times past 5 PM. That would also have the added benefit of ensuring that spaces turn over more frequently. The argument about revenue is especially disingenuous because it seems like what people are complaining about is the loss of free parking, which generates no revenue at all.] Only after making budget cuts and raising city taxes and fees does Coleman propose to pull out $8 million in city taxes and fees for his pet project, which was based on a similar project in Indianapolis. [I can only hope that this is indeed a pet project for Coleman, which means it actually might happen!]What Indianapolis has that St. Paul doesn't is [downtown art gallery owners with vision] flat terrain, milder winters and a strong economy. [Pretty sure that the Twin Cities' economy is doing better than Indianapolis'. If decades of free parking haven't made downtown Saint Paul's economy thrive, maybe we should try something else?] Additionally Indianapolis' downtown streets are significantly wider than St. Paul's. As a result, far fewer parking spaces were removed to accommodate that city's bike loop. [I'm actually curious about data on this.] Indianapolis also doesn't have two other major economic competitors to contend with a few miles away: downtown Minneapolis and Bloomington's Mall of America. [Note that the Saint Paul Macy's is thriving because of the free parking.] Coleman continues to insist that downtown St. Paul is "booming," when the truth is that St. Paul continues to economically fall further behind other municipalities in the metro area.Is there a middle-ground in Coleman's bike loop plan? Absolutely. let's install bike and motor vehicle markers on traffic lanes along the bike loop to drive home the point that they are shared lanes for motor vehicles and bikes. [Sharrows, the last refuge of the scoundrel.] Coleman might even lead by example by starting to bike year-round -- we're the same age -- and show how easy it is is to commute the four miles between his West Side home and City Hall. [It'd be easier if they had a contiguous bike lane on Wabasha Street and a bike loop path that would let you easily get from City Hall to Bill Hosko's dynamic business on 7th Street, the Music Forest Café.]
Categories: Twin Cities

Reading the Highland Villager #120

Twin Cities Sidewalks - Thu, 12/11/2014 - 12:02pm
[A Villager in winter. H/t Mike.][Basically the problem is that the best source of Saint Paul streets & sidewalks news is the Highland Villager, a very fine and historical newspaper. This wouldn't be a problem, except that its not available online. You basically have to live in or frequent Saint Paul to read it. That's why I'm reading the Highland Villager. Until this newspaper goes online, sidewalk information must be set free.]Headline: Homeowners feel pain of rising values; Housing market rebound brings big tax increasesAuthor: Jane McClureShort short version: [Also greater net worth.]Headline: St. Paul grants liquor licenses for Salt Cellar; Answer to Selby-Western parking woes still soughtAuthor: Jane McClureShort short version: A restaurant that wanted to open up in a vacant building in a historic walkable area can now do so even though they don't have as many parking spots as other restaurants in the area would like them to have. Minimum parking requirements are vague on the subject, either requiring 31, 13, or 14 spaces. The restaurant will 13. The city staff said 14 but neighborhoods and the owner of W.A. Frost took it to the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) who denied the larger requirements. In a recent vote, the City Council sided with city staff and the BZA. Article includes quotes from the owners of the new restaurant about getting their employees to work, and some history of the building, which was formerly an art school. Best quote: "some business owners and residents have said that the Neighborhood ... has reached  a tipping point." [Classic Yogi Berra moment: "Nobody goes there any more, it's too crowded."] People are still concerned about parking. [The key to parking in this neighborhood is to park a few blocks away and walk a few blocks. It's nice to walk in this neighborhood because it's beautiful and doesn't have parking lots everywhere. Fancy restaurants also have valet parking, don't they?]Headline: City vacates former Lexington LibraryAuthor: Jane McClureShort short version: An building that used to have a library in it was sold. Other vacant buildings owned by the city will be sold in the future.Headline: Grant awarded for transit [Least exciting headline in many months.]Author: Jane McClureShort short version: The Counties Transit Improvement Board CTIB has given money to transit projects like SWLRT, Bottineau, Orange Line and Gateway.Headline: City gets to work on new teardown policy; The question is, how do you legislate standards for new home design?Author: Jane McClureShort short version: The city is considering new policies to regulate teardowns [when smaller homes in nice neighborhoods are torn down and replaced with larger homes], most of which is happening in the South-west quadrant of the city. Some questions include how to notify neighbors, what designs and style regulations might look like, and "lot splits."Headline: Debbie Montgomery gets her name on part of Marshall Ave.Author: Jane McClureShort short version: A former Council Member gets a symbolic sign. [See also: SuperTarget.]Headline: St. Paul takes aim at creating archery range near Pig's EyeAuthor: Jane McClureShort short version: You may be able to shoot arrows in park land near Pig's Eye lake in the future. [You'll poke your eye out!]Headline: Owners of Grand property appeal parking spot denialAuthor: Jane McClureShort short version: A commercial/residential building housing a contracting business wants not to build a parking spot but the city is trying to make them do so. Neighbors say that tenants "park illegally in the alley."Headline: Permit sought for next phase of Victoria Park apartmentsAuthor: Jane McClureShort short version: An old industrial oil tank farm is still becoming apartment buildings near West 7th Street. 194 new units, outdoor pool, and underground parking. [Park in the pool! Swim in your car!]Headline: County to pay $11.5M to raze old jail, West Publishing complex in downtownAuthor: Jane McClureShort short version: Old buildings across the street from City Hall along the bluff downtown will be torn down by the County because they couldn't sell them to anyone. Politicians hope that the demolition will accelerate redevelopment. Article includes history of the buildings, the oldest of which is from 1895. [The jail is so amazing; see here.] "Demolition will take a year." They might get a Met Council grant to help pay for some of it.Headline: Consultants aid St. Paul's effort to upgrade winter street maintenanceAuthor: Jane McClureShort short version: The City Council is changing the rules about one-sided parking and snow emergencies to make it easier to tag and tow cars. They're using "data" now. [What will they think of next?] Article includes quote: "they faced a blizzard of complaints." They will especially clear snow around the Green Line. Headline: St. Paul approves regs for Uber, LyftAuthor: Jane McClureShort short version: The city will let Uber and Lyft operate without requiring individual licenses for drivers. Article includes lots of explanation of what a "smartphone" is. Article includes claims from the companies that lists of drivers' names are "trade secrets." [My understanding is that each company poaches drivers from the other, which if course is bad for the companies because then they get into a bidding war with each other and end up giving more power to the drivers.]
Categories: Twin Cities

Chart of the Day: US Transit Ridership over Time

Streets.MN - Thu, 12/11/2014 - 10:30am

I came across this cool chart when digging around researching the last Chart of the Day. It’s pretty self explanatory and nicely made:

I found it in this report on Bus Stop design. Enjoy!

Streets.mn is a non-profit and is volunteer run. We rely on your support to keep the servers running. If you value what you read, please consider becoming a member.

Categories: Twin Cities