Have you heard the news today, oh boy?
The costs of the SWLRT are ballooning — up to $2B, in fact. By the math, that’s 333 Vikings pedestrian bridges, and change. Between ongoing legal and political battles from city, county and suburbs, to newly-identified soil contamination that’s worse than anticipated, to an improved economy driving up labor costs for construction…it’s a mess. Now, sure, the project started at $1.65B, which isn’t exactly peanuts, but the increase is more than a rounding error.
Here’s a look back at some past streets.mn coverage of this line:
- It’s Time for Hopkins to be Selfish (April 13, 2015)
- No Need for Vandalism on the Greenway & Kenilworth (September 27, 2014)
- A Southwest Light Rail Explainer (August 8, 2014)
- What Southwest Light Rail Conversations Get Wrong (April 30, 2014)
- SWLRT tunnel (April 30, 2014)
- Southwest LRT Routing (March 27, 2014)
- Can We Kill Two Birds with One Stone when it Comes to Light Rail Planning? (March 24, 2014)
- Southwest LRT: Triage Now, Rehabilitation Later (February 11, 2014)
- Southwest Light Rail: What Are We Trying to Accomplish? (November 2013)
- Why Minneapolis SHOULD NOT consent to the SWLRT tunnel plan (October 16, 2013)
- Why Minneapolis SHOULD Consent to the SWLRT Tunnel Plan (October 16, 2013)
- We Need to Stop the Southwest Corridor (July 21, 2013)
And we’ve mentioned it in countless other contexts, from political races to urban soccer stadiums. Streets contributors and readers have been chattering about this new development on Twitter all day. Several wonder if this opens us back up to prior alignments discarded by the wayside as “too expensive”–this alignment was chosen for its relative economy, after all. Others wonder if it’s time to look at an east metro expansion of transit.
Tell us: What do you think will happen with SWLRT?
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Here’s a map, tweeted by a reader, of the original blue line station area plan, next to the now-defunct HHH Metrodome, c. 1999:
Kind of interesting given the recent debate (spurred by Nick’s post) over the pedestrian bridge by the Viking’s stadium. My initial reaction is that plans stay on the books long after they’re first proposed, and never completely disappear.
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While many streets.mn writers focus on the pleasures and challenges of bicycling in the Twin Cities, I bring the same kind of passion to walking. So I was delighted to open up my Sunday New York Times and find a special issue of the NYT Magazine devoted to Walking New York. The issue presents many perspectives on walking in New York, with articles by seventeen authors who explore different places and walking experiences.
Having lived in Manhattan for 25 years, I was accustomed to walking or taking the subway as a matter of course, and didn’t really think much about it. Then I lived in southern California where a car was essential to get around and most trips took at least 45 minutes or an hour. So when I moved to Saint Paul twelve years ago, I continued using a car and delighted in being able to get most places in 15 minutes or less.
However, I was also intent on getting to know my new neighbors, which got me to walking in my neighborhood. I attended my local caucus, got elected caucus chair, and joined one of the presidential campaigns that were getting underway. This gave me an excuse to knock on doors and talk to neighbors, while sharing my perspective on the candidates I was supporting. I also found that the best way to open up a conversation was to observe something special about each house or yard, and to comment on it as I introduced myself. Because I was a retired photographer, this came naturally, and I began noticing many details about the streets and sidewalks.
Looking back, I can see that this was the first phase in my transition to a more “pedestrian” approach to life, with walking (and transit as needed) now my preferred mode of transportation. But before getting to this point, my husband and I each had our own car for a number of years. Even as I worked with the District Councils Collaborative (DCC) on the Stops4Us campaign to ensure that the Green Line included stations all along University Avenue to serve transit-dependent residents, I drove my car to get to meetings. Needless to say, the irony was not lost on me.
Finally, a couple of years ago, my husband and I agreed to get rid of one of our cars. The deal was that he would be able to use the car whenever he needed it, and I would find another way of getting around. Now, I welcome the challenge of going car-free; even if the car is available, I walk to meetings when they’re within a mile and do most of my shopping at local stores. For more distant destinations, I usually take buses or ride the Green Line. My husband has also greatly reduced his car use by bicycling to the U when the weather is nice. Will we ever be ready to give up our car? Probably not — at least not until age and its accompanying infirmities make it unsafe for us to be behind the wheel.
It took me a decade to make the transition to walking and transit. Now I love to go on foot, either briskly or taking my time, depending on the purpose of my walk. I even invested in a FitBit that tracks the number of steps walked and stairs climbed. Weekly reports motivate me to walk more, and clever awards make me laugh. For example, I recently received a notice stating: “Congrats on earning your London Underground badge. You’ve walked 250 miles—as many as the world’s first underground railway. This triumph really lays the tracks for some big things in the future.”
Most important, I love being out on the street, seeing the spring blossoms, and greeting people along the way — families waiting for the school bus in the morning, college students with their backpacks, a couple walking the dog, or a neighbor returning home with a crispy loaf of fresh bread.
In my next article, I’ll address issues related to pedestrian safety, including a comparison of the different challenges faced by New York as compared to the Twin Cities. Meanwhile, I encourage you to get out and walk. I also recommend the special April 26th Walking New York issue of The New York Times Magazine.
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.
With news today that the latest cost estimates have approached the $2 billion mark, there is much speculation on Twitter that this news might mean the end of the SWLRT Green Line extension to Eden Prairie.
Austin, TX is a pretty cool city.
I was recently visiting the liberal heart of the reddest state, and was able to peruse the streets of the city during a warm & humid afternoon. In many senses, Austin and Minneapolis are eerily similar: both cities contain major world-class research universities, a growing knack for progressive urban design, and a burgeoning downtown population which hosts both probz car-free Millenials and suave empty nesters alike. From a local non-expert’s point-of-view, Austin also is coming out of an era of automobile dominance, and is developing a flurry of slick projects – both public and private – that demonstrate truly good urbanism.
My long urban pilgrimage started near Republic Square Park, a block-sized park that connects the more established downtown area with the booming Market & Warehouse District. I walked down to Congress Avenue, a main north-south corridor and Austin’s traditional main street leading to the Texas State Capitol. I snaked around the Capitol area and ended up on the south end of the University of Texas main campus. I then perused the West Campus area before heading back south to the booming Second Street and Seaholm District near the Colorado River (not THE Colorado River like the Grand Canyon one, the Austin version is a different Colorado River… but more people live near this Colorado River than THE Colorado River, it’s a little confusing, look on Google Earth and Wikisearch the history of river names or something).
Transit infrastructure is p decent
Since I get a rise out of public transit (But I mean, who doesn’t), I was keenly observing the built transit environment around my stroll. Austin’s transit provider is Capital Metro, which carried just over 113,000 weekday passengers in 2013. The system is primarily funded by a 1% sales tax within the Austin transit service area. Cap Metro’s transit system relies solely on their bus fleet with the exception of one commuter rail line, the Capital Metrorail Red Line. Previous attempts to develop a light rail line within Austin have failed twice, most recently in 2014.
Even with their unfortunate transit snafus, their bus fleet that I observed is quick, slick, and easy to use. Along Guadalupe Street near Republic Square Park, a Marq2-esque station system exists. The corridor contains stops with amenities such as roof-only shelters, benches, and real-time arrival signage that ACTUALLY shows real-time arrival information. I’m no expert on fleet quality, but the buses in this area seemed clean but well-used. This section of Guadalupe also has a well-striped bus-only lane.
Interesting street designs – both permanent and tactical
During my stroll, it was fairly clear that Austin is still an auto-oriented city, but is trying its hardest to poke its progressive multimodalist head out from the bushes. Along sickeningly-wide Congress Avenue, an unfortunate 6-lane configuration is mitigated with fancy sidewalk curb and parking bay designs. Rather than bumping sidewalks out at intersections alone, Congress includes mid-block bumpouts and diagonal parking bays. These mid-block bumpouts contain anything from trees to benches to concrete umbrellas to restaurant patio space – all while maintaining a good supply of on-street parking nearby.
Meanwhile, a recent re-design of Guadalupe Avenue (Locally pronounced “Gwad-A-Loop” instead of “Gwad-a-Loop-ay”, BTW, because Texas I guess) near the UT Campus has a more tactical, NYC Broadway Avenue feel to it. The heavily traveled corridor was narrowed to four total traffic lanes, a buffered northbound bike lane, a planter-protected southbound bike lane, a few parking bays, and several “floating” bus stops. The former design had the parking and southbound bike lane flipped; the new layout gives pedestrians more crossing room and gives bikes more peace of mind. Guadalupe has a ton of wonderful urban-minded street-fronting retail outlets along the generously wide sidewalk, and the new layout with the planter protection also adds a nice touch for pedestrians.
Bike infra is good, but could be better
Austin is a burgeoning bike city with many promising cycling corridors, but still has a ways to go. It contains several nice trails near the Colorado River and the Shoal Creek area, but on-street biking areas feel too dominated by auto traffic. I noticed several signs that commanded bikers to yield to buses, which, in my opinion, seems a little backwards. However, the protected lane on Guadalupe and a two-way cycletrack on Rio Grande Street demonstrate Austin’s continuing push for better biking conditions.
The private side
Austin is GROWING. Like, its growing really, really fast. Luckily, a good swath of development is occurring near the already walkable city center rather than in the sprawl (Looking at you, San Antonio). Much growth is occurring in the Second Street, Seaholm, and Market Districts, as well as the areas around the UT Campus. Specifically, Second Street (or Willie Nelson Blvd) contains excellent walkable streetscape, complete with all items you’d hope to see in an urbanist goodie bag.
Coupling with this, some of the hopefully-soon-to-be-developed surface lots also contain active use. A lot south of Republic Square park had a pop-up food-truck-esque restaurant tent in it, and people were patronizing it and sitting on temporary seating areas and all! It was pretty rad. Its something I’d love to see happen temporarily in those lots on the north end of Nicollet Mall near the library, before better things are built.
I truly enjoyed my short-lived time strolling the streets of Austin, and I didn’t even experience the events that make the city famous – amazing music festivals, Hook ‘em Horns football, the probably strong night life, the amazing foodie goodness (although I DID have the best Turkey Reuben sandwich I ever had in my life for lunch). Austin is often on that list of attractive mid-sized cities that are good for Millenials and young families and generally good employment opportunities and stuff, and for good reason. It may not have the transit and bike infrastructure that a Portland or a Denver, and certainly doesn’t have the state support that a Minneapolis/St Paul has, but it has all the right elements to tag along with the crew. Austin will certainly succeed as long as the development of the riverfront pushes forward and the “Keep Austin Cool” vibe continues.
The moon is red and you’re dancin’ real slow Twenty-nine miles left to go The chain monkeys help you with your load You’re rollin’ over to the lowside of the road
–Lowside of the Road, Tom Waits
Minnesotans, which side are you on? Left, right or just “the lowside”? If you believe the results of a recent survey of non-automotive traffic I did, it probably depends on what you’re doing at the time and where you are. But in many situations, it looks like a lot of you just don’t know. First, a disclaimer: The sample I collected (231) is barely half of the minimum needed (about 400) to represent the state’s population (even using generous margins of error and confidence levels). Also, the sample was entirely self-selected. However, my hope is to throw some light on what appears to be a confusing issue for many. The survey asked which side participants thought sidewalk-eschewing pedestrians and other non-automotive vehicles should use on two-way Minnesota street and roads. The survey also asked participants whether they used the various forms of conveyance mentioned in the survey and what they thought their knowledge was of the Minnesota bicycle and pedestrian law.Findings: A Bit on the Lowside
Participants were more certain about bicyclists, runners and walkers, but much less so with rollerbladers, runners/walkers with children in strollers or on bicycles, and wheelchair users. Many were not sure or answered “either/it depends.” To be fair, the areas were only identified as “rural” or “urban/suburban”, which opened things up for interpretation. A better survey might have shown participants pictures of various scenarios.
No big surprise. Most respondents believe that bicycles should be ridden on the right side in both urban/suburban (95%) and rural (93%) areas. Interestingly, respondents seem to also believe that rollerbladers should be used on the right side on urban/suburban and rural streets/roads (49% and 42%), with many being simply unsure. Is it a wheel thing? We won’t know, because the margin of error (+/- 5%) make this last finding inconclusive. But is something going on here?
Conversely, respondents tended to believe that runners and walkers should go on the left side in rural (67%) areas. This belief extended to runners and walkers with strollers in rural areas(61%). In urban/suburban areas, the results were different. Once the margins of error were included, there was no consensus on which side a pedestrian with or without a stroller should go on.
Beyond more common scenarios involving bicyclists, runners and walkers, the opinions were much less clear. When margins of error were factored in, there was no consensus on any of the remaining conveyances. For rollerbladers, wheelchair users, and runners/walkers with children on bikes, roughly equal proportions responded with “left”, “right”, and “either”/”not sure.”
The survey also asked participants about what forms of conveyance they used and what they believed their knowledge of Minnesota bicycle and pedestrian law was. My hope was to predict how some participants might answer based on their transportation/exercise habits or knowledge of the law. I did run some cross tabulations to see if persons who ran or thought they knew pedestrian law were more likely to believe that runners and walkers belonged on the left side, but these analyses were inconclusive.
In Part 2, I’ll dig into why we might be seeing these uncertainties. Is our just the limited sample size and methodology, or is it something more? Is this common in other states and countries? How do laws differ elsewhere? What’s the difference between law and practice? What did Waits really mean by “chain monkeys” and “the lowside”? Stay tuned!
Imagine you were in a region that was growing and had a transportation problem.
Imagine you had a grade separated rail line into the heart of the city, connecting with other rail lines.
Imagine this line already had two stations constructed.
Imagine this line passed through some high density neighborhoods without stopping.
Imagine you already ran some service on this line.
Wouldn’t you look at this as an opportunity?
For a variety of reasons, the Northstar has not been the most successful transit line in the Twin Cities region.
While it runs through the streetcar suburbs and transit-compatible neighborhoods of Northeast Minneapolis, it doesn’t actually stop there. This diminishes the number of riders it might carry so that it might convey about 1000 suburbanites into downtown about 5 minutes faster. Both local residents going southbound in the morning, and suburbanites who might want to stop short of downtown get short-shifted by this configuration. There have been efforts in other cites to convert commuter trains into more frequent, all-day, urban service. (e.g. London, Toronto – add more in the comments). With only one line, that opportunity has not yet befallen the Twin Cities.
Imagine instead that instead of no stops, an abbreviated version of the Northstar line (let’s call it the Shørtstår Line, though we can give it a color like “Silver” or “Noir”) ran frequently during the day on the same corridor but on a reduced route between say Fridley and Target Field, and had stops at
- Lowry and 7th St NE,
- Broadway and Central, and
- University Avenue and 3rd Ave NE
- Target Field Station
Like any good transit service, this would be a 10 minute headway service, served by several Diesel Multiple Unit trains. From aerial photos it appears the right-of-way should be sufficient along most of the route to provide two passenger-only tracks (since that is what our region insists upon). In any case, it could share tracks with freight most of the day, as the tracks do not appear to be congested in this region, if there were some forethought about scheduling. (Bigger cities do more with less).
What kind of ridership might this line get? I don’t know – but as lines go, this looks at least as plausible as many much more expensive routes that are being considered. For the cost of a few temporary stations, renting some trains, and some negotiating with the railroads for running rights for a one year trial, the region would get a good idea of how well this might work before expensive rolling stock were purchased and new tracks laid. If it worked well (in terms of cost-effectiveness, compared with other existing and proposed lines), more permanent infrastructure could be built. If not, the trains’ leases could expire and they could go elsewhere.
This week’s New York Times Sunday magazine is devoted to the subject of walking in New York City. While most of the articles are personal narratives or think pieces, “How Do We Protect New York City’s Pedestrians?” is the best thing I’ve ever read on ped-auto conflict and how a shift in engineering philosophy can make a huge difference. The article also does a terrific job of describing the history of how we got into the situation we’re in today.
To read it, go to:
Streets.mn presents Bicyclopolis, a graphic novel by Ken Avidor in serial form. In last week’s episode, The Gates of Bicyclopolis, Sara gave Dan and Archie their first glimpse of the city and a tour of the outer green belts that surround it. In this week’s episode, our travelers get a tour inside the city from their new guide.
If you missed an episode, you can find links to episodes at the archive. For easier reading, click on the pages a couple times to make them bigger.
While reading an excellent article by Yonah Freemark, Why should Chicago focus growth near transit?, I thought the Twin Cities should do the same thing. Taking advantage of existing capacity is far more cost effective than building new capacity (and yes, this applies to all modes). But what is the existing capacity of the Green Line? Well, that depends on assumptions and human behavior. In the table below I work through some scenarios based on assumptions.
First, how many hours per day is the Green Line operating? Second, what is the frequency within that time period? Third, how many cars per train are there? Fourth, what is the capacity per car (they are rated at 230, but this includes standees)? Fifth, how long is the line? Sixth, how long (how many stations) is the average trip? Seventh, how many directions are you considering?
This measures capacity in terms of daily boardings. Daily miles traveled is another measure, and is independent of the length of trips.
To calculate this we use the following equation:
Capacity = (Hours of Operation)*(Trains/Hour)*(Cars/Train)*(Capacity/Car)*(Stations – 1) * (Trip Length) * (Directions Operating).
At any rate, the attached table shows some surprisingly high numbers, up to 7 million (under the admittedly silly unconstrained scenario (A) where people only ride the train for 1 stop before alighting, trains run for 24 hours a day, and people are standing at near crush capacity), with more plausible numbers in the 255k territory, assuming everyone gets a seat, but you can run at 5 minute headways (C). Here we are limited by capacity in one section (downtown Minneapolis), which does run at 5 minute headways, but splits the capacity between the Green and Blue lines.
The main point is that there is a lot of capacity on the Green Line yet to go, even if you only run 18 hours a day, and you expect everyone to have a seat, and run at today’s 10 minute headways (which is all today’s fleet can support, to increase headway we either need to increase speed greatly or add vehicles), and assume the average trip is 7 stations (Aaron Isaacs informs me it is 3.5 miles, which at 1/2 mile spacing is about 7 stations) (83,314 – scenario D). At the other end of the spectrum, if everyone expected a seat and was riding from Union Depot to Target Field, the capacity would only be 32,400 with today’s frequencies.
Thus, east–west transportation capacity is not the constraint in development along the Green Line corridor. (One could similarly demonstrate the under-utilization in the north-south direction on buses, and in all directions on roads).
Certainly load balancing is an issue, much of the capacity is “off-peak”, but that is what pricing is for. Higher loads would increase wear and tear on the cars, and add costs, but hopefully the added revenues would more than compensate.
Compare with current ridership of about 37,835/day (Sept. 2014).
Given there is also a lot of developable land in this corridor, why are new corridors being subsidized for development? [I do actually know the answer to this, it was a rhetorical question].Capacity of the Green Line ABCDE Fully UnconstrainedFully ConstrainedNeedlessly Constrained Hours2424241818 Trains per Hour1212666 Runs per Day288288144108108 Cars per Train33333 Capacity per Car2301151155050 Capacity per Train690345345150150 Stations1919191919 Stations - 11818181818 Average Trip Length (in Stations)177718 Directions22222 DAILY CAPACITY7,153,920510,994255,49783,31432,400 Some scenarios describing capacity of the Green Line
This week’s posts cover a lot of territory – some posts continue discussion on subjects which started in other local media, a few more keep expanding on-going conversations on streets.mn and some new stuff. Here’s the week carefully curated for your consideration (and comments or follow-up contribution).Hot topic: Ugly buildings and urban design
On Ugly Buildings looks at the sentiment that ugliness and beauty are purely subjective (thus no debate is possible) and moves on to ways architectural aesthetics influence us and how the political process also affects our judgment. Better Urban Design From the Ground Up redirects the conversation from whether buildings are, in fact (or in opinion) ugly and what building materials are required, to consider how the ground-level of building frontages relate to the street and surrounding land uses. Looking back just a few months, a February column in the Star Tribune and streets.mn reply on new apartment buildings and urban design could be seen as kicking off this week’s posts.Hot topic 2: Stadiums, again but different
The new Vikings Stadium has been a frequent topic on streets.mn, but this week the stadium in question is the one which could be built for the new Major League Soccer franchise which is coming to Minneapolis (if they have a place to play). Building A Mixed Use, Neighborhood Stadium reviews some of the stadium issues, but then moves more boldly to Oslo for inspiration. Since one of the criticisms of stadium development is use of the stadium only on game day, building a stadium which also houses other businesses which can serve the neighborhood every other day, too. Commenters briefly chat about the financial package which might be used to help pay for the stadium, but mostly about refining the location within the West Loop by suggesting the stadium sit next to the highway viaduct and moving the farmers market toward the city. Related to another Twin Cities stadium, the CHS Field for the Saint Paul Saints, Take Me Out to the Saints Game responds to recent news coverage about stadium about parking near the stadium and encouraging transit use, but takes a more fun (and historically connected) view: “use transit because driving to ballgames robs us of the ability to daydream on a summer day. We don’t know the opportunity cost of disallowing a muse to alight upon us because we are hurriedly looking for parking.”Other big posts
Let Us Build Less Parking, Please asks for changing Minneapolis’ parking requirements by reviewing parking’s impact on a city before turning to focus on the rental market and eliminating the requirement that apartments provide parking. Commenters consider some details about the cost of parking for renters, but also illustrate parking pricing by discussing Minnesota State Fiar parking pricing (although they left out the free-market part about nearby homeowners renting their yards for parking). Comments also note that Donald Shoup, patron saint of parking pricing, is retiring.
Access is an issue this week in two very different contexts: Transit Versus the Overly-Accessible Freeway compares transit stop spacing to freeway access spacing on the Green Line/I-94 corridor and finds, as the title highlights, highway access points are closely spaced and make getting on the freeway more convenient than getting on the LRT. Part of the problem considered is whether applying standard guidelines for transit station spacing make sense, or whether a more context-sensitive solution would serve the public better. Commenters consider highway accesses which could be removed, but also what small increases in distance to transit stops mean for people with more limited mobility who depend on transit. Obstacles to Accessing Bloomington’s Trails highlights how the Normandale Avenue trailhead for the Minnesota River Bottoms Trail limits rather than encourages public access to the trail by its location in a single-family neighborhood which requires access by car for all but the nearest neighbors, prohibiting parking near the trailhead, and other ways the trailhead has privatized public resources.
Continuing the history and politics of the Saint Croix River bridge now under construction, The Stillwater Bridge Story: Part Three looks at final refinements to design of the bridge, then expands the context to include what happens on highways connecting to the bridge, possible park/trail improvements, and a few other interesting facts. Commenters appreciate the detailed history, but respond more critically to the author’s “opinion is that any dollars spent on highway projects are good” to ask some additional questions about projected traffic volumes, whether making it more convenient for people to live farther away is a good idea, and other concerns about costs.
Safety Means More Than Crime Rates started with a blog post about “Family Friendly” cities and what criteria people use when choosing where to live, but zooms in to crunch some numbers on the risk of driving compared to risks of crime to try to answer: “Does living in a city and driving much less (or not at all), with all the crime that may come with it, outweigh the safety benefits of avoiding crime?” There is not (yet) a clear answer, but commenters provide some additional context about living car-free, how they choose where to live, and refining the question somewhat.
The video offering of the week is Volvo LifePaint (video) it the primary source detailing Volvo’s new reflective paint for cyclists or other non-drivers to use at night which kicked off much debate in the media about safety, safety gimmicks, and whether putting the responsibility for safety on the most vulnerable street users is appropriate.
Two text + picture personal journeys: Some Personal Observations About Getting Around the Twin Cities highlights a few places and their challenges or triumphs. On the edge of Downtown is another lovely summer ride around Saint Paul by/through the Macalester-Groveland neighborhood, West End, and Downtown (other rides on the streets of Saint Paul are here).
Charts ‘n’ Map: Two charts this week with Highway 5 Bridge Traffic Flows using cellphone data to map traffic flow in Saint Paul and (related to the longer post summarized above) Saint Croix River Bridge Dimensions. The Map of the Day: 1957 I-94 proposal for Lowry Hill looks back in time to earlier planning in the the Hennepin/Lyndale commons area now planned for reconstruction.
Graphic novel continues: Bicyclopolis: Episode Eight, The Gates of Bicyclopolis is the latest installment. As new episodes usually go up on Sunday, you can probably get Episode Nine today, too.
Next week, it’ll be May! Spring flowers, springs in steps, and lovely thoughts springing to mind; yes, we welcome Spring in Minnesota. Get outside and enjoy the streets in Spring this week!
I’ve recently found myself getting frustrated by the discourses surrounding architectural aesthetics I’ve been coming across. Here’s an example from the Star Tribune. Yes, I know, the Strib comment section is terrible (bless those of you who take the time to try and ameliorate it), but humor me.
One person’s garbage is another person’s treasure. A variation on this sentiment usually rears its head early in debates over architectural aesthetics. It’s put forth as if to say, ‘there’s no objective measure of aesthetic value, so why even bother arguing about it?’
I’m going to try and avoid this question in a way that I hope could make future arguments about “ugly” or “all the same” buildings more fruitful. Obviously we all know that it’s 2015 and we live in the Void – I’m not going to try and posit some absolute theory of aesthetic value. Instead, I just want to ponder how and why buildings generate strong emotional reactions, and contextualize that process in the culture at large. I’m no expert, so this is mostly just a collection of thoughts from pertinent sources.
Buildings clearly elicit strong judgments from people. But how and why do feelings that are generated by buildings come about? What leads them to be called good or bad, or beautiful or ugly? I can think of at least three different ways, which I’ve ordered from the least to the most abstract.
The first is that a building provides or denies some immediate refuge from the elements, or for a need such as water or rest. Consider this passage and images from Streets for People by Bernard Rudofsky, a wide-ranging critique of the barbarity of American streets.
“Americans accept the extremes of their urban climate with fatalism; to their way of thinking, they are not to be tampered with. ‘ How the sun beats down upon the brick walls and stone pavements of the city!’ reads a children’s book, written by some anonymous sadist, and published in 1856 under the imprint of the American Sunday School Union. ‘The streets seem sometimes like an oven, and the poor laboring men and animals are almost ready to tumble down exhausted with the heat…’ Three generations later, the summer heat is still being trapped in streets devoid of trees, lawns, or water courses. People do nothing to prevent winter winds from raging through the unsheltered city canyons. Streets, they believe, have different functions in different climates; in this country they are supposed to be inhospitable. However delightful the street’s enclosure may be felt to be under ideal conditions, Americans resist being attracted by it. They close their minds to the fact that towns like Bologna can deal with heaver snowfalls than New York, or that streets in North African towns would be even more ‘like an oven’ then theirs without the inhabitants’ self-reliance and initiative.”
Rudofsky demonstrates that buildings can possess varying amounts of inherent hospitality or respect for the passerby. What if the sidewalks of downtown, Lake st., Franklin Ave. were colonnaded by the adjacent buildings?
* * *
Another way buildings elicit judgments is that they conjure an emotional reaction from our psyche based on our past. This could mean our evolutionary past – the impact of previous human habitats – or a preference instilled by our upbringing. In the first instance, an ancient cave preference could lead us to prefer seating near walls and corners. At a restaurant, you usually go for the booth – that’s because your subconscious was reared in a cave.
This example is purely conjecture, and unfortunately at this early stage, evolutionary psychology has little concrete evidence of anything. Are there overarching biases in human aesthetic preferences in the built environment? Probably. On the other hand, maybe each individual’s environmental preferences, to the extent they’re genetically determined, if at all, are as different from others’ as claustrophobes and an agoraphobes.
Nevertheless, some people have proposed innate qualities in humans that govern how buildings should be built. There is quite a bit of literature that starts from a set of assumptions about what these preferences are or might be, and critiques architecture on the basis of how well it conforms to them. One of them is Christopher Alexander, whose books The Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language form a seductive, mystical treatise on how cities can emerge and come to life by unlocking “objective and precise” innate orders that give rise to the “timeless way.”
“The langauge, and the processes which stem from it, merely release the fundamental order which is native to us. They do not teach us, they only remind us of what we know already, and of what we shall discover time and time again, when we give up our ideas and opinions, and do exactly what emerges form ourselves.”
“Consider, for example, the pattern of events which we might call ‘watching the world go by.’
We sit, perhaps slightly raised, on the front porch, or on some steps in a park, or on a cafe terrace, with a more or less protected, sheltered, partly private place behind us, looking out into a more public place, slightly raised above it, watching the world go by.
I cannot separate it from the porch where it occurs.
The action and the space are indivisible. The action is supported by this kind of space. The space supports this kind of action. The two form a unit, a pattern of events in space.”
Another more recent book is The Architecture of Happiness by Allain de Botton. The architecture of happiness can basically be summed up in these excerpts:
“Belief in the significance of architecture is premised on the notion that we are, for better or for worse, different people in different places – and on the conviction that it is architecture’s task to render vivid to us who we might ideally be.”
“What is a beautiful building? To be modern is to experience this as an awkward and possibly unanswerable question, the very notion of beauty having come to seem likea concept doomed to ignite unfruitful and childish argument. How can anyone claim to know what is attractive? How can anyone adjudicate between the competing claims of different styles or defend a particular choice in the face of the contradictory tastes of others? The creation of beauty, once viewed as the central task of the architect, has quitly evaporated from serious professional discussion and retreated to a confused private imperative.”
“To help overcome our reluctance to pass open judgment on the aesthetic side of buildings, we should consider our comparative confidence in discussing the strengths and failings of our fellow human beings. Much of social conversation amounts to a survey of the different ways in which absent third parties have departed from or, much less commonly, have matched an implicit ideal of behavior.”
Regardless of whether human aesthetic taste is a blank slate or evolutionarily deterministic, there does seem to be some incongruity between the prevailing tastes of plebians and architects. Consider what Andres Duany says to Rem Koolhaas about an hour into their panel at the Harvard GSD, which is well worth watching in its entirety.
“But actually, the really important thing, is actually the retrofitting of the existing utterly demoralized profession that is designing America now. That is really what’s important. Many architects that were taught as modernists, who find they cannot make a living as modernists, because essentially there’s no market for modernism, so what they are is they’re bad traditionalists, they’re bad post-modernists. They do it badly, they have no pride, and they are our burden.”
Duany suggests that the prevailing quality of new buildings is the result of a class of professionals who want to be doing high modernism, find themselves stifled and subsequently half-ass projects.
Is that what’s going on here? Possibly, to some degree, but I think the amount of disagreement over new buildings points to something deeper.
* * *
Beyond the direct psychological impacts of buildings and calls to shape them to better ourselves, another way that a building might generate a positive or negative emotional response is that it may possess traits which act a signifiers for ideas or ideologies.
Some people have approached the idea of critiquing architecture and space from the perspective of what its physical attributes might signify in the culture at large. Here is what Paul Walker Clarke says about the early rise of modernism.
“Unfortunately, the new style as an image supplanted the initial social content. While a new architecture was created, it proved to have a negligible effect on the social order. Housing for the masses became confused as mass housing. The aesthetic of pure geometry – the unadorned cube – was mistaken as a desired end unto itself. The opposition to ornament became a pursuit of new visual patterns and not, as was initially proclaimed, the elimination of visual determinants of design. The agenda of social reform was divested. The concern that a building employ rational methods in its design was eclipsed by the concern that a building appear rational.
The style of the pure and unadorned object has enigmatic corollaries. It signifies that the object is separate from social meaning. The object has no history and continues no history. It is ahistorical. Meaning and form are independent; the object has only to refer to itself to be legitimate. The purity of the object is untainted because the object has no subject. All of these are futile assertions, the stuff of myths.
However, if as stated earlier, modern architecture was a resounding success, it was because its mystifications were essential for an economy that was destroying in order to create. It was an economy which appropriated the practice of architecture and which alienated the very act of dwelling and called it housing. The architect was no longer designing for her or his class. The housing, factories, schools, “public” libraries, warehouses, and other new building types were commissioned by the capitalist class, but not occupied by them, and certainly not occupied by architects. The subject of these objects was not the working classes, although indeed, they inhabited them. The subject was capitalism. The modernist architects were the first to have disenfranchised “clients.” Objectified by a mode of production, the laboring masses were further objectified by an architectural philosophy which did not respect history, that rebelled against notions of class and thereby refused to recognize the continued relations of class. It was a philosophy of universal norms, unconcerned with aspects of existing culture. The major success of the modernists was the creation of a model of utilitarian construction and a rationale for it. This model was then appropriated and debased by the very economic forces from which the model was to be the salvation.”
This idea is ‘concretely’ illustrated by this anecdote from the Architecture of Happiness:
“In 1923 a French industrialist named Henry Fruges commissioned the famous but still relatively untried architect Le Corbusier, then thirty-six years old, to build houses for a group of his manual workers and their families. Sited next to Fruges’s factories in Lege and Pessac, near Bordeaux, the resulting complexes were exemplars of Modernism, each a series of undecorated boxes with long rectangular windows, flat roofs and bare walls. Le Corbusier was especially proud of their lack of local and rural allusions. He mocked the aspirations of what he called the ‘folkloric brigade’ – made up of the sentimentalising traditionalists – and denounced the French society’s intransigent resistance to modernity. In the houses he designed for the labourers, his admiration for industry and technology expressed itself in expanses of concrete, undecorated surfaces and naked light bulbs.
But the new tenants had a very different idea of beauty. It was not they who had had their fill of tradition and luxury, of gentleness and refinement, nor they who were bored by the regional idiom or the detailed carvings of older buildings. In concrete hangars, dressed in regulation blue overalls, they spend their days assembling pine packing cases for the sugar business. The hours were long and the holidays few. Many had been dragooned from outlying villages to work in Monsieur Fruges’s factories, and they were nostalgic for their former homes and parcels of land. At the end of a shift in the plant, to be further reminded of the dynamism of modern industry was not a pressing pscyhological priority. Within a few years the workers therefore transformed their all-but-identical Corbusian cubes into uniquely differentiated, private spaces capable of remind them of the things which their working lives had stripped away. Unconcerned with spoiling the great architect’s designs, they added to their houses pitched roofs, shutters, small casement windows, flowered wallpaper and picket fences in the vernacular style, and once that was done, set about installing a variety of ornamental fountains and gnomes in their front gardens.”
* * *
This is a rendering of a facade of an apartment building that’s been proposed about two blocks from where I live in Midtown Phillips.
Compare that to a traditional Queen Anne:
Just kidding, these are the real ones:
Traditional architecture is more rule-bound, reflecting a time when people foolishly thought absolute truths could be ascertained through investigation or even just thinking hard enough.
The somewhat more interchangeable features of the facade of a modern apartment building symbolically reflect our evolution toward moral and philosophical plurality and relativism.
Ellen Dunham-Jones investigates the theme of the abandonment of social projects and the rise of ambivalency and acquiescence to capital as it applies to Rem Koolhaas in this essay.
“Instead of critiquing capitalist society, bolstering the civic and the public, or ministering to the needs of the impoverished, he justifies the idea that architects, even if not especially avant-garde, are now free to serve the market. Koolhaas is not alone in these tendencies, but his essays and projects of the ’90s smoothed the way for the parade of “starchitecture” object-buildings that followed. They also spurred his protégés to embrace the idea of the post-critical and the speculative. In effect Koolhaas has encouraged his followers to shed the crippling shackles of critical theory and pick up a surfboard upon which to ride the shock waves of the new economy.”
* * *
I just described three pathways through which architectural aesthetics influence us. The first two are fairly intuitive, but the last is often overlooked. Aesthetics are always political. In this universe I hate football and resent its physical exaltation anywhere near me, but there’s a corner of the multiverse where a building identical to the new Vikings stadium is my favorite building ever, and instead of football games they have giant balloons flying around trying to pop each other.
A lot of people find new buildings ugly because they resent the process that gives rise to them and reject their philosophical symbolism. An apartment in Stadium Village may not have the same symbolic freight as the latest Rem Koolhaas building, but the ethos described by Dunham-Jones has filtered into the profession at large. Some architecture is moving toward an idiom that codifies aesthetically the denial of any biological or philosophical truth other than the market. When we argue about whether a building is ugly, we’re partly sublimating our deep feelings on capitalism or the meaninglessness of life and the appropriate way to react to it.
Here is a map from Saint Paul’s Highway 5 / Shepard Road Access Options Study which uses cellphone tracking data to show traffic flows to/from the MN-5 bridge over the Mississippi River. The bridge carries about 56,000 vehicles per day. The study has the goals of updating infrastructure in the area to:
- Improve vehicle, bicycle, and pedestrian access,
- Balance traffic volumes between West 7th Street and Shepard Road, and
- Represent the neighborhood as a gateway into Saint Paul.
Analyzing data like this is just one way they’re planning to do that.
Edgcumbe Road stands out as a major source/sink, accounting for 25% of traffic on the bridge. In the upper-right corner of the map, this shows about 35% of traffic is heading through the study area in the general direction of downtown St. Paul on Shepard Road (15%), Interstate 35E (15%), or West 7th Street itself (5%).
20% of bridge traffic comes from the neighborhood between West 7th and Shepard Road, while 15% heads up Davern Street. Only about 5% heads up Mississippi River Boulevard.
This map doesn’t try to show traffic that never hits the Highway 5 bridge, though it’s possible to get some idea of that by comparing this map to overall traffic in the area—for instance, the chart in this article doesn’t do a good job of showing that Shepard Road typically only carries half as many cars as West 7th does through this area.
Macalester-Groveland, West End, Downtown 13.4 Miles September 20, 2014
There are sales galore in Mac-Groveland on this beautiful Saturday. I made two stops on the same block of Palace Avenue in Mac-Groveland today, both for ornamentation so unusual they could (and may still) be recognized on the “Quirky Saint Paul” page of this blog. First, at 1366 Palace, these two pirate penguins stand guard.
Then on the boulevard of 1360 Palace, a tree home for a small mammal or elf.
Fast forward to the West End and the historic Schneider-Bulera House at 365 Michigan Street. There is a sizable amount of debate about the history of the Schneider-Bulera House, with most of the disagreement about the home’s age. At one time local historians thought it could be the oldest surviving residential dwelling in Saint Paul but additional research changed that. Now, prevailing opinion is that it is one of Saint Paul’s older homes. The Ramsey County Tax and Property look-up website gives an 1865 construction date for the house, with which the owner obviously disagrees. I haven’t dug up the full story but the Schneider-Bulera House fell into disrepair and prior to the most recent improvements, was in sad condition.
This part of the West End, officially called Winslow’s Addition, has quite a number of older homes, most dating back to 1880 or later. Only 369 Michigan, immediately west of the Schneider-Bulera House, comes close to the same age. Again, according to Ramsey County records, 1870 is the construction date of 369 Michigan.
Several doors to the east is this brick house, built in 1880. Quite obviously the difference in style and construction material between this home and the Schneider-Bulera House is significant. No longer a single family home, the tree-shrouded 343 Michigan Avenue is the Hmong Archives, a collection of close to 111,000 artifacts.(2) Yuepheng Xiong founded the Hmong archives in 1999 and moved it to 343 Michigan in 2010. The Hmong Archives is open to the public both during regularly scheduled hours and by appointment.
Downtown – A Quick Visit It’s less than a mile from Dousman Park on the West End to West 7th Street and Kellogg Boulevard Downtown. From there, the layout of some Downtown streets range from puzzling to confounding to mystifying, depending upon your experience and need to find an address.
For instance, West 7th crosses Kellogg, then West 5th, and West 6th/Old West 6th Streets.
Catholic Charities owns and operates Mary Hall, a homeless shelter for adults. Built in 1925 or ’26 by St. Joseph’s Hospital, it offered, “a private room and ample accommodations” for more than 200 of its nursing students.
Continuing northbound on Main Street I waded through the St. Joseph’s Hospital campus.
A couple doors south of West 7th is one of Saint Paul’s most recognized but puzzling establishments. The Original Coney Island Café and Tavern at 444-448 St. Peter Street opened in 1923 and over the subsequent 90-plus years, grew into a Downtown icon. For all practical purposes, the restaurant closed in 1994 when co-founder Frances Arvanitis got sick. After her death, her three children took ownership and open the café now and again for special events.(6) The Coney Island can also be rented for private parties.
Heading Home I was up for a challenge on the way home so as I left Downtown I chose to leave via Ramsey Street – one of the steepest climbs I’ve encountered in Saint Paul. I had barely begun the ascent when I stopped to snap a few pictures of the large house at 319 Ramsey.
Then I turned my attention back to the Ramsey Street hill. On this day, it was the hill 2, me 0, meaning I stopped twice on the way up to catch my breath. The Ramsey Hill beat me on this ride, but I’ll be ready next time. The route I took on this 13.4 mile trip is here, so please click on Garmin Connect.
Footnotes (1) Saint Paul Historic Context Study Neighborhoods at the Edge of the Walking City, Prepared for Historic Saint Paul, City of Saint Paul Heritage Preservation Commission, and Ramsey County Historical Society Saint Paul, Minnesota, b y Mead & Hunt, Inc., 2011 (2) Hmong Archives website, http://www.hmongarchives.org/aboutus.html (3) APALA Asian Pacific American Librarians Association website, http://www.apalaweb.org/about/ (4) Finance & Commerce website, January 15, 2015, Construction near for new Dorothy Day Center, Brian Johnson
(5) St. Joseph’s Hospital History website, https://www.healtheast.org/st-josephs-hospital/about/history.html (6) St. Paul Pioneer Press, Frederick Melo, 03/14/2012 (7) AIA Guide to the Twin Cities, page 337, Larry Millett
I came across this Family Friendly Cities blog post a while back, and of course I’m inclined to agree with the general conclusion. You hear a variety of reasons people want to move outward to the suburbs, and while there’s a nuance in the millions of decisions made across the metro (and country), my anecdotal understanding is the ranking follows the referenced ‘best cities’ ranking pretty closely:
- Housing Cost (particularly, price per finished square foot and/or yard size)
- Amenities for kids (or presence of other kids)
I’m sure there are other items people consider; proximity to at least one household member’s job, preference for suburban shopping, you get the picture. Maybe the order of importance shuffles around. But the gist is there, and I think whether many admit it or not, safety is more at the front of peoples’ minds than they may even be willing to admit. So that’s what I’ll be tackling today (though the links in the list provide some food for thought).
As discussed in the blog post, safety is obviously much more than crime. Crime is important, and definitely baked into the collective consciousness in how Americans view cities, but it’s not the only factor. It’s really surprising that we suffer this huge blind spot in risk assessment. Despite years of improvement in fatality rate for both per mile driven and per person in the United States:
Maybe we ignore it because we all think we’re above-average drivers. Maybe we just really like the utility of driving climate controlled vehicles. It’s easy to get caught up in the many benefits of cars and only consider the direct costs associated with owning/operating them (which is definitely less than the $10,000/year value touted in many urbanist blog posts, at least for most households in this country).
But again, the fact remains that the US is woefully behind other first-world countries when it comes to road safety, for drivers and non-drivers alike. Furthermore, those very countries are outpacing us in the drops in deaths. Some may point out that Minnesota is actually pretty safe for drivers, and I agree, but we’re still deadlier than most of those European countries.
Regardless, blogs usually go as far as that. Cite some national-level numbers and comparative death rates, call it a day. It’s not a stance that will win many over; it’s too easy to wave away blanket-statements saying they “aren’t true for *my* city or neighborhood.”
I’m going to unpack the data comparing some Minneapolis neighborhoods to suburbs to answer the question: Does living in a city and driving much less (or not at all), with all the crime that may come with it, outweigh the safety benefits of avoiding crime?The Method
As I said earlier, there’s some heavy perception bias and willingness to ignore some data, on both sides. Living in a ‘safe’ suburb doesn’t mean you’ll never experience crime, and living in a city doesn’t exempt you from motor vehicle deaths or injury (or driving to the suburbs). Living in the suburbs doesn’t mean you’ll never ever visit the dangerous city and avoid that mugging – many work or party or catch sports or visit friends in the city from time to time.
I can’t evaluate that level of nuance with the data available, so I’ll only compare rates for driving and crime within each area. Side note, I’m using data from a bit of research I did over a year ago when I had this exact conversation with my father. I actually broke down crime by Minneapolis neighborhood and only included much of Southwest Minneapolis (right) and compared against what I would call “mostly safe” suburbs: Lakeville (my hometown), Burnsville, Prior Lake, Savage, Bloomington, Eden Prairie, Chaska, and Eagan. Go ahead and accuse me of cherry-picking nice Minneapolis neighborhoods with low crime. However:
My chosen Minneapolis zone includes several neighborhoods with concentrated areas of poverty, whereas the suburbs I picked are almost entirely without poverty. Additionally, my Minneapolis neighborhoods have a collective crime rate just 15% below the Minneapolis average. Anyone who knows the metro would say the suburbs I chose lean toward the rich and desirable side, so I’d say the comparison is apt to be in the suburbs’ favor (as a broad point, the median household income for Minneapolis was $45,000, the selected suburb average $75,000). They’re also not overly rural, so they won’t see as many super-high death rates from notoriously dangerous rural roads (though parts of Prior Lake, Lakeville, and Chaska do fall in this category).
I pulled crash rates from MN DPS by city to get a rate per person. This was only 2012 data, and given the small numbers (relative to crime rates) it would have been better to smooth it out using the average of a few years, but again, I don’t feel like it. I used an average of Minneapolis bicycle and pedestrian (non-occupant) death/injury rates and cross-referenced it with city data. I pulled 2 years worth of neighborhood crime data from 2011–2012 for Minneapolis and used CityData for the suburbs.
I wanted to understand the risk of death as well as the risk of death+injury. Deaths are easy: homicide or crash death (no suicides). Injury is more difficult, but I basically include any car-related injuries and rape, robbery, & aggravated assault for criminal injuries. If I were to guess, I’d say the average car-related injury is more serious (medical cost, bodily trauma, etc) than a criminal event, costs more (car damage deductible/etc vs any property loss), but I don’t have the data to back that up.
So, assuming you live in one of those (slightly safer than average) Minneapolis neighborhoods and never drive, you’re basically just as likely to die in a year as a person living in a suburb driving the average amount. Drive the average rate in Minneapolis and the suburbs beat you out. If you’re looking to avoid injury, even going car-free is still technically more dangerous than living in those suburbs.
Could someone live in Minneapolis and rarely, if ever drive? Yes. 19.7% of our households don’t have cars (though many may borrow one to get to work). 42% of our residents work in the city (with another 10% working in nearby St Paul). 55% work within 5 miles of their home.Missing Pieces
It’s important to point out what was left out. Crime rates are dropping much faster in core cities relative to suburbs, nationwide. I suspect this is true in MSP. Teen suicide rates are inversely correlated with population density (which has been hitting home in Lakeville recently). There are long-term health effects from car-dependent lifestyles on children and adults. There are positive health/risk outcomes with quality cycling infrastructure bringing more users. Vehicle particulate emissions cause 55,000 premature deaths per year nationwide (exacerbated where highways run through urban areas).
Point being, urban areas could make up the gap with better street designs that we know are relatively inexpensive and have huge returns on safety. Retrofitting completely auto-dependent areas in suburbs will be much more challenging. Suburban crime is holding flat to rising while cities’ crime rates are dropping quickly. Better transit and vehicle electrification will make urban air quality better. If you’re taking the 30 year view, it is my opinion that Minneapolis/St Paul living is a far healthier and less risky environment than a typical MSP suburb.
The past couple months has seen a robust conversation about development in Minneapolis, starting with Tom Fisher’s Star Tribune piece and followed by Jason Wittenberg’s streets.mn rebuttal. But taste is subjective, so rather than talk about what makes a building “ugly,” let’s instead discuss the ground floor and how it relates to the public realm around it. Building frontages are at eye-level, and together with the streets themselves, this is by far the most important element to get right for a vibrant, livable city.
In his post, Wittenberg cited the City of Minneapolis one-pager guide called Exterior Building Walls and Materials. But here is another one-pager dealing with building footprint and massing, context, entrances, and landscaping for medium- to large-scale developments. So yes, exterior building walls and materials are important, but less so than frontage and context, and the latter one-pager could be enhanced to get better urban design results for the city.
There is some good stuff; exterior walls “shall provide visual interest,” at least “one principal entrance shall face the public street,” etc. These guidelines are a start, but more can be done. For example: “blank walls that do not include windows or other architectural details shall not exceed 25 feet in length.” This particular guideline is insufficient if we want pedestrian-friendly streets, and makes the following legal:
Why not strengthen that guideline somewhat? Maybe we should regulate retail frontages like (I hate to name-drop) Vancouver, for example, whose zoning for some commercial streets (among other things) requires maximum frontage of 25 to 50 feet. So, instead of being able to get away with nearly 25 feet of blank wall, you need a whole new storefront every 25 to 50 feet. Then you get humane, pedestrian friendly frontages this:
As for residential frontage, Vancouver, for example, requires all ground floor units have entries off the street. Preferred setbacks for residential units are 12 feet, in order to allow some clear delineation about what is private and public. Also, whereas commercial entrances should in most cases be at-grade, residential units should be set above the sidewalk and street, specifically between three and six steps. I’d add that all front doors should face the street rather than be perpendicular to it. The following example from Portland provides a good example of the “intent” of a code like this and the desired results.
The overall pedestrian experience of a street is important and is greater than the sum of its parts. The efforts of Minneapolis to improve the urbanism of the city are laudable. These guidelines sometimes save us from the worst that some developers have to offer, but sometimes they don’t. The other key is here in Minneapolis they are simply guidelines, whereas in places like Vancouver they are the code; that seems like a pretty big difference. Furthermore, the “intent” of the code is on the “human comfort” of the street, including the rhythm created by the proper spacing of things like doors, windows, articulation and trees. We need more of that embedded in our code.
What is the “right thing”?
An interesting comment came out of the streets.mn rebuttal by Wittenberg. While the city has again made it legal to “do the right thing,” it “doesn’t make up for all the bad stuff still getting through.” The commenter was careful to say much of the blame should fall on the political process, not CPED staff. Fair enough. But let’s make it easier to “do the right thing,” by right. I just wish developers with a proposal showing great urban design could sail through the process, whereas developers proposing crap had to work for it.
The intent of this post is to perhaps suggest what should be the embedded in the code, not merely a guideline. I hope this conversation continues, and inspires better focus on good urban design, especially at eye-level in our city. Maybe we can update that one-pager of the site plan review guidelines, and maybe even help guide the dialogue to an all-out revision of the zoning code.
The order of importance for the development review process should begin with the ground floor and its relationship to its surroundings, followed by building mass and context, then by use. I hope this robust conversation continues, but let’s focus on the human comfort of our streets. Fussing less about materials and what is deemed “ugly,” and instead getting the ground floor right, will give rhythm to our streets and add value to the city.
Disclaimer: in-depth analysis of zoning is sometimes beyond my level of understanding. I willingly admit to not fully comprehending the process, and may get some terminology confused or wrong. However, I hope my intent, images, and explanation are understood, and I welcome clarifications and further discussion.
This was crossposted at Joe Urban.
Minneapolis 1, St Paul 0 — While driving around in Minneapolis and St Paul the other day, the differences in street life were enormous. Massively more people were riding bicycles (and walking) around Minneapolis than St Paul. Or, there were a lot of people riding in Minneapolis and nobody in St Paul. If I were an employer looking for a place to locate and I thought the people I’d want to work for me might appreciate a more walking and bicycle friendly environment it’d be difficult to consider St Paul. Hopefully the new Bike Plan will begin to correct this. (Note: Personally I would still choose St Paul.)
Traffic Engineers 6 (Seconds), Us 37 (Minutes) — On the same day, I racked up 37 minutes sitting at red lights with no cross traffic. I think this was a new wasted-time-at-intersections record for me. Many of these would be safer and more efficient as roundabouts. Shorter cycle times would help others. This brings new meaning to all of the times I’ve heard traffic engineers say that they need to spend millions of dollars expanding one intersection and can’t put in no-turn-on-red, all in order to save drivers an average of 6 seconds and thus one letter grade better LOS (Level Of Service). It could have been 36 minutes and 54 seconds.
The Social Isolation of the Green Line — Some stations along the Green Line feel a bit isolated. At some you are completely separated from all surrounding sidewalks and businesses by walls, plexiglass, and control boxes. Others are staggered so while you’re isolated from the sidewalk and businesses nearest you, you can at least see across the tracks and road to the people and businesses on the other side (that’s a long way away though and too far to hear or interact.) This isolation extends to the sidewalks on either side that become isolated as well.
Are these necessary due to our weather or would tram stops similar to Scandinavian countries have worked as well as have allowed more room for wider sidewalks, cycletracks, and more parking? (For comparison the cycletrack, tram stop, both tracks, disabled dude, and most of the parked cars on the left can fit within one of our Green Line stations plus tracks.)
Law Abiding Isn’t Popular — For the past few weeks I’ve been driving a car with semi-autonomous driving capability. Lane keeping isn’t yet ready for prime time, but I rarely had to touch a pedal. It can read speed limit signs and automatically drive the speed limit or follow the car ahead. Consistently driving the speed limit results in lots of cars piled up behind, some obviously angry passes, a bit of honking, and some sign language. People don’t seem to like it if you actually stop at every stop sign either. Maybe it should have a Law Abiding mode, Not Quite Law Abiding, and a Laws? What Laws? mode.
How Slow Can You Drive? — I recently turned onto a road and had about a mile to my destination straight ahead. I immediately found myself behind someone riding about 12 mph on their bicycle. There were enough cars coming from the opposite direction that I never had an opportunity to pass safely. 12 MPH makes for a long mile.
Poor Choice Of Words — Folks in White Bear Lake wanted to slow traffic on Hiway 61 where it goes through the middle of downtown so they asked MnDOT to narrow the lanes from 12′ to 11′ during a repaving project. MnDOT’s Curt Fakler responded: “When we do a mill and overlay, we’re not looking at changing the character of the road. We’re just trying to fix the surface. Speed was not considered.”
It seems to me that this would be the ideal time to consider the character of the road. If not now, when do they consider it? This might help explain why our roads are so dangerous and we don’t seem to ever have enough money to do anything about it.
Note: The City of White Bear Lake won and the lanes were narrowed to 11’. Initial feedback indicates it’s had a positive effect on speeds, noise, and the general comfort of things. Sadly, rather than use the extra space for much needed bikeways and sidewalks that have been called for by citizens they chose a decorative median.
Poorer Choice Of Words? — Some time ago, after a significant increase in speeding ticket cases and in a budget conscious mood, Hennepin County Courts decided that they would limit the number of speeding ticket cases they would hear from local cities. Brooklyn Park City Manager Jamie Verbrugge responded “Speed control is an essential part of neighborhood livability… We are not going to stop writing traffic tickets. If there is going to be a gap in collecting those revenues, then we are going to have to step in and fill the gap.” Neighborhood livability or revenue? Hat tip to Sigmund Freud. (Note: I have also heard some quite good things about Verbrugge so perhaps he’s not all bad).
Why Are So Many Dutch Disabled? — I’ve traveled to or through The Netherlands nearly three dozen times over the past nine years as well as dozens of visits to other European countries. Numerous times I’ve thought that there seemed to be very noticeably more physically disabled folk in The Netherlands than any other country (including the U.S.) According to WHO there are indeed about 10% more disabled in the EU but The Netherlands is actually below average.
The answer it seems is not that there are more disabled but that disabled folk in The Netherlands are out and about much more. Unlike disabled in the U.S. who find it difficult or impossible to get from A to B, folks in The Netherlands use the Dutch bikeways. They have a flat, smooth, well-maintained pathway from wherever they live to anywhere they want to go.
But wait, there’s more (RIP Billy Mays). There are actually quite a few more disabled folk out and about in The Netherlands but you don’t often notice them. Many people who need a cane, crutches, or a walker to get around on foot are still able to ride a bicycle. I’ve watched dozens of people ride up to a store, deftly support themselves with their bike as they park it and pull a cane or crutches out of a holder on their bike or use a walker that’s provided for them by the store.
I’m not sure if this technically counts as a chart, as it lacks a proper X axis, but it kinda looks like one if you squint.
What you’re currently squinting as it pretty self explanatory, via the Star Tribune, the sizes, lane widths, and heights of the three existing and soon-to-be-existing bridges over the Saint Croix River from Stillwater to Hudson.
A lot of digital ink has been spilled on this topic. A friend of mine joked on Twitter that they should have Gozdilla on the chart for a size comparison.
[OK I had to do it…]
When I was a junior in college, I studied abroad in Oslo, Norway. I lived in a student housing village a distance away from campus, nearer to the vast woods in the city’s backyard than to the bustling center. The closest landmark to my flat was Ullevål Stadion, the national stadium and home to Vålerenga IF, the local Tippeligaen side. I walked past the stadium every day when traveling to and from it’s eponymous T-Bane stop, where I rode the metro to school. On gamedays with the window open you could hear the roar of the crowd when a goal was scored.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Ullevål in particular, and stadiums in general in the past week, after our local soccer team, Minnesota United FC released their funding plan for a downtown soccer stadium near the farmers market. As both a card carrying member of the team’s supporters group and an advocate for urban amenities, I would love the proposal to come to fruition. And I believe ultimately it will. But the United proposal has been tied up in political debates about public subsidy. The team plans to buy the land and build the stadium privately, but requested the same tax relief granted to the Vikings and Twins stadiums. Most significantly, this would mean exempting the team from having to pay property taxes on the stadium.
The property tax break would total between $1.5 – $3 million a year, depending on who’s estimate you trust. Given the obscene amounts of cash the state, county, and city have splashed on other stadium projects, (or, say, a pedestrian bridge) it’s absurd that politicians have decided to stand firm in refusing a pocket change subsidy for a soccer stadium. Yet complaining about the audacious cynicism of politicians is as useless as complaining about Minnesota’s April weather. It’s also not an affirmative argument for anything. The deal offered by Minnesota United may well be the best stadium deal the state has seen in decades. But does that make it a good deal?Reviewing arguments against stadium subsidies
Yesterday, on the Minnesota soccer blog Northern Pitch, I published an interview with Neil deMause, a journalist who covers the topic of public stadium subsidies on his blog Field of Schemes. Unencumbered by Minnesota political concerns, Neil makes a compelling case that public subsidies for stadiums of any stripe are a waste of money for government. Much of what he says is well known among urbanists, but it’s worth repeating here:
From an economic standpoint, stadiums do not generate much new activity; stadium jobs are seasonal and low paying, and they compete for entertainment dollars from locals instead of attracting visitors from other places.
Then there are the trade offs. Stadiums tend to be built on disused industrial land, bringing with them the promise of development. But would that development have occurred otherwise? That question could fairly be asked about the new Vikings stadium, which has been intrinsically linked to the Ryan Co. Wells Fargo development. But are the new offices and apartments really being built because they derive value from the Vikings Stadium? If not, then might it be fair to say that something like it would’ve been built anyway? And if that is true, then why are we wasting a huge block of soon-to-develop downtown land on a tax-exempt stadium that will be used to capacity 8-10 times a year?
These are tough but necessary questions to answer for anyone who supports this soccer stadium development. To address them, it’s important to make a comprehensive case about why this stadium could be different. We already know it’s a much better deal financially than normal. But it’s also important for the stadium design to sell itself. Few stadiums are created equal. Wrigley Field is the heart of a vibrant neighborhood, and a stadium like Wrigley would be well worth subsidy. Meanwhile Tropicana Field in Tampa is an aesthetic and developmental disaster that you’d hope wouldn’t be allowed even if privately funded. So the two key questions are: what could a Minneapolis soccer stadium provide in terms of development that wouldn’t occur otherwise? And how best to design the project to reach those aims?A Master Plan For A Neglected Neighborhood
One of the key aspects of the soccer stadium debate surrounds its likely location. In this sense, the United proposal shares much in common with those that came before. Target Field was planned for the underdeveloped North Loop. TCF Bank Stadium was planned for the moonscape east of the University that could boast only an Arby’s. The Saint Paul Saints’ CHS Field replaced the miserable Diamond Products/Gillette building that had stood athwart any eastward expansion of Lowertown. Finally, the new Vikings Stadium will replace the Metrodome in windswept Downtown East. In each of these cases, stadiums have targeted underused industrial land, and have usually been packaged with promises to spur development in these areas. It’s hard to say for sure if it’s all worked, but the North Loop is now rapidly filling in around its ballpark, while the Green Line-fueled new urbanism on Washington Avenue is creeping towards the Gophers Stadium.
Minnesota United FC’s proposed home is in a corner of downtown that is increasingly being called the west loop. This part of town is notable only for the Minneapolis Farmers Market with the rest of the land occupied by low slung industrial buildings. It’s unsurprising that the area is so neglected. It is bounded to the west by I94, to the north by Olson Memorial Highway, to the east by the seven-lane-wide 7th Street, and to the south by the rail lines. However, the proposed Royalston Station of the Green Line extension will soon provide direct access to the area, and stadium plan critics, such as Mayor Betsy Hodges, have argued that the nearby plots will be ripe for transit oriented development (TOD) in the near future, stadium or no stadium.
I’m less confident. Despite the appearance of transit over a decade ago, Downtown East has not developed much. The Blue Line-enhanced intersection of Lake and Hiawatha, surely a prime location for TOD, remained undeveloped for a decade as well. This is because the presence of transit alone is not enough to spur TOD growth, locations must also have amenities to offer. Why should developers invest in the barren west loop when better opportunities exist in downtown east, along University Avenue, and in leafier districts along the Green Line extension?
This where stadium proponents must make their case. In addition to building the stadium, Minnesota United FC has committed to an as yet unspecified plan to renovate and improve the farmers market. The plan is not to place a stadium down, free of context, but to build a stadium into the area’s fabric (such as it is) and to actively improve the district’s main existing amenity.
The stadium plan could (and should, I think) also include a commitment to build at least some TOD immediately. Among the United ownership group is the Pohlad Family, who own the Twins and United Properties. A promise to develop nearby mixed use apartments to compliment both the stadium and the farmers market would improve the offer significantly. All of this would turn the stadium plan from just a stadium plan to a neighborhood plan. The idea of packaging a village into a stadium plan isn’t a unique idea, in fact it’s something of a trend, But what United have the ability to propose is better than the plans considered in other cities, thanks to the presence of transit, the farmers market, and a major local real estate developer already in the conversation.A Mixed Use Stadium
A stadium plan that doubles as a neighborhood master plan could solve issues stemming from the often late and inadequate development response to stadium constriction. But it doesn’t eliminate the problem inherent in stadiums: they take up a lot of space and are rarely used. Here, I come back to my experiences in Norway.
Ullevål Stadion is not built in a dense city center, nor does it have a neighborhood around it. In fact, it’s hemmed in by a highway, a traffic circle, and the metro line. But I think its design nonetheless offers a compelling model for a stadium that can actually be a spur to development and an asset to the neighborhood it serves.
What distinguishes Ullevål, at least to my knowledge, is that it is a mixed use stadium. Aside from hosting domestic and international soccer matches, the building is home to a hotel, the national football museum, and the offices of the Norwegian Football Association, the Norwegian Olympic Committee, and several other national sports organizations. That’s not all. The exterior of the stadium is lined with year-round restaurants and shops—even a florist. I frequently stopped by Ullevål’s ICA supermarket because they carried pints of Ben and Jerry’s, which were an essential food item as the Nordic winter settled in.
Ullevål’s model addresses one of the key reasons why local stadiums tend to be anchors around the necks of neighborhoods instead of anchors that bind it together. Stadiums are almost never built for any use besides gameday or special events and concerts. But why should that be the case? Ullevål shows us that it can be done in a different way.
Minnesota United FC should take notice. The stadium will be bounded by streets that would be the lifeblood of a new neighborhood. The key one is Royalston Avenue, which will soon have the Green Line LRT running down its heart. The soccer stadium should take advantage of this by using the ground floor of the stadium facing Royalston as retail space. It’s not hard to think of likely tenants: a soccer bar, a sporting goods store, a bottle shop, a gym. But Ullevål’s model tells us that the space should be calibrated to accept whomever is interested, including tenants that might have no connection to sports. Perhaps a gardening supply store might see a benefit to close proximity to the farmers market. Or an upscale restaurant like Saint Paul’s Heartland. And of course, a supermarket that complements the farmers market would be a tremendous benefit for a neighborhood isolated from the the Gateway District Whole Foods and the Loring Park Lunds. Surely there’s space under the stands for even something as large as that?Setting A New Standard
There’s no doubt that Minnesota United FC is being held to a much higher standard than any other professional sports stadium built in the Twin Cities. I suspect that’s largely because politicians think (probably rightly) that they can score points by taking a principled approach soccer, a sport that cannot yet boast the constituency of pro football, to whom they capitulated.
That’s unfair, but it also means that United has an opportunity to set a new standard by which stadium deals will be judged. Overall, that might be a good thing for the Twin Cities and municipalities across the United States. The ownership group for Minnesota United is wealthy, but it’s also local. The principal owner, Dr. Bill McGuire, has shown himself to be philanthropic and civic minded in the past, most famously in the creation of Gold Medal Park. This is an opportunity to cement that reputation. With smart design and visionary planning, McGuire and his co-investors could create a genuine stadium plan that benefits themselves, the team, and the city all at once.
This is Part Three in my series on the new Stillwater Bridge; the series continues with further design revisions and some odds and ends. Part One looked at the history from vague 1950s proposals to the doomed 1995 plan. Part Two covered further design proposals as well as the trials and tribulations leading up to the commitment to a final plan.
Aesthetic Treatments and Engineering Revisions
Since the selection of an extradosed structure (is basically a hybrid of a girder bridge and a cable stayed bridge), the aesthetic design has also been refined since these alternate designs from 2005:
Although not present in the very earliest concepts, three supports were thought necessary and included in initial designs.
As engineering advanced, design reduced the number back down to a pair of columns for each pier location, then one set of piers entirely, which lightened both the aesthetics and the construction costs. (The widely thrown out figure of $700 million has always been derived by taking the high side of initial estimates and rounding up). Despite spending an extra $6 million for the Minnesota approach work because the lowest bid wasn’t politically correct enough, overall costs have been revised downward several times as engineering advanced and as construction has progressed without incident and contingency funds are released.
The piers are designed to resemble reeds (although my sister said they looked more like tuning forks). Some visualizations show it as a stark white (and which may have been an early proposed finish), while it will actually be a duller buff color. My own theory is that buff was chosen as a compromise between blending into the sky, like a bright color would, and blending into the ground, like a darker color.
Lighting will be Mn/DOT standard davit (curved top) poles rather than WisDOT standard trusses as seen on the Hudson Bridge. In keeping with the theme of “understated elegance” as I like to put it, there will be cool white LED accent lights inside the piers. Some roadway lighting will spill onto the south set of cables; a technicolor light show like I-35W or Lowry isn’t planned, although blank conduits are going to be installed to leave the option open in the future.
My opinion on the aesthetics is that although I like the way the bridge looks from the roadway, in profile the overall height of the bridge looks a bit too high relative to the cables. Part of me really wants to see a true cable-stayed bridge closer than the Great River Bridge in Burlington, IA and I’m not sure it would have been entirely inappropriate here. An extradosed bridge is already quite modern looking and there are many other man-made structures outside of the Saint Croix Valley, so I’m not clear about the objections to seeing the cable. But at the same time, it’s exciting to see one of the first extra-dosed bridges in the US. Despite periodic rehabilitation work, Duluth’s Blatnik Bridge won’t last forever and a contract to study its eventual replacement was let last year, so perhaps that will be where Minnesota’s first cable-stayed bridge will be built.Some Roadgeek Trivia
The new bridge poses some interesting questions. MnDOT is, at least in theory, supposed to maintain all and only the highways as specified in the Minnesota constitution as the Babcock Amendment, later copied into Minn. Statutes §116.114, and those highways specified in later statutes, Minn.Stat. §116.115, §116.117, and §161.12. The present MN Highway 36 leading to the lift bridge being replaced is known legally as Constitutional Route 45, with the following description:
Beginning at a point on the west bank of the St. Croix River at Stillwater and thence extending in a southwesterly direction to a point on the easterly limits of the city of St. Paul, affording Stillwater, Lake Elmo, St. Paul and intervening and adjacent communities a reasonable means of communication, each with the other and other places within the state.
Therefore MnDOT is in theory legally obligated to maintain a trunk highway to the “west bank of the Saint Croix at Stillwater.” However, there are two series of “secret” trunk highways, the 800A series of highways MnDOT intends to maintain but does not mark, and the 900A series they maintain and want to get rid of such as Robert Street/MN 952A as a notable example. So the lift bridge will likely be designated with a 800A series number, say MN 836A. But it’s doubtful that the two blocks of Chestnut Street will continue to be a trunk highway, and may not even continue to be open to cars, so MN 95 will have to be close enough to the “west bank of the St. Croix” to fall under the requirement. In 2013, Legislative Route 339 was created as the formal number for the highway between MN 95 and the state line on the bridge. Also of note, MnDOT has simply ignored legal requirements in the past, for example those “Mr. Locally Important Person Memorial Highway” signs now need to be paid for by someone else, but in practice MnDOT would remove them if there was no outside funding sources even when they were theoretically obligated to maintain them.What the Loop Trail Could have Been
Although the saving the lift bridge and the conception of the Loop Trail were two of the better results the project delays, the Loop Trail itself has a couple of major issues. First, there will be a gap in the trail in Houlton, Wisconsin, “filled” by shoulders on the old WI 35, and “Share the Road” signs on the old County E. As one of those people who won’t ride a bicycle on a road for any reason, I don’t care what the sign says or what the paint says, this is major problem for me.
Second, the west side along the river will be pleasant and the river bridges will be spectacular. However, a large portion will be right next to the freeway with a 70 mph design speed in an area destined to become housing developments. But in an alternate reality, it could have been built it along property lines on new alignment to the old County E. Beyond that point, the state of Wisconsin owns the property (shown in green) that could pull the trail away from freeway up to the bridge itself (this property was bought for the 1995 alignment).
Also of note, the properties in purple are publicly owned. The history of the land next to the DOT property along the river is unknown, but the ones on either side of the lift bridge are a former Stillwater city park that’s been closed for years. I sketched an idea for a pedestrian trail shortcut in brown, although I don’t know whether this is feasible or desirable. Another option to consider would be inquiring if the landowners might be interested in conservation easements as a buffer for the trail.Some closing questions Why the interchange at County E?
Although it seems odd to put the Wisconsin interchange at County E rather than the existing WI 35, there were really two reasons for that. The first is that it better serves the area east of Houlton and south of Somerset along County E, that’s already started to develop. The second reason is they wanted to discourage “inappropriate” development at the top of the bluff.What about closing the bridge?
It was never studied, but the idea of just simply closing the bridge and not building a replacement has been brought up; in fact, in 2011 the city of Stillwater demanded that the bridge be closed. My opinion is that any dollars spent on highway projects are good, even if it might not have the highest benefit to cost of all the possibilities. But assuming all the dollars would transfer to other projects, it’s fair to ask what else we could do with $330 million. For example $237 million would rebuild the I-35W/I-494 interchange (Presumably Wisconsin would use its share to build a new north-south freeway east of Hudson to connect the WI 64 freeway to I-94). Perhaps the residents on the Wisconsin side, which is now mainly planned for residential, would want a Walmart and Applebee’s built near Houlton to replace the ones they can no longer easily access, so such a plan might backfire if the goal is to reduce the impact of development. Closing the bridge would cost $34 million a year in lost time.
Similarly, options to reduce traffic were studied and found to be ineffective. An origin-destination study indicates most weekday traffic is heading from Wisconsin to Stillwater or the northern suburbs with very little to downtown St. Paul and points convenient to I-94. And drivers are already avoiding the bridge at peak times to the extent practical so further attempts at reduction would be ineffective.Will history repeat?
As a final note, it will be interesting to see what happens a generation from now. On the public bridge viewing cruise I went on last summer, the DOT representatives were peppered with questions like “Why are you only building it four lanes wide?” and “Can it be expanded to more lanes in the future?” Official traffic projections are in the 40,000 range, which can still comfortably be handled by a four lane freeway, but 30 years later it’s obvious the New Cedar Bridge is inadequate, as is the Bloomington Ferry Bridge after 20 years. More likely in this case, I think the stoplights remaining on MN 36 will become a traffic apocalypse. Just like on sections of US 169 and MN 252, it was in large part the cities’ actions which caused interchanges not to be built initially. In both these cases, the cities changed their minds when they saw what a disaster traffic had become, so we’ll see what happens in Oak Park Heights.
There was already a 2013 request for the “Corridors of Commerce” grant funding that would have built an interchange at Osgood Avenue in Oak Park Heights, as well as at the four remaining signals west of Stillwater Blvd. At least the Oak Park Heights intersections are being built with multiple turn lanes and flashing yellow arrows so capacity will be better than what it was.
Part Four of the series will go beyond the bridge to look at the potential future of downtown Stillwater.