What have we learned?

Urban Decay

Yet another downside to municipal fragmentation is the loss of institutional memory.  Many are realizing that urban decay is not a process intrinsic only to central cities due to their inability to adapt to the automobile, but rather a byproduct of the American slash-n-burn style of city-building that can strike anywhere, but at a specific time, often about a half-century after greenfield development.  Unfortunately, as urban decay hits the suburbs, these fragments of cities are less able to learn from the experience of their older siblings what will combat and what will hasten the process of decay.

So when I came across the Strib’s article on the impending redevelopment of Brookdale Center I couldn’t help but think of Minneapolis’ earlier efforts to redevelop the commercial district at Lake & Nicollet.  The moribund Brookdale is probably in a more extreme situation than the struggling but alive Lake & Nicollet of the 70s.  The connection in my mind is the use of TIF to subsidize a developer to build a low-intensity, single use development of the sort that, in all likelihood, will be redeveloped in at least the same time frame as the structure it’s replacing, if not sooner.  Here’s a statement from the very study looking at redevelopment options for the mall area, 2003′s Brooklyn Center Opportunity Site:

Modern retail development often becomes obsolescent in the matter of a few decades…

So what do they go and build?  A modern retail development.  You gotta wonder if Brooklyn Center knew who they

Modern retail development

were hiring when they commissioned the study – Calthorpe and Associates is run by one of the founders of the Congress for New Urbanism.  After the completion of the study and a plan a few years later, the city actually included an 8 point refutation of their principles in their comprehensive plan, with the brilliant recommendation of increasing highway-oriented development and reducing open space.

What is likely to be built is the exact opposite of the design principles enumerated in the Opportunity Site Master Plan & Development Guidelines (although the plan actually applied to a site across Bass Lake Road from Brookdale, and I don’t know if there was ever any move to extend it to the Brookdale site).  Not only do we get a big box Wal-Mart, with its auto-dependent acres of parking and low-intensity land use, but accessory retail uses are scattered throughout the site, making future infill much more difficult.  To be fair, it is possible the planned smattering of smaller stores will never come to be, as a local retail real estate consultant notes in the Strib article:

“The challenge for the developers in Brookdale is, what are the stores that would see an opportunity to be at the Brookdale site that don’t already have a location that serves that area?”

In addition, complementary stores would have to stock items that are unavailable at Wal-Mart, or that are appreciably better or cheaper than at the retail giant.

Plans that came to naught

What could Brooklyn Center have done differently?  They already had a policy framework (in the Opportunity Site Master Plan) to encourage mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly development, but they followed the old suburban course, waiting for a developer to come along and proposed a PUD along the lines of the Master Plan.  If they had looked at the success of older cities in guiding development with zoning districts or overlays, they could have had zoning in place that would have discouraged the Wal-Mart style of rapidly-obsolete shopping strip.  Maybe Wal-Mart would have just moved up the street to a less restrictive city, but maybe they would have come up with a plan more like their proposal for Washington DC.

Half a page of scribbled plans

I’m writing under the assumption that Brooklyn Center wants to move away from auto-dependent commercial strips.  They have every reason to do so.  From the 2000 census to the 2005-09 ACS data, single-occupancy vehicular travel declined only very slightly and public transportation use increased at a similarly minuscule rate.  But in the same time frame, poverty increased dramatically in the suburb, from 7.4% to 12.9% of individuals.  This suggests that an increasing number of Brooklyn Centrists could benefit from the affordability of transit and improved opportunities for walking.

Brooklyn Center is only one tiny part of the region, and an adjustment of regional priorities would result in better development in inner ring suburbs.  A map from the Calthorpe planning effort shows as a third-tier regional center, while distant Maple Grove ranks as a second-tier center.   Why is our region prioritizing development in distant greenfields over vast acreage closer to the city?  These priorities have consequences, exemplified in the Bottineau Transitway’s decision to bypass existing transit centers, such as Brookdale, in the hopes that new transit centers will spring up on the fringe.

Maple Grove is sitting pretty

Until we agree to focus development in existing areas instead of on the edge of town, the municipal cogs that make up the regional machine will continue to spin freely, leaving minor cogs like Brooklyn Center to make their own mistakes.

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6 comments on “What have we learned?

  1. Nathaniel says:

    Spot on commentary. I couldn’t have said it better myself. The same situation is currently playing out in Oakdale. The now-defunct mall is slated for redevelopment; but despite an already existing plan (dating back to 2004?) to incorporate adjacent development, the wetland and walkable urbanism – the City of Oakdale is opting to ignore that, and they are building (yep, you guessed it) a collection of 3 strip malls. It is painful to watch these communities continually shoot themselves in the foot.

  2. Colleen says:

    I really question the continuing value of strip malls. We’ve seen them go under time and again – and generally rapidly, with little notice of impending death. And then we want to … build new strip malls? As if it was the building itself that had failed, not the concept?

    When we see that it’s the strip mall and traditional mall style enterprises that are failing, why do we even begin to think that the same venture will produce different amounts? The sucess of a mall or a strip mall isn’t helped by how many skylights you put in.

    This has been on my mind even living downtown, watching the City Centre and Block E complexes continue to die. It’s obviously not a viable model – so why do we keep doing it?

  3. mulad says:

    I’m mostly just amazed at how huge these commercial districts can be. The commercial districts north and south of Bass Lake Road must add up to at least one square mile — probably about the same as the developed area of my hometown. Can a suburb really support that much area devoted primarily to retail? Clearly not in this case.

    For Brookdale Center specifically, I’d daylight Shingle Creek, and probably shave off the southeast side of the parking lot and replace it with trees to create a sound buffer against the traffic on Highway 100. Maybe the whole site should just become a park, though I suspect it would be a lot better to try and redevelop it as a dense urban space.

  4. [...] to focus growth inward, for example by encouraging more compact development in situations like the Brookdale site.  It also means that this national paper may be more on target than the locals, which both [...]

  5. mulad says:

    It seems that much of this area was originally the Earle Brown Farm, and it appears to have extended as far north as 69th Ave. The main homestead area of the farm has become a conference center. Earle Brown was a farmer turned businessman turned sheriff turned politician. Sounds like the University of Minnesota is partly responsible for what happened to the land, as Mr. Brown bequeathed 750 acres to the U, but only 7 acres remain as part of the Earle Brown Heritage Center. Most of the land was sold in 1965, and paid for the Earle Brown Continuing Education Center on the St. Paul campus.

    The Brooklyn Center centennial website says this (emphasis mine):

    “In the early 1960’s, the Village of Brooklyn Center had a planning study made of the farm and zoned areas as commercial, industrial and residential. The rezoning has stood the test of time. Today, the area is a thriving commercial and industrial center as well as the site of the Brooklyn Center City Hall and Community Center, a high rise for senior citizens and the Hennepin County service building.”

    Well, clearly if they’re looking to redevelop large chunks, the zoning didn’t entirely work.

  6. Thanks for your comments everyone. If you’re interested in the issue, you should check out Nathaniel’s post on a similar issue in Oakdale:

    http://natesjobsearch.wordpress.com/2011/03/24/oakdale-dont-miss-a-great-opportunity/

    Colleen, answer your question in part, I’d point to the refusal of a lot of banks to finance mixed use projects. The model is still considered “unproven” and they may be following Federal lead – HUD also refuses to finance mixed-use, leading to a much worse development at 38th & Hiawatha for example.

    Mulad, thanks for the history of the area – it seems that Brooklyn Center doesn’t feel it can afford more parks, although I agree that they would be useful in screening the freeway. They specifically scaled back the park area in their master planned Opportunity Site across Bass Lake Rd from the Brookdale Site.

    It’s really frustrating that they didn’t line up the zoning with the comp plan guidance for mixed use here – although their PUD ordinance is so weak that they would have had to basically master plan this site too in order to rezone it.

    Consolidation is the answer!

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