Longfellow Station, or How the Tea Party Movement Could Save Us All If They Would Just Pick Up a Civics Textbook For Once

In the aftermath of the Tea Party Revolution, the world is the same:  we have to adapt or die.  Even though I find myself relieved that most Tea Party activists spent more time making signs than reading civics textbooks, there are moments when they seem to have a point.  One of those moments came when I was reading an RCA for the Longfellow Station project that was written for the November 30th Community Development Committee meeting.

The RCA (Request for Council Action) report is prepared by staff to give an overview of the action the City Council is deliberating, and the great thing about them is the history they provide.  Longfellow Station, for example, has history in the RCA going back to 2005, when it was included in a batch of applications for Met Council funding related to the Hiawatha LRT line.  The project itself may date back earlier, but certainly not long before the 2004 opening of Hiawatha.

Longfellow Station wouldn’t be up for discussion if not for the LRT line – a classic TOD (transit-oriented development) project, it features relatively high-density residential in walking distance to a transit station. The city has planned for this sort of development in the past and is apparently willing to pay for it. The Met Council and Hennepin County have granting programs to promote TOD as well – and it’s no wonder.  The density component of TOD is a boost to their bottom line – they get more tax dollars than a single-family home would provide and they have to spend less money laying sewer pipes and building streets.

There is a lot to dislike about Longfellow Station.  I won’t comment on the aesthetics, and I can’t imagine anyone would find much to say about it.  What I find alarming is that the building will be about 900 feet long – that is my estimate based on the site plan, which shows the project stretching from about 200 feet south of 38th St all the way to 40th St.  It is irresponsible to allow buildings more than 150 feet long, as longer buildings present insurmountable obstructions to pedestrians.  900 feet, frankly, is a Stalinist scale that will wall off the neighborhood behind, in effect more of a sound wall than a building.  Poor 39th Street, currently orphaned by railroad tracks, will have no hope of ever connecting with Hiawatha Ave or the transit station that lies tantalizingly on the other side of the highway.

But that criticism is not enough to withhold my support for some badly-needed density in Longfellow.  No, we need to dig into the history some more before Michele Bachmann starts getting some sympathy from me.  This project languished on the drawing boards for four or five years without the money needed to get dirt moving.  The initial developer, Capital Growth, finally relied on HUD for a mortgage for the project (through Section 221 (d)(4) of the National Housing Act).  HUD mortgages come with strings, though, and one thing that tied up Longfellow Station is that “HUD has indicated that it is unwilling to underwrite the commercial component as part of the 221 (d)(4) mortgage.”  So the new developer, Sherman, has separated the project into two single-use buildings instead of one mixed-use building.  In addition, HUD “increased costs for additional parking spaces in order to achieve a 1:1 parking ratio” – up from the .7:1 parking ratio in the original plan.

So HUD has made this TOD project more expensive, less dense, less mixed-use; in essence, less transit-oriented, according to most definitions (including the Met Council’s).  This from an agency that has made Livable Communities a focus, at least since the Obama administration has been in office.  It’s enough to make one paint one’s cat and march on Washington.

But thinking again about the Tea Party’s great unused Weapon X – the civics book:  Is it more useful to shake my fist at HUD or to sit down and think about the problem?

The Federal Government has three branches – but only two of them are (overtly) political:  the Executive and the Legislative.  HUD is a part of the former, but subject to the laws of the latter.  So the Livable Communities initiative is a product of a recently-elected administration, but HUD is still bound by the product of a Congress elected in the 1950s.  That mid-century Congress, operating under the delusion of American exceptionalism and giddy with zoning, ignored the historical reality that uses often mix with abandon in the same building.

Today, we know that mixed-use development has important public health benefits.  It is important that our laws reflect current scientific knowledge and technical practice.  Notwithstanding the recent obstructionism of the Republic caucus, the lesson we can take from the Tea Party Revolution is that government can and should be continually reformed.   Applying that lesson to  Section 221 of the National Housing Act would result in a better Longfellow Station.