Berg is back

“We scratch our heads when we see a Democratic governor and two senators pushing to build a big new bridge over the St. Croix River to encourage more sprawl into Wisconsin,” said [Ethan] Seltzer of Portland State. “That wouldn’t happen here.”

My favorite quote from Steve Berg’s commentary in the Sunday Strib.  I was delighted to see the piece prominently placed on the front page of the Opinion section, having suffered from Berg withdrawal since his hiatus from MinnPost turned into a permanent absence (although Steven Dornfield has been a capable replacement).  Of course I agreed with most of his points and enjoyed the comparative perspectives with Portland, Seattle and Denver, as good role model cities as any in the USA.

(My agreement has two caveats:  in his six-point plan for growing the center cities, he recommends “adopt[ing] form-based zoning codes” and “simplify[ing] bureaucracy.”  Form-based codes would certainly give developers “clear options on height and mass” as he asserts, but the NIMBY problem that he refers to repeatedly makes it uncertain that a form-based code that allows the necessary density to grow the city would be adopted in first place.  And while it’s easy to say that everything would be better if the dang gummint would just get out of the way, I’ve never seen any convincing evidence that it’s any harder to get approvals for development in Minneapolis than anywhere else.  My understanding is that the Mayor that I’m always ripping on has pushed through some reforms at CPED – one of which may be the single-point contact that seems to me about as simple as you can get – and Gary Schiff just got rid of the pointless CUP requirement for buildings with 5 or more units.  I freely admit to having no experience developing real estate in Minneapolis or any other city, however.)

My reproduction of the table that accompanied Berg's commentary

But as much as I enjoyed reading about those three urban success stories, I still think they’re the wrong cities to compare with MSP.  You might be able to make a historical case for comparison with our sibling cities of the Great Northwest, Seattle and Portland, but we took different paths starting in World War II at the latest.  In the post-war era, the Twin Cities have been more in line with other low-industry Midwestern cities, such as Indianapolis, Kansas City, and Columbus.   So on Berg’s metrics, MSP fares much better in the Midwestern conference (at least we have a lot of company in the Zero Club):

Big 10

I certainly don’t blame Steve Berg for aiming high, although there’s something to be said for setting realistic goals.  For example, the Ford plant is probably the biggest single opportunity for development in the Twin Cities, but it’s only 2.5% of the size of the Stapleton Airport site that provided the bulk of Denver’s growth in the last decade.  The city of Portland has over 25 square miles more land area than Minneapolis and St Paul combined (with around 80,000 fewer people living there than MSP) and can still annex land to the northwest and the southeast.

Seattle’s model would seem to be more attainable, since it grew more than any city that didn’t annex or build on greenfields except New York.  But is it really?  I hadn’t looked at poverty data much until Berg included it as a metric along with his commentary and advocated working on reducing concentration of poverty as a means of growing cities (or guarding against shrinking cities).  Seattle really is exceptional here, ranking third-lowest for percent of central city population in poverty, just behind famously gentrified San Francisco and its suburb that for some reason gets its own metro area, San Jose.  And looking at maps, it appears that poverty* really is dispersed throughout the Seattle metro:

From the NY Times 2009 5 year ACS map

And maps also seem to show poverty clustering in the central cities in MSP:

Ditto

Suggesting that the Twin Cities do have the concentration of poverty problem alleged by Berg, a fact that is corroborated by national average central city poverty rate for metro areas of 1m or more, which at 21% is two points below the Minneapolis & St Paul combined rate of 23%.  We’re supposed to all be above-average here, goldarn it, which is reason in and of itself to work on this problem.  But what effect does poverty have on urban growth?  I made some quick graphs on Excel to try to answer that, using the data I collected on metro areas of 1m or more for my post on downtown population growth (or lack thereof).

First, thinking back to the Twin Cities’ underwhelming downtown growth, even compared to other Midwestern towns, I wondered about poverty’s effect on downtown population growth.  My amateur analysis found none:

Comparing poverty rates to central city population growth, however, shows a relationship:

The cities with higher poverty rates tended to grow less or shrink in the decade between 2000 and 2010.  This may be less about developers avoiding cities with high concentrations of poverty and more about the foreclosure crisis hitting cities with high concentrations of poverty harder.  So it’s more about resilience, which I think Berg is after when he recommends “Stabiliz[ing] poor neighborhoods not only for ethical and economic reasons but to stem population loss.”

One more chart, just for fun:

I looked at the relationship between poverty and density expressed as the percent of housing stock in multi-unit dwellings (defined by the Census as any structure with more than one unit within it, so not counting single-family attached units).  This would seem to suggest that denser cities tend to have more people in poverty, but may merely reflect the fact that center cities that are still annexing land are closer to their metropolitan average for both density and poverty than center cities that stopped annexing before World War II.

None of which really explains whether Seattle is a model that can be repeated (although I still suspect that they’ve exported their poverty to Tacoma).  And it doesn’t address other issues, such as retail health, that may affect the ability of central cities to draw developers.  But I had fun looking a bit deeper into the issues that Berg brought up, and I’m glad he started the conversation.

Every post should have a picture, even if you have to steal it

*Actually these maps show households earning less than $30k/year, which is different obviously but I haven’t been able to find maps of metropolitan poverty.

Binge Traveling: Phoenix, or The Worst City

A possible test for the presence of even minute traces of ecological awareness in an individual is to ask whether he or she feels a disconnect when golfing in a desert

A couple months ago when I posted about my plans to travel from Minneapolis to Phoenix to transport my grandmother, I was waaaaaay too easy on Phoenix.  Just because I happen to be a pretentious snob doesn’t mean Phoenix doesn’t deserve the scorn I heap upon it, which I should have known thanks to my having visited the town far too many times.  But wrapped up in my own white middle-class critiques, I also wasn’t aware of just how terrible Phoenix is.

It all came flooding back when we arrived, coming from the east on the enormous Beeline Hwy that mysteriously carries heavy traffic through deserted mountains, and then stopping and starting through 15 miles of thick suburbia on 8-lane Shea Blvd, somehow congested at midday on a Monday.  Sure, Phoenix is one of the most auto-dependent cities in the country, and I took pictures of endless parking lots with views of dessicated peaks, and even worse, the serpentine sidewalks that constantly meander around turn lanes and curb cuts.  But I had no idea how truly bad Phoenix was until I read, upon my return to relatively green Minnesota, Bird On Fire.

I wasn’t expecting much from this book, to be honest.  Being from flyoverland, I get defensive when a guy from NYC writes a book about a city that’s not on the coast without even moving there.  And as someone who has gone to somewhat ridiculous lengths to avoid flying to or from Phoenix, I scoffed at how often he had to commute to Phoenix by plane in order to write a book about how damaging to the environment Phoenix is.

South Phoenix Industrial Hellscape

But to tell the truth, I ate it up.  The guy knows his narrative journalism, and peppers the book with characters that have analogues to Minneapolis:  the urban-pioneering artist, the hippie farmer, the vaguely green mayor.  But things started getting heavy when I read the chapter on environmental injustice in South Phoenix, which is home to 85040 or what the author calls “the nation’s dirtiest zip code.”  I’m going to reproduce a few paragraphs that make me feel a little douchey for complaining that someone refused to yield to me in a crosswalk:

CRSP [a coalition of South Phoenix resident organizations] was formed in 1992 after fire gutted a circuit-board manufacturing facility (Quality Printed Circuits) in a South Phoenix neighborhood not far from the riverbed.  In the aftermath of the 12-hour fire, which burned off several thousand pounds of sulfuric acid and hydrogen fluoride, residents complained of a wide range of illnesses… City Hall, it transpired, had granted the company a permit to rebuild in the same neighborhood after a smaller but similar kind of fire burned down its former facility in 1989, and the new permit actually included an exemption for installing overhead sprinklers.  After the 1992 fire, tests of selected homes conducted by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) found evidence of elevated fluoride and zinc concentrations, but the agency concluded that no adverse health impacts would result.  Several years later, more systematic EPA tests found statistically significant levels of these chemicals that were consistent with the symptoms.  Residents had been living for several years with poisons and toxics circulating through the air ducts of homes that lay downwind from the fire.  Many of the houses were subsequently demolished, but lax, or nonexistent, ADEZ inspections of other facilities in South Phoenix all but guaranteed that other fires would break out.

In August 2000, the area saw one of its worst airborne toxic catastrophes when the main warehouse of Central Garden, the Valley’s largest supplier of pool and lawn chemicals, exploded and caught fire.  “It was like the Fourth of July,” recalled Pops [founder of CRSP].  Firemen, motorists, and residents were captured vomiting in the streets on nightly news footage as the blackened fumes billowed far and wide.  The fire burned for two days, hundredes ended up in the hospital, and many died or suffered debilitating ailments in the years following.  Emergency responders had no idea what chemicals they were dealing with, and to this day, no adequate inventeory of the warehouse contents has been compiled.  ADEZ only tested air quality for standard hydrocarbon releases and, five days after the fire, announced that there was no “public health concern” to the residents of South Phoenix.  Yet, a month later, the agency’s water tests, not announced to the public, showed arsenic at 100 times the maximum level allowable for drinking water.  In the fire’s aftermath, community pressure stepped up to legislate electronic reporting of the hazardous contents of facilities.

Something funny in the water, from Bird on Fire

Inspired by the high degree of citizen involvement after the 1992 fire, Pops’s organization looked to other sites that needed preemptive action.  The area’s hazardous waste management facilities (five of the city’s seven were located in South Phoenix) were an obvious target, and one in particular, operated by Innovative Waste Utilization, stood out as a threat to the entire neighborhood.  The former owner of the site, which had several contaminated areas, including one from a significant arsenic spill, had operated for seventeen years without a permanent permit and had been allowed by the ADEZ to store hazardous waste (including DDT and lead) exported from California.  When the new owner applied for an expansion of the facility in 1999, Pops and other activists responded with a civil rights complaint aimed at the ADEQ’s long-term complicity in allowing toxic waste facilities to cluster in their neighborhoods.  The expansion permit process was arrested, but the agency still approved a permit to store hazardous waste.  The company subsequently contracted with the state of California to accept toxic waste collected in West Coast methampetamine busts.  Pops recalled that “the stench in the neighborhood was so vile that we accused the city and county of burning animals in incinerators.”  Over time, employees took to selling the seized chemicals to local meth labs, and the facility was raided in 2003.  “The odor,” Pops reported, “stopped immediately when the place was busted” and then shut down by the ADEZ.  The state legislature, outraged that the agency had finally found some regulatory teeth, debated whether to abolish it.

A state with leaders so dedicated to free markets that they threaten to shut down an agency that infringes on the community’s narcoentrepreneurs is a good indication of what Phoenix is about:  growth.  But is that so different from the Twin Cities?  Minneapolis’ last comp plan was dedicated in the title to delivering growth, which modified by that adjective ‘sustainable’ may mean that the City wants to sustain growth indefinitely.  St Paul’s last mayor, Randy Kelly, had a focus on population growth that was only matched by his dedication to the reelection of George W. Bush.  And those are just the two cities in the metro area that aren’t actually growing.

The Twin Cities don’t necessarily measure well against Phoenix on “green” living.  Their light rail system is around 7 miles longer, with a bus system that provides much better coverage for local routes, if their frequency is comparatively pathetic.  Minneapolis may out-brag Phoenix when it comes to biking, and I’m not sure of either metro’s total mileage, but Phoenix claims 500 miles of bikeways (including routes, signed or unsigned), and based on maps I’d guess they’re fairly comparable.  Phoenix is a truly terrible place to walk, but the Twin Cities are pretty bad themselves, outside of maybe a few core neighborhoods.

So our superiority complex will have to rest on the damaged lungs and carcinogenic water of South Phoenix.  While not without environmental justice issues, the Twin Cities have nothing on the scale of South Phoenix, the dumping ground for all their heavy industry.  Phoenix is notorious for its sprawling form, but it has the framework for a multimodal paradise:  the bones of transit and cycling systems and, as noted in Bird on Fire, vacant land totaling 40% of the land area on which to add dense infill.  The trickier issue will likely be a history of pervasive environmental injustice that’s poisoned relations between different socioeconomic groups as much as it’s poisoned neighborhoods.

Oh yeah, and their primary water source is a river more than 300 miles away.

The humid desert air

Bottineau-no for North, part III

Here is the last of my three-part Bottineau rant, which at this point may be considered a full-fledged tirade.  Somewhat coincidentally, it arrives on the same day the Minneapolis City Council makes its recommendation for a Locally Preferred Alternative, which is more or less required by the FTA for the project to advance.  It looks like the Council has acquiesced to the LRT D1 alternative – Wirth-Olson – but with the clever stipulation that Hennepin County and Metro Transit agree to develop at least one arterial transitway through North Minneapolis along Penn, Emerson/Fremont, or West Broadway.  I’m not aware of any attempt by the city to gather their citizens’ opinions, outside of  the county-led process, but of course you can always provide input to the Bottineau project office.

My last post proposed the consideration of an LRT subway through North Minneapolis, which would do a zillion times better job of serving the heart of the Northside without the impact of a surface route, and based on our history with Hiawatha is unlikely to be as expensive as other recent American below-grade transit projects.  An LRT subway will not be considered in Minnesota – it’s just too “coastal.”  In that case, I think the best alternative for Bottineau would be BRT on West Broadway.  This was actually considered in the AA study, and scored well enough that it just barely missed the arbitrary cutoff to make it to the scoping phase.  Actually it would have probably made the cutoff (unless the cutoff was again raised to exclude it) if the AA study hadn’t penalized all BRT alternatives.  See for yourself- here is the Traveler Time Savings (in regional minutes per day) measure from page 76 of AA study:

Not enough minutes in the day

The study claims that “LRT alternatives outscore BRT alternatives on this measure because they have shorter end-to-end travel times” which is interesting because a) the BRT and LRT alternatives would follow identical alignments, and b) technically buses and trains are capable of the same operating speeds.  Because the chart above is pretty much the most detailed information in the AA study about travel times, I’m not sure how they determined that BRT alternatives would take longer than LRT in the exact same alignment.  The study also projected fewer riders for BRT alternatives, but not nearly enough fewer to explain the missing minutes.  Here is a comparison table I made using data from the AA study:

This chart teases us with a clue:  It may have had something to do with the Interchange, Hennepin County’s platitudinously named train station, which is the only point where some LRT and BRT alternatives diverged.  Specifically, D3 and D4, the former of which does significantly worse on traveler time savings, are assumed to run “on a busway parallel to the I-94 viaduct” then to turn south a block to stop at the Interchange, then proceed eventually a block back north to 4th St.  This is a terrible idea.  If they were actually thinking about how to maximize the benefits of the transportation system, D3 and D4 would have an advantage over the other alternatives because they could use the viaduct itself.

The 4th St Viaduct (should be plural, since there are actually two viaducts) is massively overbuilt.  It is two lanes in each direction, but caters primarily to peak traffic, leaving at least half the roadway underutilized at all times.  If one viaduct were made reversible, the other could be used for a two-way busway, providing a transit advantage into Downtown Minneapolis.  In addition, if the south viaduct were used, it could provide an even better, if more expensive, connection to the Northstar station than LRT would:

Which would you prefer?

The viaduct could connect directly to West Broadway with a little modification of the existing interchanges.  Basically a ramp could just be added from West Broadway to the existing ramp from I-94 to the viaduct, and then another ramp from that ramp over to the other viaduct.  It’s a bit trickier to connect the westbound viaduct to westbound West Broadway.  The Alexandrian way, depicted below, would just build a flyover from the viaduct to the 94 ramp to Washington, at which BRT could have signal priority.  Ideally the BRT viaduct would connect to I-94 so express buses could use it too, which could be done by adding a ramp going straight where the westbound ramp bends to meet Washington.  In addition to a station at the Interchange, there could be one serving the densifying North Loop at 8th or 10th Ave N.

Green is BRT, Yellow is I-94 access, Red is the relocated ramp from I-94 to Lyndale Ave

Another reason the West Broadway BRT (D4 on the chart) scored well in general is that it wasn’t really BRT, at least not east of Penn, where the alternative studied would operate in mixed traffic.  This was done to “eliminat[e] the need to disrupt traffic or remove businesses.”  Of course, disrupting traffic is to some degree the goal of developing transitways; you want to shift traffic from cars to transit vehicles.  But is disrupting traffic or removing businesses necessary to accommodate BRT on West Broadway?

As I mentioned above, West Broadway is 80′ east of Penn, and they cram in four through lanes and parking in many places.  Traffic counts hover around 20,000/day, but drops off steeply west of Emerson/Fremont, so that the counts west of Morgan are around 10k/day.  Assuming west of Girard only two traffic lanes are needed, guideway will fit there without widening even on the 75′ sections – assuming a 28′ guideway and two 11′ through lanes, 25′ are left over for sidewalks or maybe parking in some places.  East of Girard, 28′ will be needed for guideway and at least 40′ for four through lanes (suck it up, Hennepin County and MnDot, 10′ lanes works for much busier streets, even with trucks).  That means the road will need to be widened slightly (mostly 90′, but possibly 100′ at stations.)

Widening this area of West Broadway would not be like widening Penn.  Frankly, there aren’t many buildings left to destroy here.  If the widening was taken from the north side of the street east of Fremont (there should be just enough room on the block west of Fremont for 90′ with tearing down buildings – the bright side of setbacks), then switch to the south side east of Bryant, there should be room for 90-100′ without tearing down anything except the small cluster west of Emerson.

Joe Gladke, Hennepin County’s Manager of Engineering and Transit Planning, mentioned in a presentation to the Minneapolis TPW Committee that LRT and full BRT was dropped from West Broadway because of business owners’ concern over loss of parking.  That’s like being concerned over loss of sand in the Sahara.  I did a quick measurement of parking lots in the West Broadway business district and found that 16 of the 64 acres between Girard and 94, 18th and 21st are parking lots – that’s 25% of the gross area!  (And that’s not counting the 550 space lot that will be built with MPS’ new headquarters.)

Lots of lots (sorry I couldn’t resist)

So it’s possible to build reserved-guideway BRT on West Broadway that won’t disrupt traffic and will remove only a handful of businesses.  This alignment would go through the heart of North Minneapolis, serving thousands more residents, and present ample opportunities for TOD (see vast parking lot fields above).  Based on the cost estimates from the AA – where BRT generally came in at around half the cost of LRT – it would still cost substantially less than the proposed LRT alternatives.  That would allow perks like the conversion of the 4th St Viaduct to a combined reversible roadway and two-way busway, which would serve an additional high-density neighborhood and provide a benefit to the express bus network.

The lower cost of BRT would also allow both Brooklyn Park and Maple Grove to serve as termini for the same price, although the AA study didn’t find benefits commensurate to the costs of serving both branches.  I stubbornly maintain that if we’re going to spend regional money on a development-inducing transitway, it would benefit the region more to serve existing struggling activity centers like Brooklyn Center rather than provide a further incentive to fringe development.  But the other advantage of BRT, apparently unexplored in the Bottineau process, is that multiple routes with vastly different termini can branch out after using the busway, known as Open BRT.  So Maple Grove and Brooklyn Park could both be served, even if the guideway continues to Brooklyn Center, as could Plymouth, New Hope, Crystal or even Rogers.

I hope I’m not focusing on BRT because of the recent flak Hiawatha has taken from anti-transit ideologues, who nonetheless have a valid point about how expensive the line is both to build and to operate.  Central and likely Southwest serve enough high-density areas that they’re likely to better justify their costs, and since Hiawatha serves major regional destinations like the airport and the MOA it will likely benefit significantly from the network effect of three light rail lines.

Bottineau, on the other hand, doesn’t serve a major regional destination outside of Downtown Minneapolis, so it is unlikely to benefit from a network effect outside of the meager one accounted for in the AA study.  The Wirth-Olson alignment serves only one relatively high-density and high-poverty neighborhood – around Van White – and has few potential candidates for redevelopment inside the beltway.  It runs through almost three miles of parkland for chrissakes!  It just doesn’t make sense to spend a billion dollars on a transitway with that little potential.  It’s unlikely my proposal for full BRT on West Broadway will be considered in the DEIS, much less an LRT subway in North Minneapolis, but I hope that BRT stays in the running.  I want to believe in LRT for Bottineau, but it looks like BRT is a better option.

People are already walking to the future Golden Valley Road station

Bottineau-no for North, part II

In my last post, I went through some of the reasons why existing land use is unlikely to support even the medium-capacity transit system provided by LRT or BRT Bottineau alignments.  In the absence of inflated commuter ridership figures, the only compelling reason to build the line is economic development.  But if Bottineau is being built primarily for economic development, why is it avoiding the most economically disadvantaged part of the state?  If Bottineau is supposed to encourage the development of housing and jobs along the line, why not route it to areas in need of redevelopment rather than to the fringe?  Why should we spend a billion dollars to just encourage more development on the edge of town?

If a goal of the line is economic development, there is a better northern terminus:  Brooklyn Center.  According to DEED data compiled by the Met Council, Brooklyn Center lost more than 5,000 jobs between 2000 and 2010, which is no more than a crumb of the Metro area’s total jobs (around 1.5m), but represents almost a third of the jobs once held in this community within easy commuting distance of some of the state’s poorest neighborhoods.  Developing a major job center on the old Brookdale site would have been ideal from a regional planning standpoint:  more so than the sprawling Arbor Lakes area (this is where a pedestrian was recently hit and killed by a car while on the sidewalk), and especially the fringe site of Target Suburban Headquarters, Brooklyn Center is adequately served by existing transportation infrastructure, including an easy (if theoretical) bus ride from the Fridley Northstar station.

Target Suburban HQ on Brookdale's footprint

Right-of-way is readily available in the median of Hwy 100 – at about 25′, it’s not quite wide enough for LRT guideway, so it would likely require some reconstruction of the roadway, probably shrinking the outside shoulders a bit – and alongside Shingle Creek Pkwy further north.  The most expensive elements would be flyovers from the BNSF track north of Robbinsdale onto Hwy 100 and from the freeway onto Shingle Creek, and widening or replacing the bridge over Twin Lakes.  I depicted a station at France, but since that would require a good 45′ of median, the full roadway would need to be reconstructed and the overpass replaced, so the low-density area probably wouldn’t immediately be worth the expense.  Anyway by the time this is built, Surly will probably have moved to their “destination” brewery, so no big loss.

This route may seem indirect, but I think it makes more sense in terms of regional connectivity and suburb-to-suburb travel.  Assuming a network of freeway BRT-ish routes, a more complete grid would be formed by extending a Hwy 100 route along Bottineau Blvd north of Robbinsdale rather than jutting east to Brookdale.

Would a Brookdale route be time-competitive with cars?  Google says that the fastest route from Brooklyn Center Transit Center to 4th & Hennepin is 13 minutes without congestion.  Based on the average speeds of Hiawatha, a light rail version of my proposed route running in a tunnel from the BNSF line to Plymouth and I-94 would take 17 minutes from Bass Lake Road (near Brooklyn Center Transit Center) to the Warehouse District station, about 30% longer than google  (and much less time than the existing express buses, which go through Camden and take about a half hour).  That compares well to Central LRT, which takes about 29% longer than the 94 route (if you believe the dubious claims) and a whopping 89% of google’s drive time.

Approx. route for Bottineau on bedrock map of North Mpls - red is segment in tunnel

Of course, tunneling is expensive, and as I mentioned above, it’s hard to believe the Penn or Wirth-Olson alternatives will deliver the ridership to justify even surface-running light rail.  But we’re not talking about New York or Seattle here – North Minneapolis lies on an excellent surface for deep-bore tunneling, easy-digging sandstone capped with a solid, stable roof of limestone.  Best of all for a Northside route, the portals would both lie in a sandstone layer.  Based on Hiawatha’s tunneling costs, the 5 km required for a Northside LRT subway would cost $300m, about a third of the projected costs for the other LRT alternatives.  Best of all, it would reach the heart of North Minneapolis without destroying existing communities or severing the street grid.  I think it’s worth considering, but the project managers do not.  Here is an email I sent them two years ago and their response:

12/04/2009 01:10 PM

To: bottineau@co.hennepin.mn.us

cc: gail.dorfman@co.hennepin.mn.us

Subject: complete Alternatives Analysis for Bottineau

Hi,

In order to completely evaluate the alternatives for the Bottineau corridor, another alternative should be considered that would be light-rail or bus in a tunnel through North Minneapolis.

Minneapolis and Hennepin County are finally ready for world-class transit and, considering the major overhaul in Federal transportation funding due next year, the Federal government may finally be ready to give Americans the quality in public transit that they deserve (and that has been exclusively bestowed on the motoring public up to now).

North Minneapolis has some of the highest rates of transit ridership in the Twin Cities, and, after a history of public disinvestment in the area, they deserve a high-quality transit line. I am confident that, if projections take into consideration a built-out transit system, the ridership would justify the higher cost. It would also benefit the suburban commuters as a grade-separated direct route would likely offer the quickest travel time into and out of downtown Minneapolis.

I have more ideas about an North Minneapolis subway alternative for the Bottineau Corridor, and, if you’re interested, I’d be happy to expound on them. If not, I thank you for your time.

Sincerely,

Alex

From: “bottineau@co.hennepin.mn.us” <bottineau@co.hennepin.mn.us>

To: Alex Bauman

Sent: Friday, December 11, 2009 4:25 PM

Subject: Re: complete Alternatives Analysis for Bottineau

Mr. Bauman,

Thank you for your email regarding the Bottineau Transitway Alternatives Analysis Study and your thoughts regarding a tunnel alignment concept through North Minneapolis.

We share your interests in providing high quality transit services for Twin Cities residents including those who live in North Minneapolis.

As you likely know, our study process is being conducted in collaboration with FTA guidelines as they exist today. Hennepin County is also actively engaged in policy development and FTA proposed rule making regarding transitway investment programs in collaboration with our Minnesota legislative delegation in Washington DC.

Like you, we are also looking forward to potential changes in the Federal Transportation Re-authorization Bill and how this bill may lead to enhance the quality of transit provided in the United States, the Twin Cities Region, and Hennepin County. Should the transportation bill direct transformational changes in the way transit investments are made, Hennepin County and other units of government will be obligated to study the implications of these changes on the Bottineau Corridor.

However, we also think you deserve a sober historical perspective and look to the future regarding the potential to pursue a transitway tunnel design through North Minneapolis. As you’ve indicated, tunnels are costly (often in the range of 10 times the amount of a surface facility) and need substantial user benefits in order to justify their costs. It is instructive to consider that transitway tunnel construction in this country has been implemented through densely populated areas and/or high activity centers. Examples that come to mind include New York City, the Seattle Central Business District, and the San Francisco Central Business District. Relatively short segment tunnels have also been implemented for high activity centers such as San Diego State University Campus, the University of Washington Campus (entering construction at a expected cost of $1.95 Billion), and the Hiawatha LRT tunnel beneath our Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport. It should also be noted that tunnels tend to be implemented with high capacity transit modes such as subway metro lines. These systems provide higher capacity/utility than intermediate capacity BRT or LRT mode systems and can more easily justify tunneling costs.

The most recent local example of transit tunneling investigation/feasibility is for the Central Corridor LRT segment along Washington Avenue through the U of M campus. The cost estimate for a 2,050 foot tunnel was $128 Million above the cost of a surface running facility. This translates to a per mile cost of $329 Million. This estimate assumes no stations in the tunnel segment (stations add substantially to the cost of underground construction). It was determined that this tunnel segment was not feasible and the current Central Corridor LRT project includes a surface transit operations along Washington Avenue.

The approximate distance between 36th Avenue in Robbinsdale and the Minneapolis Transportation Interchange facility near Target Field is approximately 4.7 miles [He appears to be measuring here using the Wirth-Olson alignment, as though I’d suggest putting that already largely grade-separated alignment in a tunnel.  As the crow flies, the distance between 36th & the Interchange is 3.7 miles, and as I mentioned above, I think a tunnel could be limited to about 5 km. – Alex]. Using the $329 Million per mile cost from above to illustrate a rough order of magnitude, the cost of a transit tunnel through North Minneapolis could be in excess of $1.5 Billion without accounting for station facilities. This would more than double the current Bottineau Transitway alternative cost estimates.

North Minneapolis is a mix of single family with some higher density multi-family dwellings. This area does have relatively strong transit ridership now and potential into the future. Considering the growing needs around the country for transit investments one can appreciate how transformational the transportation re-authorization bill and funding program would need to be in order to justify long tunnel segments through lower density neighborhoods like North Minneapolis for intermediate capacity transit service like LRT.

In summary, your input is appreciated and we look forward to assessing how the federal transportation re-authorization bill will affect transitway concepts for the Bottineau Corridor.

Please let me know if you have additional questions or would like more information.

Regards,

Brent Rusco

An LRT subway station in a suburb of Stuttgart mostly characterized by single-family homes

He does a good, and probably justified, job of making me sound crazy.  He also builds his argument around tunneling projects that are entirely unlike those that would be reasonably considered for Bottineau.  I already mentioned that Minneapolis has a much more stable geology for tunneling than Seattle’s Ring of Fire location or New York’s famously hard and unstable schist.  Sandstone is called sand stone for a reason.  The Washington Ave example is more subtly inapplicable – a cut-and-cover tunnel was proposed for an extremely dense environment; even the cut-and-cover tunnel on Nicollet in Whittier studied for Southwest LRT was expected to cost less, and a deep-bored tunnel would certainly be less expensive per mile.  Finally, it’s ludicrous to suggest that LRT systems are rarely in tunnels; there are dozens of counter-examples, including Bergen’s system, which has around half the per km cost of Hiawatha despite running in tunnels for a quarter of its route.

It may seem inconsistent to say that land use doesn’t support the Wirth-Olson LRT proposal, but at the same time to champion an LRT subway.  The difference is a matter of objectives – the existing Bottineau process has the objective of “improving regional mobility” in the context of a transportation-engineering institution that has been slowly evolving over the past few decades until it at last includes factors such as effect on low-income communities.  But Bottineau as proposed runs through low-density areas, serves few job centers and generally avoids low-income communities, so it doesn’t really meet that objective.

A Bottineau process that considered a light-rail tunnel would probably be too expensive to meet traditional quasi-economic standards (though those traditional standards are giving a green light to a $700m roadway to carry 25,000 cars across the St Croix River), so it would need to come out of a more holistic institution, one that considered urban development  (and underdevelopment) and social justice (and injustice) along with transportation.   We do not live in a nation that considers urban development or social justice; instead we are a nation that is beholden to its land speculation industry and ignores centuries of racial discrimination while asserting a veneer of pluralism.   That is the nation we live in, but those of us who spend more time living in an ideal nation in the sky or in our heads will continue dreaming of an ideal transportation system, one that includes an LRT subway for North Minneapolis.

The next and final segment in this series will take us back to reality somewhat.  If reality is more your sort of thing, look for it here next week.

Is Central so Essential?

Is the downtown revival real, or is it just Disney?

I suppose by now the 2010 Census is passe, or even denounced.  But I’m bit behind the times, so I’m still thinking about it, and it’s taken me this long to parse some of the results.  By which I mean I’ve made a list of the downtown populations of MSAs of 1 million or more as reported in the 2000 and 2010 censuses, along with the metro and central city populations.

Specifically, I was a bit skeptical of some claims that downtowns have been resurgent in the last decade.  The condo craze was an undisputed fact, mostly a result of cheap and easy credit, that mostly affected the central areas of cities.  But was it big enough to really have an effect on population?  And was it nationwide or limited to major cities like San Francisco or trendy cities like Portland?

The first two problems with answering those questions are both of definition.  First, the definition of the word downtown has shifted subtly over time, so that now it seems to have different meanings depending on the type of place it is in.  The word originally referred to the older section of the city, which was located down hill from the newer suburbs.  This was quickly supplanted with a meaning of referring to the main business district of the city, which is the definition commonly found in dictionaries.  Now, however, it is often used to refer to a relatively dense or mixed-use area, or an area with a New Urbanist form, which could be pretty much the same as any strip mall, only with parking in back.

Downtown or not?

So what counts as downtown?  In St Paul, the Upper Landing area was developed with a high-density urban form in an area close enough to the traditional downtown that it could be considered a new urban appendage.  But traditionally this area would not have been considered downtown, at least not since Little Italy was cleared.  So should its growth be credited to downtown or to the rest of the city?

I took the coward’s route – I tried to use local definitions of downtown.  First, if I could find a media report – blog or newspaper – that defined a city’s downtown, I let them do the work for me.  If I couldn’t find a media report, I used the municipality’s definition – most cities have an area within boundaries that they’ve called Downtown, even if just for economic development.  There were a handful of cities where I just trusted Wikipedia, because I couldn’t find a municipal definition.  Also some of the bigger cities I made up definitions of Greater Downtown Areas because the official definition was too small an area.  For example Chicago’s Loop is defined as south and east of the Chicago River, west of the lake and north of Roosevelt, making a bit more than half the land area of Minneapolis’ official inside-the-freeways, west of the river Downtown (1.49 sq mi for the former and 2.71 sq mi for the latter).

Once I had a definition of a downtown, I used the New York Times 2010 Census map to get the 2010 population and rate of growth, from which I extrapolated the 2000 population.  Because official downtown definitions don’t always follow the boundaries of census tracts, I just tried to approximate as best I could.  Feel free to download my data for definitions of particular cities and the actual census tracts I used.

Now that I’ve provided a convoluted introduction, let’s get to the results.  The answer is yes, downtowns nationwide grew in the last decade.  Only 6 of the metros with a million-plus population (hereafter referred to as MPMs, for Million-Plus Metros) had downtowns that didn’t grow in the last decade, out of 51 total.  Just when you thought we were going to get to some graphs, that brings up another peculiarity.  As Twin Citians know, some regions have more than one regionally important downtown.  In those cases I combined the populations of both downtowns to gauge the regional downtown population.  That of course involved calculating them separately, whereupon I found that in Riverside-San Bernardino, one of the downtowns grew while the other shrank (albeit by an insignificant 30 people).  So the combined downtown population grew by 5%, but San Bernardino grew by 9% while Riverside shrank by -.27%.  Both of them appear to actually be suburbs of LA anyway, so maybe it doesn’t matter, but it’s something to keep in mind when the graphs start flying.

Let’s kick it off with a straight up graph of population change, absolute and percent, in the 51 MPMs:

This graph is pretty hard to read because of some mega outliers, specifically Manhattan, which grew by 49,174 (the next greatest growth was LA 15,445), and Dallas-Fort Worth, which grew by 306% (the next greatest percent growth was Charlotte with 134%).

The average growth for all MPMs was 41%, which sounds impressive until you hear the average absolute growth, which was only 4,493 people.  That’s chicken scratch next to the average growth for the entire metro area across the 51 MPMs, which was 315,214.  So let’s look at that.  Here’s a graph of how downtown growth rates compared with metro area growth rates and central city growth rates:

I cut off the Dallas-Fort Worth downtown growth rate for this one so the other rates would show up better.  As you can see, downtowns had much stronger growth rates overall than metro areas and especially central cities.  However, that pattern isn’t across the board – around 10 metros on the left side of the chart had greater metro area and central city growth rates than downtown growth rates.  I classified the metros by census bureau region, and if you look at the average across regions, you start to see some different patterns:

This table doubles as an eyesight test

On this one, the weird result is the Northeast’s Central City, which shows a percent decrease but an absolute increase.  It’s all New York’s fault – because it increased by 166,855 people (the largest central city increase), it drives the average way up.  But for a city the size of New York, that’s only a 2% increase in population, not enough to offset the large percent declines of Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Rochester (-11%, -9%, and -4% respectively).  I guess that’s my warning not to read the percent columns as an expression of the numerical columns.

Anyway, the regional differences become clear.  The South had about twice the average rate of downtown population change of any other region, but it also had a much lower numerical change.  This likely accounts for the impressive-sounding rate of change for all cities, of which the South makes up close to half.  Still, it’s impressive that a region that had almost nothing that could be considered urban now has its first taste of city life. Conversely, the Northeast had the lowest average downtown population rate of change and the highest average numerical change, reflecting the higher existing populations in the downtowns of that region.

Looking at the average downtown population across regions seems to bear this theory out, as the South has the lowest average population in 2000:

And again the South comes out poorly when looking at the cities with the 10 largest downtown populations, with only Raleigh representing the vast region:

But Raleigh also exposes the methodological weakness of this whole venture, as does the top 10 table in general.  The only definition I could find of Raleigh’s downtown runs east to Raleigh Blvd, so it includes a couple square miles of streetcar suburb.  If I were to define Downtown Raleigh, the eastern border wouldn’t run past East St, so the definition I used is about twice the actual size even in my own estimation.

On the other side, you may have noticed that I used the entire borough of Manhattan for downtown New Y0rk.  You may disagree with that decision, and if so you’re not alone – I do, too.  The problem is that the part of Manhattan sometimes called “Downtown” actually has fewer jobs and office space than Midtown Manhattan, so each area would conflict with some definition.  Since even the northern tip of the island has characteristics that could be considered a downtown in any other American city, I decided to look at the borough as a whole.  That approach is probably unfair to other New York business districts, such as Downtown Brooklyn, that probably could have qualified for this study.  It also makes for a freaking huge outlier, although Lower and Midtown Manhattan are also outliers, with six times the 2010 population of the next biggest city, and 7,000-15,000 greater increase in population than the next largest increase (download my data if you’re curious about specifics).

Manhattan was the only city where I included a greater downtown area for comparison’s sake, although as mentioned above I did create them for Chicago, Miami and San Francisco – that’s the kind of inconsistency that comes from dealing with this much data in your spare time.  My policy of generously allowing cities to define their own downtowns created its own problems, especially when looking at the percent of metro area population that lives downtown, where four Southern cities appear in the top ten:

Note that New York has been omitted from the two above charts, and that while in general downtowns’ share of metro area population went up, it didn’t go up as much as the two charts seem to show due to my neglect to maintain the same scale for the right axis.

So after a decade that was widely hyped for downtown growth, only seven cities have downtowns that contain 1% or more of their metro’s populations.  While the ubiquity of downtown growth may have been exceptional, the growth itself may not have been significant, or significant enough to make a difference regionally.  Downtown growth mostly beat regional growth in the relatively sluggish decade (see the chart Downtown, Central City, and Metro Area Growth Rates above), and downtowns as generally small portions of metro areas maybe shouldn’t be expected to ever contain a significant portion of the metro population.  But central cities grew much less consistently (as we know here in the Twin Cities), with 21 central cities shrinking, and of the 30 that grew, only maybe a dozen did so without annexation or greenfield development.  Moreover, as I attempt to show on the most confusing chart I’ve ever made, the vast majority of central cities lost share of metro area population, that is, the suburbs grew faster than they did:

So while downtown growth was a national trend, we’re not talking about an overthrow of the suburban realm quite yet.  Still, even a small shoot of urban growth is encouraging in the vast mire of suburbanism that has festered for the past few decades.  Things change slowly in our litigation-fueled, Nimbyful society, and there are indications that demand for urban places exceed the supply.  The fringe still seems to be freckled with vacancy while apartments rise in the central city, which indicates a lot taller bars in the charts of downtown growth after the 2020 census.

If you care to dig through my data, here is the xlsx.  Feel free to dispute the downtown definitions – more likely than not I’ll agree with you.

Apartments go boom!

With all the chatter about apartment construction in the last couple months, I wanted to see whether the current level of activity is really an aberration or just a way to sell newspapers.  There certainly are a lot of proposals floating about, but after the severe downturn of the last few years, it’s hard to know what’s normal.  Besides, is it a coincidence that the paper that says the most about the new construction just happens to have a subscribers only online map of it?

But what exactly is the current level of activity?  If 8500 units were under construction or proposed as of September, what does that mean in terms of eventual places to live?  Presumably almost all of what is under construction will be finished, but much of what is proposed will never see the light of day.  I thought it safe to compare the number proposed to building permit data, although probably a bit more is proposed than actually gets permitted.  From F&C’s 8500, I thought it safe to subtract 2000 considering my count of 1,732 units that were under construction in 2011 just in Minneapolis (most of which would have been permitted in 2010).

So how rare is it for 6500 multifamily units to be permitted in the metro area?  Met Council data going back to 1970 gives us a hint:

Permit rainbow!

Well, not very rare.  10 of the last 40 years saw 6500 units permitted.*  In fact, in the 70s the average year saw 6100 multifamily units permitted, helped out by the massive years 1970-1972 that permitted over 10,000 multifamily units each.

I think the story here is more likely that not nearly enough rental units were constructed in the last 20 years.  As I’ve noted before, the 90s were a disastrous decade for dense development.  When multifamily heated up again, it was the condo craze, leaving little room for renters.  But while the ownership housing stock was increased, sometimes at the expense of rental housing, the number of renter households was increasing faster than the number of owner households.

In other words, it’s true that there is more multifamily rental units being proposed and built than in recent years, but don’t think of it like a speculator-driven bubble.  Instead it is more likely to be a “new normal,” where the market is providing a supply in reaction to demand.  That’s good news for people who want an energy-efficient, walkable, low-maintenance place to live.

Zooming In

There’s more news buried in this building permit data, and I’m going to finish up with a long digression on it.  Check out this table of the top 10 metro area cities for total residential building permits issued between 1970 and 2010:

City DTQ DUP MF3 MF5 SFD TH Total
Minneapolis 98 854 21507 6543 4238 2807 36047
Plymouth 44 118 9172 240 13925 3273 26772
St. Paul 146 652 16033 3234 4537 1172 25774
Eden Prairie 32 1112 6498 95 12132 4430 24299
Eagan 75 704 6886 68 12430 3710 23873
Woodbury 107 442 4836 1127 12490 4123 23125
Maple Grove 157 565 3646 692 14496 3473 23029
Brooklyn Park 16 834 2750 475 12820 3504 20399
Burnsville 0 366 8431 394 7472 3305 19968
Coon Rapids 2 736 4760 48 9106 3462 18114

DTQ=Duplex, Triplex, Fourplex

DUP=Duplex

MF3=Multifamily (3 units or more)

MF5=Multifamily (5 units or more)

SFD=Single-Family Detached

TH=Townhome

Minneapolis has a comfortable lead, appearing to have added more housing units in the 40-year period than any other municipality (assuming the same rate of actual construction resulting from permits across all the municipalities and years).  This lead seems to have primarily resulted from the 70s and 00s, in the latter of which Minneapolis added significantly more housing units than anywhere else in the Twin Cities.

Seas of purple and green

So how could Minneapolis add tens of thousands of housing units in the last 40 years, while simultaneously losing more than 50,000 residents?  Some of the reasons for a similar effect in the 60s are also valid for later decades; the entirety of the drop occurred in the 70s, when a great deal of (edit: Froggie points out in the comments that most of the clearance for freeway construction had been wrapped up by the 70s) freeway construction and some slum clearance was still underway.

Later decades fared better.  The 90s saw a population increase; looking at population by sector makes it clear that the mediocre performance of the 00s was almost entirely a product of the foreclosure crisis:

Sector 1980 1990 2000 2010
Downtown 19155 21824 24977 31034
North 61278 64001 67674 59970
Northeast 37507 36515 36913 36255
South 137551 136333 142150 139854
Southwest 83728 79912 78292 77989
University 29615 29798 32612 37476
Citywide 368834 368383 382618 382578

The two sectors with the most foreclosure activities were also the only two with significant population decline.  In the case of North, two decades of steady growth were wiped out.

The 80s are the mystery for me.  Seven or eight thousand units were constructed in Minneapolis, which should have resulted in some population growth.  Instead the most population growth occurred in North, not in the Downtown and University neighborhoods that saw the most units added.  I don’t have demolition permit data, so I don’t know if an unusually high number of units were demolished.  Household size may also have been a factor, since many of the units added were likely smaller than any units lost.

Regardless of what happened in the 80s, the census data seems to suggest that, barring any new freeway construction or popular predatory lending practices, Minneapolis should see steady population growth in this decade.  Wandering back to the main topic of this post, the return to historic levels of multifamily rental construction, a greater proportion of which tends to occur in central cities, is another indicator that the chatter may soon be about how Minneapolis and St Paul are leading the metro in population growth.

*Until 2004, semi-detached units with more than two units were counted in the multifamily category.  In 2004, they were moved into the Duplex category.

Down with the USA Today!

This infographic is sponsored by McDonald's and Immodium A-D

Ever since I was a child, I’ve hated the USA Today.  At first it was because they didn’t have comics, but as I’ve grown older I’ve gotten better at rationalizing my opinions in ways that make sense to adults, and now I just have to say that their stories tend to be extremely superficial.

Take their recent article about increased differentiation between suburban strata as portrayed by the 2010 census, using St Croix county as an example.  The paper gets some credit for at least distinguishing between suburbs, noting that nationwide inner suburbs grew at a greater rate than middle suburbs, though not nearly at the rate of outer suburbs.  This is an obvious statement.  Outer suburbs are starting at smaller populations, so even if a lower number of people move there, it can result in higher percentage growth than larger cities.

Families flock to downtown Hudson

USA Today doesn’t mention the absolute change number for these three types of suburbs, or even really describe how they differentiated between them.  This is problematic for suburbs like Mendota Heights or Maplewood, which are relatively central in the metro area, but had substantial greenfield development through the 1980s.  The paper credits Robert Lang – author of Boomburbs – for the data, but doesn’t link to any more detailed analysis.

But my real beef comes in when they start talking about St Croix county, which in the last decade grew by an astonishing 33.6% (or about 5 times less fast than the North Loop).  This section really betrays their lack of knowledge of the Twin Cities metro.  It claims the county is popular because of its “easy access to the Twin Cities (12 miles), more moderately priced housing, good schools and a quaint downtown in Hudson.”

St Croix county is only 12 miles from the St Paul city limits, but it is much further from the majority of jobs in the Twin Cities.  As Orfield and Luce put it in their study of employment and commute patterns in the book Region, employment clusters in the Twin Cities “are more likely to be in the western and southwestern parts of the region.”  And as the map shows, St Croix doesn’t have a particularly low average commute time, even for collar counties.

Surprisingly, USA Today is also off-base about the housing cost – although ACS 5 year data shows St Croix county’s median housing value of $224k to be a bit lower than the metro area’s median of $240k, it is actually higher than Ramsey County’s median and about the same as Anoka’s.

I’m not even going to look into the schools, because I don’t think there is a quantitative method of ranking schools, so I’ll give USA Today that point.  And they can have one for crediting Hudson’s quaint downtown as a driver of growth, because I agree with them, and because it muddles their point (according to USA Today, Americans prefer to live in fringe suburbs, but only if they’re near a downtown).

Why are people moving to St Croix county?  Because houses are being built there.  But St Croix county isn’t even adding an exceptional number of houses.  In the 13-county metro area, Hennepin County by far added the most housing units, 40,776, four times the 9,709 added in St Croix county.  The foreclosure crisis reduces the increase in occupied housing units to only 2.5 times that of St Croix county.

So why is the USA today writing about St Croix county?  It could be because the county was the only one in the 13 county metro to have a higher rate of growth in 2000-2010 than 1990-2000, and it thereby fits the story’s “stay calm, everything is fine, all growth is still on the fringe” attitude.

On this point, I’m humbled to have to agree with them.  Although locally the suburban fringe grew at a slower rate in the last decade than in the 90s, inner and middle suburbs’ rate of growth decreased even more, meaning the fringe accounted for a greater share of the Twin Cities’ growth in the 00s than it did in the 90s (about 66% in 00s and about 45% in the 90s).  That means that the region needs to work harder 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 recently posed the possibility of an end to sprawl.  And that means I need to get more creative in rationalizing my hatred of the USA Today.