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.

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.

Hit by nice Berg, census reeling

Portland Model City?

Steve Berg gets my nomination for King of Urbanists in the Twin Cities.  A talented writer, I consider him the most eloquent Minnesotan activist for safer, more inclusive streets, smart density, and mixing uses.

He’s been writing lately about the 2010 census results (2 more census articles than either of the local newspapers, by the way), and while I agree with his conclusion – municipalities in the Twin Cities need to do a better job of encouraging dense, transit-oriented growth as well as transit for the growth to orient to – I’ve been a bit irked about his decision to compare us to the same three cities of Denver, Seattle and Portland.

Portland annexation map

Portland does a great job encouraging growth along transit lines in developed areas, but it also has a dirty secret:  The greenfield area around Powell Butte was a significant contributor to the city’s growth.  As Portland’s annexation map makes clear, it has annexed land as recently as the early 90s, and plans to eventually annex the entirety of its urban growth boundary.  That means that Portland has as much in common with Forest Lake as it does with Minneapolis.

The population growth in the Powell Butte area accounted for a greater share of the city’s growth than the downtown area – although downtown had a higher growth rate and is a smaller area.  Still, it’s not really fair to ask a city that has been built out for decades to grow as fast as a city that still has a greenfield advantage.

Denver is an even worse comparison, since its population was boosted by massive redevelopments of Air Force bases.  The Lowry and Stapleton developments added a cumulative 16,664 residents to the Mile High City, way more than Downtown Denver’s 9,815 added residents.  Those three areas account for more than half of the 45,000 residents that moved into Denver in the oughts – other areas of the city grew as well, but there were also substantial sections that declined, specifically the Highland area across the river from Downtown.  It doesn’t seem to me that Denver’s census change pattern deviates all that much from MSP, except that it grew a lot more:

Denver Population Change 2000-2010

Mpls-StP Population Change 2000-2010

These maps are from Data Pointed and I’m pretty sure they’re not to scale.

Edit:  Data Pointed apparently doesn’t like hosting images for my blog so for now you’ll have to find the maps yourself on that site.  I’ll maybe screen print the NY Times maps or grab them from Transport Politic this weekend – I live to serve.

Seattle, however, is a more fair comparison to Minneapolis-St Paul.  I wrote a few months ago about how it contains more recently-built suburban areas than Minneapolis, but not necessarily more than St Paul.  Still, it hasn’t annexed any land since the 50s, so there isn’t any greenfield development in the city proper.

There is no question Seattle has done a better job encouraging growth in the center city than Minneapolis.  If you look at their growth map, you see strong growth in the downtown and around the university, like the Twin Cities and most cities nationwide.  But you also see people moving into areas outside of downtown, such as Ballard, Northgate, and NewHolly – these growth areas were codified in their most recent comprehensive plan as Urban Villages, areas where a dense mix of uses will be encouraged.  It’s a similar concept to Minneapolis’ Activity Centers, but Seattle sets aggressive targets for job and residential growth in these clusters.

Seattle Population Change 2000-2010

So if only one of Berg’s three comparison cities is actually comparable, are there other cities that are more like the Twin Cities, if just so that we’re not adrift in a sea of relativism?  Let’s look to our neighbors, who are of a similar vintage, and who were similar choked off by the upper classes seeking their own municipalities safe from the votes of the teeming, ethnic masses.

Milwaukee, St Louis and Cleveland are of similar size, age and metropolitan structure, and at first glance Minneapolis and St Paul look good in comparison.  St Louis and Cleveland each lost tens of thousands of residents in the last decade, and Milwaukee lost about two thousand – eerily similar to the Twin Cities’ combined losses.  But the three rust belt cities also had population booms in their downtowns – all three had growth rates that surpassed Minneapolis and St Paul, and St Louis beat Minneapolis in absolute increase as well.

Downtown population change

Just for kicks, I’ll throw in this info for the cities Steve Berg likes to compare to the Twin Cities:

Downtown Population Change

You can, of course, find similarities and differences between most cities.  And certainly all of these cities are auto-dependent, Euclidian-zoned (although I think Denver is experimenting with a form-based code) and in the Anglo-American tradition.  And, honestly, Berg’s points hold up in all of them – the USA has a racial ghetto problem, and while it’s less pronounced in cities with smaller minority populations, the Twin Cities is one of several metro areas that have failed to handle this problem.  Denver seems to have the same problem, and I don’t think we should follow Seattle’s lead by exporting the ghetto to a different city (Tacoma, in Seattle’s case; we’ve already gotten a start on sending minorities to the Brooklyns).  Instead we should continue the Met Council’s work on increasing affordable housing opportunities in the suburbs.  Here is some data to back up these assertions:

Census race 2010

Because of the racist nature of American settlement patterns, it’s predictable that cities with greenfield development (Portland, Denver) would have a smaller percentage of minority populations.  Conversely, it may be that the Twin Cities, with relatively small central cities relative to suburbs, have actually done a better job than these “peer” cities of reducing minority concentration, although a large ghetto remains on the Northside and Minneapolis sure suffered for it in the 2010 census.

Steve Berg’s other point, that successful cities develop their transit systems and encourage dense growth around stations, is more supported by census data.  Looking at the percent of metro area growth that occurred downtown, it roughly corresponds with the level of transit investment, although Milwaukee is a major outlier.  Also the metric doesn’t work with metros like Cleveland that lost population, although the fact that the downtown nevertheless grew is a major triumph.

Downtown vs Metro population change 2000-2010

I’m going to put my spreadsheet out there for people to look at and build on.  This rambling entry is not meant to be the final word on anything, so feel free to engage in the discussion by tearing my points to shreds in the comments.  I’m going to add more and more stats to this spreadsheet and maybe eventually I’ll do a another post when I have a more complete picture.

downtown census pop

A note about the data here:  it is always debatable how to define unofficial geographic areas such as downtowns.  As you might expect, I have my own opinion about what constitutes  Downtown Minneapolis and Downtown St Paul, but amazingly I don’t consider myself an expert on the neighborhood geography of other cities.  Therefore I’ve relied on others’ definitions, which I’ve referenced in the spreadsheet.  When I pulled the census data myself, I’ve referenced the census tracts I used, which usually didn’t correspond exactly with the downtown boundaries.  But then life itself is inexact.  As always, feel free to disagree, but if you do I ask you to specify your disagreement in the comments.

Back to the 90s

Then

The 90s weren’t bad, as far as decades go; there were colorful sweaters, Steve Urkel, and bracelets that you put on by violently attacking your wrist with them.

And now

The decade was a mixed blessing for Minneapolis, however; our state’s ample supply of refugee-services non-profits fueled an influx of immigrants, who proceeded to revitalize many commercial areas; but in the meantime almost no residential buildings of consequence were built in the city.  Recently I attempted to document all multifamily and row/townhomes built here in the postwar era; in the 90s I found a total of 2,346 units built, less than any other decade.  Instead, tacky single-family homes were built, for example this one:

In today’s Community Development Committee meeting, the city will decide whether to sell a parcel to Habitat for Humanity for development of a single-family home.  Normally I’m okay with Habitat operating in the city.  Even though we have already have more than enough single-family homes in Minneapolis, Habitat is at least addressing the affordable housing crisis.

This parcel, however, is primed for multifamily development.  It lies a wide but walkable distance from Hiawatha LRT (a half-mile), but it is a block or two from three bus routes, meaning it is ideal for transit-oriented development.

But Alex, in Minneapolis we pretend that you need a 40′ wide lot just to build a single-family home.  So if this lot is only 40′ wide, how will you cram a whole multifamily building in there?

Well, to the north of this parcel is not one but two city-owned, vacant parcels.  And to the south is an additional vacant parcel, in private hands.  These parcels would be ideal for the type of development that occurred at the north end of the block – basically a typical English urban model of attached single-family.  Unfortunately even those had to be up-zoned to R4 in order to get built, because Minneapolis is so eager to become Richfield that it categorizes small-scale traditional urban housing with dense low-rise apartment buildings.

One of two things need to happen if Minneapolis is going to achieve its sustainability goals – either the R2B district needs to be amended to allow attached housing on smaller lots or wide swaths of the city need to be up-zoned to R4.  Housing is a 100-year investment; we need to stop wasting the limited space of our central neighborhoods on inefficient types of housing.  Others have argued effectively that “location efficiency is more important than home efficiency,” but there are only so many efficient locations to go around.  Habitat for Humanity is welcome to provide its affordable but wasteful single-family homes in relatively less-efficient locations, but let’s save our prime central neighborhood locations for buildings that will allow more than one family to enjoy them.

Who shot down J.R.’s condo?

Every policymaker should take a moment to read, or have an aide read to them while they’re talking to their broker and walking on the treadmill) yesterday’s Transport Politic about Dallas’ pathetic transit ridership, despite having the longest light rail system in the country.  His point is basically:

that density matters a whole lot more than overall length of rail lines.

This paragraph contains the crux of his argument:

what Dallas really lacks is residential compactness: The downtown itself has grown from 1,654 residents in 2000 to 10,446 today (that’s pretty impressive!), but neighborhoods immediately adjacent to this area are primarily made up of single-family homes. Moreover, the alignment of the rail corridors, generally following existing highway or rail rights-of-way, often do not reach the densest areas or the biggest destinations. The well-populated (and popular) neighborhoods north of downtown, including Uptown and Oak Lawn, are mostly inaccessible to light rail. An underground station on the Red Line originally planned for Knox Street, which likely would have attracted plenty of riders, was not built because of local opposition.

I love that local opposition felled the station with the highest ridership potential!  God bless America, love it or leave it.

Interestingly, although Minneapolis has a density advantage over Dallas (thanks mostly to history – Mpls grew larger earlier), light rail lines built or proposed here aren’t much better in terms of serving potential riders.  Check out these screen prints from the HTA index site for Dallas and Minneapolis, taken at the same scale for comparison’s sake:

The Hiawatha line runs through the lowest-density portion of South Minneapolis, the Southwest line is proposed to run through the Bassett Creek industrial yards and Kenilworth parklands, Bottineau will either destroy the already low-density area of North around Penn or skip through North to Wirth Park.  Central will serve neighborhoods that are barely more dense than Hiawatha’s, but I think will appear much more dense after this census, at least, since there has already been a lot of infill along University and in Stadium Village.

TOD, of course, is the goal of many of these lines; but the Transport Politic implies that TOD was a goal of Dallas’ system as well.  At best, TOD will be a long-term aid to ridership – maybe we should focus on building trains where riders are now rather than where they may be someday.

 

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.

New transit lowers ridership?

There is a report making the rounds from the Dukakis Center at Northeastern University in Boston that seems to have some controversial findings:  they claim that new transit lines may actually lower ridership in the neighborhoods they serve as a result of gentrification.

I’m at work right now, so I can’t dig in too deep, but my suspicion is that this may be statistic abuse.  Transit lines often result in an increase of affluent whites in the surrounding areas, and affluent whites are less likely to use transit than the population as a whole, but does it follow that the affluent whites that live in transit-oriented neighborhoods use transit less?

The report is rich with statistics and charts, but I didn’t find any demographic analysis of transit users in transit-oriented neighborhoods.  Maybe after work I’ll read it a little deeper.