Berg leaps in!

Steve Berg comes through today with the Quote of the Year:

the Met Council is a little like Pakistan. It says all the right things to America, but ends up helping the enemy because without the enemy’s approval it cannot exist.

Ok maybe you have to be a mega-nerd to think this quote is as great as I do.  And maybe the quote needs some explanation.  He’s talking about how the Met Council talks big about equitable growth in the Twin Cities, but basically stands back and lets all the growth happens in the fringe communities that have the land price and tax advantages.

This all comes back from his article today, which follows on the response from his article Wednesday of the last three Met Council chairmen to the comments of Myron Orfield in his article Monday (which I posted about Tuesday).

Berg starts out trying to stake out a compromise between Orfield and the chairmen, who contend that political reality ties their hands from using the statutory tools they have to curb sprawl and direct growth.  In a memorable phrase, Berg agrees with them, saying

The outer suburbs, with their hefty growth aspirations, have become the tail that wags the dog.

[I’d like to interject here with my belief that the political heft of the suburban fringe is overstated.  Not only are the central cities, with a quarter of the region’s population and close to half of the region’s jobs, tremendously vital to the region as a whole, they have good representation in the legislature:  19 house seats, which is 26% of the metro’s 72 house seats and 14% of the total 134 seats; and 10 senate seats, which is 27% of the metro’s 36 seats and 15% of the total 67 senate seats.  The fringe has pretty much the same representation: 13 house seats (18% of the metro and 10% of the total) and 11 senate seats (30% of the metro and 16% of the total).  So the power is in the inner and outer suburban ring districts, and the central cities should have more in common with them than the fringe does, since the inner suburbs have a similar form and increasingly similar social makeup, and the outer suburbs have to deal with Minneapolis (for work, Twins games, etc) more than they do with the fringe.  Maybe this is a case of familiarity breeding contempt.  But I wonder if Minneapolis is doing enough to network with Richfield, Crystal, Brooklyn Center, Columbia Heights, Roseville, etc.  You certainly never hear about any networking activity.  Anyway, back to Berg.]

In a stumbling bit, Berg dreams about what Maple Grove would do if the Met Council were to stop a planned office development, confusing the Council’s power to approve comprehensive plans and thereby influence zoning, with actual police power.  But he dusts himself off in the next section to smash Bell’s blind devotion to ideology regarding concentration and perpetuation of poverty.

And the rest of the article throws compromise aside and goes with Orfield’s “fact-based” assessment of the metropolitan situation.  I wonder if Berg knows how revolutionary is his suggestion to reverse the ratio in the Met Council’s development location goals of “70 percent of development to occur on fresh ground and only 30 percent in older areas.”  It is questionable whether American cities have ever achieved 70 percent infill development, except for Manhattan, though of course it is common in other parts of the world.

And Berg brings up the Met Council’s benchmarks, which he points out have not been reached, and rightly points out that the failure to direct growth towards the Hiawatha line should “deeply embarrass” them.   I would add that the council’s historical directive to develop rapid transit has also been a thorough failure, and it is likely due to their lack of accountability.

Berg doesn’t wade into the question of whether the Met Council should be elected.  Ted Mondale doesn’t think so, but fails to provide evidence for why.  I would say that is the one reform that could be reached: voters understand that direct elections make officeholders accountable, and continuing prevalence of judicial elections is an example of that.  In addition, that is one thing that everyone I’ve talked to – exurban or street rat – has agreed on.

Berg’s post ends with a raft of goals that he’d like to add to the Met Council’s benchmark, all of which are laudable and none of which will be considered as long as a Republican is governor.  Let’s all thank Steve Berg for the contribution he makes to public discourse in this state, and try not to forget November 2nd.


Sidewalk cafes – friend or foe to pedestrians?

At their Oct 14th, 2010, meeting, the Regulatory, Energy and Environment Committee of the Minneapolis City Council will vote on the application by the Varsity Theater for a sidewalk cafe outside of their Dinkytown property.

Take a moment to peruse the plan offered as an attachment to the committee item:  it appears to swap a slalom course for the footpath, requiring the navigator of Dinkytown to dodge 18″ planters, tree gates and parking meters.  The plan depicts a narrowing of the pedestrian zone to 5′ 6″ in one spot, which is widely considered about the minimum for two people walking side-by-side.  Given the average Blood Alcohol Content of the denizens of Dinkytown, how will the collision rate of this sidewalk be affected?

The actual conditions will likely not be as apocalyptic as the plan looks at first glance.  In general the effect will likely be a reduction from an 18 foot sidewalk to about a 13 foot sidewalk, although if the tree grate is not maintained (unfortunately the most likely future), there will be a significant reduction in space.  And space is not something pedestrian-packed Dinkytown has in spades (15th Ave SE north of University Ave SE, about a block and a half away from the proposed sidewalk cafe, had the third- and fifth-highest pedestrian counts in 2009 and 2008, respectively).

What worries me most about a possible approval of a sidewalk cafe in front of the Varsity Theater is the blow it would strike against an already-battered Pedestrian Master Plan and its Pedestrian Design Guidelines.  The site of the proposed cafe is squarely within the Dinkytown Activity Center, and the Pedestrian Design Guidelines list a 6-foot “Through Walk” zone as “acceptable” for Activity Centers.  Unfortunately we have already seen too many projects that ignore these guidelines since their adoption last year.  Most egregious is the sidewalk cafe on the sleepy side street of Hennepin Ave, at 6th St downtown, the plan for which narrows the pedestrian space to just under 6 feet in several locations, and to 4’4″ in one particularly heinous spot.

(p. 68 of the Pedestrian Master Plan gives a general rule about sidewalk cafes:   “Generally sidewalk cafes
are allowed on sidewalks 12 feet or narrower if a 4 foot clear, unobstructed Through Walk Zone
is maintained and on sidewalks wider than 12 feet if a minimum 6 foot Through Walk Zone is maintained.”  It is unclear if this is a written rule that public works conveys to applicants for sidewalk cafes or if it is an observation made about existing cafes.)

There appears to be an opportunity to provide input about the proposed Varsity Theater sidewalk cafe.  In addition, it is never a bad idea to contact your councilmember.  Whether you think a sidewalk cafe boosts the vitality of a streetscape or shrinks your stepping space, let them know that you are paying attention to what happens beneath your feet.

Myron Orfield interview – Dissecting the Met Council

Another Steve Berg work of art:

On Monday, Steve Berg interviewed Myron Orfield and Thomas Luce for his excellent Cityscape column for MinnPost.  Orfield ascribes the accelerated expansion of the exurban fringe of the Twin Cities metro to the failure of the Met Council, starting in about 1994, to not use their regulatory power to manage growth.  As he puts it, “…we have the strongest structure in the nation to shape growth. But we choose not to use it.

This choice to not do their job has important consequences, including, as Orfield says, “[making] it harder for low-income people to get to work,” but also reducing the inner cities’ tax receipts, reducing their ability to pay for inclusionary streetscapes such as those advocated on this website, which unfortunately many in city government still consider luxuries.

The interview is here.

Hawthorne EcoVillage

Coming home from my week-long vacation, I was eager to catch up with my imaginary internet friends – those bleary-eyed bloggers who continually spout their opinions about urban issues.  One of my favorites is Steve Berg of MinnPost, actually a blogojournalist who writes about things going on around Minneapolis and St Paul, and upon my return I found on his site an interesting juxtaposition of two articles that I’d like to mention here.

First, the most recent article is a discussion of the recent CEOs for Cities report called Driven Apart: How Sprawl is Lengthening our Commutes and Why Misleading Mobility Measures are Making Things Worse.  I’m looking forward to reading the report as it promises to be full of ammo for showing how land use patterns cause transportation problems that cost money and lives and degrade the environment.  Hopefully it’s getting attention from more than the usual band of knuckleheads because Americans usually hide their head in the sand when it comes to the consequences of their sprawling settlement pattern.

Which makes it interesting that the Berg article that immediately preceded was about the Hawthorne EcoVillage project in North Minneapolis.  This is a public-private urban renewal partnership between the City of Minneapolis and Project for Pride in Living focusing on a four-block area, according to Berg with a goal of “120 new housing units ultimately added to an improved existing stock.”

Certainly the stock needs improving:  the entire block face of the EcoVillage along Lowry is vacant, along with much of Lyndale and many of the lots on the interior streets as well.  Berg mentions that the first two properties to be developed in the EcoVillage are single-family homes, but PPL is planning multifamily as well, as depicted below in the plan from their website:

Looks like a New Urbanist wonderland, right?  It is a significant increase in density for the area, and should be a shot in the arm for the neighborhood-oriented businesses scattered along Lowry Ave.  And it is an example of the congestion-fighting land use pattern described in the “Driven Apart” report.

But I can’t help feeling that this site has much more potential than the EcoVillage project utilizes.  As the following illustration shows, it is at the intersection of two bus routes, and just off Interstate 94, which offers a visible, accessible location for businesses and the potential for a BRT station:


The EcoVillage area is shown here in yellow.


Maybe the Minneapolis HRA recognized some of that potential when they built the Lowry High-Rise, which weighs out at 64 units per acre (compared with the first EcoVillage apartment building, on the corner of Lowry & Lyndale, which is a decidedly middleweight 45 units per acre).  Then again, maybe they just got a good deal on land (at that time I-94 was just a line on a squiggly freeway fantasy map somewhere in St Paul or Washington).  Additionally, the late modernist design left lots of excess land for later infill.

The Lowry High-Rise is also an island of high-density zoning in a sea of R2B.  And here is the rub about the EcoVillage illustrating the concept presented in “Driven Apart:”  PPL is building it in spite of the zoning, not because of it.  The northwest block and the Lowry-facing buildings, shown in the plan as apartment blocks and mixed-use commercial buildings, will require a rezoning.  The 32 bus, running along Lowry on its journey from Robbinsdale to Rosedale, has regional aspirations that aren’t matched by the low-density zoning that lines Lowry Ave.  And Minneapolis doesn’t have a zoning designation to accommodate the transit villages that would be ideal along the BRT that will eventually be laid over its freeways (and is already beginning to be laid at 46th St).

Minneapolis better revise its policy and start devoting resources to land use patterns described in state-of-the-art publications like Driven Apart, or developments like the EcoVillage will be fewer and farther between.