Oh what a beautiful morning

This morning, within 5 minutes of leaving my house, I heard 5 cars honking, watched a driver make a left turn from behind a bus that was also waiting to turn, and saw this:

I have many extreme views about access to drivers’ licenses, but is it really so radical to make it more difficult to pass the driving test than to get into Harvard?

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.

How do I map thee?

A couple weeks ago I wrote about the outstanding new online Minneapolis Bike Map, which I adore but, due to an emotional defect, could only find unpleasant things to write about.  The father of this map, Nat Case, map scientist of Castle Hedberg, wrote in to encourage me to check out the paper version.  Considering the fact that they designed the map for paper, it is only fair to check it out, but I’ll put my habit of being unfair aside and actually follow his suggestion.

Right off the bat, I need to clear the air.  In the last post, I failed to credit good Sir Case for the innovation of mapping bike lanes on the actual side of the street they are striped on – which a) is an indication of the unsafe practice of left-side striping, b) allows the portrayal of contraflow lanes and c) gives a quick indication of whether a street is a one-way, which tends to be unpleasant to ride on.  So kudos to you, Nat Case, for creating a technique that will soon be as ubiquitous as velcro, but for bike maps.

The paper map is really big – and really great.  The white streets are much less overwhelming at this size (maybe I just need a bigger computer monitor).  The differentiation between “local streets” (darker) and “busier streets” (lighter) is a lot more apparent on paper than online, and it sure is a useful distinction.  I like that the streets where “bicycles [are] prohibited or strongly discouraged” are so dark that they blend into the background – they are, after all, contrary to the spirit of multimodalism that infuses this map.

My main criticism of the online map – that symbolizing on-street lanes with dotted lines made them seem impermanent, especially since many of them are in fact not yet in existence – is still present in this map.  Actually, the large format of the paper map seems to make off-street paths more obvious, reinforcing my belief that they both could have been symbolized with solid lines, leaving dotted lines to symbolize planned bike lanes and paths.  If it still would have been too hard to tell the difference, how about making them different shades of red?

But overall, the new map is really good.  A beautiful, suitably Minnesotan subdued color palette, chock full of bikey info, and maybe best of all: loaded with lanes, paths and other bike facilities.  We really are lucky to live in what is (or will be) one of the nation’s best biking cities.

Is it a sidewalk or a bike path?  It’s Twins Way!

One more piece of unfinished business from that post a few weeks ago – Twins Way, the sidewalk that Hedberg was compelled to mark as an off-street path.  If only someone was similarly compelled to mark the actual Twins Way.  Instead the cyclist who hangs a left upon exiting the Cedar Lake Trail will find no indication that they are on a bicycle facility.

But what a sidewalk!  I’d guess it is 15-20 feet wide, since it appears about as wide as the asphalt next to it.  But a bike path?  Who knows?  It seems more logical to conclude that the sidewalk is wider than usual because there isn’t a sidewalk on the other side.  The path isn’t particularly suited for bikes – there are beg buttons at the intersections, and at least one is very difficult for cyclists to reach.

I don’t get hung up on strict mode separation, but this design seems ill-suited to a city where the only police interaction with cyclists is to ticket them.  It’s unclear whether this stretch is in a business district, but riding on the sidewalk isn’t a good idea anywhere.  It seems like a waste to tear up brand new concrete, but some kind of marking should be added.  I’d suggest the following sign:

Twins Way would have been a good candidate for a woonerf.  It has low auto traffic, except for around gametime, when the traffic-calming qualities of a woonerf would have been ideal.  The intersection around the could have been asphalt, and the rest of the road a wide expanse of brick pavers.  I’ll be sure to suggest that next time they build a stadium.

Midway between nothing and nowhere

I’m from Minneapolis.

Ok, the truth is, I grew up in the suburbs, but there’s no question that Minneapolis was the center of our city – where we went for entertainment, dining, medical specialists, drug paraphernalia, etc.  St Paul was kind of in the periphery for me.  When I was a kid we went to Highland Park to get our pictures taken, but we didn’t ever go much further.

All of which is an elaborate excuse for how I could grow up in the Twin Cities but somehow miss the monumental Montgomery Ward warehouse in the Midway, until I came across it on the ever-giving Nokohaha’s blog.

This building was really incredible: a 27-acre site, a million square feet of space inside, a neoclassical front wing, nine stories, and 256-foot tower that “defined St. Paul’s University Av. strip.”  That last quote is from a Sept 22, 1989, Star Tribune article about the plan to demolish this landmark and replace it with a strip mall.  Specifically, a strip mall that “mixes the historic flavor of the Midway with 1990s-style development.”  Were they successful?  There is a Wal-Mart, which is pretty much the epitome of 90s city-building.  Not sure they hit the target on the “historic flavor of the Midway” piece.

But this blog isn’t all about sarcastic complaining – it’s also about moralizing.  And this one has a heck of a moral.  While digging through the Star Tribune archives (anyone with a Hennepin County library card has access to articles starting in 1986 – they also have Tribune archives from 1867-1922) I found an article from August 15th, 1988, comparing the Midway Wards to Minneapolis’ retailing behemoth, the Lake Street Sears.

At the time, the historical significance of both buildings was seen as a weakness, or as the article says of the Sears building “it’s difficult to mask the monumental pillars and the dated look of the tower with the big green letters on top.”  But the stores were still doing well, since the “performance at the University Av. Ward’s was substantially higher than the average of $175 per square foot reported for department stores nationwide by the National Retail Merchants Association for 1986.”  In addition, the stores’ monumental appearance made them loom large in the minds of customers, and according to a Sears employee “some customers go out of their way to visit Lake St. because they believe the “main store” carries a broader, deeper selection of goods.”

The fate of the two buildings diverged drastically after 1988.  The Sears store closed not long after, but the building remained, albeit vacant, until 2005, when it opened as the Midtown Exchange, with retail, offices, rental and ownership housing, and chubby mermaids.  All this for the low, low price of $190m, some $40m of which came from the city, mostly in TIF dollars (also I think the city owned the property after a developer abandoned it in the mid-90s, which couldn’t have been cheap, but I can’t confirm this).

St Paul spent a lot less on redeveloping the Wards building.  In 1994 and 1996, the city spent $12m on a spree of urban renewal, leveraging a $50m strip mall and a Kmart of unknown value.  The city had to step in when the developer quoted above was surprised to find pollution on the site of a factory and backed out.  The project was finished by a Republican from Chicago who was famous for spreading Kmarts all over the Midwest.  If you have been to the Red Wing Mall, you know his handiwork, and coincidentally Minneapolis dodged the bullet of having him redevelop the Sears building when he bailed in the mid-90s (which is when I think the city bought it).

So let’s tally the score:

Unless the Republicans get their way, Central LRT will run in front of the old Montgomery Ward site soon, and redevelopment could follow (although chances are Wal-Mart will be sucking money out of that low-income neighborhood for decades).  Any new developments could be better than what is there now, but they won’t have the draw of what was there then.

Note:  While the demolition of the Midway Wards was undoubtedly a planning blunder, it is not on the official list of Top Ten Planning Blunders.  Check back often for Official Blunder #6, coming soon to these pages, dear reader.

America’s Rollercoaster

Amtrak isn’t just a National Railroad Passenger Corporation, it’s a rollercoaster.  It seems like every time I ride it, I have an experience so superlative it’s almost mystical.  And every time I ride it I swear that I will never ride it again.

Some things never change

I took the Empire Builder to Red Wing last weekend to visit a friend of mine who lives in Wabasha.  If there were a bus (or a jitney or a rickshaw) that went directly to Wabasha, I would not have taken Amtrak.  Unfortunately, in this state that most consider to be part of the first world, of Minnesota’s 446 outstate cities with populations greater than 1,000, there only 57 with intercity bus service.*  That means that those of us who prefer to travel without impacting others’ lungs often have to ask their friends or family to meet halfway.

After transmitting my sensitive financial information to an unknown online entity, all I had to do was stroll up to the station and pick up my tickets.  Possibly because of the true American pastime, queuing, boarding Amtrak trains isn’t that different from boarding an airplane: endless lines of nervous people clad entirely in sweats wait with only a vague idea of the purpose, and ultimately are confronted with an amiable but apathetic anachronism doing the work of a bar code reader.  It’s even possible for a nude image of you to be generated and viewed by a total stranger, but most people catching the eastbound Empire Builder aren’t feeling that imaginative at the 7:50 a.m. boarding time.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have ridden trains in about a dozen other countries, and none of them checked tickets prior to boarding.  I remember enormous, serpentine lines in China, but I’m pretty sure they were just to get on the train.  Americans appear to be either uniquely untrustworthy or uniquely paranoid – and I’m pretty sure this was the case before the Tragic Events of September Eleventh as well, although I admit that I didn’t save space in my cluttered memory for the boarding protocols of decade-old train trips.

At least someone didn't forget their camera

Speaking of my defective cabeza, I made the biggest mistake of my life prior to departing by neglecting to charge my camera battery.  That means I wasn’t able to capture any blurry images of what was the most beautiful train ride I’ve ever taken.

St Paul is really a beautiful rail city – the moment where the train joins the edge of the bluff and the wide expanse of the valley presents itself just in time for the train to duck under the High Bridge – exciting stuff.   On top of that, it was the morning after a snowstorm had coated all the trees, creating a sparkling wonderland of the already-scenic blufflands south of St Paul.  But that’s not all – high water had created a sea out of the bottoms south of Hastings that we dumped on some of the Native Americans that we didn’t kill or banish, so it gave the appearance of gliding on a causeway over a broad lake.  Beautiful, even with the nuclear panner plant.

But, as always with Amtrak, the engine of magnificence was tugging a caboose of frustration.  Whenever I meet someone who has taken Amtrak a lot, I always ask him or her what their longest delay was.  For me, it was the time the Empire Builder derailed in Chicago’s Union Station – in the station – and it was delayed at least 6 hours, although there was also a memorable 3 hour delay in the cornfields of northern Indiana, which purportedly was just because the freight railroads were backed up.

The delay this time wasn’t memorable – an hour late getting into Red Wing, and 45 minutes late getting into St Paul, pretty standard Amtrak time (if you look at the photos on the site I nicked the above pic from, a majority of them have captions noting the tardiness of the pictured train).  The westbound Empire Builder gets into St Paul at the obnoxious hour of 10:30, when you are guaranteed a substantial wait for any city bus you’d want to catch home from the train.

And that’s the highs and lows of Amtrak: the most comfortable way to travel in the USA, often breathtakingly beautiful, and usually some interesting society, but nearly unusable due to low frequency and dismal reliability. As for me, I’ll take it to the bluff country again, but I bet that at least once on that trip I’ll swear to never take it again.

*Ok, to be fair, there are only 69 cities outside the 7-county metro with populations greater than 5,000, so the situation really isn’t atrocious.  Still, the entire Iron Range is without intercity bus service, and I am irked that I can’t visit my ancestral homeland of New Ulm (pop. 13,522) without asking my astigmatism-prone grandmother to drive to Mankato to pick me up.

Office Drones on Transit

A slice of life, for some

From the Atlantic (some kind of blog on paper I guess) a reminder that the decision to ride transit can be cultural.  This article focuses on an office park 37 miles from San Francisco that has a (presumably exceptional) 33% transit commute rate.  While the article is missing some key details, for example how this commute rate compares to other exurban office parks in the Bay Area, it contains some choice quotes:

…once riders begin leaving their cars at home they go through a stressful period of two weeks or so where they feel that they’ve lost the control they had in the car. But within three weeks they notice their overall stress levels are lower. “Transit requires that you go at a different pace. You have to wait. If there were roses, we’d smell them,” she says, “There’s not much of that in our lives.” She says HR people have called her saying some of their meaner workers have become pleasant people after switching to transit.

If we were playing a word association game, the first word I would think of after reading the first sentence is “addiction.”

The transit-oriented office park, Bishop Ranch, is huge, with 30,000 employees on hundreds of acres.  It is big enough that it basically has its own TMO, named Marci.  Marci does things like guilt tripping people about how dangerous and bad for the environment driving is.  Bishop Ranch has the same number of employees as an employment cluster that covers the Opus area of Minnetonka and the Golden Triangle area of Eden Prairie known as the Eden Prairie/Hwy 169 employment cluster.  “Cluster” is a relative term – Eden Prairie/Hwy 169 is about twice the area of Bishop Ranch.  It is covered by a TMO, but shares it with 5 cities in the southwest metro.  There are only 3 other TMOs in the metro area.  If it’s the Marcis that make the difference, the Twin Cities need to get some more Marcis.

While urban planners tend to see bus ridership as a design issue, Marci sees it as a cultural endeavor.

Hey dude

But it’s a design issue, too, of course.  I already mentioned the relative density of Bishop Ranch, but it also has a surprisingly rigid grid form.  This is presumably a legacy of its master plan, while in contrast most office parks are built pretty piecemeal.  Opus was also master planned, but is much more curvilinear.  I can only speculate about how walkable each area is, but I’ve found that one of the worst things about walking in the suburbs is that all the inconsistencies of the curved streets make every turn a risk, since you never know if you’ll turn down a dead end.  Grid patterns also tend to be easier to serve with transit, although Bishop Ranch doesn’t seem to have taken advantage.

Golden fleece

Transit, however, seems to be the key to understanding the high transit mode share in Bishop Ranch, but it is the level of investment rather than the design.  The Bay Area has the advantage of being served by a regional transit system, making it possible to generally get from anywhere to anywhere within the metro area.  The Twin Cities, on the other hand, has only the rudiments of a regional system, comprised of commuter buses with a radial focus on Downtown Minneapolis.  Opus is served by the 12 bus, making it accessible by transit to those who live in a corridor of the southwest metro.  Everyone else will have to catch a commuter bus downtown and then wait to transfer to 12 and endure the 45-minute local ride to Minnetonka.  On top of that, the 12 only goes to Opus as a rush hour extension, and actually has fewer runs than the 96X bus, one of several that serve Bishop Ranch.

Until the Twin Cities gets serious about a regional transit system, whether rail or freeway BRT, it is unlikely that any suburban office parks will have transit mode share anywhere near that of Bishop Ranch.  No offense to the Atlantic or Marci, but the success of transit in Bishop Ranch seems to have less to do with culture and more to do with, as always, money.

Planning Blunder #7: Redevelopment of Lake and Nicollet

Submitted for your approval: #7 in the official list of the Twin Cities’ Top Ten Planning Blunders.  Check out numbers 8, 9 and 10, and stay tuned here and at twin city sidewalks for the rest (although at the rate we’re putting them out, there will be more contenders by the time we’re done).

Target Field opened last year to wide acclaim; finally baseball fans had a facility that was connected to the city around it, most obviously due to the cluster of skyscrapers rising like an Emerald City from just beyond the outfield wall.  But Target Field is not the first stadium in the Twin Cities to have a skyline view; until the 1950s fans at Nicollet Ballpark could look beyond the Millers to the town whose name barely fit on their jersey.

Oh say what can you see?

Ok, so the word skyline might be giving these buildings too much credit, but the brick boxes of the streetcar node at Lake & Nicollet connected the stadium to the city in a very immediate way.  Sometimes window-shatteringly immediate.

In 1955, the Millers moved to the suburbs and Nicollet Ballpark followed them into oblivion, replaced in small part by a bank and in large part by a parking lot.  The mold was set for the redevelopment of the rest of the Lake & Nicollet area.

Why it’s dumb

In August 1949 photographers Norton & Peel documented the four corners of the intersection,  and when contrasted with Google StreetView they provide a much better description of why it’s bad than I can type out.

Southwest corner

Not so bad...

Southeast corner

Getting worse...

Northeast corner

Good God! What happened here?

Northwest corner

They blew it up!

I should point out that many people consider the redevelopment of Lake & Nicollet a blunder for another reason.  The city, for example, has produced an avalanche of plans that touch on the intersection, and most of their recommendations focus on “re-opening” Nicollet.  Take the Midtown Minneapolis Land Use and Development Plan of 2005, which under the heading Automobile Transportation recommends “open[ing] the intersection at Nicollet Ave and Lake Street to reconnect the street grid.”  Or the Nicollet Avenue report of 2000, which is surprisingly non-specific about the intersection area despite emphasizing that “reopening Nicollet at Lake is the single most important element in revitalizing Nicollet Avenue.”

While most calls for “reopening” connect the idea with redevelopment and streetscape improvement, it is usually clear that the impetus is automotive convenience.  It takes an extra minute or two to drive through the area – unacceptable!  In addition, many believe that the reduced traffic on the remaining segments of Nicollet played a part in reducing economic activity, although left unexplained is why the more successful segment (Eat Street) is also the least connected.  The reopeners may soon get back the minute of their life lost to the redevelopment of Lake and Nicollet – keep reading for details.

What they were thinking

Far out man

It didn’t take long after the Northwestern Bank for the corner of Nicollet and Lake to descend into a hellish cauldron of billiards, book stores* and Scientology.  Our benevolent City Fathers knew something had to be done, and when the legislature in 1971 added tax increment financing to cities’ redevelopment crayon box, they jumped into action by directing planning staff to begin to study options for implementing a market potential study exploring the conceivability of utilizing development tools under the direction of a district plan.

The November 1972 Lake-Nicollet Development District Plan is probably the grooviest city document ever.  Being familiar with the area in its present state, I was expecting to open it up and see a drawing of a giant parking lot full of cars, with maybe a speculative sketch of a drug addict mugging a clown.  Instead the first page threw this foxy lady in my face:

While the acid-bedraggled hippie who supplied the illustrations for the plan did his or her best to spruce up the concept, their goal was pretty modest.  It was less about waving their TIF wand to transform a toad-like streetcar node into a beautiful shopping mall princess, and more about an episode of the hit show Extreme Makeover: Node Edition on the TIF network.  You can see the schemes here and here and here.

Many of the existing buildings would remain, although curiously the signature corner buildings would have to go.  A glass roof would cover the spaces between buildings, rendering them nearly as pleasantly sterile as suburban shopping malls.  And a new bowling alley and theater would be a compelling substitute for the Dales, when implemented with at least two parking structures.  Here is another scribbly rendering of the 70s bliss-scape:

That 70s mall

Somehow the utopian dream did not come true.  By 1978 nothing had been re-done at Lake & Nicollet, and City Fathers were getting angry.  Enter Kmart, all mustache and lecherous sneer, and… fade to black.

My Take

The number of retail businesses in the Lake & Nicollet area continues to shrivel, from 54 in 1964 to 41 in 1972 to 21 today (the historic figures are from the Development District Plan, today’s numbers are according to google, the cracks of which some businesses certainly slip through).  Considering most of them offered wares that can be found at Kmart, often for less money, it is possible the Kmart drove them right out of business.

With the possible exception of traffic calming on Eat Street, the only good thing about Lake & Nicollet today is that its asphalt-covered form will make it that much easier to re-redevelop.  Apparently it wasn’t easy enough in the first half of the 00s, though, when George Sherman proposed an ambitious project for the superblock north of Lake, including 400 housing units, retail along Lake and a “reopened” Nicollet, and “small merchant stalls built into the sides of a new Nicollet Avenue bridge over the greenway [that] would echo the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy.”  (If you have a rendering of the proposal, I’d love to see it – long hours on google resulted in nothing.)  Death came swiftly, in 2003, when the city couldn’t find the money for it.

Change will likely be coming relatively soon, assuming the city’s plan for a streetcar line on Nicollet is realized.  The plan would “reopen” Nicollet, necessitating Kmart’s destruction, and presumably someone would give in to the temptation to redevelop presented by two empty blocks.  Kmart, which owns the lots, could go ahead and build another Kmart, but it seems more likely that the city would take the entire block(s) and sell only to those who will redevelop more densely.

Option A

“Reopening” Nicollet would most likely allow vehicular traffic on the new street to drive through to Whittier – the City is always looking for an opportunity to make driving even slightly easier.  That would be a mistake, and not just because it would lead to increased traffic on Eat Street.  The heavy traffic would also delay the streetcar, just as heavy traffic delays the 18 bus in this area today.  But maybe most importantly, allowing cars would destroy the potential for a truly pedestrian-friendly business district, existing local examples of which can be counted on one hand.

Option B

Another wild card in the area is the 35W Access Project, which in its latest iteration has the word “transit” thrown in the middle.  This project has the potential to alter the area streetscape drastically, considering that some tentacles of this cephalopodic project involve widening Lake St to 131 feet (it’s 80 feet wide today).  Personally, I’m fine with that, since most of the girth is in wider sidewalks and a planted median.  But if they’re serious, why not take the 50 feet of the Kmart block that lines Lake Street ASAP and build a transit station?  When the Lake St widening was proposed (in 2002), the opposition of neighbors (and the price tag of the entire Access Project) effectively killed it.  But who would be opposed if an unused strip of parking lot was transformed into a transit station?  Even if the cheapest of shelters were thrown up, it would at least consolidate a confusing and often frenzied transfer into an easy one, making things easier for the 2500 people who board at the intersection on an average weekday.

That’s the amazing thing about Lake & Nicollet – planners and corporations connived to kill the area, removing most of the buildings and leaving us the choice of an empty asphalt desert or a narrow strip of salt-choked sidewalks, but still we come to this corner, drawn by its centrality or maybe by the certainty that our fellow Minneapolitans will be here in all their diverse tongues, activities and garb.  Ok, and we’re drawn by the cheap pizza, too.  It makes me certain that despite the mangled state of Lake & Nicollet today, change will come and bring a better corner, hopefully retiring blunder #7 and making room on the list for another challenger.

*In a retail clustering unimaginable in the 21st century, there were four book stores in the Nicollet/Lake area in the summer of 72.  The L-N Development District Plan has a listing of every area business, and while it does not distinguish between porn and non-porn book stores, it’s safe to make assumptions about the inventory in the “Risque Book Store.”

Near North or Nearly Gone?

Where in the suburban world?

Can you guess where the aerial above was taken?  The form of the streets, curvy and cul-de-sac-ridden, suggests a post-war suburb.  The buildings, single-family homes with attached garages, make me think of Bloomington.  But this actually a picture of Lyndale and 14th Aves N, just a mile north of downtown Minneapolis.

It is also where a cyclist was struck Wednesday night by a hit-and-run driver, inflicting life-threatening injuries.

A vehicle doesn’t have to be going fast to inflict lethal damage on a pedestrian or cyclist – but the faster they go, the more likely death will be.  On this stretch of Lyndale, most drivers vastly exceed the 30 mph limit – partly due to the suburban form mentioned earlier.  There are no buildings along Lyndale, and berms separate the road from the neighborhood in places, lending a freeway-like atmosphere.

The other half of the deadly equation on Lyndale Ave N is street type – the City of Minneapolis classifies this stretch as a Commuter Street.  According to the Design Guidelines for Streets & Sidewalks, that makes it “a high capacity roadway that carries primarily through traffic, serves longer trips and provides limited access to land uses.”  The only designated Commuter Street in the city that runs through a residential neighborhood is Lyndale Ave N, and this stretch makes up about a third of the approximately 1.5 miles of designated Commuter Street that doesn’t directly line a freeway or highway.

Look familiar?

It isn’t an accident – this area of the Near-North was torn up by the Minneapolis HRA in 1968.  The image to the left, taken two years before the clearance project began, shows the familiar post-automobile Minneapolis cityscape: a healthy mix of apartments and detached houses, a few too many parking lots, a park here or there, and commercial buildings lining the major streets.  Minnesotans of the 60s saw no future in that sort of city, and took advantage of the low prices on land to try to import the suburban neighborhoods then in fashion.

A typical pre-renewal block* had 18 houses, implying that at its peak of development, the 25 blocks between Bryant and 4th and Plymouth and 18th had about 450 residential structures.  Today there are about 130 houses in the neighborhood, and a smattering of townhomes (Lyndale Manor’s 290 public housing units, though north of 18th, probably supply most of the neighborhood’s streetlife).

The park running through the neighborhood is actually very pleasant, if unnervingly empty.  It’s hard to see how it could be anything but, considering the forced depopulation of the area.  At one end of the green space stands the ghost footing of a bridge over I-94 that never came to be – despite a billion dollars a year of capital spending on roads at the state level, no one has yet been able to find the money for this Northside pedestrian bridge.  (Certainly it would be an expensive bridge – the freeway here manages to be wider than a long block.)

I hope that this type of redevelopment is now unanimously considered a failure.  It isn’t clear that a negative opinion is widely held, though – an example being Public Works’ designation of Lyndale as a Commuter Street, when it could easily be called a Community Connector – a distinction that has real differences in design characteristics.  Another example is the continued construction of single-family homes in Minneapolis, often replacing multi-unit buildings.

To build a safer, more inclusive community, the last vestiges of auto-oriented street design should be removed from the city and single-family home construction should be banned.  Minneapolis is never going to out-suburb the suburbs – instead it needs to focus on being the best city it can be.






*I’m looking at the block between Lyndale and Aldrich and 15th and 16th using the 1912 Sanborn.

2 items about bikes

Like most people, I love to ride bikes.  But there are lots of great local cycle blogs, and frankly it’s a mode that I’m less interested in intellectually, so I don’t do a lot of posts on bikes.  A couple things came to my attention recently, though, that I’m going to spend some finger energy on (that sounds kinda gross).

Zombie cyclists from hell spreading love

I used to go to the Whittier Alliance’s Community Issues Committee every month, and just about every month I was entertained by the nonsensical, self-serving, antifactual opinions of some yokel.  To be sure, there were a lot of clever and astute opinions shared as well, but they were less entertaining than the crazy ones.  I remember one occasion when the Midtown Greenway Coalition presented on their search for potential park sites along the greenway, where access points to the path would be combined with community gathering spaces – the idea was to improve greenway safety by getting more eyes down there while getting neighborhood buy-in through the green space.  The Whittierites hated it.  The general opinion was that a neighborhood approached from below was repugnant to decent sensibilities, and sure to result in situations similar to zombies rising from graves in search of brains.

Now there’s evidence that their argument was not only inane, it was thoroughly backwards.  Human Transit today expands on research finding that people traveling upwards tend to be more giving, and speculates that people prefer going up to going down.  I’ll see his speculation and raise him one conjecture:  I’ve noticed that many of the cycletrons zooming around town also seem to be fairly patriotic about Minneapolis (or maybe just a part of town called Mpls).  Is this because the first thing they see after emerging from their subterranean speedway is through benevolent eyes, thanks to the “up escalator” effect?

How to get a Hedberg in cycling

One of my favorite things about Minneapolis is Hedberg Maps – surely the Consumer Mapping Champion of the World, if there were some island where the world’s consumer mapping companies were stranded and forced to fight using randomly-strewn rusty auto parts.  Hedberg is the master of cramming tons of info into a map using a clever palette that leaves it clean and appealing but informative.  They are also noteworthy for producing thematic maps on topics so obscure they could only be of interest to a handful of fanatics, for example interstate highway numbering, Santa Claus and the Wisconsin Dells.  Hedberg is located in the labyrinthine, art-riddled Northrup King building, and are very friendly – I recommend stopping by after you finish your dog at Uncle Franky’s.

Anyway, fresh off the completion of their Twin Cities Dog Lovers map, Hedberg banged out Minneapolis’ new bike map, which has a helpful zoom-able online iteration.  Despite not having seen a paper copy, I have a few comments on the map.

  • This one seems less up to Hedberg’s aesthetic snuff – giving width to every street in the city (as opposed to depicting them as lines) makes for a pretty overwhelming map.  They maybe should have minimized the many streets that don’t have features.
  • The advantage to giving streets width on a bike map is that you can show which side of the street the lane(s) are on.  So why do they bother to symbolize on-street lanes differently from off-street shoulders?  Wouldn’t most readers figure out that the off-street facilities are the ones without streets attached to them?
  • Compounding this last problem, many facilities depicted on the map do not yet exist.  They are distinguished by adding the year 2011 in red on some part of the segment-to-be.  There are two problems with this approach:
    • The reader is not sure which part of the segment has not been striped, especially because dotted lines are often used to show planned features.
    • Minneapolis is not known for its punctuality in striping bike lanes (I have an email from Shaun Murphy claiming the 1st-Blaisdell lanes would be striped in 2010).

      Twins Way or just a highway?

  • There is really an awesome amount of detail here.  I especially like the inclusion of Hi-Frequency Bus Routes. Not sure about the inclusion of the Nice Ride stations though – these tend to move around a bit, and supposedly there will be a bunch added this year, making the map obsolete.
  • I found one error:  They striped an off-street trail on the west side of Twins Way.  If there is meant to be such a facility there, I’m pretty sure it’s not indicated with signs or pavement changes.  There is an extra wide sidewalk of stamped concrete but nothing separating modes or even indicating that you can bike there (is a parking ramp a business district?).

Considering Minneapolis Bike Program’s Government 2.0 attitude, I’d guess they gave us a chance to comment on the map and I missed it.  And even though I just found 5 things wrong with it, I actually like the map, particularly the detail and the zoomability.  I’ll keep dreaming of the perfect map, but in the mean time I’ll actually be using this one.




More posts about bridges and food

Not pictured: thousands of McMansions

In response to an article in the Star Tribune about Al Franken considering whether or not to support a new bridge to sprawl over the St. Croix, I wrote the letter below.  Of course, politicians no longer let you email them directly, so I had to copy this onto 3 different contact form pages, each time filling out my personal info again.  Not a big deal, as I would just have used that time to write more bilious blog posts, but it kind of messed with the form of the letter, and forces me to individually email my state reps.  Ah consumer democracy.


Dear Senators Franken and Klobuchar and Governor Dayton,

I’m writing to urge you not to support a new bridge across the St. Croix River near Stillwater.  A new bridge would hugely encourage sprawl, which damages the environment, requires costly infrastructure such as sewers and roads, and fosters unhealthy automobile-dependent lifestyles.  Furthermore, a new bridge is not necessary, since the I-94 bridge just 5 miles south of Stillwater has a great deal of excess capacity.

I’m sure you all know your American history, and therefore understand that the unprecedented spatial growth of American cities in the post-war era was significantly aided by the construction of automotive infrastructure.

  • Senator Franken, your hometown of St. Louis Park was platted around railways in the late 1900s, but only boomed after the construction in the 30s and 40s of the Lilac Way, which we now know as Highway 100.
  • Senator Klobuchar, you can still see developers such as Lennar Corporation brag about the excellent highway access of your hometown of Plymouth when trying to sell their speculative homes.
  • Governor Dayton, I’m sure you remember the population drain in your hometown of Minneapolis when in the 60s tens of thousands of homes were destroyed to build the interstates, and many of those whose homes were taken resettled along the beltways.

There is no question that the construction of a new bridge across the St Croix will kickstart this process in western Wisconsin; the government will provide developers with a selling point for their sprawling subdivisions, luring residents who would otherwise settle in Minnesota.

Sprawl could be accepted as an unfortunate byproduct if this bridge were otherwise necessary.  There is no reason to construct this bridge, however, except to encourage sprawl.  The 20,000 vehicles a day that use the Lift Bridge could easily be accommodated by the I-94 bridge just 5 miles south, which uses only a tiny fraction of its 6 lanes of capacity.  The simplest way to relieve traffic problems in downtown Stillwater is to close the Lift Bridge.  Washington County politicians know this, but they want the sprawl-inducing effect of the bridge to boost the tax base of the Far East Metro at the expense of older cities like Maplewood, White Bear Lake and St Paul.

Senator Franken, in today’s Star Tribune you are quoted asking, “Are the alternatives that are suggested by [environmental] groups less environmentally damaging?”  As I’ve mentioned, the numbers show that adding 20,000 vehicles a day to the I-94 bridge is entirely feasible.  To answer your question, a mass transit approach to improving mobility in the East Metro would be significantly less environmentally damaging.  The $690m cost of a new bridge across the St Croix would pay for a bus rapid transit system on the Gateway Corridor as well as a light rail transit line between St Paul and White Bear Lake.  Transit-oriented development built around those lines would be denser and more energy-efficient, use primarily existing sewer and local road infrastructure, and encourage healthier transportation than the sprawl built around a new bridge.

Minnesota has historically subsidized automobile use over all other modes, and has received as a result one of the most sprawling cities in the world, one of the least equal cities in the nation, and a rampant obesity problem.  If you’re going to legislate an exception to a long-standing federal law, amend the gas tax to allow  fungibility between transportation modes.