Greenfields and trenches

A couple doozies in the agenda for the 9/27 Transportation & Public Works committee:

1. is the first waft of a new greenfield housing development in Bryn Mawr.  It seems that someone long ago went through a great deal of trouble to plat a few blocks south of Chestnut Ave and west of Upton, but then only built houses on maybe half the land.  Now someone else has decided that now (or relatively soon) is the time to finish building the blocks and to line them with single-family homes.  Here are the blocks in question:

This map produced by Mpls Public Works shows the parcels owned by the developer in grey

This map produced by Mpls Public Works shows the parcels owned by the developer in grey

I shouldn’t sensationalize:  this project has a long way to go before any ramblers or McMansions pop up.  The developer – Frank Stucky is the name in case you know him – asked the city to “open” the unbuilt portions of Vincent and Xerxes.  I’m unclear on whether that means the developer asked the city to build the streets and attendant infrastructure for him or whether he merely asked permission from the city to build them himself.  The tone of the report implies that the city is not interested in building these streets, but would allow the developer to do so.  Most intriguingly, it requires a report on the following:

identification of all applicable permits, processes, ordinances, and standards related to Public Works and Planning & Zoning for single family home development; the estimated cost of maintaining the improved roadways and related utilities; the estimated cost to construct the roadways and related utilities; documentation that confirms that the Owner/Developer is willing to bear the costs of such improvements; the proposed prospect for developing the currently vacant lots; estimated tax revenues to be derived from the developed lots vs. vacant lots; the ability of the roads to bear emergency vehicle access; the wishes of the neighboring landowners with respect to the opening of the roads and the development of the lots [who wants to bet on what the wishes of the neighbors will be? -alex]; identification of relative hardships, if any, caused by not opening the roads vs. relative hardships, if any, caused by opening the roads.

In other words, a micro-scale version of the recent report by Edmonton (thanks Brendon) on the “extent to which new residential neighbourhoods pay for themselves.”  (note- this quote is in Canadian)

I’ve done some rough measurements of the area and length of block face of the parcels in question, and based on the minimum lot area of 6000 sq ft and minimum lot width of 50′ in an R1 district, it looks like the developer could put up no more than 12 houses.  Interestingly, the lots appear to be platted at 5400 sq ft and about 40′ wide (presumably these blocks were platted decades before the zoning code was enacted), meaning they need to be either replatted or rezoned.  If that happens and they only require the more typical lot area of 5000 sq ft and width of 40′, 16 houses could fit.  If this were a more progressive part of a more progressive city (like, say, Chaska), some 22 houses could be placed on these blocks.

We can dream

All that speculation assumes the developer would like to build more houses on the lots, instead of just using them for a few houses on large lots.  It’s hard to tell exactly at this point, but it is likely in the city’s interest that more houses be built.  Because of the required approvals, the city actually has some leverage here – let’s hope they use it.  The committee postponed action for two cycles to wait until the report was ready – at least that sounds like what CM Colvin Roy was saying.

2. is my old nemesis, the proposed 4th St S ramp to Northbound 35W (now with its own project page).  The goal is to make it easier to commute back to your hobby farm in the northern suburbs from your boring job in Downtown Minneapolis by building a new ramp to 35W from CR-122 (aka the Washington Ave Trench), a mere 700 feet south of the existing ramp to 35W from Washington Ave S (the non-trench Washington).  Here is what the new time-saving on-ramp will look like:

Blaine is now two minutes closer

Apparently the news about a little construction project called the Central Corridor hasn’t made it out to Medina, because Hennepin County’s engineers forgot to put the new on-ramp configuration on this layout.  It shouldn’t make a big difference; the new ramp to Cedar is 300 feet from the stoplight proposed as part of this project.  But if we’re reconfiguring the Washington Trench to have a stoplight spacing similar to Lake St, maybe they could have thrown in a sidewalk or two?  Or at least made the new ramp to 35W a bit more perpendicular so as to not encourage as lethal speeding.

To understand why this ramp is superfluous, it helps to consider the history of this trench.  Sometime around the middle of the last century, someone decided that it took too darn long to drive from Downtown to the U of M.  There was just too much dense neighborhood in the way.  The Washington Ave Bridge was due for a replacement anyway, so they just tore down a bunch of the dense neighborhood and built a little mini-freeway to connect to the new bridge.

So while it may look like this project concerns the intersection of three roadways, Washington Avenue and its trenched doppelganger perform essentially the same function, that is to move traffic from west to east and vice versa.  With that understanding, the 8 existing ramps forming the interchange seem sufficient, and adding one seems superfluous.

Ramp map - ramps are numbered (including the proposed ramp in red), directions represent the destinations linked by the interchange

Why get worked up about a $13m project?  For one thing, it likely won’t be long before the whole thing needs to be redone again.  Right now, thanks to Central Corridor, the interchange is a pile of dirt except for a forked viaduct carrying vehicles from nb 35W to 3rd St S and Washington Ave (marked 6 and 4 respectively on the ramp map).  This viaduct will soon turn 50 years old, but is a sibling to a nearby bridge that will not be there to celebrate.  That means that chances are the viaduct will also need to be rebuilt soon, at which point it will be much more logical to make this interchange more diamond-like.  Rather than spend $15m for another flyover ramp, at that point it will make sense to instead build one ramp from nb 35W to the Trench, where a signalized intersection could accommodate all the movements that are currently made using the viaduct, including a connection north to Washington Ave, from which vehicles could access (or re-access, as the case may be) nb 35W.  Alternately, you could fit in a 400′ diameter roundabout, as I mentioned a few months back.

Circle gets the square

I admit that my radical side, considering the extreme disparity between transportation spending on cars and all other forms of transportation, is opposed to any new auto-oriented spending.  But I do have a timid, quiet, practical side that realizes that we live in an auto-dominated society (because of that modal disparity in spending) and realizes that there are some auto-oriented projects worthy of construction.  An example is the 35W access project, which proposes to increase the usefulness of a freeway to a neighborhood that it currently cuts through.  That is to say, it adds accessibility.  The 4th St ramp to 35W does not increase accessibility.  It does not increase safety.  It is a small reduction in trip time for some commuters.  The existing exit has working imperfectly for 50 years, so why choose this particularly cash-strapped moment to move forward with this project?

Of course the TPW committee voted in the consent agenda to spend $2m in city money on this nice gift for commuters from Anoka and northern Ramsey counties.

One more item, not from the TPW committee, but rather from the Planning Commission meeting of 9/13, but I haven’t seen anyone else discuss it so I’ll mention it briefly (or as briefly as I am capable of mentioning anything).

Gary Schiff has proposed amending the zoning code to blow the top off of the CUP ceiling for multi-family developments.  As it stands, you need a CUP for any building of more than five units.  Where that rule came from, I have no idea – while fourplexes and duplexes are more common, sixplexes aren’t unheard of and I knew a guy who used to refer to his building as a nineplex.  Anyway, if this passes, no hockey player will again need a CUP for his new sixplex.

The staff report contains some nice quotes:

  • The average fee for a conditional use permit is $750.00.  Between 2005 and 2010 there were 113 conditional use permit applications for multiple-family residential uses with five or more dwelling units submitted. At an average fee of $750.00 per application this amounts to $84,750 dollars that was collected.
  • Between 2006 and 2010, 92 percent of all conditional use permit applications for multiple-family residential uses with five or more dwelling units that were reviewed by the City Planning Commission were approved. Of the eight percent that were denied, other applications (i.e., rezoning) were typically required that were not supportable, so therefore the conditional use permits were also denied.
  • In both the City of St. Paul and the City of Bloomington, multiple-family dwellings are a permitted rather than conditional use in the zoning districts where they are allowed. In the City of Richfield, multiple-family dwellings over nine dwelling units in the MR-2 Multi-Family Residential District require a conditional use permit and multiple-family dwellings over 20 dwelling units in the MR-3 High Density Multi-Family Residential District require a conditional use permit.
  • The conditional use permit application for multiple-family residential uses with five or more dwelling units often adds relatively little value to the review process.

Good news as we move into an apartment “boom.”  Don’t get too excited, though – the proposal also would “require City Planning Commission action on site plan review applications for any development of ten or more units…” with an associated application fee.

11 comments on “Greenfields and trenches

  1. mulad says:

    Huh, the configuration of the new ramp to I-35W is totally not how I expected it to look. Hmm, part of that $13 million is going toward adding an auxiliary lane from University Ave to the Stinson exit. Now college students can get to the Quarry 10 seconds faster (though the Johnson exit is still a little bit farther away — I wish they’d just consolidate the two exits into a single one that splits…).

    Oh, that northwest ramp (#5) between CR-122 and southbound I-35W just reopened yesterday. It was supposed to reopen last week, but weather delayed things. Traffic is now running on pavement built in the new configuration on the north side of the trench rather than taking the south-side detour.

    Conditional-use permit for more than 5 units? Weird.

    As for Bryn Mawr, if they want single-family homes, I’d prefer to see them clustered close together, much like that little six-pack of houses along Main St. in Nordeast.

  2. Steve Gross says:

    Can you amend the maps to include street labels? I really don’t understand what the maps depict without labels…

    Thanks,
    –Steve

  3. Matt says:

    While I wish there was more of a vision as to what to do with that trench, I don’t think the project is as bad as you do. The afternoon exit from downtown chokes Washington Avenue, which is the heart of a great new residential neighborhood by the Guthrie. Moving traffic away from Washington makes sense.

    You’re right about the flyover… what’s the point anyways? My opinion is that the movements from 35W south to downtown at 3rd/4th are redundant and pointless.

    Finally, I think trenches like this represent a real opportunity to reconnect the neighborhood while maintaining the grade-separated service to the East Bank. Just cover it up! Reconnect 15th Avenue across the trench. Lower the ramps to Washington and reconnect 3rd Street across to downtown. Sell air rights over the buildings, and you have multiple new blocks where development can occur. And the development can front the “bridge” just like a street. Even Cedar and 19th Avenue. This would totally reconnect the two sides of the West Bank.

    • Alex says:

      It’s not that the project is intrinsically bad, it’s just that it can’t be justified as a priority. As I tried to explain in the post, it makes sense to connect the Trench to 35W northbound as part of a cheaper replacement of the flyover. It doesn’t make sense to build this ramp as a standalone project at a time when Public Works is crying out for alms and pedestrian and transit infrastructure is decades and billions behind automobile infrastructure. It’s a symptom of the recurring disease of misplaced priorities.

  4. Bill says:

    “ramp map” +1
    “Chaska” +2

    great stuff.

  5. Reuben says:

    Interesting post about the Single family homes in Bryn Mawr. I’m not opposed to it – that area could use a few more homes. Those roads are not going to be cheap to extend – and the existing homeowners there aren’t going to be very excited about it. I expect the homes will skew towards fewer luxury homes rather than more cute bungalows – the developer just won’t be able to recoup costs if he sells the homes for a modest price. The real money is in high-end housing.

    I just don’t see this being profitable for the developer if he has to build the roads. My prediction is that if these properties are developed, he will build 3 or 4 large homes accessed only through driveways. The City will get him to build the bulbs on the end of the culdesacs without extending the streets, and the homes will be accessed through long driveways. Some of the developable land will be too far to access via driveway, and he’ll just have to take a loss on it.

    I’ll be interested to see what happens. Keep us updated.

  6. […] contact that seems to me about as simple as you can get – and Gary Schiff just got rid of the pointless CUP requirement for buildings with 5 or more units.  I freely admit to having no experience developing real […]

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