The Transport Politic recently had a piece on Downtown Washington, D.C., which has a unique problem among cities in parking-obsessed USA: it is running out of room for new office buildings. Responding to proposals to lift D.C.’s (similarly unique) 10-story height limit, Yonah Freemark makes a point that “there is a direct relationship between a downtown’s growth and the transportation provided to it.” Basically, in order for a CBD to continue to grow, more transportation facilities must be provided. If a city chooses an auto-focuses transportation strategy, a parking lot studded downtown will result. If a city chooses transit, it will get a denser downtown with fewer gaps between buildings.
This relates directly to my Potential Population Series. One of the reasons I think it’s worth my time to think about how much residential development could occur in Downtown Minneapolis is because I think it has already overdeveloped office space. Obviously the extreme concentration of employment has had many positive effects, but it has also created a nearly unmanageable traffic situation. As MnDOT recently reported, highway congestion in the metro area increased last year despite VMT remaining generally flat.
American cities are notable for their extremely low densities, but also famous for the skylines created by their extremely dense CBDs, a density which globally is only matched by Asian cities. Unfortunately American cities also match the traffic congestion often found in Asian cities. While in Asia the congestion is caused by uniformly high density, in the USA it is caused by extremely unequal density. To see why, watch the 4th St Viaduct at rush hour sometime. Half the road will be clogged with cars, the other half will be virtually empty.
Unipolar cities are required to build twice the transportation capacity: one road for morning and another for the afternoon.
That’s what is so great about the Central Corridor and the re-zoning that is being written to greet it: it’ll allow for very-high density office space to be concentrated in two areas. The West Midway and the East Midway have the potential to become supplementary downtowns. There are several other areas even in the central cities that, with some zoning finesse, could accommodate high-density office space also – off the top of my head, I’d say Hi-Lake, NE Broadway, Broadway-Washington, and South Windom easily could handle a cluster of office buildings.
But what would be the downside to continuing to focus new office development in Downtown? Anyone who has caught a bus on Hennepin at 5pm on a weekday has experienced the problem: buses sit at the stop for minutes, ingesting passengers who are forced to stand nose-in-armpit crammed in together. Would trains help? Sure, to some degree, but it would be expensive, for the same reason highways are expensive: the crushload trains going in the peak direction pass nearly empty trains, wasting the drivers’ time and the transit agency’s dime.
Besides, once your downtown has grown enough, you can’t run enough trains to meet the demand. We will end up with an expensive system that is a nightmare to ride, like our highway system has become. The problem would only be exacerbated by the decision to sever most of the rail lines that once led to downtown, limiting the ways to mitigate congestion with commuter rail. There are only two options for commuter rail that I can see, one being the existing line on the western edge of Downtown, which can only accommodate so many more trains. The other alternative would be to rebuild a line along Hiawatha, but considering the frequent grade crossing that might be just as expensive as tunneling, and anyway terminates far from the core.
So it’s time to start planning for a multipolar city. In some ways it’s an advantage that it already exists, in the form of the scattered suburban strips. The Met Council should officially designate the strips that exist in or on the beltway as office clusters, directing cities to designate them as such in their next comp plans so they can start rezoning these areas for high-density, multi-use districts. Minneapolis’ comprehensive plan has already laid the foundation for multi-polar development with four Growth Centers, and the Transit Station Area designation. More of these types should be added, included Transit Station Areas for the “BRT” stations (including Lake St) on 35W.
By working to spread out the downtown love, and by working towards a multimodal transportation system, the Twin Cities might be able to share DC’s problem of running out of places to build Downtown.