Reimagining Woodley Street

Streets belong to you…and me…and everybody else; streets are public spaces – like parks – and might just be our most undervalued and underutilized community resources.  Northfield and Rice County are beginning to plan a reconstruction project on Woodley Street and this particular street is a golden opportunity to add value and change the conversation, too.

What might happen if we start talking about streets as a public asset with rich potential to be better places to play, talk, move and build communities rather than arguing about the width of the driving lanes?

SR2S Sibley map

Woodley Street and environs from Northfield’s Safe Routes to School plan

Woodley Street is

  • a local street lined with houses and mature trees with scattered, non-contiguous sidewalks

    Woodley - looking west from Union Street to Division

    Woodley – looking west from Union Street to Division

  • the southern edge of the older traditional grid neighborhood
  • located between downtown and residential neighborhoods, schools and parks making it an essential piece for making schools, homes and parks walkable and bikable both along and across Woodley.
  • Rice County State Aid Highway 28 which links to MN Trunk Highway 246/Division Street at the western end of this project and terminates at MN 3, it is classified as a collector street (according to Rice County) or minor arterial (according to Northfield) and is an important east-west connection bringing traffic into and through town.

Another way, Woodley is a key motorized transportation route worthy of its CSAH status, but its residential character and location between neighborhoods and schools, parks and downtown make it very much a local street. Northfield has a wonderful opportunity to work with Rice County to try move traffic, but build local connections and crossings back into this street.

Building more human capacity into Woodley is already richly supported by Northfield policy from general support in the Comprehensive Plan, strong direction in the Complete Streets policy, and particular improvements called for in the Safe Routes to School Plan and Parks, Open Space and Trail Plan.  But recent history shows there’s often pushback at the project level even with great policies in place.

So the moment is ripe to change the conversation from “you just don’t get it” where some say “You just don’t get it that sidewalks, bike facilities, and human scale design are important for reasons from public health to economic value (and here are the reports and local information to back me up)” and others say “You just don’t get it that sidewalks cost money, neighbors don’t want to shovel them, and no one bicycles anyway (and here are the dollars and angry neighbors to back me up).”

1. How can Northfield change the conversation to foster shared benefits rather than protecting turf?  The residents of Woodley Street are most directly affected, but how to discuss the public space while respecting their private property and hearing their concerns? Rice County has design standards and cost sharing policies in place for city/county projects, but how to engage the County to think outside their urban collector street box to design a project which serves local needs better? Northfield’s City Council tends to polarize at the “you just don’t get it” positions, so how to give elected officials the tools they need to understand and articulate a broader picture of public good?

2. How can Northfield design this project to build the most human capacity and the most public benefit into this street segment?

Rice County design standards

Here are a couple of journeys and connections, I’m hoping can be facilitated by a new Woodley Street and the conversation around the project should reveal more (or more detail about these sketches).

Kids in my east side neighborhood will be able to get to their neighborhood school, Sibley Elementary School, the soccer fields, or the middle and high schools on foot or bicycle easily, safely and independently.

From east side neighborhood and downtown across Woodley

From east side neighborhood and downtown across Woodley

Woodley-Union St. Death Curve

Woodley-Union St. Death Curve

This one is personal.  My daughter rode her bike (alone) to Sibley starting in 3rd grade after we practiced how to cross Woodley Street which is the only significant obstacle in a 3/4 mile trip on otherwise low volume streets.  Crossing choices were (a) the confusing 4-way stop (3rd grade non-drivers do not quite “get” the dance of who moves when) at Woodley and Maple Streets or (b) our preferred route, crossing at the Union Street “death curve” (my daughter’s term) where traffic did not stop and moved about 30 mph, but was still simpler to negotiate with “look both ways” even with the limited sight distance. In middle and high school, crossing Woodley was still required, but now the critical 4-way stop intersection at Woodley and Division Street had to be negotiated or bypassed, too, with no obvious “good route.”

Mayflower Hill to Sibley, etc.

Connections between Mayflower Hill and the pool, downtown, school, and soccer

Mayflower Hill will be able to walk or bike easily, safely and independently to school, the pool or downtown. When the eastern section of Woodley was reconstructed in 2008, the Non-Motorized Transportation Task Force was instrumental in bringing active transportation concerns front and center.  As a result, even though pedestrian accommodations were not standard on a rural road section, a multiuse trail was added on the north side and a sidewalk on the south which helped connect this area to the edge of the current project.  How can we continue the connection along Woodley through the denser neighborhood to schools, the swimming pool and downtown?

Woodley rural section heading west

Woodley rural section heading west

Woodley Street itself will become part of the pedestrian fabric of Northfield.  Reimagining Woodley as a thick thread woven into a rich network of walking, cycling and driving can broaden the conversation about what is possible, what is valuable and how we connect Northfield rather than spur divisiveness.

 

 

 

 

Dear Mike Obermuller (or your favorite candidate)

 

Mike Obermuller

Mike Obermuller is running for Congress here in CD2 looking to unseat John Kline.  At a campaign event last night, an interesting exchange and opening for new conversation emerged –

Dear Mike Obermuller,

I enjoyed having the chance to talk to you again at the campaign event in Northfield last night and was impressed at how you’ve evolved as a candidate since 2012. I’m writing to follow up on your responses to questions about carbon and the environment.

You talked a bit about carbon taxes and reducing subsidies to oil as ways to address climate change.  Two bits of your remarks caught my attention

(1) Addressing climate change will require decisions for actions which (far) exceed election cycles.  Bravo!  Making decisions to minimize the impact on the immediate bottom line limits the innovation and action which could make for significant change in environmental policy…and many other policy areas.

(2) You’re working to change the conversation on the environment to help more people understand why action is critical (and long-term).

(1) should be obvious. The desire to package policy for (quickly) deliverable results leads to simplifying complex issues, isolating problems and siloing information to be able to formulate the quick fix and deliverable project while ignoring long term or downstream costs.  I don’t tend to be a one issue voter, but if there is one issue which will ensure not only my vote but my commitment and energy, this is it.

As for (2), here’s how I’d like to see the conversation change. Most of the time, I advocate for better transportation and land use policy and spending. In these areas, as with the environment, decisions tend to be isolated – approving this development, designing that road segment, and funding a particular non-motorized project.  In thHowever, the bigger picture of the pattern in which we guide the growth of our cities (I do remember you once said you were interested in seeing cities grow up and not out), how we reverse the trend of designing transit, cycling and walking out of our transportation system, and how we think through our incentives for more sprawling, car dependent land uses and transportation is going to impact the environment.

So, you can talk about carbon taxes or we can reframe the conversation about how we build sustainability and equity into our places by connecting fossil fuel use, air quality, transportation, land use and public health.  Right now, messages are mixed – charge a carbon tax, but keep building roads and encouraging sprawl.  Fret about obesity, but make active transportation fight for funding crumbs. How about we look to how to get the incentives for sustainable, healthy development aligned and funding aligned for incremental change for better air, water, and health.

Many thanks for being willing to serve,

Betsey Buckheit

 

Northfield Bikeable Community Workshop

BikeNfldNorthfield should be the sort of city where bicycling makes a lot of sense because

Despite all these assets, cycling is still not normal transportation around Northfield.  Fortunately, Northfield also has a new cycling advocacy organization BikeNorthfield which sponsored a day-long Bikeable Community Workshop last week (along with co-sponsors: Chamber of CommerceNDDCNorthfield City Council and Rice County SHIP)  led by representatives from MnDOTMN Department of Health and Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota for local leaders, advocates and enthusiasts who want to develop the bikeable potential of their community.

IMG_0671

Workshop participants (including the police chief!)

Who came? Northfield’s workshop attendees included the chief of police, city administrator, Community Development director, 3 Planning Commission members, 1 member of the Northfield YMCA board, 2 City Council members, 1 Environmental Quality Commission member, a long-time bike trail advocate and senior citizen cycling leader, a couple of college staff and faculty, 1 school board member and more bike advocates and enthusiasts. Some of these folks regularly ride in and around town, but others do not (at least not yet); some know City plans and policy intimately, but others do not (at least not yet). In other words, a good mix of people to bike and learn together how to build on Northfield’s strengths.

What did we learn? The 5 E’s, of course, as well as some of the many reasons why bicycles can or should be part of a community like tourism (if Lanesboro and the Root River Trail can bring in $2.2 million annually, what could Northfield capture when the Mill Towns Trail is completed?), jobs (Northfield already has two bike shops and Tandem Bagels), community events (come to Northfield for the July 4th Criterium – to race or to watch; stay for the fireworks!) and benefits from public health to equity to cleaner air.  And, we learned that half of all trips are 3 miles or less—a reasonable bicycling distance –which is certainly true in Northfield.

Bike Nfld Route

Map of the riding route

Where did we go? Following some safe cycling training, we took to the road to visit some of the high and low points of Northfield’s cycling infrastructure including crossing MN 3 at 3 different intersections (but, unfortunately, did not take the extra few minutes to visit the site of the recently approved TIGER trail crossing) and the difficult intersection of TH 246 and Jefferson Parkway near 3 of Northfield’s schools.

MnDOT rep leads some discussion in front of Northfield Post Office

MnDOT rep leads some discussion in front of Northfield Post Office

What will we do next? Focusing on projects or objectives we could accomplish in the next 6-12 months in the 5 E categories, we identified:

Infrastructure/Engineering & Evaluation top projects: (1) Increase/improve signage to direct folks to bike routes, trails, and parking; (2) identify “easy” paint locations (such as painting Water Street as a bike boulevard for an early and obvious change); (3) create an advisory group to the planning commission  (a previous non-motorized transportation task force reported to the Park and Recreation Advisory Board), and (4) do bicycle and pedestrian counts.

Education & Enforcement can help build confident cyclists who can manage the infelicitous infrastructure, so we identified (1) Hosting a Train the Trainer “Traffic Safety 101” course in Northfield this summer and recruiting participants for the October LCI training in Rochester to build a critical mass of local bike safety instructors; (2) engaging Community Ed (and the YMCA) to introduce a bike curriculum; (3) engaging business leaders on bikeable workplaces, bike friendly businesses and workplace wellness

Encouragement & Events celebrate success, create interest and build community so we plan to (1) offer bike clinics at existing community events;  (2) encouraging bicycle commuting among local businesses (including, I hope, both colleges); (3) increase the number of group rides and adding education/evaluation components to rides; (4) collaborating with community organizations to expand cycling, and (5) producing comprehensive maps of bicycle facilities and recommended routes – both recreational and destination routes – for the community.

If BikeNorthfield and its friends follow through on this list, then the longer term, higher price projects such as improving important intersections, adding bike lanes on higher traffic streets, etc. will have that critical mass of support needed for change.  And, for a city the size of Northfield, relatively few major changes are needed to be able to create a really great town for cycling.

This post also appeared on streets.mn

College urbanism

A college is the best thing for a community have in its backyard, noted Carleton College President Steve Poskanzer soon after his arrival in Northfield in 2010. Northfield, of course, has two.

The city’s character and development pattern have certainly been shaped by Carleton College on the east side; St Olaf on the west with the historic downtown and Northfield’s oldest residential neighborhoods in the middle. Two small colleges could be a doubly good deal for a small city like Northfield looking to plan and invest wisely to build a walkable, bikeable, economically prosperous town which is also just a darn good place to live and work.

American Institute for Economic Research publishes an annual ranking of the cities offering the best “college experience” while acknowledging college towns are “also vibrant places for businesses to open, tourists to visit and people to live.” Livability takes this a step further to note “a university’s off-campus impact can also shape a town’s character and keep people there for a lifetime.” And, the walkable neighborhoods with high quality of life also make college towns great places to retire.

Carleton aerial

Northfield’s east side neighborhood

Northfield’s east side neighborhood is its oldest residential area bordering the historic downtown with a strong, grid street pattern, older homes mixed with some newer infill, and the former high school/middle school now renovated and expanded as Carleton’s Weitz Center for Creativity. Indeed, Carleton’s neighborhood is just the sort of walkable, high quality traditional residential development pattern streets.mn writers praise.

Yet, Carleton has expanded south into the neighborhood through piecemeal acquisition of residential property south of its core campus plus the footprint of the Weitz Center leapfrogging a few blocks south. Many homes have been renovated for office use which both changes the character of the neighborhood and, relative to the buildings on the core campus, creates a low density campus arm through the center of the neighborhood.  Recently,  Carleton has undertaken a strategic planning process which includes facilities planning for “The optimal long-term (50-year) overall layout of the campus to “make the best use of its available space and work to lower the operating and maintenance costs of its existing and new physical plant.” Carleton’s presentation to the community shows the College has little grasp of how the campus is interlaced with the neighborhood and how it could think more boldly to develop its campus in ways which could be more efficient for the College and make the Northfield neighborhood an even better place for the College and residents.

Does Carleton need more space?  Or does it need to develop the land it already owns more strategically?

Carleton future map

Carleton’s future “plan”

Where to grow: While Northfield limits Carleton’s expansion to the south, Carleton constrains the City of Northfield’s expansion to the north and east because of its main campus and the Arboretum.  As a result, both City and College are deeply interested in that interface. From a city perspective, continued expansion to the south in the same pattern is not desirable. Carleton infiltrates one of Northfield’s most valuable residential areas and has begun to move into the downtown commercial area. Continued loss of property in these areas erodes the character of the neighborhood as well threatening to erode the city’s tax base (the threat to downtown – Northfield’s most valuable land per acre – is especially potent). Carleton’s historic habit of acquisition and renovation of residential property undermines the city’s ability to plan and regulate as well as lacking transparency for neighbors. Plus, Carleton has some prime access to MN 19 on the north edge of its campus.

Density: Completely missing from the planning documents is careful consideration of the pattern of development. Although land is limited, the College’s current development pattern at its southern edge (and especially in the Weitz “transition zone”) is very low density consisting single family homes renovated for college uses. The College should consider how it can fulfill its needs by more fully using the land available within this area including demolition of buildings to be replaced by a denser building pattern with buildings which are purpose-built for College needs.  Further, the College has placed very low value uses – surface parking – on key parcels further reducing its ability to make efficient use of its land.  Considering how parking can be accommodated in the middle of blocks or as part of other structures could expand the developable land.

Regulation: I’m more aware than most that city regulations have required some of the low value development which has taken place – zoning, parking requirements, setbacks, and stormwater regulations have all made it more difficult to use land efficiently. The City struggles with this issue and continues to incentivize suburban, low density, low return development (a movie theater and strip mall is looking for a subsidy right now) and here’s where College leadership – drawing on its commitment to innovation, quality, and sustainability – could help build support for a much denser campus building pattern which conserves neighborhood properties and helps the city craft the regulatory environment would help this happen.

Carleton can do better with Northfield: Carleton’s growth is critically important to the character of Northfield’s neighborhoods but where the college reaches into the neighborhood and downtown, the City’s interest is substantial. From a city perspective, the planning documents are startling in their lack of planning and design for the physical pattern of growth.  My hope is that the College will more actively engage the city and neighborhood in its planning and to think denser in its development pattern.  The College is a leader in sustainability in some ways, but it could help lead the City to more sustainable, distinctive use of land and infrastructure.

This post also published on streets.mn – check out lots of good writing, images, videos and more on transportation and land use in Minnesota (and beyond) over there.

Strong Towns in Northfield

Curbside-Chat-textPLAN TO ATTEND!  The NDDC has invited the Strong Towns organization to Northfield for one of their “Curbside Chats”.  The event will be held on Monday, February 17, 5:30-7:30 pm, in the Archer House Riverview Conference Room on the lower level.  The Curbside Chats are designed city officials and community leaders, but the strong towns are built from the grassroots, so the public is welcome and your voices needed at this free event.

Curbside Chats zero in on three “big ideas” central to Strong Towns thinking:

  1. The current path cities are pursuing is not financially stable.
  2. The future for most cities will not resemble the recent past.
  3. The main determinant of future prosperity for cities will be local leaders’ ability to transform their communities.

I’ve written much on this blog about Strong Towns and ideas related to their mission.  Here’s a good summary of my posts.  But my interest goes back further than this blog.

When I served on the Planning Commission in 2001-2005, Northfield was approving hundreds of acres and hundreds of units of single family homes.  The short term attraction was clear: creating jobs and expanding the local tax base.  But longer term issues were raised by the Planning Commission, but dismissed by the Council such as:

  • If we build housing on all these acres, where might future commercial expansion take place?
  • If the city doesn’t negotiate with developers about street design and connections, how can the Northfield be able to plan for efficient service delivery in the future?
  • Will the increased tax revenue pay for the maintenance of the infrastructure added and the cost of delivering services to the new areas?

Strong Towns caught my attention in about 2010 with its message of the financial impact of the way cities have developed in the last 50 years or so.  Certainly as a City Council member at the time, I could see that Northfield’s tax revenue was not keeping up with maintenance or service needs, so I was relieved, thrilled, and excited to see the questions I’d already asked be asked by people with more development experience and to see that message go from Brainerd, MN to national news.

Does Strong Towns have all the answers?  No, but that’s where you come in.  Come think with Strong Towns and your neighbors about the future of Northfield.  I’ll be in Finland, but I can’t wait to hear what happens.

 

 

 

Happy New Year from Finland

IMG_1326Hyvää Uutta Vuotta from Jyvaskyla, Finland where I’ll be spending the next 6 months or so. Jyvaskyla has about 135,000 people (like Northfield, about 25% of those are students) on about 52 sq. miles in Central Finland.  For landscape, think northern Minnesota.  Lots of birch and pine, many lakes, and usually much snow (but not this year).

Compared to Cambridge, my Michaelmas Term home, with glorious medieval architecture surrounded by Victorian terrace houses mixed with some not very noteworthy contemporary buildings (5 stories is about the maximum; 3 or 4 more likely), Jyvaskyla is a thoroughly modern city of high density high rises (I live on the 7th floor in the center of town).  While Cambridge built stone and brick buildings, Jyvaskyla’s old (19th century) built environment was wood and has now been almost entirely replaced.

Sadly, Jyvaskyla “solved” its traffic congestion problems by running the highway between the city and Jylasjarvi – one of the lakes: “For decades, the problem of through traffic had bothered the people of the town and this was resolved in 1989 with the completion of new Rantaväylä roads along the shoreline of the lake.”  The center of town was pedestrianized, but the lake is now cut off from the city and strolling around it is unpleasant on the highway side. Could be worse, I suppose, and the highway could go right through downtown the way it does in Northfield.  Because the highway blocks access to the lake and new bits of the University of Jyvaskyla, there are underpasses somewhat like the proposed TIGER trail in Northfield to link neighborhoods and the lake.

The other curious piece of Finland planning is the shopping mall – multiple small malls in central Jyvaskyla – in the walkable city center.  I admit, when there are so few hours of daylight (I’m used to the cold), artificially lit insides have some superficial appeal.  But not much.  Timo Hämäläinen blogged about this phenomenon (and summed it up well) which was subsequently picked up by Atlantic Cities; I hope to pick Timo’s brain a bit more in the next month or so.

In the cows, colleges and contentment department, Cambridge beat out Northfield to win my personal Cows and Colleges award.  Jyvaskyla has colleges, but is sadly lacking in cattle.  More from Finland soon.

 

Cycling roundup

What would help you get on a bicycle and ride to the store – yes, you there, the one who hasn’t ridden a bicycle since childhood but might be willing to try it if conditions were right?  People for Bikes has a nice series trying to sell cycling to the uncertain “swing voter.”  I’m even more curious how the completely committed cyclists react, because the overall message is not about how great cycling is, but how to advocate for better bike facilities which make cycling easier for everyone.  No one should be surprised that perceived (lack of) safety is a big obstacle, but more surprising that the safety of better facilities is also not much of a selling point. 

And then there’s all the good stuff about cycling:

Economic benefits of cycling

Building business support for cycling by way of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce.  This piece has a great little 7 step guide to advocacy from within.

The only happy commuters are cyclists, or can urban design make people happy?  Long commutes and the combined cost of housing and transportation costs, while not about cycling, are getting some attention.

And how Groningen, Netherlands achieved cycling greatness.  Spending 15 minutes watching the video is fun and shows real people riding around town.  If you don’t want to spend the time, the secrets are: (1) not a piecemeal approach, (2) connecting places, (3) making cycling easier than driving in some locations, (4) separating cyclists from high speed traffic, and (5) political will.  The other comment made frequently: cycling costs less. Here’s a comparison of British streets and Dutch streets to see how different places allocated space differently to accommodate cyclists and here are all the myths and excuses about cycling in one place.

Who pays for roads?

Who pays for roads?

Is it OK to kill cyclists? asked Daniel Duane in the New York Times.  In the US, if you’re going to kill someone, bumping off a cyclist with your car is a pretty good way to get away with murder.  Even here in England, where the cycling climate (and the regular sort of climate) is quite different, killing cyclists goes largely unpunished (though “my” MP Julien Huppert has been working on it).  Apparently, we’re expendable.

I blogged earlier about strict liability (where the driver of the motor vehicle is presumed liable for the accident, unless she can prove she is not at fault) and “my” MP Julien Huppert has also raised this issue.  In a related development, exposing the “blame the victim” problem with pedestrian and cycling fatalities is on the upswing, see this New York example (police say pedestrians should carry flashlights so cars don’t jump the curb and kill them).

After the NY Times piece, the Economist has a very good summary of the policy and what would happen in a variety of circumstances.  To sum up:

This regulatory regime places an extra burden on drivers. That burden can be summed up as follows: before you turn, you have to check carefully in the mirror to see whether there’s a cyclist there. That’s it. When you are driving in the Netherlands, you have to be more careful than you would when driving in America. Does this result in rampant injustice to drivers when accidents occur? No. It results in far fewer accidents.

 

Next link in the TIGER trail project

TH3, Northfield's car sewer

TH3, Northfield’s car sewer

The tale continues…after the City Council authorized rebidding the TIGER trail project in September, 4 bids were received. All bids exceeded projected costs and the low bid is $828,465 over.  Although it took two tries to get the bids and much procedural grandstanding, let’s catch our collective breath.

TIGER supporters would probably agree that Trunk Highway 3 is a 4 lane “traffic sewer” through the middle of Northfield affecting land use, deterring bicycle and pedestrian crossing, and dividing the east and west sides of town.  Since this is also the picture drawn by the Council-adopted Comprehensive Plan (and other plans and policies I get tired of listing for those Council members who ignorantly or willfully avoid them), their understanding is well-grounded in the city’s public policy.

The City has been implementing the policies by adopting more detailed policies (like the Complete Streets policy and Safe Routes to School Plan) and following through on smaller improvements such as filling gaps in the sidewalk network (despite the failure on Maple Street) in annual street projects.  But, TH3 remains a big obstacle.  The 2009 Multimodal Integration Study (which involved collaboration among City staff, elected officials, various City boards and business owners) identified several grade-separated “concepts” which could provide better access across TH3/TH19 and subsequently form the basis of a grant application.  The TIGER grant application selected one of these and the Council approved the application…and so on.

Here are my questions about the project itself (in no particular order):

  1. Costs of retrofitting: This project builds capacity for non-motorized transportation which has not only been excluded from transportation planning until quite recently but made substantially more difficult by projects like the Highway 3 expansion.  What amount is reasonable to remedy a problem created by a mono-modal transportation project (and how can gradual improvement be added back into the transportation planning and budgeting in the future)?  When answering this question, try to identify the ways in which government subsidizes automobile travel.
  2. Cost and value of completion vs. cancellation: The state and federal government are spending money on this project; in addition to the financial contribution, what value is there in completing this project on time, honoring our commitment, and developing good working relationships with the agencies?  When answering this question, map how transportation dollars are allocated to local government from other levels of government.
  3. How does this project link to other bicycle/pedestrian facilities?  Does building this link help increase the usefulness of those facilities?  What other future improvements will further integrate this link into the network?
  4. Compared to other projects of similar scope/complexity, are the bids reasonable?  This is another way of asking whether the grant application underestimated the cost and/or complexity of the project (and that we can believe the bid numbers are the “right” ones). 
  5. Downstream effects: This project will provide jobs, help increase value in the neighborhoods most directly served, perhaps stimulate development at the stalled Crossings development as well as providing Northwest Northfield residents with additional access to jobs and services.  What are these worth?

Yes, the project costs a lot of money and more money than anticipated.  But determining whether it is “too much” should depend on a thoughtful discussion of how the trail serves the long-term transportation goals, what contribution this project makes to future projects, and how we want to build accessibility and equity into the system.

I would like to hear the Council discuss and reach a shared understanding (if not agreement) about the policy perspective adopted by the City which seeks to address transportation beyond cars and maintain and improve the transportation system in ways which serve the entire community.  It’s a big subject which could encompass everything from walking to air quality to storm water to freight to land use to economic development…but the conversation should start and providing for non-automobile connections is one place to do it.

If a majority of the Council believes the current adopted policy positions are misguided, then change the guiding policy with community participation.  Don’t get to the point of decision on projects and try to dismantle the policy one vote at a time.

 

 

Forget placemaking, just do it: Northfield edition

“Placemaking” is everyplace these days. My Twitter feed (admittedly heavy on urbanism, land use, and transportation) positively bristles with #placemaking.

The Project for Public Spaces, the epicenter of placemaking theory and practice, says it’s “More than a fashionable phrase, it’s a whole new way of thinking about fostering vital communities.” In Forbes, placemaking is introduced to a wider audience as “a response to top down, regulation heavy environments” and Atlantic Cities has a placemaking topic page.

Placemaking is not new and it’s not necessary – read more at streets.mn

Northfield’s Original Town

 

Downtown matters

Downtown matters.

Northfield’s downtown is pretty:

nddc16.jpg

Downtown Northfield
(photo northfield.org)

And active:

VBFBridgeSquare

Vintage Band Festival on Bridge Square (photo northfield.org)

Downtown Northfield really matters because those few square blocks offer the highest tax revenue per acre possible with a more dense, multi-story, mixed use pattern puts more value on less space (and existing infrastructure); more jobs (800 jobs estimated downtown) and more tax revenue.

Here are a couple of examples of doing the tax revenue arithmetic from Brainerd and Asheville, NC (or here).  And here is a sample of the tax revenue on a sampling of Northfield properties (sorted by total revenue or by tax revenue per acre).

I’ve argued repeatedly that Northfield could do better – financially, environmentally and socially (the triple bottom line) by thinking about the interface between how we permit (and encourage) land to be used, the cost to provide services and the connections among places. Focusing attention on connecting to a central core helps make Northfield an investment ready place.  As a central place, downtown can be reached more easily by bicycle and foot as well as driving.

The City of Northfield, by encouraging development/redevelopment in and near the core and guiding future growth in a pattern which, like downtown, captures more value from infrastructure spending and more productive use of land resources, can balance its budget and build community at the same time.

Northfield and its downtown have a few big advantages.  The Northfield Downtown Development Corporation is one of them (full disclosure: I’m a board member.  I joined the board because of all the things I’m saying here) and it springs from some of the other strengths of the Northfield community like:

Engaged and invested citizens: In 2000, a group of 4 business people had the long-range vision to create the Northfield Downtown Development Corporation to serve as the organization devoted to ensuring a strong downtown in Northfield despite highway development pressures and other challenges.

Thoughtful elected officials in the past: The City of Northfield has provided a portion of the NDDC’s funding since its inception.  The approximately $300,000 over 13 years contributed by the City has allowed the NDDC to leverage grant funding, private donations and support from downtown businesses to much more than match the public funding.  In return, the City receives direct assistance from the NDDC (collecting information from property and business owners and the public; expert input on City projects and planning; assisting staff with projects; helping educate the community about downtown…) as well as the indirect benefits of the NDDC’s work and collaboration with other groups to bring more people downtown to shop, work, locate their business, and live.

NDDC’s commitment to building coalitions and relationships with other groups and people is crucial to the success of the downtown.

Colleges: Carleton and St. Olaf Colleges benefit from having a great downtown as a selling point for their colleges…and so the downtown and the City benefit from having two fine Colleges which spend money, are fine employers, and provide cultural resources a city of 20,000 wouldn’t usually have.  And the NDDC has worked especially hard to engage the colleges, both administration and students reaping rewards of valuable research from student projects, college partners for events such as the Taste of Northfield, and working to recapture alumni.  The NDDC has worked to establish a calendar of college events which can help downtown businesses plan for large groups of people and busy weekends.

Regional partners: the NDDC has facilitated conversations and planning with township partners, the CRWP, and Mill Towns Trail to find ways to coordinate efforts to protect resources and find ways to capture more value from connections to and through downtown.

Local partners: The NDDC is just one of the groups working in and around downtown.  The Northfield Arts Guild, Riverwalk Market Fair, Northfield Historical Society, Convention and Visitors Bureau and events organizers (like the volunteers who organize the Defeat of Jesse James Days) all help downtown be a great place to be and invest.

Defeat of Jesse James Days bank raid reenactment (photo DJJD)

Northfield’s downtown has some big challenges, too.

Bad math by the Mayor and some Council members: Not only Northfield, but most places continue to misunderstand the costs of growth and luring business compared to growing our own.  A corollary to this one is what I call the Museum Theory of Downtown; downtown is a cute place for tourists to visit, but doesn’t have any real economic value compared to industrial development.  See here, for example.  Or here.

Lack of clear priorities.  The City has adopted some very clear and forward looking policies, but the current Council fails to articulate rational and justifiable priorities. 

A smart Council would recognize the high return it gets from the NDDC already, how the City could leverage its investment in the NDDC to carry out the advice received at Mayor Graham’s 2013 Panel on Economic Development to recognize, highlight and strengthen Northfield’s assets – great downtown, high quality of life and two colleges.

A smart Council would understand that downtown matters.

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Northfield’s Riverwalk (photo northfield.org)