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)

 

 

 

Important discussion tonight at the Council

Capital planning should not follow the Field of Dreams model

Tonight at the Council worksession, they’ll be discussing the Capital Improvement Plan.  I believe the CIP is the single most important tool the City has…and Northfield’s, while greatly improved over the last few years, is still not what it could be.  The goal is to plan for and schedule projects to ensure the city is not spending money on things which cost more to maintain than they return on the investment and that the city can identify the revenue to cover the initial costs and the upkeep.

The City, as part of the CIP review, should:

Inventory what we already have, then develop ways to present this to the Council and public which are clear, not misleading and continually updated (surely someone can come up with great data visualizations for municipal planning and spending).  Northfield’s Councilmembers should have flashcards so they could answer (in round, ballpark numbers):

  • How much do we have (e.g. square feet of street, lineal feet of sewer, number of buildings, etc.)?
  • What are the (annual, 10-year, etc.) maintenance costs?
  • When do those costs come due (how old are those buildings, streets, etc.)?
  • What is the revenue stream to cover those costs (general fund, utility fees, etc.)?

Prioritize projects because there will not be enough money to do everything.  Here’s where the Council should be reviewing the long-range plans (like the Comprehensive Plan and its progeny) to remind themselves of priorities which have already been established, updating those plans by gathering citizen input and making the tough choices about what to allocate money to do including both immediate needs and longer term goals for improvement. Policies and plans can help put individual spending choices in a larger context and (one hopes) avoid duplication and increase strategic spending.

The process needs to be part education (Council needs to answer the questions above then convey the picture to the public) and part strategic planning and spending.  Not easy.  Good luck tonight, Council.

The Moneyball approach would be much better

 

 

Taming TIGER’s critics in Northfield

Banksy’s elephant in a room

See my post on streets.mn… “The elephant in the room when discussing Northfield…is always TH3. Everything I love about Northfield stands in complete opposition to TH3, which seems to only distract from the Northfield experience” commented Rueben Collins of VeloTraffic in response to Northfield on streets.mn.  These days, that elephant is making a great deal of noise in the Council chambers as the City Council continues to discuss the trail project under the highway funded in part by a federal TIGER grant.

Bicycles and political will

Space needed to transport 60 people by bike, car or bus...then there's the parking

Space needed to transport 60 people by bike, car or bus…then there’s the parking

Although I still don’t have a bicycle here in England (although I daydream about a certain orange Brompton), there’s bicycle policy news to round up.

Back in 2012, I blogged about strict liability for motorists in bicycle/automobile “interactions.”  In the past week, “my” MP (if I were eligible to vote here) Julian Huppert introduced a motion at the Liberal Democrats party autumn conference to adopt the Get Britain Cycling recommendations as official Lib Dem policy including policy on proportionate liability for motorists the “not-controversial-almost-everywhere-else measure that makes it easier for road crash victims to claim on insurance.”

But, progress at the Lib Dem conference on bike policy has not met with joy at home here in Cambridge where the Cambridgeshire Police and Crime Commissioner calls it “very silly” in the front page headline of the Cambridge News above, of course, a photo of Mr Huppert.

Coincidentally, I decided to drop in on Copenhagenize, one of my favorite bike policy and design blogs and right at the top was Part 10 of the Top Ten Design Elements in Bicycle-Friendly Copenhagen.

Part 10 is Political Will.  Sigh.

Back in Northfield, a lack of political will to change policy, planning and projects to provide alternatives to private automobiles – walking, cycling, transit persists.  There are certainly leaders around town and, at the moment, a majority of the Council who are interested in increasing transportation options.  But I don’t think these individuals and the bare majority of votes constitute political will, but more like dedicated opposition to the status quo.  Small progress is made here and there, but there is no commitment of the City Council, staff and appointed leaders to build non-motorized transportation into the budget, planning and life of the city.  That would be political will.

Here in Cambridge and the UK, there’s political engagement at higher levels of government – if Northfield’s state representatives and Minnesota’s Congressional delegation were as active as MP Huppert in pursuing cycling policy with their parties and the legislature, that would be a big step up and forward.  There’s no discussion of get the US Cycling as there is to Get Britain Cycling, for example.

But I sense Mr Huppert is a strong leader who is still working to get the attention of Cambridge and broader coalitions in Parliament and still trying to generate the needed political will to create different transportation vision where cycling is common, safe and legitimate and (the real issue) resources are allocated to make it real.

Apparently the UK government is not doing much about bicycles (nor cycling, I tried both terms)

 

 

Across the pond, happily

Yes, the blog has been silent of late.  I’m now writing from Cambridge, England and it took a bit of time and effort to accomplish the relocation.  Worth it, though.

Cattle in (the middle of) Cambridge

Cattle in (the middle of) Cambridge

Cambridge, like Northfield, is a city of cows and colleges but with more of both: Cambridge University has 31 colleges plus Anglia Ruskin University; the cows are not only within the city limits, but right downtown. But, the time and space scales are very different: Cambridge is about 6 times larger than Northfield in population occupying about the same square footage.  By 1855 when Northfield was founded, Cambridge University had been around for more than half a millennium.

Kings College with cow

Kings College with cow

I have been thinking about bicycles – both because I have become the accidental cycling advocate, but also because I am just seeing so many regular folks cycling around Cambridge – old people, kids, people in suits, families, cargo bikes, shoppers, workers.  You know, cycling for transportation in regular clothes while talking on your mobile phone – just like driving!  There are cycle tracks, bike lanes on streets, bike-specific signals and lots of bike parking.  The very center of Cambridge is a pedestrian and cycle only area.  There’s a national-level Get Britain Cycling Campaign (here are the recommendations including a £10 per person/per year budget increasing to £20 – if Northfield adopted such a budget/policy locally that would be $315,000 for cycling annually) and Parliament itself just had a debate (transcript here) championed by the MP from Cambridge, Julian Huppert.

Compared to Northfield, Cambridge cycling looks pretty amazing.  Cycling for transport is so rare in Northfield that most of the real planning and infrastructure questions aren’t even on the horizon (yet).  In Cambridge, there are many, many more cyclists (18% of adults cycle to work – the highest proportion in England – and 47% cycle at least once a week – but perhaps exaggerated), more car traffic, narrower streets and more constraints (regulatory, architectural, etc.); the problems of cycling access and safety become regular transportation issues.  So, while there is much more bicycle infrastructure, it is not complete nor always well designed (and new development does not always consider cycling appropriately).

Improvements to a difficult 5-way intersection

And, sadly, Cambridge is not immune from the slings and arrows of outrageous politicians.

Meanwhile, back in Northfield, the TIGER trail had no bids for construction, but will be re-bid this Fall.  TIGER funds continue to be awarded for retrofitting the auto transportation system for other modes of transportation and in support of Complete Streets.  As Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx noted “This is investment. It’s investment in safety. It’s investment in community. It’s investment in mobility.”  Minnesota State Senator Scott Dibble (from an interview with Streetfilms) said of the Sabo Bridge

“There’s been some criticism about the amount of money we spend on these facilities…But when you do the head count and you really do the cost/benefit analysis, and compare that to how much money we put into the transportation infrastructure for cars — and you look at the benefit, in terms of transportation, in terms of connecting communities, in terms of livability, quality of life and just how it makes people feel about where they live — it just can’t even be compared.”

And, I’d add for Northfield’s TIGER trail, it’s spending to increase the productivity of the existing transportation network by creating a new link between the two halves of town at a very small (compared to auto-spending) cost.

I wonder how the conversation would change if we had (1) Cambridge rates of cycling and (2) elected leaders at the local and state level championing cycling.

 

More TIGER news

“MnDOT recognizes the impact Hwy. 3 has on the divide between the two halves of the city. They want to see this project happen”

Public Works Director Joe Stapf was quoted as saying in the Northfield News.  MNDoT has demonstrated their recognition by agreeing to fund 80% of the cost of the TIGER trail over the original estimate currently estimated at about $600,000.

Wow.  The money is very helpful, of course, but I’m really more impressed with the rationale which is the clearest statement of a change of philosophy at MNDoT I could imagine.

But back to the money.  Grant funding has its problems, certainly, and is probably worth a blog post itself.  Biggest problem is the risk evaluation – my sense is that projects are chosen for grant applications not because they are considered essential and would be funded by the local government anyway, but because if we win the grant lottery we’ll get free money for a one-off special project.  But grants, like tax breaks and statutes, are also tools to carry out policy by awarding grants to particular projects, the Federal government picks what it wants to encourage (but that’s the ideal – see another TIGER criticism at Strong Towns of the Feds not applying their own policy rationally).

The TIGER grant project, according to the grant guidelines,

“is multi-modal, multi-jurisdictional or otherwise challenging to fund through existing programs. The TIGER program enables DOT to use a rigorous process to select projects with exceptional benefits, explore ways to deliver projects faster and save on construction costs, and make investments in our Nation’s infrastructure that make communities more livable and sustainable.”

Northfield’s trail is multi-modal (bike/pedestrian – and “multi-modal” really just means “not cars), multi-jurisdictional (city, state and railroad) and it is challenging to fund given MNDoT’s previous planning and construction of TH3 and by adding value to the core of the city and connecting the two sides of town, I believe it does make Northfield more liveable and sustainable with a very small bit of actual infrastructure construction.  The faster, cheaper requirement seems to have been negated by the multi-jurisdictional component, but it’s still moving pretty quickly for a complicated project.

I fully accept the Strong Towns criticism of the teeny tiny amount of funding for Safe Routes to School or Complete Streets or multi-modal TIGER projects – yes, the grants and special programs (can) miss the larger point that Federal funding of massive highway expansion and car-only planning (along with mortgage interest deductions and more policies) has massively contributed to the problem we are now trying to solve (or at least mitigate).

However, Federal transportation funding will not be revised or rescinded quickly nor will attitudes be changed overnight (and however much I like the Hatch/Baucus proposal to start tax reform with a blank slate, I cannot believe it will happen that way).  So, for the short term, I’m in favor of these programs to help raise consciousness, publicize noteworthy projects, and gradually change the state of transportation in the US.  I’m in favor of this project in particular because it is so well grounded in city policy and earlier projects (read the history in the grant application) and not just plucked out of the air.  MNDoT’s decision to help with funding underwrites this gradual shift in design and planning and gives Northfield a little boost in the right direction.  Not perfect, but a good step forward.

Now we wait for the bids and the Council must act to move forward, but in the meantime:

Thanks, MNDoT!

 

Changing the terms of the debate: fix car-centric language

42 Bromptons (folded) to one minivan

One of my guiding principles is to make “transportation” when used in city and other planning and projects include ALL the ways people get around urban areas rather than transportation signifying only cars and trucks and then struggling to include other sorts of mobility with special terms: public transportation/transit (buses mostly), non-motorized transportation (bike/ped), etc. You know, just like “astronaut” should be gender-neutral. The Complete Streets model is, of course, one strategy encompassing both a planning philosophy and a shift in language for describing streets and their functions.

In pursuit of better ways to talk about transportation and land use which might help get to better ways to design and build the infrastructure, I’ve stumbled upon a new favorite blogger – in addition to considerable expertise on transit and transportation planning, Jarrett Walker also provides thoughtful commentary on the finer points of language and rhetoric on his blog Human Transit.

Like this post: Avoiding car-centered language which is a tidy analysis of a City Transportation Language Policy memo from West Pam Beach, Florida.  The memo is refreshingly direct in identifying car-centered vs objective language:

Biased: The problem is speeding traffic. The traffic queued back for one mile.
Objective: The problem is speeding motor vehicles. The motor vehicles queued back for one mile.

 

Or, more simply If you mean “car,” say “car.”

 

Development hubris revisited

The Elk Run Biobusiness Park is a project which keeps me shaking my head at the hubris of the Pine Island officials who have supported this “if you build it, they will come” development debacle and the MNDoT logic which threw millions (about $45 of them) of tax dollars at the interchange serving, as yet, nothing.

Back story: Back in 2011, I posted this about Elk Run and its history of problems and in 2012 the lawsuits started, there were unpaid property taxes, and Pine Island eliminated the city administrator job out from under the pro-Elk Run administrator.

Latest development: There’s still no development!  Not in the business park, anyway.  In June, MNDoT held a public open house in Pine Island about its diverging diamond interchange on MN52.  Problem 1: MNDoT plans to close direct access to 52 which will isolate existing businesses in order to serve the businesses which might inhabit the biobusiness park some day.  Problem 2:  Pine Island bet heavily with MNDoT; the deal for the interchange included promises to create 20 biobusiness jobs a year starting in 2013 until 2021 which, if not created, will cost Pine Island $20,000 for each job which doesn’t exist.  Pine Island is trying to negotiate so MNDoT won’t call in those chips.

Glimmer of hope: A letter to the editor in the Cannon Falls Beacon asking “Given today’s environment of scarce resources, shouldn’t transportation planning rely on something more than wishful thinking?

Thinking about cycling differently

Beware bicyclesDorothy Rabinowitz’s video rant about New York City’s bike sharing program may be the most blogged about bit of cycling commentary in recent memory.  Let’s just say her statements mark the extreme view of US cycling where bikes simply do not belong on streets or in cities (and here’s a link to learn about the real bike lobby, not the mythical one Rabinowitz described).  There’s been some more local hoo-ha about cyclists vs. drivers,

In Northfield, we’ve put pretty good policy in place for encouraging cycling and walking, as well as for building sidewalks, bike trails and on-street bike facilities as we take on street projects.  Each new project, however, which tries to build non-automobile facilities continues to meet with resistance from some Council and community members while being  championed by others.

Part of the problem seems to be that in Northfield and New York has nothing to do with the infrastructure, though, but the perception cyclists are some special class of people and, consequently, “they” are sucking up resources that “we” need for other things, like cars.  Perhaps we can stop thinking of cyclists and start thinking of people on bikes, you know, as people like everybody else.  And here’s a little video from a Dutch cyclist who, while visiting the US, observes “the average cyclist in San Francisco seems to be a young fit adult, mostly male and appears to be in a constant hurry” and, unlike Amsterdam, cycling here is recreational, not transportational (and Americans don’t wear “normal clothes”).

For the record, I’m trying to sell my road bikes (the kind one rides in spandex shorts) and keeping my beater bike for riding around town from point A to B in my regular clothes (even skirts), but I’d kind of like one of these.

And here’s a little round-up of other cycling-related stuff which has clustered lately around good infrastructure (and planning infrastructure) and “peak car” – new studies show driving is declining.  Somehow I also fell upon a few older posts about the cost of car ownership (cars from AAAcomparison from NYTimes and a DIY calculator from Bikes at Work and a great new phrase “infrastructurally coerced car ownership” from A New Dallas).