Who needs a front yard anyway?

While in Amsterdam last month, I walked around looking at doorways and thought: “Who needs a front yard anyway?”

Enough front yard for me

Enough front yard for me

Or perhaps:

Also enough

Also enough

At home, I feel oppressed by most of my yard. My house sits on a 66′ x 150′ Northfield original town lot which is a not huge parcel in a walkable neighborhood near downtown Northfield. Pretty modest by recent development standards, you might say.

Still, there’s too much useless space which demands mowing or weeding without offering much in the way of compensation. The front yard is particularly unnecessary, but I don’t live in a place which makes an Amsterdam-style front entrance possible. I’m thrilled, though, to see articles like Lawns are a Soul-Crushing Time Suck since that pretty much sums up my thinking about the grassy party of my yard.

Some people just stop mowing and let nature reclaim their yard (and face the consequences – Northfield also has ordinances about weeds and tall grass, although “planned landscaping” is excluded). I took a more intentional path (in the back yard) and planted my little prairie (thanks Prairie Moon Nursery for the seed mix) after building a small addition trashed some of the grassy bits.

My little backyard prairie keeps evolving as the grasses and flowers reseed themselves or adapt to the light and soil conditions. Unlike the grass bits, my prairie is filled with honeybees and butterflies and bunnies; it requires no mowing, almost no weeding and is interesting in all seasons. Every year we reclaim a bit more yard from mowable grass; perhaps the front yard will be next.

Little Prairie by the House

Little Prairie by the House – the only part of the yard I like

 

 

More “What else fits in that parking space?”

Back in March, I posted What else fits in that parking space? with a couple of graphics about what fits in the same amount of space as a car. In real life, I saw this:

IMG_2553So, 3 bikes and a tree fit quite nicely in this Amsterdam parking space (but this should also show that there are cars in Amsterdam, they just manage traffic differently).

 

Fun urbanism – Spring edition

Now that it is getting Springy in Northfield, thoughts turn to flowers, getting outside, and enjoying public spaces.  Here’s a way to get it all:

Image of Tulpi folding plastic tulips seating

Tulpi Tulip seats (Photo via CityLab)

I’m thinking they’d look lovely in Bridge Square, along the Cannon River, scattered in parks or even strategically deployed along Division Street (yes, I know these seats do not follow the Northfield Streetscape Framework Plan)

Development pattern productivity, continued further

Last week, I anticipated the Northfield City Council’s discussion of amendments to the Land Development Code by comparing the tax revenue from a selection of different development patterns around town (thanks to David Delong for mentioning Community Resource Bank – 3 stories on the highway with less than minimum parking – a variance was granted to reduce the parking lot size – would be valued at $2,294,118 per acre with tax revenue of $95,894 which narrowly beats the downtown block and is 5x better than neighboring Target; multistory development wins on or off the highway).  The ensuing Council discussion was somewhat encouraging, mostly predictable, and once unintentionally funny.

Encouraging: My previous post had its intended effect of inserting into the discussion the idea that low density, sprawling development is less valuable to the city’s tax base than more compact, multi-story development.

Predictable: The usual backlash complaining proposed regulations will kill all development along with the (false) presumption that asking questions about how we develop indicates a desire to preserve Northfield circa the Defeat of Jesse James.

More encouragement: let’s see if we can nudge the conversation past the adversarial stance where questions about how we develop are perceived as advocating for no development whatsoever to acknowledging:

1. Cities (with help from higher levels of government) adopted policies and spent money on infrastructure which encouraged and enabled the low density, low productivity pattern.  In the news recently is this report on the policies which have encouraged unproductive development and its costs (See also CityLab, Washington Post, and the press release for the report). “The market” is not free, but the highest and best uses are strongly determined by government action.

2. Developers are not altruistic and will act to reduce their costs and increase their profit. Since government has helped make sprawl profitable for them and create the market for it, we shouldn’t be too surprised about fears that shifting regulations away from sprawl will hurt business.  Private sector development has to be able to make money.

3. Cities need to make development deals which allow developers to make money, but also increase the city’s long-term economic and environmental health. 

Costs

Developer costs and municipal costs: can we consider municipal costs in development regulations? (Image: Strong Towns/Joe Minicozzi)

4. Reversing the unsustainable pattern of low density, high infrastructure cost, low tax revenue development will require a comprehensive and sustained effort involving leadership, education, policy and regulatory change, encouragement (and incentives), collaboration with other units of government and patience. The current proposed LDC changes are just a chance to open the conversation, but will change nothing on their own.

Funny: I just had to laugh when Council Members Delong and Ludescher complained about undermining the Planning Commission’s hard work.  When I was on the Planning Commission, it was the Commission recommending actions perceived as anti-development; Mayor, then Council member, Graham lead the charge to overrule Planning Commission recommendations and encourage developers to come directly to the Council for approval. The Planning Commission is an advisory board; it’s recommendations can be accepted, revised or rejected depending on Council politics at the time. Circa 2003, it was the Council defending the status quo; in 2015, it is the Planning Commission.

Encourage the Council to continue to ask questions about how to promote the development which is sustainable and creates wealth for all taxpayers.

 

Daylighting at the Library

I didn’t know there was a term for this, but apparently I’ve been thinking about daylighting at the corner of Washington and 3rd Streets and at the bottom of the hill at Division and 3rd Streets right by the Northfield Public Library for many years.

Here’s a little video from Streetfilms explaining “daylighting.”

Daylighting: Make Your Crosswalks Safer from STREETFILMS on Vimeo.

Now that the the Library expansion project is about to begin, this would be the perfect opportunity to make some exterior changes in addition to the good stuff which will happen to the Library building.

Daylighting, at its simplest, is just prohibiting parking close to intersections and crosswalks to create better sightlines for cars to see pedestrians and vice versa. The intersections by the Library see much pedestrian traffic, including small children and older adults, and visibility is currently poor.  Parked cars limit visibility which is compounded by grade changes.  Driving south on Washington Street is an uphill journey making the crosswalk across Washington a particularly difficult place to see pedestrians.  As a driver looking for pedestrians, I keep getting surprised by people, especially small people, edging out past the cars to see what’s coming. As a pedestrian, I find the east side of Washington feels safer because the higher elevation gives me a better vantage point to see approaching cars (or bikes).  Standing on the Library side of Washington, I’ll keep my dog behind me as I edge out to see what’s emerging from the north.

High capacity bike rack on Division Street (with Derek & Laura Meyers - HCI Making a Difference winners and Imminent Brewers)

High capacity bike rack on Division Street (with Derek & Laura Meyers – HCI Making a Difference winners)

The problem at the bottom of the hill on Division Street is similar. Creating the high capacity bike parking space did improve visibility at this intersection to the south, but the crosswalk is still obscured while driving south by the angle parking on the west and the parallel parking on the east.

It would be a quick, cheap change to prohibit parking closest to these intersections with some paint and a couple of signs.

Looking at Library expansion plans, there are a couple of changes to the Library which make daylighting an even more appropriate choice.  A much needed sidewalk will be added along Washington from the top of the steps down to the Library to 3rd Street putting more pedestrians near and at the intersection (although the architectural renderings are stunningly devoid of real life parking and traffic).

Architectural drawing of library expansion, east side

Library expansion, east side (Image Northfield Public Library)

The expansion of the library onto what is now the bike parking plaza means the well-used bike racks need a new home and, as on Division Street, a high capacity bike rack on the street at 3rd and Washington would both provide daylight AND bike parking.

Let’s say the quick and cheap paint solution is a big success. Now let’s think about more substantial permanent changes to enhance the Library intersections.

3rd Street intersections

3rd Street intersections

Right now, the 3rd Street parking “lot” has curb extensions at both ends which mark off the space as devoted to parking and slow through traffic; the extensions create delightfully short crossing distances with great visibility across 3rd Street; compare the length of the crosswalks in the image above). The painted daylight spots could become permanent extensions on Washington and Division which make for even better visibility because they are higher than street level, shorten crossing distances, calm traffic on Division and Washinton Streets and create a larger public space for bike parking, benches (many people now sit on the Library wall waiting for rides, why not provide seating accessible to people of all ages?), street trees, etc.

The Northfield Public Library is well-loved and heavily used, it draws people of all ages and is at the heart of our most pedestrian-oriented space. The expansion of the Library is a golden opportunity to improve the streetscape, too.

drawing of NACTO gateway curb extension

Gateway curb extension (image NACTO Urban Street Design Guide)

 

 

 

Development pattern productivity, continued

“No additional financial impacts are anticipated,” claims the staff report accompanying proposed revisions to Northfield’s nightmare land development regulations. Yet the proposed changes will change zoning around Northfield’s downtown to make lower density, less compact development the default pattern and this does have financial impacts for the City of Northfield.

The motivation for the changes is to make development easier and help cure Northfield’s purported reputation hostility to business, developers and development. Yet the discussion has only focused on making it easier and cheaper for developers and not on the longer term impacts for the City of Northfield and its taxpayers.

Mayor Graham was the first (but certainly not the last) person to call me anti-growth and anti-business, so let me say again that neither is true. I wholeheartedly support making the development permit process easy, predictable and cheap for developers. I urge the Council, Economic Development Authority, NDDC, and Chamber to work to encourage business and development in Northfield by retaining current business and attracting new companies.

But, and of course there was a but, I continue to advocate for the City to work to make developing in a pattern which will sustain the City financially the easiest choice rather than changing the regulations to development which is less profitable for the City the norm. Tonight, the Council should have a robust discussion about how to make the most productive use of land in Northfield for the taxpayers and how to help developers make money in the short term so the City can prosper in the long term.

Private development depends on a great deal of public infrastructure water, wastewater, stormwater, and roads.  While developers usually pay for the required improvements (but the proposed business park plans also proposed to subsidize this, too), the infrastructure is all dedicated to the City – to me and my fellow taxpayers – to maintain, repair and eventually replace. It matters a great deal whether the development the City permits can pay for the costs to maintain the infrastructure and some development patterns yield more revenue.

To help the Council consider what I mean about more productive vs. less productive development patterns, let’s do the numbers. Following in the footsteps of Strong Towns “Taco Johns math” in Brainerd and Joe Minicozzi’s work in Asheville, NC (and an additional example from Rochester), I offer three examples of different development patterns in Northfield with taxable market values and tax revenues (from Rice County public records) compared on a per acre basis to compare apples to apples. The downtown block is by far the most efficient and highest producing use of land on a per acre basis.

When considering how to zone and regulate land, the City’s interest should be to guide development in a pattern which produces the most tax revenue for the least cost in terms of infrastructure. The proposed revisions to the LDC help create lower density and lower productivity for the City.

Downtown Block

The development pattern is on a traditional grid street pattern with mostly two-story construction (there are a couple of single story buildings plus the taller First National Bank and Grand Event Center), zero setbacks, and sidewalks. This block has a mix of residential (apartments on upper floors along Division Street as well as an apartment building on Washington), retail and service businesses at street level plus additional business uses on upper floors (this makes for greater density of jobs, too).

Downtown block bounded by Division, Washington, 3rd and 4th Streets

Downtown block bounded by Division, Washington, 3rd and 4th Streets

  • Total acres: 1.71 (not including city parking lots)
  • Total Market value: $4,192,400 (not including value of parking lots)
  • Total Tax revenue (State, county & city level): $148,586
  • Value per acre: $2,451,696 (w/o parking)
  • Tax revenue per acre: $86,892 (w/o parking)

Southgate Mall development, Highway 3

This development was built in 1976, well into the suburban, highway and automobile-oriented phase.  The single-story structure with parking in front on a state highway frontage road is difficult to reach except by car. The sidewalk and new-ish bike trail along the river behind this development get pedestrians and bicycles close, but there is still no direct access. The highway oriented development requires considerably more infrastructure – a frontage road and a state trunk highway – as well as requiring off-street parking for additional distance for pipes and more stormwater runoff to manage.

Southgate development, Highway 3 south

Southgate development, Highway 3 south

  • Total acres: 1.16
  • Total market value: $152,500
  • Total tax Revenue: $4,982
  • Value per acre: $131,466
  • Tax revenue per acre: $4,295

Target/Cub development

Moving further south on Highway 3, the early 21st century big box development of Target and Cub (plus Applebee’s Restaurant) is also single-story, requiring a much greater amount of land for parking and the location at the far south end of town makes it less accessible for many on foot or bicycle.  Additional improvements to highway intersections and local connections streets added to the public cost.

Target, Cub Foods and Applebees development, Highway 3 south

Target, Cub Foods and Applebees development, Highway 3 south

  • Total acres: 26.4 (13.8 for Applebees/Cub + 12.6 for Target)
  • Total market value: $10,721,700
  • Total tax revenue: $446,882
  •  Per acre value: $406,125
  • Per acre tax revenue: $16,927

On a per acre comparison, the denser, multi-story, mixed use downtown block is the clear winner as I’ve argued before, but now provide the numbers.  As luck would have it, the proposed land development regulations share an agenda with a proposed resolution supporting a state omnibus transportation funding bill that provides additional dedicated state funding for city streets (including non-MSA street maintenance, construction and reconstruction).  How much of the pain the omnibus transportation funding bill is trying to solve is self-inflicted by building more than we can afford?

Consider why Northfield and other cities need more money for local roads; one reason is that cities have built a great deal of infrastructure to support very low return development that cannot support itself. Working toward revising how we build can also help change how resilient and prosperous Northfield will be in the future.

 

Crossing the highway one intersection at a time

Crossing Highway 3 in Northfield (on foot) should get somewhat easier soon.  Tonight, March 3, the Northfield City Council will vote whether to order plans and specifications for a redesign of the intersection at 3rd Street and Highway 3.

Diagram of proposed changes to Highway 3 & 3rd Street Northfield

Proposed changes to Highway 3 at 3rd Street

Good for pedestrians

This will be a big improvement for people on foot (and perhaps motorized scooters or wheelchairs).  By capitalizing on the diagonal highway, the new crosswalk will connect the southeast to the northwest corner for a shorter crossing distance (about 106′) than a straight across connection and also shorter than crossing at either 5th Street or 2nd Street (although those intersections have signals).  For comparison, east-west crossing distances at 2nd Street are approximately 115′ from the northeast to northwest corner; the southeast to southwest crossing is about 125.’

Image of Intersection at Highway 3 and 2nd Street

Intersection at Highway 3 and 2nd Street

At 5th Street, the pedestrian islands (“pork chops”) create refuge spaces but increase the complexity of the intersection for pedestrians as well as lengthening crossing distances (southwest to southeast is about 180′ while northwest to northeast is about 190′).

Image of Highway 3 and 5th Street intersection

Highway 3 and 5th Street intersection

Crossing distances are important, especially for older or slower walkers.  Signals are timed for a certain number of feet per second walking speed (it used to be 4 feet per second, now revised to 3.5, I believe, which is still pretty quick for older walkers).  Although no signal will be installed at 3rd Street, fewer feet across mean less time needed to cross.

The addition of a median at 3rd Street will prevent vehicle traffic from crossing the highway as well as creating a more robust refuge space for walkers than the thin median already in place.  The diagonal crossing also protects pedestrians from right turning traffic; cars turning right on red at 2nd Street have contributed to several cases of drivers striking pedestrians.

But not for bicycles

The design which serves pedestrians well makes travel by bicycle more difficult. Bicycles, like motor vehicles, will not be able to cross the highway because the new median will block all vehicle movement straight across the highway. People riding bikes can “play pedestrian” by dismounting and using the crosswalk, of course, but this is counter-intuitive and potentially confusing to both riders and drivers.

Alternatively, people riding bikes can take the right in-right out option but then they will be faced with no easy option for bicycles to turn left at Second or Fifth Street to continue across the highway.  For motorized vehicles, this right in-right out configuration is also less direct, but distances and directness are more critical for human-powered bicycles and crossing lanes of motor vehicle traffic to use left turn lanes at adjacent intersections is a typical and predictable action for cars (but not bicycles)

The bike sensor for the traffic signal at 2nd Street is a bike-only improvement, but using this sensor still requires pretty confident vehicular cycling to ride boldly into the bike box in the traffic lane to trip the sensor.

Image of bike sensor in 2nd Street and Highway 3

Bike sensor

A strange process

The Northfield Roundtable is a group of citizens dedicated to considering “what could be, not what should be” in Northfield through good design. The Roundtable is allergic to political engagement (stating so at Council worksessions) and conducts its work through carefully controlled interactions with a very limited and invited selection of the public (Northfield’s group was inspired by Holland, MI, but has not followed that group’s work to have its plans adopted by the city government).

This project and much of the design were developed at a Roundtable session in 2014 which, through the efforts of a single Roundtable member cultivating relationships with MnDOT representatives, included MnDot engineers. The idea was seized by City staff, discussed at a worksession with Roundtable members, given nods along the way by the Council, and now being developed with grant funding from MnDOT and the TIF District.  Other interest groups like the Garden Club, Save the Northfield Depot, and BikeNorthfield have weighed in, but robust public process has been lacking. As a member of the BikeNorthfield steering committee (although this post is my opinion alone), I appreciate having BikeNorthfield included in the conversation to build bikes back into the transportation planning process, but this kind of private consultation should not define city process going forward.

The big picture

This is an “ends justify the means” project. Despite the less than public process leading to this point, there’s still much to celebrate with the end product.  From the top down, it is heartening to see MnDOT both permitting and participating in a project to help heal the damage caused by their trunk highway (and funding some of it through a Local Road Improvement Project grant). It is also encouraging to see a project proceed quickly from planning to construction planned for 2015 (although less public process helps speed project development). Considering the project as part of the entire Highway 3 corridor, this improvement really does make the highway more permeable to pedestrians and could be an important pedestrian link to a relocated Northfield Depot (especially if it becomes a transit hub). The pedestrian only design, however, should push Northfield to look to other intersections for additional improvements for helping bicycles, pedestrians and other vulnerable users cross easily and safely at all intersections.