BikeNorthfield’s mission is to work with community and regional partners to promote safe and convenient bicycling for transportation, recreation, and tourism in and around Northfield.
BikeNorthfield’s mission is to work with community and regional partners to promote safe and convenient bicycling for transportation, recreation, and tourism in and around Northfield.
While in Amsterdam last month, I walked around looking at doorways and thought: “Who needs a front yard anyway?”
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.
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:
“How we put together the built environment within our public right-of-way determines much about how we can conduct daily life for years to come.” I can’t get this quote from civil engineer and bike advocate Fionnuala Quinn neatly out of my mind because it so eloquently captures the long-term significance of street projects for a community. As the Woodley Street project progresses, public meetings are now scheduled – the first meeting is tonight – so this is the time to think together about how we would like to be able to conduct our daily life along and across this corridor and move the conversation from costs (or perceived costs) to shared benefits.
Typically, street projects are designed by consultant engineers – Bolton and Menk, in this case – with limited knowledge of the community context of the street. While Bolton and Menk have worked in Northfield frequently, that’s not the same as knowing how the street and surrounding land uses work together, or how Woodley connects more distant parts of the city. Community members, both those adjacent to project boundaries and those who travel through the project area, can inform the non-native designers about the community, how this street connects to other places (or how it doesn’t now, but could in the future), and other local knowledge about the place and how people move around in it. In other words, showing the engineers what matters in human terms so the design can respond to local context rather than just slapping down the standard plate over whatever might be it its path.
It’s no secret I’m interested in broadening the conversation and changing the street to do more and to change the way the space functions for the longer term. Northfield and its hired help need input from the people who currently use or cross Woodley Street and those who avoid it because of perceived problems to determine what change is needed.
I’m also a design idealist (despite believing this video to be all too true). Having had the luxury of living in and visiting other cities, I have seen how well-designed infrastructure makes getting around easy and pleasant as well as experiencing less than well-designed places and struggling as a result. Local people know their places well, but are not street design experts and rather than asking residents (or the City Council) to be citizen engineers and do the drawing, I’m wishing for local people who provide great feet-on-the-street knowledge and innovative designers who can create a street corridor which works for Northfield.
Northfield has made great progress in the last few years publicizing meetings, providing on-line engagement, and increasing the number of face-to-face opportunities for input. Even so, it is difficult to reach and engage community members beyond the adjacent property owners for whom personal notice is built into the legal requirements. BikeNorthfield (I’m on the its steering committee) and other organizations like Sibley School and the school district, advocates for public health, etc. can help spread the word that input is needed about the project (and we should get to work).
Not that the adjacent property owners should be ignored; I appreciate the very real concerns (and have paid my own special assessment in the last few years) – project residents mostly own their homes and their home is likely a very substantial portion of their assets – of course they are concerned about the impact to that asset and whether the project will affect its value or their ability to enjoy their property. The way we assess a portion of the project cost to adjacent property owners makes it completely reasonable that they may have an aversion to loss of “their” property when a sidewalk is constructed or fear how any change in the street corridor will affect their investment. On the other hand, Council members who simply give residents veto power abdicate their responsibility to consider the long term benefits for the community.
Perhaps my biggest concern is how little education takes place to guide public comment. Most of us do not spend much time looking at street cross sections, learning about intersection geometry, or know what design features have been demonstrated to calm traffic, improve safety or address other relevant issues (hence my comments above that residents supply context so thoughtful designers can get to work). In the past, consultants and staff have done little to help policy-makers or residents learn what design choices are possible, how design could help solve problems identified, and what choices cost in both the long and short term, but instead stood by their diagrams and maps waiting for whatever questions or comments emerge.
If we’re simply shown big diagrams and asked “So, what do you think?” or “Do you like it or not?” we don’t know much about what we’re being asked and are more likely to give feedback which is irrelevant (when I scribble “Make Woodley a 32′ wide street!” when the 44′ width has already been decided) or merely reactive (“I don’t want a sidewalk!”).
What if we framed the discussion this way: The City is working to implement its Safe Routes to School plan and make its streets more “complete” by improving bike and pedestrian connections to important destinations like Sibley School, the Spring Creek Soccer Complex, the City Pool at Old Memorial Park and downtown. The County requires a 44′ wide street with 12′ travel lanes. The remaining space can be allocated in different ways to provide better bike connections, prioritize private parking, or a combination of uses. Sidewalks are included in Northfield’s policies, too, and can be included in this project. Then, the City could present some alternative configurations with some of the benefits and costs of each.
Flat maps and diagrams don’t help much with visualizing change and can even be rather alarming as this diagram showing trees to be removed as small explosions which make it difficult to see much beyond loss and destruction:
Hennepin County has recently been doing some planning and adding bike lanes on Lowry Avenue. In addition to the flat images, the County has tried to market the change positively. The image shows cars still moving efficiently, but also includes the bikes and new trees to present a positive image of change rather than a documentation of loss.
City staff and elected leaders could emphasize values and priorities as articulated in city policy. Our policies are really good and forward thinking. Allocating space for bicycles is less about space than about making different choices (and allocating all the space for cars was a choice made in the past). If we presume the space is for motor vehicles, then every reduction in driving or parking space seems like a loss or (worse) a threat. If, on the other hand, we start from the position than the public right of way should be allocated for the broadest inclusion and choice across the network, we can use the space to both permit safe, uninterrupted vehicle movement and safe, clearly identified space for bicycles.
Woodley Street needs fixing as anyone who has driven, ridden or walked on it knows. But remembering this needed repair to pavement and pipes is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for change, what are the other benefits the city could realize? My interest is how Woodley Street helps us get places and links destinations – and it is a key link to many places in Northfield.
If Northfield and Rice County rebuild Woodley Street by repeating choices of the past – a car-only county highway without sidewalks, safe intersections for pedestrians, or bike facilities, the City will miss the chance to help anyone who walks, bicycles or uses a wheelchair/scooter right now to reach downtown, parks, schools and moving around the neighborhood and, more importantly, will preempt these choices for decades more to come.
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:
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)
Someone asked me recently: “So, Betsey…why bikes?” as in “Why are you focusing on bike advocacy in particular?” It’s a good question since reading back in time on my blog suggests that “just bikes” is a significant contraction of my interests from city government, urban planning and economic development. Also a good question since my goal is to change the conversation (and the world) to foster development which links land use, transportation, and economic development to be more equitable as well as economically and environmentally sustainable; it is not obvious why bikes are so important to this much larger plan.
Presuming most people in and around local government can distinguish placemaking, Strong Towns, smart growth, human-scaled development, urbanism, new urbanism, tactical urbanism, land use, land consumption, built environment, carrying capacity, compact development, green development, conservation development, low impact development, density, walkability, Safe Routes to School, Complete Streets from one another is usually a mistake, in my experience. Assuming they believe any of the principles underlying these buzzwords are desirable or doable does not, again in my experience, lead to much progress. World-changing requires thinking smaller.
Most people know something about bikes. Maybe they rode a bike to school, have one rusting in their garage, or think they might like to ride for fun or exercise. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, perhaps they are committed bike commuters, ride many miles for sport (from fat to skinny tires, pavement gravel or trail) or enjoy taking the family to ride on bike trails. Even if someone thinks riding a bike is unpleasant, unsafe or unworkable, they still know what bikes are.
So, bikes are accessible and talking about riding bikes brings urban design and transportation planning down to earth where particular experiences, specific intersections, individual streets, and different kinds of riders or improvements make sense and generate discussion, debate and disagreement (and also collaboration and maybe consensus).
Finally, on a project by project basis, building bike infrastructure or planning improvements is small, focused, relatively low cost and doable. And, every year Northfield does a couple of street projects and each one of them is an opportunity for improvement. Indeed, changing the street landscape can be very cheap, quick and reversible. Fixing sprawling subdivisions and changing commercial development are not so easy.
Rather than starting at the policy level, getting people riding bikes and biking to where people want to be is the bottom-up approach to fixing infrastructurally coerced car ownership.
If people can and do get around town easily and safely on bikes, other larger things are probably happening, too, so bikes are a lever for larger change.
Places are connected (at a human scale). In a city the size of Northfield, distances are not great (under 5 miles) so kids could get to school without buses or parental chauffeuring if a few obstacles are removed (like Woodley Street and Highway 3). Retrofitting Northfield’s schools for better bike access might also encourage building the next school in a place where it was easy to reach by bike. My daughter probably got tired of hearing me say “You have legs and you know how to use them,” but she did enjoy getting to and from school independently and I certainly enjoyed not sitting in lines like this:
Aging and mobility: If bikes can get around easily, the place has probably calmed traffic and improved transportation options for pedestrians, too. As a temporarily middle-aged person, I’m working for a Northfield where as I slow down, I can keep riding my bike and be able to ride or walk on and cross streets at a slower pace.
Public conversation has been taking place to reconsider public space: A really bikeable place has been rebuilding streets where space is allocated to maximize public benefit, transportation choice, public health, and the environment rather than just moving (or storing) cars. Successful bike advocacy takes networking and community support to change the conversation from what cars lose by adding bike lanes to how public space is used for more of the public.
Working for better biking is also working for building more transportation choices into the place, connecting neighborhoods, and linking people and services. In a town the size and density of Northfield, transit is mostly inefficient, but bike connections make sense.
Equity: Finally, my take on bikes is a privileged one, but it shouldn’t have to be. So, when someone says “Oh, you ride because you’re affluent, white, liberal, etc.” they’re right. I have the money to buy a house in Northfield near work and shopping (on the “right” side of Highway 3) so, strangely, because I have money, I don’t have to spend it on transportation. I have been privileged enough to live in England and Finland as well as visit the Netherlands and Europe and see how cities can enable transit, walking and bicycles so driving is neither as necessary nor as convenient. Working for better biking is also working for building more transportation choices into the place, connecting neighborhoods, and linking services.
The question “Why bikes?” got asked not long after I had attended my last Strong Towns board meeting where Chuck Marohn, after talking about wanting to build a Strong Towns movement, started enumerating all the groups he didn’t like because of the narrowness of their vision. “I hate the bike lanes people,” he said, “and I hate the Complete Streets people.” Sure “bike lane people” might focus too narrowly (as any advocate can see the landscape only through their particular lens, even “Strong Towns people”) and miss the larger picture for the bike lane, but bikes are small enough to get some traction on much larger issues.
A version of this post appears on streets.mn
This infographic is a visualization of just how much space we devote to cars by showing what else could fit in the same space. Here’s another.
My goal is not to make everyone stop driving, but to only stop and think about the cost of the benefit of being able to drive everywhere and have car storage space close to wherever you want to drive.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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).
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.
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.
“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.
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).
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.
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.
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.