Downtown matters

Downtown matters.

Northfield’s downtown is pretty:

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Downtown Northfield
(photo northfield.org)

And active:

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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)

 

 

 

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).

 

 

 

Could Northfield be the next Vancouver?

I’ve never been to Vancouver, BC, although it’s been on my “to go” list for a long time.  Now, even more, I’d like to visit.  Why?  Their transportation policy (and the cross country skiing in BC is excellent).

Here in Northfield, we’ve struggled to make even small changes in policy to help Northfield grow in ways which encourage active transportation, productive land use, and a viable transit system.  Even so, every policy gets challenged (or simply ignored) when a new small decision needs to be made.  Complete Streets?  Great, until a street project must be approved.  GreenStep Cities and sustainability?  Wonderful, but seldom considered.  Smart Growth Comprehensive Plan?  Super, until we try to take steps to implement it.

Vancouver, however, thinks big and has since 1997 when it approved an influential Transportation Plan which prioritized – rank ordered – modes of transportation.  Vancouver has just approved Transportation 2040 which affirms the priorities for moving people (for moving goods, etc. there are separate rankings): Walking, Cycling, Transit, Taxi/Commercial Transit/Shared Vehicles, and Private Automobiles.

The hierarchy is intended to help ensure that the needs and safety of each group of road users are sequentially considered when decisions are made, that each group is given proper consideration, and that the changes will not make existing conditions worse for more vulnerable road users, such as people on foot, bicycle, and motorcycle. Each time a new roadway is designed or an existing one changed, opportunities for improving walking and cycling will be reviewed…This is a general approach and does not mean that users at the top of the list will always receive the most beneficial treatment on every street. In highly constrained urban environments, it is not always possible to provide the ideal facilities for all users’ needs.

Even better, Vancouver links transportation and land use (“Use land use to support shorter trips and sustainable transportation choices”), does not flinch from saying the goal is to reduce auto-dependence (“Manage the road network efficiently to improve safety and support a gradual reduction in car dependence. Make it easier to drive less”) and understands that the economic vitality and emergency response must also be part of the overall plan (“Support a thriving economy and Vancouver’s role as a major port and Asia-Pacific gateway while managing related environmental and neighbourhood impacts. Maintain effective emergency response times for police, fire, and ambulance”).

Here in Northfield, we need to try to be more Vancouverish (at a scale appropriate for a community of our size/location) for the long term health (financial, physical, environmental) of the city.  

Have we outgrown zoning?

 Zoning is no longer appropriate, writes architect Roger Lewis in the Washington Post recently.  It is easy enough to agree – zoning is essentially segregation.  We put big houses here, little houses over there, multi-family housing way over there (check out some of the history of land use regulation and discrimination), industrial out there, and commercial on the highway.  The inappropriateness comes from both the inequities, but also the community costs in terms of excess infrastructure and unproductive development.

So, have we outgrown zoning?  Yes, but now what?  Here in Northfield, we have a pretty smart comprehensive plan which could use some updating and focusing.  Then we have some really lousy land use regulations which are slated for revision (and with some luck and leadership, for reform or replacement).  What a golden opportunity to move beyond putting things in their zones to plan and regulate for the long term health of the community.

Some inspiration (a very small selection):

Long term thinking, not easy short term answers: some thoughts from San Diego based Placemaker Howard Blackson.  Placemaking is rapidly becoming a planning buzzword which could become just as meaningless as “mixed use” (an oxymoron when you think about it), but I’d like to think of it simply as: identify and work with the specific characteristics of the place – Northfield – rather than overly generic solutions.  Here’s another good one from the Placemakers.

Don’t just ask the community “What do you want/like?” but also educate residents about the features, costs and benefits of various development choices.

Downtown is not a cute museum: work to reinvigorate downtown’s image as the vital and distinctive economic core of Northfield which generates significantly more tax revenue per acre than other areas.

Think local: Consider how supporting local businesses helps keep money in Northfield (some info about co-ops, infill and redevelopment) and how land use and related regulation can help rather than hinder local enterprises.

Streets are really, really important.  The street network helps define the density of a community, connects places within the city and the city to elsewhere, plays a huge role in safety, stormwater, municipal costs, economic development, and quality of life.  Street decisions are also long term and very hard to change. Indeed, how we manage car traffic is critical to thinking about other features of urban development.  Streets matter.

 

 

 

 

 

Walkable urbanism and the future of the world

Whoa.  I’ve been trying to make the case that policy folks need to be thinking about the long term costs of some of our development strategies and not just the instant boost to tax capacity of new growth.  I’ve been thinking about the local sunk costs of late 20th century horizontal growth, but Foreign Policy’s Patrick Doherty takes it global with a New US Grand Strategy:

In the United States, the country’s economic engine is misaligned to the threats and opportunities of the 21st century. Designed explicitly to exploit postwar demand for suburban housing, consumer goods, and reconstruction materials for Europe and Japan, the conditions that allowed it to succeed expired by the early 1970s. Its shelf life has since been extended by accommodative monetary policy and the accumulation of household, corporate, and federal debt.

The upshot: the current path is unsustainable as the planet tries to accommodate 3 billion new middle class members (and the consumption that comes along with them), depletion of natural resources (see my previous post), “contained depression” (and not just a down business cycle or two), and a “resilience crisis” (the drivers of the US economy, crumbling infrastructure, and the soft infrastructure which connect us to markets is fragile).

So, we need a grand plan and the sketch provided includes reforming government, addressing climate change, and vastly improving resource productivity.  It’s a top down vision of national change, but I’m more curious about what state and local efforts can accomplish.  Atlantic Cities picked up on the walkable urbanism part of the solution, but what else could we do?

 

 

How much space do 7 billion people need?

How much space do 7 billion people take up? It depends.

Check out this infographic for a quick visual introduction to how population density and development pattern makes a huge difference in land consumption, among other things.  Per Square Mile points out that the simple visualization just shows the people, but does not indicate the amount of land needed to sustain the population in terms of food, water, transportation networks, building materials, etc. So here’s another image of the size of the footprint the world’s population would make depending on what country is used as a development model.

Density is one of the dirty words of development.  Higher density is equated with grim high rise apartment blocks, crime and overcrowding…although it is also linked to walkability, thriving urban cores, and lower infrastructure costs.  Mostly, though, density is very measurable on a project by project basis (number of housing units or people per acre is very countable and thus easy to administer).  See Strong Towns’ Chuck Marohn’s criticism of density (and planners), too.

So, let’s not get distracted by density and think about productivity, land consumption and carrying capacity and ask: What patterns of development are more productive, consume land more slowly and enable us to live within our resources and how can we foster those patterns rather than the ones we have now?  

Rarely economical disappointing development

First, the NY Times series on subsidies and now the Strib has Art Rolnick (former head of research at the Minneapolis Fed) and business writer Mike Meyers bringing the Times’ information back to Minnesota in the context of Governor Dayton’s tax plan in The Subsidy Bonanza.

A few highlights:

  • Stadium subsidies are “part of a national pattern of taxpayers subsidizing some of the richest people in America.”
  • Minnesota outpaces the nation in job growth, but is not a big subsidizer.  So adding more taxpayer money to lure companies hasn’t proven effective, although it is expensive even for the small players (about 1 cent of every dollar in the Minnesota state budget).  Yet, “Study after study has shown the education of Minnesota’s workforce has been the key to the growth of high-quality jobs for the last half-century.”
  • A catalog of the Twin Cities projects which have been subsidized and not delivered on the promises: Best Buy, stadiums, City Center, Lawson Software…

Rolnick also commented on the Mayo deal over in Minneapolis/St Paul Business Journal comparing Mayo to the Vikings stadium deal.

 

 

Dear Senator Dahle

With the power shift in the state legislature, I’m looking forward to the legislative session with a teeny tiny bit of hope and a whole lot of apprehension.  My apprehension level rose precipitously yesterday when I read my new state senator’s tweet (@KevinDahle) that he’d been meeting with a district mayor as part of working to increase local government aid.  Oh dear, Senator Dahle, but that’s starting at the wrong end of the policy process and so early in the session, too.

Dear Senator Dahle,

A very nice deck chair from the Titanic

A very nice deck chair from the Titanic

Congratulations on your election and the start of the new session!  As a recovering local government official, I know that the state legislature has a great influence on how cities can do their business. I write today to offer a few ideas about how the state could help rather than hinder local governments.  I encourage you (indeed my support in any future election depends on it) to look at the larger, longer term policy picture rather rearranging the deck chairs on the titanic ship of the state of Minnesota.

More than 20 years ago, the Citizens’ League published Remaking the Minnesota Miracle which studied the state/local fiscal system to determine what “realigning of responsibilities and revenue raising authority would have to occur” to finance state and local services and increase accountability.  Although the specific recommendations are interesting (the report calls for eliminating LGA), I hope you’ll consider the 4 principles for evaluating the fiscal system which seem very relevant and not time-bound:

Accountability: Responsibility for services should be assigned to the entity that is accountable to the electorate, the recipient of the service, and the governmental unit or persons paying for the service

Effectiveness: Responsibility for services should be assigned to the entity, public or private, that gets the job done well and measures for results.

Economy: Responsibility for services should be assigned to the entity, public or private, that can supply the service at the lowest possible cost.  For instance, in developed areas, water treatment and sewage facilities can be provided less expensively on a regional basis than on an individual city basis.

Equity: Responsibility for services should be assigned to the entities that can finance the service equitably and ensure equity in the delivery of services to all persons.

Certainly, almost any proposal will address some of these values strongly and others more tentatively or will demonstrate the tension between values.  Equity or accountability might strain economy, for example.  Still, these values can help think about what level of government or what private entity is best situated to deliver or fund services and, as a result, where decision-making control should reside.

I hope you have received a copy of the Property Tax working group’s report which also addresses what property taxes are intended to fund and to disentangle state control from local functions.  The history of the development of the property tax in Minnesota is well worth reading as “You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?”

Finally, consider how other regulation affects the tax picture and how the state legislature can incentivize better spending strategies and foster innovation at the local level.

  • The “grow our way to prosperity” model must be reexamined to allow cities, counties and the state to maximize their existing investment in infrastructure rather than expanding infrastructure (and the obligation to maintain it) in the hope of attracting enough new business to pay for the existing system.  There is a burgeoning amount of data showing the cost of this strategy to local and state government.
  • Consider school siting philosophies which demand open space and favor new schools rather than renovation also make it harder for children to walk to school (adding busing costs and congestion).  
  • Think about how state government, with its larger scope, can help local entities work collaboratively (especially those outside the Metro Council’s jurisdiction) to deliver services efficiently and economically rather than pitting them against each other or forcing a sort of local protectionism.  We need to be able to develop shared solutions for transportation, land use, resource protection, and service delivery.
  • Transportation and infrastructure spending is a big deal at all levels of government.  Land use, environmental regulation, public health and quality of life are deeply intertwined with transportation policy; please try to see the whole landscape to make policy which helps local and state government invest wisely, support productive growth patterns, and build places where we want to live, work and invest time and effort.

Thanks for reading and I await your updates and other news of what’s happening in St. Paul.  I’m counting on your leadership to help develop policies which benefit all Minnesotans for the long term, not just the ones yelling at you right now.  Of course, I also know that change happens incrementally as you work to build support and make compromises (and that’s just within the DFL), but I am looking for the conversation to shift away from reactive government to thoughtful, sustainable policy-making.  Good luck!

Yours sincerely,

Betsey Buckheit

 

 

 

What’s bicycling worth?

Continuing the theme of assigning dollars to different community sectors like arts and animals…the theme of this year’s League of American Bicyclists’ National Bike Summit is Bicycling Means Business (here’s a policy report from the League on the economic impact of cycling).

Also in the same bike lane: Trail based economic development out of Iowa, Jay Walljasper’s MinnPost piece Bikes Mean Better Business about Minneapolis. In addition to dollars, there’s also bicycling and other active transportation as a public health issue from the CDC.