Bike-cation in Northfield

Bikeyface could have been in Northfield!

Bikeyface could have been in Northfield!

Bikeyface took a bike-cation somewhere near Boston, but could have been visiting Northfield instead.  Doesn’t that look like MN Trunk Highway 3 through downtown Northfield?

What would a bike-cation in Northfield look like? There’s a surprising amount to do on a bicycle in Northfield, but navigating through the center of town on a bicycle to reach some of the best bikable bits does look a lot like Bikeyface’s drawing.

Bike-cation in Northfield, Plan A

How to get to bike trails

How to get to bike trails

Stay downtown at the Archer House River Inn.  Riding south on Division Street, you can enjoy the shops, restaurants with an easy connection through Riverside Park under the highway to the Peggy Prowe Pedestrian Bridge (Peggy Prowe is Northfield’s tireless trail advocate).

mapMillTownsOnce there, you can ride on the Mill Towns Trail through Sechler Park toward Dundas. In the future, the plan is to connect the Mill Towns Trail to the Sakatah Singing Hills Trail toward Faribault and Mankato and to the Cannon Valley Trail to Red Wing. In the nearer future, after reaching Dundas on the west side of the Cannon River you could return to Northfield on the trail under construction on the east side of the river. Babcock Park could soon see a canoe/kayak launch and other improvements to diversify your active vacation.

Carleton Water tower

Carleton’s water tower and Lyman Lakes

Reaching Carleton College is a short (uphill) ride from downtown with connections to rural roads (paved and gravel).  Visiting St Olaf College (or the Ole Store Cafe) requires something like the Bikeyface crossing experience at Highway 3 (but Northfield does have beg buttons and, at Second Street, a bike sensor) and a longer uphill climb (but returning to downtown is a breeze!).

You could come to Northfield for bike related events, too.  The annual Defeat of Jesse James Days Bike Tour is the longest running and largest one, but the Tour De Save and MN Gravel Championships are based here.

Bike-cation Plan B

Northfield's Country InnStay across MN3 at the Country Inn (only .25 miles from the Archer House). You’re not interested in the historic inn experience, but prefer the amenities at a more contemporary hotel (like the indoor pool, for example) along with the convenient parking for your car (with its bike carrier).

How to get to bike trails

How to get to bike trails

Unfortunately, this hotel is stranded at the corner of two state highways, so while it is very accessible by car, all the bicycle activities noted under Plan A take some additional work. The bike and pedestrian bridge which connects to the east river trail or under Highway 3 to downtown still requires crossing MN19.  Reaching downtown (which you could see from your hotel room window) means crossing MN3. The Country Inn is,however, better situated for reaching El Triunfo.

So close

As Bikeyface noted:

Yep, it was so close to being a brilliant vacation. Small towns need safe streets and infrastructure that takes bikes seriously too. It’s good for recreation, transportation, and my vacations tourism. Even if driving is sometimes necessary, it’s always nice to drive less.

Northfield, too, is so close to being a brilliant bike-cation destination.  Pieces of brilliance like the work developing the Mill Towns Trail, building the pedestrian bridge, and working to get the bike sensor installed do add up, but sparkling brilliance requires repairing the border vacuum created by MN3 (and to a lesser extent MN19).

There are jurisdictional challenges, certainly, since building and connecting bicycling facilities requires thinking about trails (DNR and the City of Northfield’s parks department), on-street bike facilities (MnDOT, Rice County, and the City of Northfield’s parks and streets departments), economic development (Economic Development Authority, Northfield Downtown Development Corporation, City of Northfield, Chamber of Commerce), streets (MnDOT, Rice and Dakota Counties, City of Northfield).

Plus, there are funding challenges since the different agencies and departments which deal with bicycle improvements also bring different funding streams and decision-making processes. The DNR often works through grant-making, MnDOT funds improvements to state roads and MSA-funding, Rice County funds some kinds of improvements in the City, but not others (like sidewalks), the City of Northfield might pay for improvements as special projects, through the CIP, private groups raise money for particular projects and even the federal government can get involved.

There are many stakeholders, too. Northfield has trail supporters, off-road cyclists, bike clubs, BikeNorthfield, as well as youth advocates, healthy community campaigners and probably more.

It’s all one challenge: coordinating support over the time needed to plan and build better crossings takes leadership. None of the recent accolades for livability or retirement mention the stroad through the middle of town, but it is still an impediment to walking and cycling.  Northfield is already a good place to ride a bike and could be a great bike-cation destination (and even better place to live or retire) in the not too distant future if we could connect the dots.

Money Magazine rated Northfield the #1 place to retire (with your bicycle)

A version of this post appears at streets.mn

 

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.

nddc12.jpg

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.