Depot gets things started on the Q Block

1896 View of the Depot (Photo Carleton College archives via Save the Northfield Depot)

1896 View of the Depot (Photo Carleton College archives via Save the Northfield Depot)

Northfield’s 1888 train depot is on the move this week. The Save the Northfield Depot (STND) group has been working for five years to raise funds and navigate the political, environmental and legal obstacles to be able to save the historic building from destruction and move it a block north up the (rail) road.

Seeing ground broken and the building secured for the journey is an exciting milestone for historic preservation and a testament to the hard work of STND organization (you should read about the history of the Depot, the efforts to save it from destruction, train service in Northfield, and the details of the project on their very thorough website).

The Depot’s move, however, will also be the first shovels-in-the-ground redevelopment work on this centrally located, repeatedly planned and very difficult site.

The Q Block

The Depot is headed to what Northfield calls the “Q Block” on the west side of MN Trunk Highway 3 (TH3) named for the popular Quarterback Club restaurant and the forgotten Quizno’s sub shop (a space now occupied by El Triunfo – well worth the trip). The Canadian Pacific railroad (and high voltage power lines) bisects the block, the highway frontage makes the site visible but not easily accessible, the block has oddly hsaped parcels and multiple property owners (including the City of Northfield); the Q Block is not the easiest place to develop, in other words.

Depot locations and Q block

Depot locations and Q block

Downtown Northfield used to exist on both the east and west side of what is now TH3. In the late 1950’s, a swath of seventeen buildings was razed for the new trunk highway running from Saint Paul through Northfield to Faribault. In the late 1990s, after 40 years of highway strip development, the prospect of a new Target store further south on the highway, and planning the realignment of TH3 through downtown, Northfield leaders were thinking how to ensure the success of the historic downtown remaining on the east side of TH3 and make better use of underutilized parcels on the west side of the highway.

Q Block and TH3

Q Block and TH3

The Q Block was identified as a west side site in need of thoughtful redevelopment which made it the subject of repeated plans for the real estate and also critical as a location needing better access for people on bikes or on foot. Including these (but perhaps I’ve omitted a few):

  • 1997 Ad Hoc report and 2005 Safe Crossing report: The 1997 citizen group and 2005 Safe Crossing task force both made recommendations for helping people walking or biking cross the highway by adding a traffic signal at the Q Block, but also be trying to recreate a local, human-scale streetscape along the highway through downtown to slow traffic and reinforce the sense of having entered downtown, rather than speeding through town. MnDOT’s actual realignment and reconstruction in of this highway segment did not robustly incorporate the suggestions.
  • 1999 West of the River Guidelines were intended “to incorporate the west of the river area as part of the downtown” by encouraging zero-lot line development, two- to three-story buildings, and echoing the urban design of downtown. These guidelines were instrumental in rejecting a suburban-style Walgreens (which eventually built further south on the highway) on the Q Block and soliciting development proposals for what became the Crossings condo and retail site (worth its own post).
  • 2006 EDA Q Block Master Plan set goals to redevelop “an outdated and mostly vacant retail area” by extending downtown’s scale and urban form across the highway to visually connect east and west and creating a “balance between pedestrian and automobile space along TH 3” and to “enhance pedestrian connections from the Q Block site to the Downtown by improving the TH 3 pedestrian crossings at 2nd and 3rd Streets.”
  • 2006 Streetscape Framework Plan identified design elements in downtown Northfield and recommended a Palette of public and private improvements for the downtown; the Quarterback Club was the first business to take advantage of cost sharing to add some of these features to its Q Block location.
  • 2010 Northfield Roundtable Q Block Planning session (captured in their 2014 Framework Plan) noted: “The ‘Q Block’ could play a central role in creating an east-west axis for Northfield. Many have suggested it as a long-range location for a transportation hub that could provide a “hook” connecting emerging West Side redevelopment to the East Side historic downtown” and further adding ideas for a “greened” pedestrian crossing of the railroad as well as the highway.

High hopes for the Depot and the future

Despite all that planning interest and statements of intention, private tax-paying development did not occur. The proposal to move the Depot to the Q Block was met with both great interest as a way to stimulate long-sought development by some (including me), but significant skepticism by others because it was not “real” economic development. By 2012, the City Council (I was a Council member at the time) approved the Depot move with public support in the form of City-owned land to be transferred the Depot group and financial assistance from the Economic Development Authority. Yet, given the non-profit nature of the development, concerns remained the Depot was not the highest and best use of the property and might discourage additional future development.

But after all that planning, moving the Depot to the Q block is the first concrete step toward improving the block and carrying out the plans and more.  The Depot project:

  • Preserves a singular and historic building which is uniquely intended to be located next to the railroad rather than having the train and its noise be a problem to be mitigated in other kinds of development.
  • Creates an additional reason to cross the highway on foot or bicycle and an opportunity to redesign the infrastructure, especially if it is used as a transit hub and/or passenger rail is restored. In 2015, in anticipation of the Depot’s move, a more pedestrian friendly crossing at Third Street was planned (but its construction has been delayed).
  • Can leverage additional development. The development bet is moving the Depot, restoring the building and making it useful again, will spark additional  – tax paying – development to fill out the block, carry downtown back across the highway, and use buildings to shape the streetscape, calm traffic and restore the local street function back to this strip of highway.

As the truck arrives to begin the Depot’s move just up the tracks to the Q Block, here’s a big round of applause for the Save the Northfield Depot organization for its hard work and persistence to preserve an historic building, lay the groundwork for more transit options, and break ground on redevelopment on the Q Block.

Northfield Depot ready to move! (Photo: Save the Northfield Depot)

Northfield Depot ready to move! (Photo: Save the Northfield Depot)

A version of this post appears on streets.mn

Fun urbanism: Another slide

Back in 2013, I posted about a couple of fun urban slides, and here’s another one. The ArcelorMittal Orbit sculpture created by Anish Kapoor for the London Olympics in 2012 is going to get funner in 2016 by adding a slide:

Peter Tudor, Director of Visitor Services, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, said: “What more exciting way to descend the ArcelorMittal Orbit than on the world’s longest and tallest tunnel slide. We are committed to ensuring our visitors have the best possible day out every time they visit Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, and as with all our venues, we are constantly exploring ways to ensure we lead the way with the latest visitor experience. This slide really will give a different perspective of Britain’s tallest sculpture.”

ArcelorMittal slide (Image: Huffington Post)

ArcelorMittal slide (Image: Huffington Post)

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)

College urbanism

A college is the best thing for a community have in its backyard, noted Carleton College President Steve Poskanzer soon after his arrival in Northfield in 2010. Northfield, of course, has two.

The city’s character and development pattern have certainly been shaped by Carleton College on the east side; St Olaf on the west with the historic downtown and Northfield’s oldest residential neighborhoods in the middle. Two small colleges could be a doubly good deal for a small city like Northfield looking to plan and invest wisely to build a walkable, bikeable, economically prosperous town which is also just a darn good place to live and work.

American Institute for Economic Research publishes an annual ranking of the cities offering the best “college experience” while acknowledging college towns are “also vibrant places for businesses to open, tourists to visit and people to live.” Livability takes this a step further to note “a university’s off-campus impact can also shape a town’s character and keep people there for a lifetime.” And, the walkable neighborhoods with high quality of life also make college towns great places to retire.

Carleton aerial

Northfield’s east side neighborhood

Northfield’s east side neighborhood is its oldest residential area bordering the historic downtown with a strong, grid street pattern, older homes mixed with some newer infill, and the former high school/middle school now renovated and expanded as Carleton’s Weitz Center for Creativity. Indeed, Carleton’s neighborhood is just the sort of walkable, high quality traditional residential development pattern streets.mn writers praise.

Yet, Carleton has expanded south into the neighborhood through piecemeal acquisition of residential property south of its core campus plus the footprint of the Weitz Center leapfrogging a few blocks south. Many homes have been renovated for office use which both changes the character of the neighborhood and, relative to the buildings on the core campus, creates a low density campus arm through the center of the neighborhood.  Recently,  Carleton has undertaken a strategic planning process which includes facilities planning for “The optimal long-term (50-year) overall layout of the campus to “make the best use of its available space and work to lower the operating and maintenance costs of its existing and new physical plant.” Carleton’s presentation to the community shows the College has little grasp of how the campus is interlaced with the neighborhood and how it could think more boldly to develop its campus in ways which could be more efficient for the College and make the Northfield neighborhood an even better place for the College and residents.

Does Carleton need more space?  Or does it need to develop the land it already owns more strategically?

Carleton future map

Carleton’s future “plan”

Where to grow: While Northfield limits Carleton’s expansion to the south, Carleton constrains the City of Northfield’s expansion to the north and east because of its main campus and the Arboretum.  As a result, both City and College are deeply interested in that interface. From a city perspective, continued expansion to the south in the same pattern is not desirable. Carleton infiltrates one of Northfield’s most valuable residential areas and has begun to move into the downtown commercial area. Continued loss of property in these areas erodes the character of the neighborhood as well threatening to erode the city’s tax base (the threat to downtown – Northfield’s most valuable land per acre – is especially potent). Carleton’s historic habit of acquisition and renovation of residential property undermines the city’s ability to plan and regulate as well as lacking transparency for neighbors. Plus, Carleton has some prime access to MN 19 on the north edge of its campus.

Density: Completely missing from the planning documents is careful consideration of the pattern of development. Although land is limited, the College’s current development pattern at its southern edge (and especially in the Weitz “transition zone”) is very low density consisting single family homes renovated for college uses. The College should consider how it can fulfill its needs by more fully using the land available within this area including demolition of buildings to be replaced by a denser building pattern with buildings which are purpose-built for College needs.  Further, the College has placed very low value uses – surface parking – on key parcels further reducing its ability to make efficient use of its land.  Considering how parking can be accommodated in the middle of blocks or as part of other structures could expand the developable land.

Regulation: I’m more aware than most that city regulations have required some of the low value development which has taken place – zoning, parking requirements, setbacks, and stormwater regulations have all made it more difficult to use land efficiently. The City struggles with this issue and continues to incentivize suburban, low density, low return development (a movie theater and strip mall is looking for a subsidy right now) and here’s where College leadership – drawing on its commitment to innovation, quality, and sustainability – could help build support for a much denser campus building pattern which conserves neighborhood properties and helps the city craft the regulatory environment would help this happen.

Carleton can do better with Northfield: Carleton’s growth is critically important to the character of Northfield’s neighborhoods but where the college reaches into the neighborhood and downtown, the City’s interest is substantial. From a city perspective, the planning documents are startling in their lack of planning and design for the physical pattern of growth.  My hope is that the College will more actively engage the city and neighborhood in its planning and to think denser in its development pattern.  The College is a leader in sustainability in some ways, but it could help lead the City to more sustainable, distinctive use of land and infrastructure.

This post also published on streets.mn – check out lots of good writing, images, videos and more on transportation and land use in Minnesota (and beyond) over there.

Interlocking directorates

I got to know the term interlocking directorates in law school, I think, along with its connotations of trust busting, big business, robber barons, and consolidating power.  Now  I’m actually interlocking a couple of directorates myself, but it’s not quite so dramatic in my case.  I am now a member of both the Northfield Downtown Development Corporation and Strong Towns boards; this combination (not used in its Sherman Act sense) comes with no fame nor fortune, but just some very happy confluences of interest and priorities.

The NDDC is a non-profit, non-partisan organization committed to sustaining and improving the downtown in Northfield, MN.  Strong Towns is a non-profit, non-partisan organization trying to help America’s towns develop financial resiliency through educating the public about the costs inherent in our patterns of growth and advocating for more productive development patterns.  Northfield’s downtown already exemplifies some qualities of a Strong Town.  Strong Towns can help develop analytic and practical tools to help Northfield and other towns evaluate development, plans, and budgets.

My new direction should surprise no one reading this blog; I’ve been trying to identify costs of development beyond the “jobs and tax base” mythology (like this post from December) in Northfield and in the news.  Glad to be able to put my passions and skills to work for both these organizations.

Urban planning on the BBC

When I saw Planetizen’s tweet, I had to check to see if this was real: The Planners, a new BBC “eight-part observational documentary series following planning applications and the contentious processes behind them.”  Essentially, the show documents local opposition to various projects which are working their way through the planning system...current and former planning commissioners, staff, and elected officials in Northfield will likely see no surprises.

With sadness and gratitude

Yesterday, I attended John Bierman’s funeral at All Saints Episcopal Church, sadly, but with much gratitude for John’s gifts to Northfield and to me.

Others can tell more about how the Biermans have been part of the bedrock of the Northfield business community for several generations and will be for generations to come. And pillars of All Saints Church. Also active, generous community members.  And more.

I got to know John and Betsy Bierman at All Saints, I really got to know John when I became All Saints’ treasurer.  I suspect most members of the congregation never read the treasurer’s reports, but John certainly did and he read them carefully.  Previous treasurers warned me to watch out for John’s interrogations about budget and spending.  Really, there was nothing to fear – John asked good, tough questions – because the church, too, needed to be managed like a business – and his review and input were always welcome to me.  I should add, though, that the questions didn’t just happen at church, but I know I answered a few in the dairy section of the grocery store and several at grandchildrens’ school events.

John and Betsy Bierman were also among my first political supporters when I ran for mayor against Lee Lansing – I am honored and grateful for that early confidence and try to follow John’s model of tough questions, hard work and a sense of humor.

I pray for grace, strength and peace for Betsy and all the Biermans and in thanksgiving for John’s life.