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

Strong Towns in Northfield

Curbside-Chat-textPLAN TO ATTEND!  The NDDC has invited the Strong Towns organization to Northfield for one of their “Curbside Chats”.  The event will be held on Monday, February 17, 5:30-7:30 pm, in the Archer House Riverview Conference Room on the lower level.  The Curbside Chats are designed city officials and community leaders, but the strong towns are built from the grassroots, so the public is welcome and your voices needed at this free event.

Curbside Chats zero in on three “big ideas” central to Strong Towns thinking:

  1. The current path cities are pursuing is not financially stable.
  2. The future for most cities will not resemble the recent past.
  3. The main determinant of future prosperity for cities will be local leaders’ ability to transform their communities.

I’ve written much on this blog about Strong Towns and ideas related to their mission.  Here’s a good summary of my posts.  But my interest goes back further than this blog.

When I served on the Planning Commission in 2001-2005, Northfield was approving hundreds of acres and hundreds of units of single family homes.  The short term attraction was clear: creating jobs and expanding the local tax base.  But longer term issues were raised by the Planning Commission, but dismissed by the Council such as:

  • If we build housing on all these acres, where might future commercial expansion take place?
  • If the city doesn’t negotiate with developers about street design and connections, how can the Northfield be able to plan for efficient service delivery in the future?
  • Will the increased tax revenue pay for the maintenance of the infrastructure added and the cost of delivering services to the new areas?

Strong Towns caught my attention in about 2010 with its message of the financial impact of the way cities have developed in the last 50 years or so.  Certainly as a City Council member at the time, I could see that Northfield’s tax revenue was not keeping up with maintenance or service needs, so I was relieved, thrilled, and excited to see the questions I’d already asked be asked by people with more development experience and to see that message go from Brainerd, MN to national news.

Does Strong Towns have all the answers?  No, but that’s where you come in.  Come think with Strong Towns and your neighbors about the future of Northfield.  I’ll be in Finland, but I can’t wait to hear what happens.




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.

So what are you doing for Northfield?

What are you doing for your city? asks the right question…what’s your answer?  I ran for the Council because I didn’t think I was doing enough as a Planning Commission member.  The City Council can do less than you might think, so I was still thinking I wasn’t doing enough.  Having lost the election, I’m certainly asking this question again and I don’t have an answer yet. I’ve got lots of ideas for doing more public policy work (Hi Strong Towns!), but that helps Northfield indirectly at best.

From my Council experience, I’d also add that you shouldn’t leave it to elected officials to do things with only your occasional (or incessant) suggestion or complaint.  Council members and legislators might help (or hinder – that’s a real possibility), but they need you more than you need them to get things done.

So, what are you doing for Northfield in 2013?

The cost of doing business

In the “try to lure business at all costs” department: Part 1 of the New York Times’ United States of Subsidies series As Companies Seek Tax Deals, Government Pays High Price is another piece to add to my collection of anti-subsidy posts (like this one). Of particular interest: the searchable database of subsidies (Check out MN, for example, really only a bit player in the subsidy game) and the pervasive theme that governments don’t know what they’re getting into with these deals (and also don’t track the results like how many jobs are created – see the OLA’s report on the JOBZ program, for example or Lincoln Institute’s Rethinking Property Tax Subsidies for Business).

Politically, this should bother Democrats and Republicans.  For small government free market types, this is heavy government meddling in the private sector with your tax dollars.  For liberals suspicious of big business, the money flowing to enrich corporate America should be infuriating.  For anyone interested in transparency and accountability it’s trouble.



Condolences are premature

Winning is more fun than losing and losing by just a few votes is frustrating, but that’s what the voters said.

I’m not dead: I have been getting a steady stream of thoughtful e-mails expressing sorrow that I will not be returning to the Council, but condolences are unnecessary or premature at the very least.  For me, this is not a great loss, but a new opportunity.  I have enjoyed serving Northfield’s Ward 2 for 4 years and would have liked to have continued on the Council now that I think I’ve figured out how it works, but I can work on the policy issues I care about more from the outside, too (call it a shift from bureaucracy to adhocracy). Beyond public policy, I’ll have more time to learn welding or train to ski the Birkie.

Thanks: Every person who took the time to write to me said much the same thing, thanking me for my service, thoughtfulness, and dedication.  Some added that even though they didn’t always agree with me, they knew where I stood and how I got there. Certainly, those are the qualities I tried to bring to the job and I am grateful they were noticed. Many thanks to you all.

Get busy: Some also asked “what will we do without you?”  My answer: I’m not dead yet, but we need to get more active for issues we care about.  For those with a bigger picture perspective on city government, those who want to see better budgeting based on coherent policies, better justification of infrastructure extensions, multi-modal transportation, arts and culture or any of the issues I championed and Mr Ludescher dismisses, then you need to keep letting the Council know what you think.

And a footnote about recounts: Many of those regretful emails suggested a recount.  I lost to Galen Malecha for the county commission seat back in 2006 by 10 votes; I gained 1 vote in the recount.  Since the result is unlikely to shift and I can speak from experience that your vote does count and count accurately, I don’t believe we need to spend the time and money for the recount.  My recount experience showed me just how well the system works, how well the election judges are trained, and how professional the election officials are.  I trust the system.

The Serendipitor – more fun urbanism

The Serendipitor

With smart phones, GIS, and other such navigational tools, it is much easier to get exactly where you are trying to go…but what fun is that?  Enter the Serendipitor which, in addition to having a great name, can help plan a route from A to B which also includes C, D and ??.  Check out Skipping Only Zones and the rest of the Spontaneous Interventions – design actions for the common good.