What’s that in my neighbor’s backyard? More neighbors! – ADUs on the agenda

What’s that in your neighbor’s backyard? It’s an ADU, planner shorthand for planner longhand “accessory dwelling unit.”  It’s just a second, smaller dwelling on the same lot as a single family home.  It could be an apartment above a garage, a Tiny House in the backyard, or and addition to the main home.

 

Tomorrow, the Northfield Planning Commission will hold a public hearing on a revision to the Land Development Code which is intended to make ADUs easier to build in Northfield.

Status quo

Right now, ADUs are only allowed in Northfield above detached garages – like this one in my neighborhood:

Almost in my backyard: an ADU built under the current code

ADUs are permitted in residential zoning districts R1-4 and N1-2 (beige, yellow and orange below).

Northfield Zoning Map

 

But there are more regulations (but click for the ordinance text):

  • How many? One ADU per lot (and is included in the maximum number of units on a property – most areas allow 1, 2 or 3 dwelling units, so this is not a problem).
  • How big? Currently, the property property must have a minimum area of 8,000 square feet and the ADU must not exceed 864 sf and 24 ft high and must fit within the lot coverage (building area ratio) limits.
  • Where? The ADU must be part of a detached garage and at least 10 feet from the main dwelling.
  • Design, etc.: The ADU must have separate kitchen and bathroom facilities and must be compatible with the main dwelling and the neighborhood.
  • What about parking?  One off-street parking space in addition to required parking for the main dwelling must be provided.

Why change?

To name a single reason for the change, I’d say “To remove obstacles which make it difficult or impossible for property owners to improve their property.”

Why would property owners want to add an ADU? That’s not the City’s job to regulate, but the list could include:

  • Building an apartment for rental income,
  • Making a space for extended family whether simply for proximity, to provide care (whether eldercare, childcare or other care),
  • Aging in place by building an ADU to move into as children leave home and renting the main house for income while staying in the same neighborhood.
  • Your reason here…

For the City, ADUs tick several policy boxes by providing these benefits

  • Incrementally increasing density in existing (often high amenity, highly connected) neighborhoods
  • Adding housing with less environmental impact (smaller, on existing infrastructure, etc.)
  • Creating more affordable housing, so adding rental units would add to the overall housing supply (the affordability of each ADU would depend on its location and its features) and construction doesn’t require land acquisition.
  • Increasing housing diversity.
  • Implementing policies on Age-Friendly Northfield, Climate Action, Affordable Housing, and non-motorized transportation.
  • Incrementally walking back decades of single-family zoning
An ADW – accessory dwelling wing – which could be legal soon (Photo: accessorydwellings.org)

Reducing regulations helps get ADUs built. Consider the very different approaches taken by Minneapolis and Saint Paul: Minneapolis made it easy and 92 were built (through 2017 – including this one); Saint Paul limited location and regulated other features and one was permitted. Vancouver, Portland, and Seattle are also ADU standouts.  There are other factors which help spur ADU development, but the zoning code is the Planning Commission’s remit, so that’s where we’re starting.

This would fit in my backyard (Photo: ArchDaily)

What’s changing?

Read the marked up version of the ordinance for the complete text changes, but here’s the good bits

  • How many?  Still only one.
  • How big?:  Rather than 864 sf limit, the size is now proportional to the main dwelling at 50% of the primary dwelling or 1,000 square feet in size (whichever is greater) and 24 feet in height. So, if you have a 6,000 sf home, you can add a 3,000 sf ADU. On the other end, if you have a 1500 sf home, you may add an ADU up to 1000 sf.  Lot size requirements have been eliminated and ADUs are explicitly exempted from lot coverage requirements.
  • Where? Now ADUs are freed from above the garage and may be “added to, created within, or detached from a single-family dwelling” but still must be 10 ft from the main dwelling. Allowing ground floor or detached ADUs can make them more age-friendly or accessible, too.
  • Who? ADUs may be added to main dwellings which are not owner-occupied (i.e. adding a rental unit to another rental dwelling is permitted).
  • Design, etc. Compatibility requirements have been eliminated because “preserving neighborhood character” is often an anti-change, anti-renter requirement.
  • What about parking? No parking is required (it’s not prohibited, but simply left up to the developer to decide what’s needed) because it can add to the cost of the unit.
  • Plus, Tiny Houses on wheels may be ADUs if installed on foundations and connected to city services.
A tree house might be legal if it met the height requirement  (Photo BaumRaum)

What next?

Process: The Planning Commission holds a public hearing Thursday, November 15, 2018 at 7 pm in the City Council chambers to hear testimony (please come!), make findings of fact and recommend action to the City Council to amend the ordinance (or not amend it, but this is unlikely barring new information as the PC was united and unanimous in voting to send it to a hearing). The Council (probably in January) will vote to approve the first reading of the ordinance, then approve the second reading (where minor corrections may be made) and publication in the official newspaper.

But there’s more.  After this change is made, there’s still work to be done to fix the rental code. The rental code limits rentals to 20% of the houses in a single block in highly desirably, well-connected, affluent neighborhoods (like my east side neighborhood). The ADU revision is a positive step to let property owners decide how to use their property by adding units as they need or want to do so with benefits to the City, too. Amending the rental code will require a more direct conversation about housing with the people who are very concerned about what is happening in your backyard and its impact on their backyard.

My backyard. No ADU yet, but it’s under consideration

Cannon River Civic Center – Vote NO

I applaud the Cannon River Civic Center organization for a sustained social media campaign, events, and tours to convince voters to support the referendum to fund construction of a new ice arena.

But, like any political campaign, the information is cherry-picked for positive spin. No project is all good or all bad, but I’m going to be the critic to balance the cheerleaders.

Artist conception of the Civic Center (and its really lovely parking lot)

CIVIC CENTER OR ICE ARENA?

The quote below is from the Civic Center website. The minutes of the Ice Arena Advisory Committee, however, tell a different story.

“The Cannon River Civic Center is so much more than an ice arena. The name appropriately conveys the facility’s location along the Cannon Valley Trail portion of the Mill Towns Trail, the multi-use purpose of the space, and the regional hub its presence will create for Northfield, Dundas and surrounding communities.”

At best, the facility might grow beyond the ice rinks over time, but at this point the “Civic Center” idea is imagination (“We imagine a space…” says the website honestly). The mission of the Northfield Ice Arena Advisory Committee committee was to “Serve as an advisory committee to assist and guide staff in a thorough review of current ice arena conditions, assess needs and demands, evaluate costs and alternative facility options resulting in recommendations to be presented to the City Council” and, if you read all the minutes of the Committee like I did (so you don’t have to!), this is exactly what they did.

Perhaps the facility will serve other sports (walkers, table tennis players, lacrosse, softball and baseball are suggested) someday, but the Advisory Committee had a discussion regarding other athletic facility needs within the community and concluded the task force focus was the arena and  “not broader athletic facility needs that may or may not exist within the community and no detailed consideration of the events which might use the space.

Not until the final meeting of the Ice Arena Advisory Committee (after 19 months of meetings) when the committee was determining how to present the project to the City Council did the committee say the facility should “Include other civic multi use options to show it as a community asset.”

The arena now

PUBLIC/PRIVATE PARTNERSHIP?

“The Cannon River Civic Center is a stunning example of a public-private partnership” is a troubling overstatement.

The facility will be financed in large part (about 75%) by taxpayers in Northfield and Dundas. The expected Mighty Ducks Grants were limited to $250,000, but the funding for the grants was not renewed by the State Legislature so that additional public funding is off the table. Further, as a city facility, construction cost increases, operating deficits, and maintenance costs will be taxpayer-funded. The city can raise rental fees and work to market the facility to generate more revenue, but the responsibility rests with taxpayers.

Private contributions include the donation of land valued at $216,000  for tax purposes, but an estimated market value of $850,000. The downside is this property will also stop paying property taxes (currently about $10,000 annually). Those interested in tax policy and process may wonder why the area which was touted as a business park has proved to be undesirable for business and so now is home to the tax-exempt Police Station, Arcadia Charter School, and the ambulance garage to be joined, if this is successful, by the City Arena.

The private funds come from naming rights and advertising with no dollar projections attached and private fundraising of about $3.4 million. Right now, “Several pledges have been made, and we’re looking forward to announcing leadership gifts soon,”.but this arena has been a problem for more than 20 years; 20 years of fundraising and the miracle of compound interest could have been a significant contribution towards the construction and operation of this facility.

For a comparison, the Northfield Public Library expansion funding was 45% private working through The Friends and Foundation of the NPL; the group is also building a permanent endowment to support the library. To have no private funds banked before taking this to the voters is arrogant (Northfield Hockey Association and other ice users) and irresponsible (Northfield City Council).

Public funding in orange and blue

MONEY FOR PARKS!?

Up to 30% of the sales tax revenue can be used for other parks and recreation projects in Northfield (about $2.6M over 20 years) and Dundas. Although this sounds wonderful at first glance, sales tax proceeds may only be used for capital spending for parks and this allocation raises serious equity issues.

  • Capital but not operations: The sales tax could fund, for example, development of the new regional park in the south part of Northfield, but would provide no new funds for maintenance and operations. Your neighborhood park might get new equipment, but won’t get mowed any more often nor will there be any more staff time or new employees to do the work without allocating more tax dollars.
  • Equity: 70% of the sales tax goes to an expensive facility for sports a tiny minority play; those sports are expensive sports even if scholarship aid is available. 30% goes to improve the park system which serves everyone else in Northfield at no charge at the point of entry (except the pool). When the skateboard park was under discussion, the fact that it would be used by only a small slice of the population was considered a reason not to do it, but not so for this much, much larger project.

ECONOMIC IMPACT?

Committee minutes record the telling comment “The fact that ice arenas are not money makers was pointed out. “ The document provided to the City Council lists these numbers:

Arena operating costs

If you look at that last column there’s a big deficit; breaking even (footnote 5) requires selling an additional 205 hours of ice time at $185 per hour on the secondary market. I’m not sure how the facility is “projected to generate a profit, beginning in its first season”.

Tournaments will indeed bring people to town to eat, shop, sleep, and play. But it takes many millions to generate this impact. Are there other, ways to generate economic activity with a better return on investment?

Mayor Pownell asked for economic impact comparisons of the use of bike trails or arts and cultural events to get accurate information to help guide the process. This information would have been very useful. The arts were considered and the report from Creative Minnesota reviewed by the committee showed “local economic impact of the nonprofit arts and culture sector to be about $2.2M for the City of Northfield.

The Civic Center economic impact analysis projects a $1.8M impact which is comparable to the arts impact, but nowhere is there a comparison of how much Northfield has to spend to realize those amounts. We just don’t know about the value of competing the Mill Towns Trail, for example; $20M would go a long way toward completing that project (and other trails have showed impact on par with the arena projections).

How do bike trails compare to the arena for economic impact compared to cost?

TL;DR:

  • City failure to plan and budget: The City’s failure to repair, upgrade or replace the Arena is not a new problem, but a recurring practice; Northfield has waited for other City facilities to near failure (Safety Center) or arrive at complete collapse (outdoor pool) before acting to replace them. The City is avoiding responsibility by sending by asking voters to tax themselves without any assurance they’ll take better care of a new facility.
  • NHA and other stakeholder failure to raise money: Before the City takes any action, private stakeholders need to show the city and the voters cash upfront; they’ve had at least 20 years.
  • Costs and benefits don’t add up: The Civic Center idea has not been researched in any depth, ice sports are expensive and played by few, and the positive economics are hopeful but undermined by the Ice Arena Advisory’s own numbers and comments. The City needs to think carefully about how to provide recreation facilities and opportunities for the greatest number of residents and how much it costs to do so. Promised economic benefits need to be balanced against how much public money is required to generate that impact.

The City and the Cannon River City Center have not made a convincing enough case: Vote NO.

2004 Jamboree – the Arena was in bad shape then

NEXT STEPS: should the City be in the ice arena business?

If the referendum fails, the City will then be faced with the problem of what to do with the failing Arena. If voters defeat this proposal, the next question needs to be whether the City gets out of the ice business and I’d say yes, it should.

1n 1996, the study process included the option “Exit the Arena Market” which was stated was “not feasible.” Yet, for the 20 more years since then, the City has not addressed the Arena’s substantial design and accessibility issues. The lack of action over so many years suggests getting out of the Arena market is not only feasible, but makes much sense for the finances of the city.

The UGGs boots I bought to keep my feet from freezing during hockey games

Sidewalks as safe transportation infrastructure

Crosswalk pavers showing damage

After tripping in the same hole in the sidewalk on Division Street not once but three times in recent weeks, I was relieved to see City workers repairing curbs and repairing trip hazards. Like these:

Marking repairs – including removing the decorative but trip-worthy panels on Division Street

 

My current inconvenience and surprise at tripping aren’t very noteworthy as I’m still pretty spry, but I’m thinking ahead to how important safe sidewalks and street crossings will be for an older, frailer me and already are for older adults, people with low vision, those with limited mobility or using aids from canes to wheelchairs.

Crosswalk pavers showing damage
Crosswalk pavers downtown – decorative, but dangerous unless repaired

 

Northfield is getting much better about constructing safe facilities for walking and doing annual repairs on downtown sidewalks (adding sidewalks on Woodley; the new Division Street), but we can and should allocate transportation resources to do more to help people – all people – travel safely, not just people driving cars.

Crosswalk showing curb extensions and pavers
Curb extensions and shorter crossing distance on Division Street (but still the pavers)

 

In some places – Atlanta, for examplelawsuits have been filed by wheelchair users alleging ADA violations because of the condition of sidewalks. I’m not recommending litigation in Northfield, but am advocating for thinking about sidewalks as basic transportation infrastructure like streets and maintaining an index of sidewalk conditions, mapping sidewalk gaps, and building the addition and repair of sidewalks into the CIP and annual budget.

Then there are the other obstacles…

Pavement is only one kind of obstacle on narrow sidewalks

 

 

Division Street reconstruction: “Are you sure that road is for 2-way traffic?”

“Are you sure that road is for 2-way traffic?” asked KYMN News about the new and improved Division Street. Social media commenters asked whether it was wide enough for school buses, how two trucks could pass, and where are the bike lanes.

Yes indeed, Division Street remains 2-way (as City staff hastened to confirm on KYMN), but it is narrower than it used to be and some of the new features make it look especially narrow. But let’s unpack the first impressions to see that it really is wide enough for 2-way traffic, is wonderful for walking, and does not change the bike situation a great deal (which is not perfect).

Old

The reconstruction project includes Division Street between 6th and 8th Streets, then 7th Street between Washington and Water (currently underway). On Division, the pre-project streetscape looked like this:

Google streetview image of Northfield MN Division Street
Division Street – before

South of 6th Street, things spread out. Econofoods (now officially Family Fare Supermarket) is the only building on its block  and set back behind a large parking lot with few trees, little landscaping and no benches. Buildings on the other side are closer to the sidewalk, but there are only two of them interspersed with another surface parking lot. There is street parking, but less of it because of driveways and less used because there are fewer things to walk to, and so there are also fewer people walking and rolling and the cars start moving faster.

Looking north on Division to the downtown pattern

The downtown development pattern begins heading north from 6th Street. Buildings come right up to the sidewalk with small storefronts, frequent doorways, and large windows; the sidewalks are busy with people are walking (whether from their cars or walking into downtown) to businesses in a space with trees, signs, banners, flowers, bike racks, and benches. Cars move slowly to be able watch for all the walking and rolling people and allow access to the parallel and angled parking. Even with the slow traffic, however, it’s difficult for people walking to see and be seen by cars without inching out into the street to see around parked cars.

Is it safe to cross? Curb extensions would help at 3rd Street, too

New

The new street design looks like this:

New Division Street

And here’s the (annotated) design drawing:

The new design builds safer, more pleasant walking and rolling into the street network by:

  • extending curbs to slow vehicle traffic and shorten crossing distances
  • raising the intersection at Division and 7th to prioritize walkers and rollers (this intersection links the senior condos at Village on the Cannon and Millstream Commons assisted living facility west of Water Street to downtown)
  • different materials for parking areas and driving lanes to visually narrow the street
  • trees and other landscaping to add shade, storm water management, and additional visual cues to slow down.

By slowing traffic and adding features to assist more vulnerable users the new street helps extend the walkable downtown street pattern another two blocks south and makes it even safer to cross the street. People, rather than cars, are centered.

Compare

Visual cues are critical. Compare Woodley Street which was reconstructed in 2015. Woodley Street has 2 11′ driving lanes:

New Woodley Street (at Washington)

So does the new Division Street:

New Division Street

Division feels slower, doesn’t it? The different colored pavement and curb extensions make it look and feel skinnier even with the same width driving lanes.

When Woodley was reconstructed, the street was widened in some places to a uniform 44′ curb to curb width, trees were removed (some ash trees, some in the path of the construction), sidewalk was added on both sides, and parking lanes were kept on both sides of the street. Small curb extensions were added at selected intersections to help walkers and rollers cross the street. The overall look is a very wide street with wide open sky above and the 30 mph speed limit is difficult to observe without carefully watching the speedometer because there are no design cues to slow people down.

Speed perception – via Strong Towns and Planning Peeps

But what about the bikes?

Local riders have complained the street is too narrow and there are no bike lanes. They’re mostly right.

The narrowness extends the downtown pattern another two blocks and this makes these two blocks just as problematic for bikes as Division Street from 2nd to 6th. For experienced riders, the slower traffic and heightened driver awareness should make this area marginally better. But for other riders (new, less confident, kids, seniors and any other people on bikes who are uncomfortable taking the full lane), the angled parking and door zone on the narrower street are scary and uninviting. A sharrow or two might be a small signal that bikes belong, but sharrows are just signs on the street.

There are two messages here.

First, the new street prioritizes people walking and rolling in bold and new-to-Northfield ways. This is good.

Second, there’s more we could do. The lack of bike lanes – or the lack of space for bike lanes – hints at how Northfield (and most other places) allocate space in the public right of way. Parking was a very big deal in this project with local business owners and residents concerned about each parking space removed. If Northfield had chosen to limit parking on these blocks, there would have been plenty of space for high quality bike lanes.

The problem is not that there is not enough space, but that the political climate is not (yet) favorable for allocating that space differently. This project designs people into the streetscape more than any other street project Northfield has built recently, but the focus is on helping people walk, not improving the bicycling.

So, drive slower, walk happily and safely, and consider the cost of free parking to other road users.

More new Division Street

Putting this project on ice

I’m a hockey fan. I grew up with a Rangers fan father, saw the short-lived Kansas City Scouts lose many games, watched the Flyers on (black and white) TV with my husband before we were married, received Flyers season tickets as a wedding present, had a subscription to the Hockey News for a decade, shivered in the Northfield arena while my daughter played Mite and U10 hockey, and now go to Gophers Womens Hockey games. No matter how much I like the game, I think the proposed referendum to finance the new ice arena via a sales tax and $17.8 million in new debt is not a responsible choice for the City no matter how great a game it is.

The issue on the table and the ballot.

On Tuesday, June 19, 2018, the City Council will vote to approve this ballot question:

Or, in plainer terms, the City will

  • Sell $17.8 million in bonds (debt financing) to raise the cash to finance construction of the arena.
  • Pay annual principal & interest of approximately $1.5 million for the 20 year life of the bonds (that’s about $30 million in debt service payments).
  • Create a new sales tax plus a motor vehicle excise tax to offset about 30% of the debt service payments. 
  • Bottom line: Property taxes will need to rise to pay for the $1 million of debt service not offset by the sales tax; the cost of buying things will rise as business owners pass the cost of the sales tax on to consumers.

Dundas is also planning on asking its residents to approve the sales tax; the Northfield Council will choose between two resolutions – one which makes the project dependent upon Dundas voters’ approval and the other which is silent on that issue.

One view is to relax and let the voters decide; if a majority of Northfield (and maybe Dundas) voters decide they want to pay for this project, then so be it. If they agree with me, then it will be voted down.

I’d like to argue, however, that putting the issue on the ballot at all presumes the city is prepared to follow through on the results and being willing to take on a significant financial obligation (risk) that is disproportionate relative to other important city projects, benefits relatively few people, and does not appear to support the city’s declared policies on equity, inclusion, and good fiscal management.

This is a huge amount of money

Not only is $17.8 million siginificant on its own, it is also near or more than many other important projects, so compare this to:

Schools: The 2017 Referendum asked for $23.5 million for replacing Greenvale Park Elementary School; the bond levy which also included a new high school failed. The Greenvale Park replacement may be on the November ballot along with the ice arena. So, the proposed ice arena will cost about as much as an elementary school.

NCRC (1999): Approved by (a tiny proportion of) voters in a special election in 1999, the NCRC cost was $2.7 million. Being approved by voters does not make a project a good deal; the facility was intended to be largely self-supporting, yet the City has been subsidizing the facility and looking for ways to decrease its obligations from renegotiating leases to selling the building to tenants.

Soccer (2002): The Spring Creek Soccer fields were budgeted at $150,000; the Northfield Soccer Association developed and paid for the fields on land donated by the City. The NSA also pays for field maintenance. Between the in-house and traveling teams, soccer dwarfs hockey participation, includes many more from usually underserved groups.

Outdoor Pool (2006): The new pool cost between $2-3 million financed by EDA lease revenue bonds (no referendum required). The pool is intended to be revenue neutral, but income from pool fees and concessions does not cover operating costs.

Safety Center (2012): $6.28 million financed with lease-revenue bonds + approx. $6.25 K land purchase. A similar .5% sales tax was briefly considered to offset debt service payments, but met with swift, negative responses from the Chamber of Commerce and business owners.

Northfield Public Library expansion (2015): The addition and remodeling of the Northfield Public Library cost approximately $3 million. $1 million was allocated from the City General Fund, additional money from the Library Gift Fund, but about 1/3 was raised privately by the Friends and Foundation of the NPL.

These are not apples to apples comparisons. Like the ice arena, the pool has use charges intended to offset costs, but Northfield has multiple pools which extend the swimming season year-round. The Safety Center and Library are core public services which do not charge fees at the point of use and are intended to be funded by taxes. The soccer (and baseball) facilities are both city parks, but the sports organization pays on-going costs and passes costs along to players. However, such a large bonding request plus instituting a new sales tax makes me pause to ask what else Northfield can do for the same amount of money and how does this recreation project serve Northfield better than others, like the soccer fields, which cost so much less (but serve more people)?

What else could we spend $17.8 million on?

Northfield has other needs it has identified where $17.8 million could be very useful and, I’d say, are either significantly more important to the community than an ice arena or yield a higher return on investment. Here are three:

246/Jefferson Parkway intersection (and related transportation connections): Northfield has studied this intersection and tentatively planned a roundabout at this location. The City applied to MnDOT for funding, but did not receive it in the last round of funding. The City has long recognized the street network in this area does not work. Driving to the Middle School, Bridgewater and High School is bad; walking and biking are almost impossible yet it serves three schools (thousands of children), the NCRC (seniors), and soccer fields (500 youth soccer players. I’ve already had much (critical) to say about this intersection and the history of planning decisions which have put much pressure on this link. From choices made when planning the Middle School (Schools and where to put them) to more recent efforts to improve safety (Still Not a Safe Route to School), to looking to change the conversation about streets from vehicle traffic to community connections (Reimagining Woodley).

Jefferson Parkway/TH 246 intersection

Mill Towns Trail through Northfield (and fixing the segment to Dundas): Building the Mill Towns Trail has been inching along for decades, but Northfield could kickstart things by completing the segment through town from the Cannon River to the east and with a better connection into the heart of downtown. The trail is planned to cross 246 at Jefferson Parkway so it dovetails with that improvement. There is a whole subdivision of economic development literature devoted to “trail-based economic development” recognizing the impact a trail can have (like the Root River Trail). Would the tourism impact of a trail be a better deal?

Mill Towns Trail proposed alignment

 

Flood control through downtown and river enhancement: Recent flooding has highlighted how vulnerable downtown is. The Cannon River and the riverfront are prized assets cited for defining Northfield’s sense of place (and its place in history), as economic drivers, as recreational delights, and in need of enhancement, protection, and redevelopment (like in the Strategic Plan).

Questions the Council has not asked

Perhaps most surprising of the Council discussion to date is how few questions have been asked about the project. Councilors who are usually vocal when it comes to spending money have said little. Here are questions I’m still hoping will be asked at tonight’s meeting:

How much debt is too much? This project asks Northfield to issue a large amount of debt; I have not yet heard a discussion of how this fits into the overall financial plan for the city.

Has Northfield developed a plan and budget for maintaining and replacing facilities as they age?  Northfield has waited for facilities to nearly or completely fail, then made decisions in haste. The current arena has been inadequate for years, the swimming pool was leaking and had to be shut down for a season forcing quick replacement decisions, and the Safety Center was overcrowded and subject to flooding requiring quick action.

What happens if the naming rights and fundraising aren’t as successful as planned? Current financial planning depends on advertising, naming rights, and private fundraising. Will the project depend on a certain amount of money being raised before ground is broken like the skatepark?

What happens if the projected revenue does not cover costs? Will the City subsidize the arena as it does the pool? How much is it willing to pay?

Who pays for the Riverview Drive street extension to the arena?  An extension of Riverview Drive to reach the service area for the arena is on the plans, but not in the budget.

Are the additional spending and lodging tax revenue projected a good return on investment? The economic boost projected because of the increased ability to host tournaments and other events is not being compared to other economic development efforts the city might make, the amount generated by other city attractions (like bike trails, for example) nor does it directly help pay for the debt.

Why should we pay this much money to improve our other parks? There is a red herring in the logic of this project where the ice arena is being touted as being a way we can pay for on-going park maintenance because 30% of the funds may be used for other recreation spending. There are other, much cheaper, ways to manage our park and trail system without spending the 70% on an ice arena. If funding parks is a priority, there are better ways.

November

Obviously, I’m voting no and urge fellow taxpayers to think hard about how our City government allocates our tax dollars.

2004 Jamboree – I bought warmer clothes to watch U10 hockey because the arena was delapidated 15 years ago; Northfield could have planned better for improvement or replacement.

Future essential character: Starbucks, planning, and future development

Planning looks ahead to set policy and draft regulations to guide how a town grows. Development works now to get projects approved and built. When the development does not fit the planning, which should prevail? The long-term planning or the money-on-the-table-right-now development?

This is not a theoretical question; planning and development ran smack into each other Thursday, April 19, when the Northfield Zoning Board of Appeals denied multiple variances for a proposed Starbucks drive-thru at the corner of Highway 3 and Second Street.

Highway 3 concept elevation for proposed Northfield Starbucks (image ZBA packet)

The Starbucks proposal was a near-perfect example of the type of development Northfield’s recent planning documents sought to exclude from this location, so the unanimous decision to deny the variances could be seen as a clear win for planning (the vote was 5-0; I could not attend the meeting and Jay Jasnoch was also absent). However, the decision should not be considered winning a contest, but the start of some different conversations.

The Planning Vision and Starbucks

The problem: Variances let developers break the dimensional zoning rules if certain conditions are met. In this case, the Starbucks drive-through needed to break rules on where the building could be located relative to public streets and where the drive-thru lane can be placed.

As a major amendment to a Planned Unit Development created under the former zoning code, the proposal needed to follow the C-1 (Downtown) zoning district (East of Highway 3 Subdistrict) rules. The variances requested were (see the site plan below):

  • allow the building to exceed the 10 foot maximum front setback and the maximum corner side setback of 10 feet;
  • allow the driveways and parking to encroach on the minimum front, side and rear setback of 5 feet;
  • allow stacking lanes to be closer than 25 feet from rights-of-way;
  • permit the building to be located more than ten feet from the property line on the corner street side; and
  • allow the drive-through in the front setback.

Northfield’s Land Development Code allows variances under these rules:

The zoning board of appeals may only grant applications for variances where practical difficulties in complying with this LDC exist and each of the following criteria are satisfied:

(a) The variance is in harmony with the general purposes and intent of this LDC; and

(b) The variance is consistent with the Comprehensive Plan;

(c) The property owner proposes to use the property in a reasonable manner not permitted by this LDC;

(d) The plight of the landowner is due to circumstances unique to the property not created by the landowner; and

(e) The variance, if granted, will not alter the essential character of the locality.

(2) Economic considerations alone do not constitute practical difficulties.

NOT the problem: It would be interesting to debate whether Starbucks is a good company, whether Starbucks brews good coffee, whether the Unicorn Frappuccino was misguided, why pumpkin spice lattes take over the world every Fall, whether local or franchise businesses are more desirable in Northfield, whether Northfield needs any more drive-throughs, coffee, or Starbucks but none of these are relevant to the variance decision (but hold these thoughts).

The variance problem. The staff memo found that all variance criteria were satisfied, but the Zoning Board of Appeals decided differently (not the Planning Commission as local media stated – the ZBA and PC are the same people, but when acting as the ZBA the panel has a different, quasi-judicial, role and final administrative decision-maker; as the PC, the body is advisory to the Council).

After watching the meeting video, my understanding is that ZBA members generally agreed about (c): the coffee shop use was reasonable. The plight of the developer was less clear from ZBA members’ comments. On one hand, the site development for the original PUD tied the hands of future development, but the choice to build a drive-through on such a constrained lot was the developer’s choice.

Essential character (e), was alluded to by ZBA comments, but not discussed in detail. I would highlight the distinction I used to start this post of future planning and right now development. Right now, this area is near other highway businesses and a drive-through Starbucks is not out of place right now and it would be reasonable to find it would not alter this character.

But, the Comprehensive Plan and the Land Development Code purpose for this zoning district identify this area (and the Crossing original PUD and Gateway Corridor Improvement Plan peg this corner in particular) as a key gateway into downtown Northfield where development will echo the historic with buildings close to the street, where walking and biking are emphasized over driving, and where the distinctive, Northfieldian place begins. As ZBA members gave their rationales for their votes to deny, it was the conflict with this vision which was foremost and I’d distill the concerns to this: allowing the drive-through would not be a step towards building the planned future essential character and Northfield needed to find a better, more appropriate first step toward the planning goals.

Current character: looking south on Highway 3

What next?

This decision should not be treated as planning killing off development nor of planning winning a battle in the development war or any other adversarial interpretation or the outcome. I’d say the ZBA interpreted the policy documents straightforwardly and applied the rules correctly, but now the problem remains of how to take that first step toward making the planning vision more real.

Why the planning vision matters

Northfield has been developing policy which is increasingly focused on Northfield as a sustainable, distinctive place. “Like Downtown” is not simply a statement about aesthetics from a policy perspective. Downtown is beautiful and beloved, but the pattern of downtown is valuable in other ways for Northfield and extending that pattern makes sense in multiple ways and here are just a few:

  • Tax value: Downtown is Northfield’s richest tax base on a per acre basis. Building taller buildings with small or no setbacks concentrates value and makes more use of a smaller amount of infrastructure.
  • Getting around: When buildings and businesses are close together and close to the street, how we travel changes, too. Walking and biking are easier because destinations are closer together. Street entrances and windows make walking more pleasant because there are things to look at. The narrower roadway (both visually from buildings and trees, but also from street parking) slows vehicle traffic to make walking, rolling and riding safer and more pleasant.  A sidewalk alone, like those along Highway 3, does not make a place pedestrian-friendly.
  • Environment: Although not a part of the ZBA’s deliberations explicitly, the drive-through model promotes driving (more fossil fuels, bigger carbon footprint), adds impervious surface (more run-off into valuable water resources like the Cannon River), and uses more land. As Northfield develops its first Climate Action Plan, considering the larger picture of how development patterns can help is critical.
More like this: Walkable, bikable, valuable (Photo: Money Magazine)

Back to Development

Despite the very clear plans for this intersection, right now there is little to make it easy to develop what Northfield says it wants. For a small, walkable, downtownish business, this corner is isolated. Although highly visible from the highway, this location is not a pleasant walk from Division Street (yet) and there are no other downtown-scale businesses to help draw foot traffic. The planned riverfront walkway connecting to the Crossing to the Riverwalk south of 2nd Street has not been completed. The commercial development on the north side of the Crossing is small-scale, but focused inward to the parking lot rather than adding to the Highway 3 streetscape and helping to connect to the corner. The access into the site is constrained by its location on two state highways. The roundabout and interior roadways take a lot of space which might be used better. The south corner across 2nd Street is empty and crossing the street on foot or bike any direction at the 2nd Street and Highway 3 intersection is unpleasant.

Questions I would like Northfield to ask next:

  • How well do the City regulatory tools make developing this area “like downtown” easy, predictable, and as cost effective as possible? What revisions to the Land Development Code regulations would help carry out the purpose of the regulations and the vision of the Comprehensive Plan?
  • How will Northfield’s economic development efforts be directed toward carrying out the land use planning and climate action goals of the City? Are current economic development resources allocated effectively?
  • How will Northfield take advantage of advances in street designs, public health research, and other tools to evaluate regulations and projects for better active transportation results?
  • How can Northfield consider the impact of both its land development pattern and local business development compared to national franchises Rather than look at economic development as simply any growth in jobs or the tax base, how can Northfield compare both in terms of tax value compared to the cost of city services and infrastructure, creating living wage jobs, and keeping more dollars circulating in the local economy?
  • Finally, these questions are all big picture and long term. Right now, what steps can be taken to help connect The Crossing to downtown by improving the walking, rolling and biking connections? How can economic and community development staff think differently to market this property or develop proposals which will fit both the real estate and the planning goals.
High value, walkable development: Downtown block bounded by Division, Washington, 3rd and 4th Streets.

Fun urbanism: Putting more people and more play in playgrounds

London Pools Playground (Photo: Studio Ludo)

From Medium: A Q & A with Meghan Talarowski about why London playgrounds are more active and draw more adults than in the USA:

The playgrounds are much more open-ended. They also have riskier, more adventurous elements, like giant tree houses or huge slides. So they attract a much wider age-range. A lot of the playgrounds here are very small. You can’t get high up, which is something people like: giant swings, big spinners, tall slides. There’s a lot of physical stimulation in the environment there. I was seeing people 85 years old going down three-story tall slides. When Grandma is climbing three, four sets of stairs over and over again to go on these slides, you know there’s something special happening.

 

What would happen if we treated sidewalks like streets?

Perhaps I am getting grumpy as winter drags on here in Minnesota, but as I was picking my way on the ice, trudging through the snow, and climbing over the snowplow mountains at intersections after the last big snowfall, I thought (again, for I think this every winter):

The City should treat sidewalks like streets.

That is, the City should “plow” the sidewalks rather than relying on individual property owners’ initiative to shovel the snow.

Why have property owners do the work of maintaining public property?  The only benefits I can identify are (1) heart-warming stories of neighborly generosity where people clear the snow from elderly neighbors sidewalks, cookies are baked for the nice folks shoveling their friends’ walkways, and the camaraderie as we get to know each other as we share the burden, and (2) the City (that is, taxpayers) don’t have to pay for it. Yet we do pay for it with our time, money (snowblowers are not cheap and even snow shovels cost something), and limitations in transportation choice.

Helpful neighbor doing the City’s work

Why have the City clear the sidewalks? I believe Northfield could find ways to manage both the cost and logistics (perhaps a snow removal utility – rates would be higher if you live on a cul de sac, but lower on a snow emergency route), so that’s not my central concern.

Sidewalks are critical public transportation infrastructure, not amenities. Whether we cannot drive, cannot afford to drive or choose to walk to carry out our daily activities, we rely on a safe sidewalk network to get around just as much as others rely on the motor vehicle spaces. City maintenance of the sidewalks network (and filling in gaps in the network) would be a strong statement of the importance of transportation choice and do much to implement our environmental, age-friendly, multi-modal transportation policies.

Piecemeal snow removal on sidewalks limits mobility and increases risk for everyone, but particularly older adults. Reading comments on the Age-Friendly Northfield survey recently, snow on sidewalks was mentioned by multiple people as an obstacle to getting around as they age.

Snow removal is one of the biggest objections to adding new sidewalk. Attend any public meeting for a street project where sidewalk is proposed to be built where none currently exists and you’ll hear a concern about the burden of snow removal. Since snow is a problem for less (often much less) than half the year, this means fear of snow shoveling has helped create gaps in the sidewalk network itself which persist year-round. Northfield could remove this excuse my removing the snow.

Snow removal by property owners is not always equitable. In areas with neighborhood associations, the association removes the snow. In others, like mine, my family can buy a big and expensive snowblower; my neighbor can pay for a snow removal service. The rental properties in my neighborhood are rarely shoveled and neighbors who work out of town (or work long hours) often do not have time to clear the snow promptly or effectively. Any one of the properties which doesn’t clear the sidewalk interrupts the network for the block. Maintaining a transportation network should not depend on individuals’ affluence, work schedule, means of paying for housing, or sense of civic responsibility.

Wait, would the City have to clear all the sidewalks at once? No, the City could prioritize sidewalks the same way it does streets as long as it provides a connected, clear sidewalk network in a timely manner (here’s a similar argument for bike lanes). My local street is appropriately plowed later than nearby collectors; my sidewalk can wait, too. Some special cases might include ensuring snow is removed quickly near schools and facilities serving older adults.

What about sidewalk maintenance more generally? The City is will discuss its Pavement Management Index on Tuesday which maps the condition of driving surfaces of City streets. If the City treated sidewalks as transportation infrastructure, sidewalks (and gaps in sidewalks) would be included in their inventory.

Nicely cleared multi-use path in Lapland

Fun (and serious) Urbanism – Child-friendly cities

The Guardian just published an article What Would the Ultimate Child-Friendly City Look Like? which details what five cities are doing to make their outdoor spaces and transportation systems really kid-friendly. We have Age-Friendly Northfield looking at how to make Northfield better for older adults, but what about kids?

Right now, Northfield is somewhat kid-friendly if you happen to live in the right neighborhood. My East Side neighborhood is a good place for a kids – say, 10 years old –  to independently travel on foot or bike to the library, swimming pool, and parks.Other neighborhoods face bigger obstacles like needing to Highway 3. Walking or biking to school is unsafe for many, even those who live close to schools.

What would a truly child-friendly Northfield look like?

Really not kid-friendly