Sidewalks as safe transportation infrastructure

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

 

Tiny Houses need a much larger look

The Northfield Planning Commission took a little look at Tiny Houses back in January, but the city really needs to build tiny houses into the much bigger picture of housing in Northfield.

What’s a Tiny House? Tiny Houses are, of course, small houses. Typically less than 400 square feet, these small homes can be constructed in different ways, used for a variety of reasons, and placed in multiple locations/situations; this flexibility ties the zoning code (and building code) in knots. Here are a small variety:

Ecocapsule (Photo: New Atlas)

Tiny Shipping Container House (Photo: New Atlas)

A Tiny Neighborhood (Photo: Country Living)

Let’s simplify:

  • The City should not try to guess why people may choose to live in or build a Tiny House; there is no compelling government interest I can identify which requires regulating this.
  • Create a simple taxonomy of Tiny Houses:
    • houses on wheels which remain mobile and not connected to city services and
    • houses built on permanent foundations and connected to sewer, water, etc.
  • Decide whether Tiny Houses should be tightly regulated and allowed in a very limited way (if at all) or whether Tiny Houses are a housing choice which should be broadly available to anyone who chooses this type of dwelling (or chooses to build them to sell to others) and craft regulations which are simple and easy to navigate.

Tiny Houses are a problem

Right now, Tiny Houses are a problem because they cut across categories of regulations. Whether on wheels or permanent foundations, there is no regulatory place for Tiny Houses in Northfield.

Tiny Houses On Wheels are not manufactured homes which must be located in the R4 zone, but are somewhat more like transient dwellings “designed to be regularly moved on wheels” like campers or motor homes which can be licensed to be parked and occupied for no more than 30 days. Or, something more like the Temporary Family Health Care Dwelling without the use requirements about family and healthcare. I’m going to suggest we could license Tiny Homes on Wheels in flexible ways to ensure some accountability in time limits and location for a mobile dwelling, plus health and safety items without (like the granny pods) stipulating the reasons people might want to live in a Tiny House on Wheels.

A very colorful Tiny House on Wheels (Photo: The Spruce)

Tiny Houses on Foundations are permanent, but are they primary or accessory dwelling units?

  • As primary dwellings, their small size does not fit well with typical lot sizes and setbacks in residential areas (nor could two primary dwellings be on the same lot), would run afoul of the neighborhood compatibility rules for the R1 older areas, and we do not currently have a location where a cottage court or Tiny Subdivision with appropriately sized lots (or multiple dwellings on the same lot or small lots with shared common space) could be located.
  • As accessory dwellings they are not permitted anywhere in Northfield, since the only accessory dwellings allowed are as part of detached garages.

Cottage Square neighborhood in Ocean Springs, MS of repurposed Katrina Cottages (Photo: RJohntheBad)

Northfield’s current approach

The first stab at Tiny House regulation in the proposal presented to the Planning Commission is to add Tiny Houses as primary dwellings to the N2 Residential zoning district.

The N2 district will create a pedestrian-friendly environment, such as found in the R1 district, with strong neighborhood qualities, such as a grid-like street pattern, consistent block size, compact development, a range of housing types and architectural styles, street connectivity, sidewalks, and homes located in close relationship to the street.

This purpose statement suggests Tiny Homes as primary dwellings would be appropriate as part of that range of housing types and compact development. N2 areas are currently undeveloped, so there is no conflict with neighborhood compatibility standards or, more important, no conflict with existing neighbors of R1 (the older areas near Carleton and St. Olaf). This strategy is politically and technically easy; dropping a new column of small-scale site design into the code to be applied to as yet unplatted land provides for one place to build Tiny Houses or Tiny Subdivisions. This proposal is promising, but very limited.

Northfield Zoning Map (N2 zones are dark orange)

A more expansive approach

Following the guidance of the Comprehensive Plan and Strategic Plan which call for creating more affordable housing, workforce housing, senior housing, a range of housing types, more intensive development and removing regulatory barriers to building affordable housing. I’d call allowing Tiny Houses in Northfield an opportunity to add another tool to the housing toolbox which can be affordable, environmentally sustainable, and flexible for many types of residents.

Where should they go? 

In all low-density, primarily single-family zoning districts; these would include R1-B (older, grid-street neighborhoods near downtown), N1-B (most newer single family home areas), and N2-B (the undeveloped land to be more “R1-B-like”) where Tiny Houses would offer one way to add housing incrementally in older, desirable and well-connected neighborhoods, as well as planning for them in undeveloped places. So, I could build a Tiny House in my backyard in the R1-B district as an accessory dwelling unit to rent now or to move into and rent my primary dwelling if I would like to downsize or income needs change. Someone with a large or double lot could seek a minor subdivision to create a new Tiny Lot or two for Tiny Primary Houses. The HRA could build a new Tiny Subdivision in N2-B. And more, I’m sure.

Tiny Houses could be treehouses, which would really frustrate the zoning code (Photo BaumRaum)

The Strategic Plan, Comprehensive Plan and Age-Friendly Northfield initiatives (AARP supports Tiny ADUs) provide plenty of policy level support for more housing choices (at more price points) and permitting and encouraging infill development.

At the ordinance level, though, there’s trouble. What ordinances need to be changed or eliminated to make Tiny Houses easy to build?

  • Basics: Allowing Tiny Houses as a specific use in low-density neighborhoods and reviewing lot size and setback requirements to allow for smaller dwellings would be required.
  • Accessory Dwellings: Currently limited to dwelling units only as part of detached garages in residential zoning districts, Northfield would need to relax those requirements to provide for freestanding ADUs (and here’s a model code which allows for a range of ADUs which would accommodate Tiny Houses well or this one). The bonus for making these changes would be to allow for a range of accessory dwellings whether on garages, attached to primary dwellings, or freestanding units.
  • Neighborhood compatibility regulations for R1-B: In order to maintain neighborhood character, R1-B regulations include “compatibility” requirements where the “primary focus of these compatibility standards is to ensure that new infill development, redevelopment, or building expansion relates to the massing and scale of the surrounding structures.” Tiny Houses, mostly likely, would be out of scale with neighboring homes as primary dwelling units; accessory structures are exempt but ADUs are limited as noted above. I’d argue that regulations intended to preserve “character” can be code for protecting neighbors (often affluent neighbors) from what is seen as undesirable change.
  • Parking regulations: ADUs must provide one off-street parking space in addition to the two required for each primary dwelling (so, two spaces for a single family home, four for a two-family dwelling, etc.). Requiring two spaces for each single family primary dwelling Tiny House might also be counterproductive. Rather than requiring parking, leaving this decision up to property owners would increase flexibility and possibly reduce costs.
  • Rental code: Even if physical standards were changed, ADUs could be detached, neighborhood compatibility issues were resolved and parking was not a problem, the rental code could still be an obstacle. While the rental code exempts owner-occupied rentals (say, a rental apartment contained within the owner’s home), ADUs which are not part of the primary dwelling do not appear to be covered. The limit on rental licenses in low-density neighborhoods to 20% of the “houses” on a block measures the proportion based on a house as a “single structure containing one or more rental units.” Is a freestanding ADU Tiny House counted as a “house?”As with neighborhood compatibility standards, the rental code is another attempt to preserve neighborhood character in ways which discriminate against renters as “people not like us” in higher income neighborhoods (students, for example, or lower income families). Northfield city staff are already looking at this; the staff report addressing Tiny Houses states “Northfield staff are currently investigating changes to the rental ordinance as part of the strategic plan objectives on affordable housing. The current feeling is that instead of introducing Tiny Houses into the mix, Northfield might be better served by modifying the existing ADU standards to allow ground level development as part of a garage or as a free standing unit. We are also evaluating the impact of the rental ordinance on the Northfield housing market.” Indeed.

So Northfield, read the Plans and policies which call for more housing choices and really consider how to help Tiny Houses be one of those choices without fear of what the neighbors will say. YIMBY!

My Backyard (which has plenty of space for a Tiny House)

Back in the (Planning Commission) saddle again

Back in the saddle again

I started blogging (at the suggestion/arm-twisting of civic blogmeister Griff Wigley) when I ran for mayor in 2004. I was the chair of the Planning Commission at the time and while I lost the election, I kept writing until I left the Commission in 2005. Blogging resumed and reached its peak during my 2009-2012 City Council term, but has languished since then with only intermittent burps of blogging. Now, I’ve returned to the Planning Commission, so let’s see if I can return to this too (despite some pronouncing the death of blogging).

For me, blogging was a chance to analyze and clarify issues for myself by writing about them and then (I hoped) provide a more nuanced, critical review of issues than presented in local “real” media (along with some bits of fun and other random stories). Over time, a couple of basic, guiding questions became clearer in my mind. I’m asking: 

Who pays, who benefits? I was miffed, when Northfield was developing lots of single family housing and major public facilities (hospital, Middle School), why the cost to taxpayers over the long term was ignored, but the the cost to developers in the short term was the only cost considered. My concern was that the City was failing to recognize that government (at all levels) is a player in the market (by regulating what can be built, incentivizing/subsidizing certain types of projects, by its tax structure) and as a party to individual development deals like subdivisions, planned unit developments, etc. Why, as Northfield tried to develop policy and regulations which don’t unfairly burden business (in the short term), didn’t it also consider its own (that is, taxpayers’) interests in the long term for how places are connected, the amount of infrastructure to build and more. Add, more recently, I’ve been thinking about how our regulations privilege the folks who are already more privileged.

Why aren’t land use and transportation considered together?  My very first Planning Commission meeting had the final plat for the hospital on the agenda. The hospital location was chosen because land was cheap (long term almost free lease from St. Olaf) and higher reimbursement rates in (metro) Dakota County. How people would get to the hospital was decided only afterward. For the Middle School, traffic considerations were brushed aside in favor of the beautiful building with lots of playing fields but which has proven unsafe and unpleasant to bike or walk to (and it will take millions to retrofit the 246/Jefferson Parkway intersection). Developers of residential subdivisions chose where street connections and parks would be located, but shouldn’t that be driven by public needs since they would be public facilities? Each decision isolated from the “how do you get there?” question spills over into how we can live our daily lives.

Optimism: These questions were considered pretty nutty in 2001. Since then, the number of cities, organizations, and planners taking these questions seriously and building more connected, more equitable, more sustainable (fiscally and environmentally) places has been growing quickly. Northfield has begun to gather momentum, too, and I look forward to 2018 and beyond.