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.

 

 

Northfield Community Survey – my real answers

I just completed the Northfield Community Survey and you should, too. The survey is the mechanism by which the Council and city staff collect information from The Public (boards and commissions having had their own meetings) to inform their strategic planning process.

After I stopped sputtering with irritation about the questions which asked for gut-level answers to complex questions for which no education nor guidance was provided – indeed, the stunningly unstrategic nature of the exercise – I answered the questions. Here’s how I’d really answer them if I’d been given something beyond multiple choice.

1. Please tell us why you live in or have moved to Northfield: OK, this one’s easy. I moved to Northfield so my husband could teach at Carleton College (translation: I’m white, privileged, highly educated, and affluent. I’ll thrive regardless of what Northfield does. Most people presume I’m on the bleeding edge of liberal politics). 

Carleton College Arboretum

2. Low taxes are important to a community’s success. Taxes which are equitable, sufficient to fund the services residents need and want, and educated policy-makers who understand the relation between taxes, development patterns, and long-term costs are critical to a community’s sustainable success.

Educating taxpayers about the city tax structure is important, too, for when I get my tax bill from Rice County, the $3000+ amount for my property includes county, school district, and city taxes (including special taxing authorities like the EDA and HRA plus any special assessments on my property for infrastructure costs); I pay less than half of the total amount to the City of Northfield.

Educating taxpayers about the tradeoffs required for low taxes is also needed. It is not possible to have low taxes, high services, and great pavement. Working with the school district to build facilities which help cut costs and integrate services is also needed.

Development costs for city and developer (Image from Strong Towns)

3. & 4. The quality and price of services provided by the City of Northfield (is a complex question): 

  • Utilities: Water (drinking), wastewater (flushing), stormwater (street/property runoff), garbage (landfill), and recycling are mostly paid for by user fees (plus bonding for capital improvements which gets rolled into fees).  The water is clean and drinkable (a public health benefit not to be underestimated) and the other utilities are ok, but my assessment of quality and price includes whether the City is working to reduce stormwater runoff, reducing solid waste, and encouraging energy conservation.  Since I care about streets, I’m concerned that the city is barely discussing conservation and environmental sustainability and not connecting stormwater with city standards for streets.
  • Growth, development and services: The strategic question for the city – what is Northfield doing to manage water, wastewater, garbage collection, and stormwater in order to both sustain the environment, but also keep costs down? What is Northfield doing to reduce solid waste (and landfill costs), conserve water (reducing stress on aquifers), reduce runoff, and manage wastewater (new sewage treatment plant was on the horizon, but how and where we build also makes sewage easier or harder to get to said plant). Is the city scoring its development proposals for the amount of infrastructure required and the likely ability of tax dollars and fees to pay for that expense?
  • Other services: Library, parks, snowplowing, street-sweeping, police and fire, swimming pool and ice arena are general fund dollars. Some strategic partnerships help with parks (sports associations help manage fields, build trails, and do maintenance), library (the Friends and Foundation of the NPL raised much money to support the library expansion project as well as on-going library needs), the fire joint powers agreement is another way to share costs. The strategic question is how will we fund the services we want? The liberal, common-good model would provide more tax funding to the library, for example (so, see the question above about whether low taxes are the goal) while the conservative answer would be to privatize more (and then ask how this helps address poverty and inequity in town).

Library expansion – now finished

5. There are not adequate housing choices in the community: Northfield has built many acres of single family, market-rate homes on large lots and wide streets (and some have celebrated the growth in the tax base and creation of jobs as a result). Building smaller and building denser (and more affordably) is much more difficult and the private developers have mostly stayed away. So, the strategic question is: how can Northfield ensure a range of housing choices? Northfield can build more affordable housing (through the HRA, for example) using tax dollars and grants (often tax-funded at another level of government). Northfield can also revise its regulations away from minimum lot sizes and single-family only development with carefully segregated multi-family housing to encourage incremental development, adding density in existing neighborhoods, and removing obstacles to small-scale private development. How will Northfield address NIMBY-ism which argues against density or change? 

Missing Middle Housing (Image: http://missingmiddlehousing.com/)

6. We should do more to address poverty in Northfield. See the questions above and below, but provide information about the scope of the problem, what is within the City’s portfolio and tell us how city government, other levels of government, and the non-profit sector can work together. City government can work on certain slices of the poverty issue, but needs to network.

7. The City should place more emphasis in creating jobs and business growth. I think I have already said what i need to say about this one here (Business Park and infrastructure costs), here (economic gardening vs. business subsidies), here (black swans and resilience) and here (development pattern and costs). When I look at recent development, it’s not the big subsidy stuff nor the very fringe of town stuff – look at Vet Provisions/Aurora Pharmaceuticals (some JOBZ funding there, as I recall), Armory redevelopment (housing, community space, and brewery); new hotel and Tanzenwald Brewery on or near the Crossing (plus Brick Oven Bakery moving here), Content Bookstore, infill around Target (Maurice’s, Dollar Tree, Fielder’s Choice, YMCA), and out by the hospital satellite (Mayo radiation clinic). I see new business which builds on the attractiveness of Northfield as a place to live and visit or exploits the proximity/synergy of existing business, not pie-in-the-cornfields development. Thinking ahead, how can Northfield get more of this (without throwing money at developers)?

8. We need a thriving downtown for Northfield to be successful. And this one, too, here (importance of downtown) and here (downtown development is not just for liberals, but makes conservatives happy, too). And more parking is not the answer.

9. The City parks provide amenities, greenspace, and recreation that are quite generous: For a city its size, Northfield has lots of parks and lots of kinds of parks. The strategic question is – do our parks serve all our residents? I’d add other questions like: is it easy and safe to walk and bike to parks (rather than presuming we can all drive to the park we want to visit)? Do parks feel safe? Are parks maintained in environmentally sustainable ways?

10. The surface conditions of the streets in the City range from good to horrible. Short-termism 15 years ago lead to budget cutting by delaying street maintenance which, very quickly, was shown to snowball with more streets deteriorating and making it very expensive to play catch-up. The strategic question is: how does Northfield look at its street network and how well it connects the city and, if it chooses to continue to build wide streets with low density development, who will pay for the maintenance…or, how does the City encourage building more compactly to make better use of its streets (with more taxpayers to fewer miles to help pay)prioritize routes). Asking about whether special assessments are the best way to pay for street repairs is another worthy question to ask. In specific locations such as around Central Park right now, how does the City ask the Colleges to pay for the wear and tear of construction equipment on city streets?

Safe crossing of 7th Street needed

11. What is your preferred form of media used to receive City of Northfield news and announcements?  A really good website. The latest revamp is slightly, but only slightly better. But, really, don’t worry about me because I’ll find the information I want because I’m educated, connected to the internet, know my way around City Hall, etc. 

12. Northfield should place more emphasis on communication effort to improve public information on City services and activities. Obviously, I think the City needs to do a great deal more to help residents know how city government works, what it costs, and how various policies interact to be more or less sustainable. First, I think the Council should educate themselves, seek better experts to advise on projects, and then use multiple channels to take information to Northfielders and ask for their feedback. This survey was a example of how not to do it.

For a few of the short answer questions not considered above:

13. What do you like best about Northfield? On a daily basis, downtown and the Carleton Arb (for those who say colleges are a drain on the economy because they pay no taxes, I’d say they add much in cultural offerings, education for high school students, open space for study and recreation, the renewable resource of students who come, thrive and help informally market Northfield, and being high-quality employers).

17. What are/should be the top priorities for the City over the next 3-5 years? Already wrote that one here.

When there’s trouble I am not slow. It’s up, up, up and away I go! (to make good policy in a city I know)