Urbanists tweet about the roundabout

Last week, the Strib ran an article about Northfield’s planned roundabout with tunnels for people biking and walking:

Twitter responds

As a result, one local urbanist (streets.mn founder, active with Strong Towns, Planning Commissioner, and good guy) tweets:

In turn, famous walkability guy Jeff Speck chimes in:

After a bit of back and forth, the exchange ended with:

Aside from the arrogance of this judgment (requiring omniscience to evaluate), there’s really more to be said about why this project, while unfortunate and imperfect, is justifiable.

Strib is wrong!

The Strib corrected their print story to show the the approved design below, rather than the rejected design which brought all the pedestrian tunnels to the center at a sort of below-grade plaza. The adopted version is simpler and allows more direct travel by people riding, rolling and walking:

Approved alternative for TH 246/Jefferson Parkway (image: City of Northfield)

Twitter is right!

I agree with these guys. The proposed roundabout plus tunnels is a huge amount of infrastructure with a very high price tag for an intersection with only 4,000 AADT. MnDOT and the City chose the roundabout design early and cut off opportunities to rethink the intersection for people walking, rolling, and riding and for cost savings in the short and long term.

I especially agree with Mr Speck that while roundabouts are the safest and most pedestrian friendly of the car-centric designs, they are still completely auto-centric infrastructure so the opportunity to really change the design paradigm was lost. So, yeah, the Northfield roundabout is a mega-project which violates the walkability rules and urbanism best practices.

But not completely right

Jeff Speck is an expert on walkable places, but how well does he know Northfield? This intersection is a big problem for Northfield because of prior planning problems, the character of the roads involved, Northfield’s nascent understanding of walkability and how to achieve it, and the political climate of the city.

An earlier exchange with many of the same complaints was kicked off by the only other person in the conversation who knows the Northfield landscape and, as a result, can also see the upside:

Northfield is just beginning to walk back the decades of suburban development which reached its apotheosis with the Northfield Middle School. This intersection is smack dab in the middle of this unconnected, residential area with three of Northfield’s five schools, a community center (including a senior center), and a future state trail which will be a major east-west bike/walk connection. And the north-south road is a state highway, just to add some jurisdictional complexity and design constraints.

Satellite image with labels describing the dead end streets on either side of Northfield's Divison Street and Jefferson Pkwy intersection
Jefferson Parkway/TH 246 intersection

No other routes to school

Because there are NO other contiguous streets which connect the Middle School and there are two more schools plus the coming into town get-to-work traffic, congestion at this intersection is highly concentrated into “rush minutes” keyed to the school day. School start and end vehicle traffic jam times are the very same times kids might be walking and biking to school (All detailed here).

MnDOT AADT map (edited): The circle marks the roundabout location and shows what doesn’t connect

Perceived safety

What traffic looks like now as it heads to the 4-way stop with turn lanes during the school rush. There are multi-use paths and sidewalks leading to this intersection, but crossing the multi-lane all way stop in traffic like this is daunting and dangerous – both actually dangerous (with one person killed crossing on foot and multiple crashes) and certainly subjectively dangerous.

Who wants to cross this on a bike? (Photo 246 Solutions)

Parents are rightly afraid to let their kids bike or walk through this area now and are also concerned that kids crossing this kind of traffic at a roundabout doesn’t feel safe. Slowing cars and crossing at grade is the urbanist recommendation, but that still doesn’t address the sense that safety is achieved only by making sure people walking and biking are physically separated from heavy traffic. A small bonus – the intersection is already somewhat elevated, so underpass grades will be quite flat.

Older adults and people with mobility or vision challenges are also uncomfortable with crossing traffic lanes and needing to perch on “refuge medians” (surely the word “refuge” suggests being stranded) especially if crosswalks are before vehicles enter the roundabout and traffic is slowing down from 45 or 50 mph and looking left for other vehicles rather than for unprotected people.

The Mill Towns State Trail will also pass through this intersection along Jefferson Parkway. While many riders and walkers on this leg will be able to cross at times which are not during the concentrated school times, the DNR recommendation for trails crossing roadways with these speeds would be a grade separated crossing which, again, is typically perceived as safer and easier for recreational users.

It’s a state highway

The current 4-way stop doesn’t work well for any mode of travel, but when choosing another intersection control the City was limited by MnDOT requirements for its highway. The intersection does not meet MnDOT warrants for a traffic signal (traffic projections forecast warrants would be met by 2040) for one thing, and MnDOT’s emphasis on traffic flow and Level of Service prioritized easy driving…so, a roundabout was the choice. There is discussion of turning back this route to the county and/or city, but that possible future development will come too late for this project.

The highway has a posted speed limit of 45 mph in front of the middle school as vehicles slow down from the 55 (or maybe 60 as speed limits were raised recently) out of town section:

Speed limits on TH 246

Building schools on state highways is a bad idea, but Northfield did it anyway three times. So, the school district buses kids across the street to the Middle School because it is a hazardous crossing and the traffic accelerates out of town right about at the Middle School. Slowing traffic should happen well south of the roundabout and maybe, if this becomes a county of city route, there will be more opportunity to do that. But, again, too late for this project.

Back to the roundabout

So, given all the other factors, what should Northfield do right now to improve safety (actual and perceived), fix school traffic jams and encourage small people and older people and recreational trail users to walk and bike through this intersection?

Note the Catch-22: If Northfield could increase the number of students getting to school under their own power that would reduce rush minute congestion created by adults chauffeuring kids to school…and if it reduced demand during peak times then the over-engineered roundabout would not be needed. But how could Northfield increase walking and biking through an intersection where people die?

My position is the roundabout can relieve the traffic jams (and improve air quality by eliminating those idling cars and buses), reduce the number of conflict points for car crashes (of which there are many), and adding tunnels makes the walking and biking not only statistically safe, but safe feeling. Making biking and walking feel safe opens the door to schools encouraging kids to walk and bike (and parents will allow it), gives the Mill Towns Trail an enhanced chance of success by allowing low stress, non-stop travel (just like cars want!).

Mill Towns Trail proposed alignment

Will it work?

Mr Speck has decreed it has never worked and will never work, but I’m hopeful that IF the City ensures that there are safe bike and walk routes to the roundabout from all directions (for thinking beyond the project area is always a challenge), then Northfield opens the door to biking and walking as real transportation so that by the time this needs to be reconstructed, the landscape will be different and the next solution will be climate focused instead.

But. I also have deep reservations about this approach. Adding bike and walk facilities, even really good ones, to a system designed for and prioritizing vehicle travel – as this project most certainly does only reinforces the unsustainable design mentality which supports the “drive everywhere” status quo. At this moment in Northfield, it is
what is politically possible, but it dodges the critical issue of reducing driving to save the planet and our health.

I have two desired outcomes for this project beyond getting people riding, rolling and walking safely to all the important destinations near this intersection. First, making this project an object lesson in Northfield’s evolving climate action planning highlighting what not to do in the future. Second, the City and school district will understand this project is a bandaid to fix a series of land use and transportation mistakes which both
jurisdictions will want to endeavor not to repeat. Maybe the very high price tag will focus their attention more sharply.

A quick look at a map of the City shows the wonderful, walkable core, but then how the City sprawled and spread. Northfield did a very thorough job of not merely breaking, but flouting Mr Speck’s walkability rules and we’re just starting to put the town back together. The particular challenges at this critical intersection mean I’m defending the choice to separate the bike and walk trails from the vehicle traffic to help people feel safer while we work on all the other pieces.

After so completely cutting off connectivity in the past, Northfield’s decision to try a big fix at this intersection is defensible, but disappointing.

The bike’s eye view from Jake Thomas

UPDATE! Northfield does get the message right

Look! Northfield has updated its sidewalk stencils for directing bicycle traffic off the sidewalks:

On view now at 7th & Division Street!

A few years ago, I complained about the City of Northfield’s misleadingly negative image on downtown sidewalks:

Really, let’s have more bikes downtown (and skateboards – also prohibited on the sidewalks!). Just walk them on the sidewalk where there’s very limited space. So THANK YOU Northfield (especially Dave Bennett) for changing the stencil and the message with the latest downtown street project.

More ideas for helping bikes fit in downtown

Provide parking (off the crowded sidewalk in high traffic locations)

But where will they park (their bikes)? Right here!

And some great destinations (again, keeping the sidewalk clearer for walking and access)

A parklet in a parking space (Image: Dero – the bike rack people)

And some signage to tell drivers and riders that they are welcome on the street rather than the sidewalk:

Sharrows (Image: Cornell)

Golden Opportunity paved over at Greenvale Park

The new Greenvale Park Elementary School will improve the inside-the-building issues from no doors to more security to better tech and has been planned with detailed input from teachers and parents.

Far less attention was paid to outside the school, however, and the golden opportunity created by building a new school to explicitly consider the larger picture of how this school will be more equitable, address climate change, increase transportation options, and connect its neighborhood. Breaking ground this week, the district will start to pave over its once-in-a-generation chance.

Northfield does not build new schools often.

Wold Architects presented this design to Northfield school board. The large parking lot, two new driveways, and vehicle drop off lanes visually, spatially and psychologically prioritize easy driving and vehicle storage over safe, people (child!) centered access. This choice is backward looking and kills the golden opportunity goose dead.

How we got here

Here’s the city planning context: during the 1970s and 1980s multiple blocks south of the school were vacated leaving Lincoln Parkway in front of the school as the only continuous east-west street nearby and thus a critical connection for the neighborhood which includes a large retirement community, links to Saint Olaf College, and the only street connecting Viking Terrace on the east and the Dakota County neighborhoods on the west to the larger community. The street is wide and vehicles travel fast.

Photo: City of Northfield (Red lines are trails; yellow lines are sidewalks)

But as a neighborhood school, walking distances aren’t long. Siting the school and planning the vehicle circulation to allow Lincoln Parkway to connect the retirement community (west), Viking Terrace (east), more homes on all sides, AND the school for walking and biking for all ages, incomes, and abilities could have been a core part of the planning. But it wasn’t.

But the importance of walking and biking is not just my opinion. The City of Northfield has been working one policy update at a time to build a more walkable city. Northfield city policy also points to improving biking and walking around Greenvale in particular; the draft update of the city’s trail, bike, and pedestrian plan identifies safer and more accessible bicycling and walking facilities around K-12 schools as a priority and Lincoln Parkway as a gap in the bicycling network.

But not if you go to Greenvale Park (Photo: Bike Law)

Building walkable schools pays big dividends

Walking (which is shorthand for walking, biking, skateboarding, rolling, scootering…and any other form of active transportation) and building walkable places is good for Northfield in ways which both directly and indirectly benefit schools:

  • Economic value: Northfield’s recent presentation by Urban3, discussions with consultants about developing the area around the hospital and an Urban Land Institute workshop last fall all emphasized the high demand and higher property values for walkable neighborhoods, and the need for Northfield to ensure new development was connected to schools, downtown, shopping and jobs not only by streets, but by sidewalks and bike trails. And walking can help family reduce the amount they have to pay for transportation from less gas to being able to have one fewer vehicles.

The high costs of driving

No matter how many benefits I can list for walking, driving is almost always more convenient and, for many trips in Northfield, unavoidable. Northfield, like almost everywhere else, has built streets and neighborhoods to make driving easy. Because driving is so normal and so needed, I’m not surprised the school district followed the path of least resistance and accommodated the demand for easy car access.

Yet, I am so sorry that the district didn’t do more because it was such a great chance to help begin to shift the status quo for all the benefits above, but also to help alleviate some of the costs below. Most people don’t consider all the costs or know how our laws and policies subsidize driving or think about doing anything else. But the school district could have helped change the status quo by considering:

  • Driving costs money: Cars are expensive (typical estimates are about $8,000 per year). The groups most likely to bike and walk already are low income people and people of color; these are the families Greenvale Park serves. Reducing the need to drive and increasing the safety for people walking and biking will begin to advance greater equity in transportation in Northfield.
Racial “dot map”
  • Driving costs lives. People driving kill an increasing number of people walking and biking (again, disproportionately lower income and people of color). Reducing school car traffic generally and designing to reduce speed and distraction improves safety. The City of Northfield has begun building traffic calming features into street projects. Partnering with the City for changes to Lincoln Parkway to slow traffic, improve crossings, add bike facilities and fill sidewalk gaps would have been a good way to think together (and share costs) with the City to improve safety and quality of life.
  • Driving is expensive for taxpayers: Building for driving means it is often unsafe and unpleasant to walk, so the school district must pay more to bus more students short distances (such as busing kids across the street from the Middle School), more parking means paying more for maintenance and plowing. Building wide roads and expanding the city in ways which require more driving requires more miles of streets, more pavement, more maintenance and higher taxes (road specific fees and taxes do not cover the costs; general fund dollars are required).  
  • Building for driving incentivizes more driving. Widening roads and an abundant supply of free parking increases the amount of driving rather than alleviating congestion. Changing Greenvale’s primary orientation to easy biking and walking rather than easier driving could have been a big step toward slowing down the vicious circle.
Cartoon: Bikeyface

Yes, but why does one parking lot matter?

Greenvale’s parking lot matters because placing it between the school and the street helps continue the pattern of designing people out of our places and making active transportation unsafe, unpleasant, and unusual. And new schools don’t get built very often.

Building for walkability means more than “there is a sidewalk.” Walkable places site buildings where they are easiest to approach on foot (usually close to and facing the street) with an obvious and inviting front entrance. Parking is better placed behind (or under) the building and away from the street. Working with the City of Northfield for better crosswalks, traffic calming, and other infrastructure improvements would connect the school to the other side of the street.

The author ready to walk to kindergarten ca. 1966

Better site design would not have changed the world in one construction project, but de-emphasizing driving (even making it somewhat less convenient!) would have made encouraging walking easier (Hey school district – how about a Safe Routes to School program?), made walking in the neighborhood more pleasant (Age Friendly Northfield and helping older adults stay active!), and helped connect this part of Northfield to the rest of the city (equity!). It would also have shown that the school district truly cares about its students, their health, and the future of the environment they will live in. This project is an opportunity squandered.

But wait, there’s more

I served on the District’s core planning group for Greenvale to raise these issues and I was surprised that the teachers, administrators, and parents in the group provided detailed and thoughtful input about the design of the building. Energy efficiency, locker placement, accommodating the Community School, ensuring efficient placement of social workers and nurses, and planning the traffic pattern inside were all discussed at length. But these dedicated teachers and community members (who said they cared about climate change, science, and student health inside the building) were silent when I brought up how the placement of the building could support their work and values.

After this group concluded its work, Superintendent Matt Hillman bought me a nice brush-off lunch and suggested my concerns were merely a difference of opinion. I am concerned that our school officials – the ones who are trying to educate our children to be thoughtful, critical, knowledgeable participants in our democracy are so quick to fall victim to the fallacy of false equivalence. And, as a taxpayer, I am concerned that short term expedience has prevented thoughtful, critical consideration of the long-term costs of their choices.

Walking to school should be safe, easy, and obvious. Even for 5 year olds.

The tip of the Ice Arena budget iceberg

Intermission

The voters said “no” to building a new Arena back in November 2018, but the old Arena is still City property, still operated by the City, still barely functional, and whether to fix it still unresolved. But now it is budget season for the City and some choices will need to be made.

The Ice Arena is still a problem

Unfortunately, budget discussions are not as well-publicized as a referendum (indeed, the Council hides beyond the reach of video at the Police Station for budget talks), so in this intermission between the referendum first period and the budget decision second period on the Ice Arena, let’s review what’s happened and consider some questions the Council should answer before spending more money.

In November 2018, about 55% of Northfield voters voted against the ballot question to 45% in favor.  Interestingly, the only two precincts with a majority of voters supporting the question were the two college precincts, Ward 1-Precinct 1 (Carleton) and Ward 4-Precinct 2 (Olaf). If you take out the college precincts, the majority opposed was about 60% (click here for the MN Secretary of State results).

While we wait for the next puck to drop at City Hall, conversations I had with people not supporting the referendum last year revealed three general complaints:

  1. The “Civic Center” was really just a hockey facility [and the city was not being transparent and/or honest],
  2. The picture was too rosy, [and the city was not being transparent and/or honest] and,
  3. Wow, that’s a lot of money which could be better spent on other things [and this included a variety of concerns about spending, taxes, and priorities].

Process

In the budget timeline where a preliminary levy must be adopted by September, there is little time for Northfield to correct the process problems for next year, but the City needs to follow a much fairer and more transparent procedure to reach its next long-term decision. Obviously, the City needs help: 

This is an understatement

Be deliberate: Resist the urge to act quickly while you take the time to consider a broader range of options for ice in the community and who pays for it. Especially, take the time to (1) develop some financial policy about how the City can budget for the longterm maintenance and replacement of its facilities (any facility, not just the Arena!) before building a new one, and (2) consider how to equitably allocate resources to parks and recreation, and among recreational choices within that allocation.

Eliminate conflicts of interest: The Northfield Ice Arena Advisory Board was a hand-picked group of ice stakeholders from hotel owners (who benefit from the promised increased tourist dollars), to hockey and figure skating leaders (who benefit from the ice), to construction company owners (who could benefit from building the facility), the school district (which benefits by having the city do the heavy financial lifting for its teams).

Seek broader representation from the community including people for whom tax increases pose a real burden not just those who can afford to pay, people who skate and people who don’t, people who play other sports and those who play none, supporters and opponents, the School District, etc.  “What Northfield wants (and should pay for)” needs to be assessed by a better cross-section of the community.

Clearly state the costs and risks as well as the projected benefits for any Arena project  (and any other project): Large capital projects cost a lot to build, but each project creates the on-going obligation to repair and replace the new facility, road, bridge, etc.  Governments generally, not just Northfield, have not been very good about understanding and budgeting for this reality.  So the $21M price tag for the the proposed Civic Center was only the projected cost of construction, but did not include  the other costs which taxpayers will have to pay over the life of the facility including maintenance and repair, possible operating deficits, change in rates of participation, etc. Smaller plans to repair or remodel should consider the same long-term commitment.

Don’t consider the Ice Arena by itself, but plan for it as part of Northfield’s Parks and Recreation System. The key word here is “system.” Northfield has more than 30 Parks, 2 recreation facilities (outdoor swimming pool and ice arena), and miles of trails.

“How about a referendum just for parks?” came up more than once as voters thought about the 30% of the sales tax revenue which could have been allocated for recreation and parks. Most people said things like parks are important to them and providing recreational opportunities for Northfield was desirable, but the huge amount of money for ice was too much for one activity or just too much.

The City must discuss how to support its park and recreation system in the long term before committing to support a facility for a small group of very expensive sports. Ten years ago, when Gov. Pawlenty unallotted local government aid to Northfield, the Council voted to take money from parks to offset this sudden disappearance of revenue and long term park funding has still not recovered. Now’s the time and a good transition to the policy problems.

Big picture policy questions

Aspiration: If I had to pick just one aspect of Northfield government to change,  I’d say: The City needs to stop making decisions on a project by isolated project basis and start considering how it spends money in the context of the overall needs of the city, guided by it adopted policies, and armed with current and relevant data.

The Ice Arena is a stunning example of a single project put before the voters without context, without long-term planning, and without connections to the other priorities in the Strategic Plan, economic development priorities, the Capital Improvement Plan, or the Comprehensive Plan.  

The next attempt to address the ice arena should improve the process and ask (at least) these policy questions before getting to a specific project (or no project at all).

Big question 1: Equity and access: Is Northfield’s parks, trails, and recreation system (taken as a whole) equitable and accessible to all Northfield residents?

Parks, for example, should be located in places which are within easy (walking) distance of all residents.  A look at the map shows the northern part of the city is less well connected to trails, has parks which are hidden behind homes with little street frontage (creating the perception of private space), and large playing fields only at Greenvale Park Elementary School (likely to disappear when the new school is built). 

City of Northfield Parks Map

For major facilities like the outdoor pool and ice arena, the question is less about location than whether the facility supports activities able to be enjoyed the broadest cross section of the community. Swimming is a basic safety skill (and one unequally distributed) as well as cool recreation, so providing access to a pool (which hosts swim lessons via community education) seems like it could tick the right boxes, but the City should consider what its system and facilities supports now and what it should do.

Big question 2: Public facilities for school and private sports: The largest users of the Ice Arena are other organizations: the Northfield School District, the Northfield Hockey Association, and the Northfield Skating School.  What, if any, role should the City of Northfield play in building and maintaining public facilities for non-public activities?  Compare Sechler Park or Spring Creek Park; these facilities are also heavily used by baseball and soccer associations, but the use is seasonal, costs are lower, the parks include trails and playgrounds, the soccer association pays for maintenance and no fee is charged to visit the parks. What policy can the City develop to rationally guide choices about public facilities for non-public uses including capital costs, operating expenses, and the amount of time the facility must be available for public use?

A better example of a public private partnership (Photo: City of Northfield)

Big question 3: Funding: What proportion of Northfield’s annual budget should be committed to parks, trails, and recreation and how will the City determine this level?  Northfield’s Parks, Open Space, and Trails Plan includes dollar estimates for capital improvements for each of Northfield’s 30+ parks (trails and maintenance not included) totaling between $7-10 million in 2008 dollars (now about $8.2-11.7 million).  How will Northfield plan and budget for the life cycle costs of its parks and facilities, not just their initial development? After Northfield considers how it will partner with private groups, how will those groups participate in the construction, operation, and risk of these facilities?

Game on

It’s probably clear I don’t think a City-supported ice arena is a wise use of taxpayer money using any model like the current one. Maybe there are ways to build and maintain indoor ice in Northfield which shield the City from risk, are financially and environmentally sustainable, and are as equitable as possible. But Northfield hasn’t even started to identify those ways yet. All the City has now is this list:

From the Strategic Plan update

How is the City going to choose from this list?

Tax dollars should support activities and facilities which (taken as a whole) serve all Northfielders with a special effort to ensure access for underserved groups and areas. So I am concerned about the amount of money to construct and/or maintain an ice arena which serves relatively few people overall, is largely scheduled for use by other organizations, and is purpose-built for a few expensive sports (Public skating takes place at lunchtime during the week and 1.5 hours on Sunday afternoon). And I’m even more concerned the City will decide and budget by the seat of their breezers.

“Jesus Christ, what a friggin’ nightmare” (Image: Star Tribune)

ADUs: Reframing the discussion

After what seemed like unanimity and a strong sense of purpose at the Planning Commission, the Council discussion about Accessory Dwelling Units has been dispiriting to watch thus far and the public comments even more so. Since the Council will have another go at ADUs today, Tuesday, April 9, 2019 at their worksession, I’d like to try and reframe issue – or at least the structure of the discussion – rather than repeat the same pattern.

At previous meetings, three Council members consistently talked about the policies supporting the ordinance to encourage more ADUs as one way to expand the housing supply and benefit the Northfield community as a whole.

Three Council members and Mayor just as consistently flag individual provisions in the ordinance as problematic and look to regulate ADUs more stringently to “protect the character of the neighborhood.”

What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate

I wouldn’t call these groups adversarial, but they are talking past each other and relying on different kinds of evidence.

Moving ahead

Northfield’s Strategic Plan looks to build A Community Where Everyone Can Afford to Live, Welcomes Everyone, and is Resilient and Sustainable

Each of these values statements, I’ll argue, requires Northfield to change how it does business, sometimes in painful ways because Northfield, like most places, has developed in a way which is exclusive, expensive, and unsustainable.

Exclusive: Building hundreds of acres of larger single-family homes has segregated the city by income and excluded lower income residents from large parts of the city. Cheaper housing and multifamily housing have been largely pushed to the very edges in the least connected places. Our families of color are farther from school, large parks, and shopping. Senior housing is removed from our other neighborhoods.

Race dot map: Yes, Northfield is segregated

Expensive: Requiring minimum lot sizes and large setbacks (revised somewhat in the most recent Land Development Code) and wide streets, as well as allowing developers to determine street layouts has dispersed and disconnected the city. As you well know, Northfield is working to assemble funding for the 246/Jefferson Parkway intersection reconstruction right now – an intersection which must accommodate much local traffic because other routes were truncated. Focusing on highway commercial development means more driving and more road miles to repair. As Urban3 demonstrated last year, this pattern generates less tax revenue.

Unsustainable: As Northfield drafts its climate action plan, we must think about the development pattern in climate terms, too, and how this pattern has required more driving, created more stormwater runoff, using more land, made providing transit service more difficult.

Northfield’s recent development pattern

ADUs will not solve these problems for there is no single or easy solution for changing a decades long growth pattern. But allowing ADUs is a very small step toward changing our habits and, perhaps more importantly, gives Northfield a great opening to talk about what matters.

Looking back

In January 2018, the Planning Commission discussed Tiny Houses (here was my take), but City staff noted “The current feeling is that instead of introducing Tiny Houses into the mix, Northfield might be better served by modifying the existing ADU standards.”

So we did. Planning Commission members researched the policies and regulations which had been found to result in more ADUs being built in other cities and which regulations proved to be obstacles to development to avoid the problem hat “ADUs are legal but restricted to within an inch of their lives.” These are the big ones:

  • Off-street parking requirements
  • Requiring the property owner to occupy either the ADU or the primary dwelling
  • Size and lot coverage
  • Design or compatibility requirements

Why these are important

I’m can’t speak for all Planning Commission members, but I believed our charge was make ADUs easier to build because encouraging this housing type inches forward the Strategic Priorities for equity, housing, and climate action. The changes the Planning Commission recommended unanimously are intended to nudge the status quo in a different direction:

Parking: Removing the minimum parking requirement is part of questioning how much of Northfield’s valuable and limited land must be dedicated to cars (as Urban3 showed us recently) and removing parking minimums has not had adverse effects in other places. As well, other recent research shows a causal relation between zoning code parking requirements and increased in driving.

Parking should be added when there is a demonstrated need for it, but not required (for there are older non-drivers, people with disabilities, and those who choose not to drive). Plus, required parking adds to the cost of building the ADU and locating that space (plus access to it) makes it much harder to build ADUs on smaller lots.

Parking takes up a lot of space

Size: Current regulations allow an ADU up to 864 sf and 24’ high as a second story on a detached garage which ensured a one level (on the second floor) limited to the footprint of the car storage.  The Planning Commission wanted to ensure small homes were not unduly penalized by requirements to limit ADUs to a size calculated as a small percentage of the primary dwelling, but some confusion resulted and can easily be fixed.

Lot coverage: The zoning code limits buildings to 30% of the lot. That means almost 2/3 of the property must remain unbuilt, a requirement which impacts smaller lots especially harshly. The rationale for this provision in the LDC was to prevent “monster homes” or the sort of tear-down problem some desirable Minneapolis neighborhoods face where smaller older homes are demolished to build much larger homes; this has not been an issue in Northfield.

The lot coverage requirement impacts more than ADUs, too. Building single level homes on smaller lots proves impossible; the Zoning Board of Appeals recently granted a variance to the lot coverage limit to allow new one-level construction in one of our newer subdivisions.

Neighborhood compatibility: The stated purpose of these standards in our code is “to protect the character of existing residential neighborhoods.” Maybe this looks like a harmless way to avoid really horrible design, but it is not. Rather, it is a strategy which looks to continue the ways zoning has been used to privilege some groups and some people. More bluntly, Trying to preserve the character of a neighborhood (even if it could be determined what the character is) is an attempt to prevent change and, perhaps, keep out people not like ourselves. Removing compatibility requirements was intended as a very small step toward considering the systemic bias in how we build.

More practically, asking for city staff to assess compatibility and character is hopelessly subjective and more objective requirements such as having the ADU match the materials or features of the primary dwelling means adding to costs by requiring more customization, perhaps more expensive materials, and preventing use of some modular products.

from Neighbors for More Neighbors an advocacy group working for abundant homes in Minneapolis. Talk to your friends about zoning!

Back to right now

Seeing the forest beyond the backyard trees

For the Council members focused on small regulations, consider I ask you to take a step back and ask some difficult questions implicit in the proposed ADU ordinance.

Strategic Priorities: Northfield has a real need for more housing, greater equity, and more sustainable development as you wisely identified based on real data. Please talk to your colleagues about the Planning Commission’s choices and their importance in taking a small step in a better direction.

Public input is not a referendum: You have been deluged with calls and emails about this issue, but public comments are not the same as votes on an issue. Many negative comments have two characteristics. First, they focus on some small negative impact for which they have no evidence that is will actually occur (and research from other areas indicates these problems will not occur). Second, the comments are made by the people who are already empowered and have access to housing and to government. Some of their fears are incredible (tar paper shacks and lean-tos) and others (parking and rental concerns) are related to enforcement of other ordinances.

Bottom line: ADUs are a very small step which will be built only as they are needed and wanted by property owners. Other cities have learned that problems (like parking) did not materialize and other smaller concerns can be dealt with in far less restrictive ways. Don’t make this “welcome” mat welcome in Northfield:

Looking at some trees in the forest

For the big picture people, the task is different. My experience on the Planning Commission and Council is that good policy is relatively easy to adopt, but also easy to ignore at the point of a project or other decision when people are telling you how much this ordinance will affect them right now. But the big picture is important – don’t give up on the big picture, but consider a few small fixes.

A really great tree

Strategic priorities: You already know about the real need for more housing, greater equity, and climate action. Keep helping your colleagues understand Northfield’s particular problems and why the Planning Commission’s choices make sense for helping Northfield become an even better place. Please call out how data-driven policy should not be undermined by individual fears.

Public input is not a referendum: See above. For me, the most disheartening feature of the Council discussion has been the disproportionate weight given to people like me – white, affluent, homeowners for whom government (and everything else) works very very well. It takes some serious rethinking to understand how much privilege is embedded in the zoning code and my hope is that the ADU conversation will start the difficult discussion about how we build a really more inclusive neighborhood character.

Bottom line: ADUs are a small step, but a big opening for talking about privilege, housing, and sustainability. After meaty discussion about the “why,” here are some ideas for small changes to address concerns:

  • Parking: consider how ON-street parking could help ADUs (and many homeowners and renters) by issuing neighborhood permits and changing winter parking rules for local streets. Alternatively, require one parking space, but make it easy to waive that requirement for an ADU where it is not needed.
  • Lot coverage: Adopt a larger percentage which will not preclude ADUs on smaller lots.
  • ADU size: Adopt a provision which is clear as to footprint or living space. For whatever number or percentage of the primary dwelling may be selected, make sure it does not inadvertently limit ADUs to only the largest lots. For height, consider specifying height for attached vs. detached units.
  • Enforcement: parking and the possibility of poor tenant behavior are not part of this ordinance. Look to nuisance, noise, and blight laws and how they can be enforced to address any problems which actually occur.
  • Rental code: The ADU ordinance cannot change the rental code, so more action is needed but, as with neighborhood character, this needs more discussion.

TL; DR

The Council needs to

  • talk together about how ADUs can advance their Strategic Policies for housing, equity, and climate action;
  • Have the painful conversation about neighborhood character and who is speaking about it and,
  • Then talk about what regulations are needed looking to other cities and real research, not just public opinion.

2018’s Greatest Hits (and misses)

Because it’s New Year’s Eve, it must be time to review 2018, right?

What I Read in 2018

Although my favorite novel of the year was Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight, I’m having a huge amount of fun with The Art of the Fold, and I failed (again) to finish Gravity’s Rainbow, here’s the list of blog-relevant reading ((with some links to real reviews and commentary).

Read it

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein. Many people have heard about redlining and restrictive covenants on property. Many Minnesotans know about how I-94 between Minneapolis and Saint Paul eviscerated the (African-American) Rondo neighborhood. There’s much more and Rothstein builds the case for de jure (not “just” de facto) segregation in where African Americans were allowed to live, mixed neighborhoods destroyed to build new segregated housing, government financing and other programs not available to African-Americans…and we can see the effects in Northfield, too.

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert Caro. I don’t recommend reading this whole, huge book, but learning about how Robert Moses used the machinery of government to amass great power in appointed positions to build huge projects intended to further a very narrow but very clear vision is jaw-dropping. More broadly, Moses’ New York park, bridge, and parkway projects envision cities where everyone drives a car and neighborhoods in the path of “progress” are expendable; this development pattern was replicated across the country and finally the pendulum is swinging back to building communities which are more equitable, more connected, and more livable.

6 Rules for walkable cities – finding multiple messages for why walkability is important.


Walkable City Rules: 101 Steps to Making Better Places by Jeff Speck
. Call this the antidote to Robert Moses with 101 ways (illustrated with case studies, graphs, links, photos from around the country), large and small, to build really walkable, wonderful places. I wouldn’t call this about “rules,” but more a catalog of possibilities and much which could be done in Northfield (and some which already have).



Northfield projects

Here’s a quick look back at the important land use and transportation stuff in Northfield this year from my perspective with links to what I’ve already written about this stuff (or other information and media coverage)

Incremental development developments: ADUs will get easier to build as the City rolls back regulations on accessory dwelling units.

Aurora Pharmaceuticals is the example of the pattern of development we need which is multi-story, on existing infrastructure, with quality jobs.

Division Street reconstruction is a win for people walking and rolling.

The referendum to adopt a sales tax and sell bonds to build a new Ice Arena failed

Big picture! The EDA brought Joe Minicozzi of Urban3 to Northfield and his talk illustrated where the most highly productive property (in tax revenue per acre) in the city is located (downtown’s development pattern is the most productive ). I’ve been pushing Urban3’s ideas for several years (like here and here), but it really helps to have the expert talk about it and watching lightbulbs go on above audience members’ heads was great.

Graphic of tax value per acre – the tall purple spikes are high value downtown (Image Urban3)

On to 2019

Greenvale Park Elementary School: The voters approved bonding to build a new elementary school on the Greenvale Park campus, retaining the existing building for early childhood education. A huge, shining, golden opportunity to think about not only the building, but how kids (and adults) can get to the campus with special focus on helping people walk, roll, and bike and reducing vehicle pickups and drop-offs.

246/Jefferson Roundabout: I look at this one with great hope and sheer terror. This project has the capacity to change (for the better) how Northfielders can get around town for a generation (or continue to force us to drive). The City has received grant funding for a roundabout…this brings down the cost to the City and jumpstarts the project, but leaps to the conclusion that a roundabout is the best solution for this intersection. The goal: an intersection design which prioritizes people first and not vehicle throughput. Because this intersection links schools, senior center, and much much more, ensuring young and old people can safely and enjoyably walk, bike, roll, skateboard, skate, scooter through this intersection is the difference between kids being able to get to school by themselves…or not.

Ice Arena: It hasn’t gone away just because voters said “no” on a bond and sales tax referendum. Northfield needs to work on both the process and the underlying policy issues here before spending a dime.

New Community Development Director: Mitzi Baker began work as the Community Development Director in early December. In my first interaction with her during an event with all the finalists for the job, she said “Transportation and land use must be much more closely integrated” and I almost fell off my chair since I’ve been trying to convince city staff about this for years. I am so looking forward to changes in economic and community development in 2019, especially with the projects on the table.

Fun urbanism: Making repelling bollards more inviting

Bollards are booming since the 9/11 bombings in the United States and more recent vehicular terrorism in London (and elsewhere). Bollards and other defensive architecture may protect buildings and sidewalks from vehicles, but they typically don’t encourage people to come enjoy public spaces.

Security bollards (Photo: Reliance Foundry)

Jersey barriers are probably only redeemable by really great graffiti or art (you decide what the difference between the two is), but one Dutch company has created some ways to turn bollards into places to sit and bounce .

Bollard seats and seesaw (Photo: Magdalena Wierzbicka & Miarka Webb)

Northfield is small enough and safe enough to avoid most of the security bollards, but maybe Sechler Park could use some improvement along the trail:

Sechler Park, Mill Towns Trail

 

 

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

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

 

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

Status quo

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

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

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

Northfield Zoning Map

 

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

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

Why change?

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

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

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

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

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

An ADW – accessory dwelling wing – which could be legal soon (Photo: accessorydwellings.org)

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

This would fit in my backyard (Photo: ArchDaily)

What’s changing?

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

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

A tree house might be legal if it met the height requirement  (Photo BaumRaum)

What next?

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

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

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

Cannon River Civic Center – Vote NO

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

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

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

CIVIC CENTER OR ICE ARENA?

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

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

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

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

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

The arena now

PUBLIC/PRIVATE PARTNERSHIP?

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

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

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

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

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

Public funding in orange and blue

MONEY FOR PARKS!?

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

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

ECONOMIC IMPACT?

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

Arena operating costs

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

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

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

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

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

TL;DR:

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

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

2004 Jamboree – the Arena was in bad shape then

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

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

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

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