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.
As Minnesotans know, the end of winter brings green leaves and potholes. Fixing potholes and repairing sidewalks are important Spring tasks, but in the meantime perhaps we might simply enjoy them with The Pothole Gardener.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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).
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.
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).
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?
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?
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.
The late Dixon Bond once observed to me: “Northfield has a tendency to over-plan.” So when the EDA, Planning Commission and City Council meet in a worksession tonight (04/11/2017) to do some (carefully orchestrated, consultant-driven) strategic planning, I will try to be optimistic that this planning effort will lead to action, rather than simply more plans.
My one (big) priority
Implement the policies already adopted by developing the regulations and funding streams to do sowith particular emphasis on linking land use, transportation, sustainability, and building equity in city decision-making (or develop a specific plan for updating or replacing policies believed to be outdated or inappropriate).
Northfield’s 2008 Comprehensive Plan (and the one before it) established a clear vision for Northfield to thrive as a non-generic, distinctive, sustainable small town centered in the historic downtown along the Cannon River (I’ve made a little pledge to avoid the overuse of the terms placemaking, sense of place, vibrant, etc.) respecting the natural environment, increasing housing choices. Subsequent planning reinforced the picture of a city connected by wonderful streets which support all modes of transportation. Our project by isolated project decision-making and regulations have not supported that vision particularly well, but let’s give it the old college(s) try with the strategic planning process by focusing on these things:
1. Safe Complete Routes to School and everywhere else:
Transportation planning should rocket to the top of the list because building better, more walkable, more bikeable, better connected streets is so widely represented in our plans and policies (Complete Streets, GreenStep Cities, Parks and Open Space Plan, Age Friendly Northfield…see here for more). But let’s move beyond the project by project tussles about sidewalks and bike lanes to do these things:
Educate the staff, Council and public about best practices, newer research, and better planning both through workshops or seminars and by hiring better experts for projects. We have a Complete Streets policy, but everyone needs to know how this could transform planning and projects. Learn how walking and biking can save the world (and also here)
Adoptstreet design standards which will guide planning and design of projects beyond vehicular measures of Level of Service and Functional Classification to create streets which connect people and places and are sustainable.
Plan a network of low stress bike/walk connections and commit funding with particular attention to connecting important places and designing intersections for people outside of cars. Recent conversations about 246/Jefferson that a roundabout “is safe” reflect only crash statistics, but not how safe if feels; plan for making connections convenient and appealing to vulnerable users.
Prioritize completion of the Mill Towns State Trail by adopting the revised route from the Prowe Pedestrian Bridge, along Jefferson Parkway and out of town, collaborating with the DNR, Carleton and other entities to finish the Northfield segment as soon as possible. Trails help connect the city for the people who live here, as well as bringing many to town to ride and spend.
Collaborate with the Northfield School District to really connect the southern schools, reduce traffic demand, and increase walking and biking. I think “collaborate” should extend to funding, for the schools created the traffic and will benefit from solutions.
2. Land use and sustainability (both fiscal and environmental)
Revise or replace land use regulations: Although the land development code was recently rewritten, the new regulations do little to help Northfield evaluate the cost of development proposals to taxpayers, make sustainable development easier (or really any development easier), or help shift from the suburban model of development which the Comp. Plan explicitly seeks to do. Here are some suggestions (not comprehensive nor exhaustive)
Housing, affordable and denser: In the early 2000s, Northfield built many acres of market rate, single family homes, but these large lot, 3-car garage sort of houses are not affordable for many nor desirable for some of us and this pattern of development demands much more expensive infrastructure, impedes walkability, and creates income ghettos (see equity below).The Comp Plan principle of more housing choices can be approached by allowing (and encouraging) greater density in existing neighborhoods by getting rid of some of the recent regulations.
Accessory dwelling units: Repeal Northfield’s over-specific regulations such as the current accessory dwelling unit regulations (must be part of a detached garage among other things), “granny pods” and the rental code. A better strategic priority would be to make it easier for property owners to add accessory dwelling units which meet their needs and market needs (caring for relatives, investment rental property, constraints of the property itself).
Score development proposalsbased on fiscal productivity to determine whether the private tax value generated will be sufficient to support (and replace) the public infrastructure expenditure. The NW business park is the sort of development which screamed for this sort of analysis, but the same process should be applied to new residential development, too, to take a longer term look at the benefits and liabilities of new projects justified as economic development. Simply repeating “Grows jobs and tax base” without doing some of the math is superstition of the highest order.
Take a look at the Census income map and Dot race map which show how racially and income segregated Northfield is…and then think who shows up to city meetings. Northfield city government should work for everyone, not just me as an educated, affluent, white woman who shows up at the public meetings and knows how to navigate “the system.”
Finally, not so much a priority as an exhortation – please do not govern by referendum or public hearing, but as informed representatives who weigh the data, the public comments (which you have worked hard to solicit from a broad range of the community), the budget, and make equitable decisions for the common good of Northfield. Please help residents learn about where the money comes from and where it goes, educate Northfield about possibilities rather than playing to fears, hire the best staff and consultants, and use real data to make decisions rather than voting by gut instinct and who shouts the loudest. Challenge yourselves to learn enough to make equitable, sustainable decisions for the rest of us.
Marvin Lane is just one-block long, but it is one block in an important location in Northfield. Marvin Lane connects Washington Street and east side neighborhoods to Division Street/MN 246 and schools, downtown, and out of town. Marvin Lane is one block just at the point where the traditional street grid breaks down in favor of cul de sacs and dead end streets which make it an important connection between major north-south routes is particularly important for people choosing to walk or bicycle because of the lack of alternative routes and the poor sight lines for other streets to cross Division Street.
Right now, Marvin Lane is a 36′ wide street with 9 driveways, mature trees and no sidewalk. Marvin’s pavement is in such poor condition it’s almost a gravel road again, so its place on the 2017 reclamation list is overdue.
The City Council held an improvement hearing two weeks ago to consider the list of 2017 reclamation projects. The Council was enthusiastic about adding the staff-recommended sidewalks to the Nevada/9th Street/Maple curve and asked about taking similar action on Marvin Lane despite the original staff recommendation not to add sidewalks to Marvin. Staff is bringing the issue back on Tuesday, February 21, asking for the Council to pass a Motion directing staff to update the 2017 Feasibility Report (all steps in the so-called 429 Process required to be able to use special assessments to fund part of the project) to incorporate sidewalk on Marvin Lane (The motion to update requires a simple majority; ordering the improvement will require 6/7 votes – an issue in previous sidewalk decisions).
Staff recommends adding the sidewalk on the south side of Marvin Lane and narrowing the street from 36′ to 32′ wide; this is a much better plan than originally offered. Moving curbs at all during street reclamation to help build better facilities for people choosing to bike or walk is a big step for Northfield and the outcome would be a street which is somewhat skinnier which could help slow traffic while making room for sidewalk on one side and preserving trees. The south-side sidewalk could then connect to future sidewalks on Division Street (and perhaps farther future sidewalks on Washington, Sumner and other points east). I’d like to applaud the willingness of staff to bring these types of changes to the Council and thank Council for asking for these steps.
Skinnier streets, slower traffic, and signaling priority uses
Just for fun and future decisions, how else could we think about this? We’ve got a one block street which is not a busy vehicle route, but is a connection we’d like to prioritize for people walking and biking. The big goal is creating a wonderful, highly connected transportation network (where transportation includes people of any age choosing to walk, bike, wheelchair roll, skateboard, etc.) which is well-integrated with the relevant surrounding land uses. For Marvin Lane or another short link prioritized for walking and bike in the network through a single-family residential neighborhood, we could consider:
To make Marvin Lane really shared space, the City could deploy some major traffic calming measures to ensure residents could easily drive to their homes, the limited vehicle traffic could move through slowly, and people could walk without sidewalks (and fear). So, for example:
Add clear entrance/exit points at either end of Marvin Lane by significantly narrowing the road surface to signal to users they are entering a different kind of space where movement is slow. Since Marvin Lane connects to a state highway on Division Street, the west end would need to help users transition to (or from) the faster traffic, connect to current and future sidewalks and other facilities (like future bike lanes):
Narrow the street width for the length of the block, or consider chicanes or other measures to calm traffic, encourage users to pay attention, and create places for additional trees (and rain gardens and other stormwater management)public improvements.
(2) Reallocating space to separate rather than share uses:32 feet wide is still very wide with (thinking of motor vehicles only) space for two 12′ travel lanes and and 8′ parking lane (or two 11′ travel lanes and a 10′ parking lane) in addition to the one-side sidewalk recommended by City staff. For a one block connection where traffic should be slow and we’re prioritizing the walking and biking possibilities), how could the right of way be allocated differently to slow traffic and add space for people walking and biking?
Make the street skinnier to allow one (yes, just one) travel lane plus queueing areas/passing places for oncoming traffic and sidewalks on both sides. Or with two-way traffic, add neckdowns to slow traffic by creating a place where on-coming traffic must give way (but still let people to ride bikes through).
Put sidewalks on both sides: two (more than wide enough) 10′ travel lanes use up just 20′ of pavement which would seem to allow more than sufficient right of way to add sidewalks on both sides of the street.
Bike boulevard: For such a low volume, low speed link, separate bike lanes are less necessary even for young or inexperienced riders (I’d say bike lanes might make sense to connect to other bike lanes in the future, like on Division Street or Woodley Street?) as part of the network. But a bike boulevard would highlight the intention to prioritize people on bikes, add signage (like sharrows and street signs), and make Marvin Lane part of the bike route planning (that’s the hope anyway).
(3) Connections are critical: Decisions are usually made one project at a time which can lead to discontinuous and unconnected links rather than a network. Marvin Lane is, by itself, one block with low traffic volumes. Taken in context, however, Marvin is the first link north of Jefferson Parkway between Division Street and points east (with a cemetery, church and housing on non-continuous street in between), the street with the best sight lines for crossing Division Street, and a very useful connection to reach the High School, Sibley School, Senior Center, soon-to-be-improved 246/Jefferson area. If this block is redesigned for biking and walking now, it sets up future improvements for walking, biking and connectivity.
First, thanks to Northfield for starting to plan how to rethink and redesign this intersection (and thanks to continued pressure from residents and the 246 Solutions group for helping move this along). Let’s seize this once in a generation opportunity to reconnect our places by designing this area to improve the safety, walkability, and bike access to schools, community facilities, and neighborhoods.
The opportunity is even more golden than it was even a year ago as the School District is considering building a new high school closer to this intersection and the Mill Towns Trail is planned to be routed along Jefferson Parkway from the Peggy Prowe Pedestrian Bridge to Spring Creek Road (creating an off-road link to CROCT‘s MTB trails in Sechler Park and the the new East Cannon River Trail).
What’s happened so far?
My past commentary: 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), I’ve been talking about this for a long time. Now that the City is moving forward, let’s think how to help the City make good choices to help us get where we want to go.
Roundabout recommendation: SEH’s study has recommends a single lane roundabout. When the recommendations were presented at an open house in December, the roundabout was not considered a poor choice, but the people at the meeting were concerned there was still no significant discussion of how to help young people walk or bike to school, how people could easily reach the NCRC, how the Mill Towns Trail would work, or how other improvements near the intersection could be added (such as a safe crossing to the high school), or how improving this intersection for walking and biking could reduce the school-related vehicle traffic.
The issue is bigger than the intersection: SEH (to their credit) and community members at the open house understand the scope needs to expand from from just the intersection (a critical piece to be sure) to help all Northfield residents (of all ages and abilities, as our Complete Streets policy states) reach important places however they choose to travel, (whether driving, walking, riding a bike, or transit) requires thinking about the surrounding area, connecting streets, and the important places.
Northfield needs to better connect people and places: SEH’s report has some good recommendations, but does not go far enough to address the human transportation needs in the south part of the city where so many important facilities are located.
Take time to get it right: The letter asks Northfield “to more fully consider the opportunities for safely serving this area” before immediately adopting the recommendations (but also proposing some short term, cheap solutions to improve safety quickly and sustain momentum for change.
What can happen next?
Northfield is beginning to think more broadly about how its development decisions and, even better, there is growing interest in how good design can rebuild connections among places including addressing these issues: [2/14meeting documents]. To amplify and extend the points in the community letter, I urge the Council to address these goals and questions:
Reducing vehicle traffic: The SEH report does not consider how to reduce vehicle congestioncaused by school traffic by designing for safe, convenient and pleasant biking and walking. Years of development choices, fewer parents at home, and helicopter parenting have contributed to the steep decline in walking and biking to school. Usually not mentioned is that much of the traffic to the schools is generated by parents chauffeuring their children to school. So, rather than accepting traffic projections at face value ask how this projected increase might be reduced.
Slowing traffic by design: Speed limit signs, even the speed feedback signs, must be enforced to be effective. Redesigning the intersection (and the street corridor) to cue drivers to slow down, look for people walking and biking, and (most importantly) pay attention can make the street “self-enforcing.” Pursuing state of the art designing walking, biking, wheelchair rolling, and transit into the roadway rather than trying to add these “amenities” later will make a safer, slower, stickier street.
Articulating costs and benefits to capture the long term benefits and cost savings of increasing walking and biking rather than just the short term price tag. A project with bike lanes (for example) might cost more initially, but what benefits can be realized as a result? Reducing vehicle traffic (preserving the road surface and reducing the need for expansion), increasing walking and biking (saving on busing to schools), saving lives (over dollars), adding transportation choices, improving the environment and public health…how can the Council begin to think about community benefits and project sustainability, rather than just initial cost?
How can the Council, staff, and public learn about the full range of choices and design options to slow traffic, improve walking and biking, and link land uses? Our Complete Streets policy has high aspirations, “to ensure all streets within the City are planned, funded, designed, constructed, operated and maintained to safely accommodate users of all ages and abilities” but how can City officials and the public learn more about how to do this?
Collaboration: .With the prospect of a new high school in this area, how can the City and school district work together to site the new school to reduce traffic, encourage walking and biking, and help community and school priorities work together? Smart siting can help save money on busing, improve air quality near schools, and help kids arrive ready to learn. connect the new school to its surroundings. built the schools with worries but no action for managing traffic and no discussion of non-vehicle access; what’s their responsibility for action/funding? Plus, 246 is a state highway, so working with MnDOT to develop a solution which services Northfield’s local needs as well as regional transportation objectives is critical.
Again, thanks Northfield for starting working on this critical link in connecting our community!
Tonight, February 7, 2017, the Council will hold a public hearing to consider 2017 street reclamation projects which sounds a bit dull, perhaps, but this year’s projects present two good opportunities to help create a safer, more convenient network connecting schools to neighborhoods.
Reclamation, in the street repair hierarchy, is less than reconstruction (where the pavement and all the utilities under the street are replaced) and more than a “mill and overlay” (where the top layer of asphalt is chewed up and replaced. So, reclamation is chewing up the full depth of the asphalt and repaving, but usually not a construction project which moves curbs or changes street layouts or adds sidewalks or other new facilities.
City staff are seeing golden opportunities to carry out the Northfield’s Complete Streets and Safe Routes to School policies by expanding the usual reclamation project to add sidewalks and narrow streets to do it. This is a huge step forward for Northfield in policy implementation if the Council follows through on the recommendation.
There are two reclamation locations which are critical links in the street network connecting neighborhoods and schools: Marvin Lane and the Nevada/9th Street/Maple squiggle (Professional Drive is also on the reclamation list). The Council must vote tonight and I urge the Council to adopt staff recommendations for Nevada/9th/Maple and ask staff to use the same approach on Marvin Lane.
This little squiggle connects 7th Street to Woodley Street and, in the process, connects the northeast neighborhoods and outdoor pool to Maple Street (one of our few continuous North-South connections), Sibley School, Spring Creek Soccer Fields, southeast neighborhoods, and Jefferson Parkway. The map above shows how few connections exist south of Woodley Street, so making sure the streets which are continuous provide safe sidewalks and traffic speeds appropriate for their context is critical.
Marvin Lane is not on the SRTS plan (the high school was not included in the plan), so that piece of specific policy support is not present, but our Complete Streets policy and Comprehensive Plan (as well as common sense) strongly support applying the same “move the curb” design to add a sidewalk to increase safety and add a public connection for to schools and the Northfield Retirement Community (and feeding into the upcoming planning for the 246 and Jefferson Parkway intersection redesign – of which more very soon). I urge the Council to use the reclamation project as an opportunity to create a safe, public connection to Division Street by narrowing the street (which will also ensure slower speeds and preserve trees) and by doing so anticipate changes which will help students cross Division Street to reach the High School.
On one hand, these reclamation projects are routine and the public hearing is required by state law, but is generally treated as equally routine and unimportant. If all the City is doing is munching up the pavement, I’d agree. But when the City uses routine projects like this one to make some real changes – and I am thrilled the City is taking this important step – then being intentional about approaching this project and thinking ahead to future opportunities needs more than the required publication and notice to neighbors.