Could Northfield be the next Vancouver?

I’ve never been to Vancouver, BC, although it’s been on my “to go” list for a long time.  Now, even more, I’d like to visit.  Why?  Their transportation policy (and the cross country skiing in BC is excellent).

Here in Northfield, we’ve struggled to make even small changes in policy to help Northfield grow in ways which encourage active transportation, productive land use, and a viable transit system.  Even so, every policy gets challenged (or simply ignored) when a new small decision needs to be made.  Complete Streets?  Great, until a street project must be approved.  GreenStep Cities and sustainability?  Wonderful, but seldom considered.  Smart Growth Comprehensive Plan?  Super, until we try to take steps to implement it.

Vancouver, however, thinks big and has since 1997 when it approved an influential Transportation Plan which prioritized – rank ordered – modes of transportation.  Vancouver has just approved Transportation 2040 which affirms the priorities for moving people (for moving goods, etc. there are separate rankings): Walking, Cycling, Transit, Taxi/Commercial Transit/Shared Vehicles, and Private Automobiles.

The hierarchy is intended to help ensure that the needs and safety of each group of road users are sequentially considered when decisions are made, that each group is given proper consideration, and that the changes will not make existing conditions worse for more vulnerable road users, such as people on foot, bicycle, and motorcycle. Each time a new roadway is designed or an existing one changed, opportunities for improving walking and cycling will be reviewed…This is a general approach and does not mean that users at the top of the list will always receive the most beneficial treatment on every street. In highly constrained urban environments, it is not always possible to provide the ideal facilities for all users’ needs.

Even better, Vancouver links transportation and land use (“Use land use to support shorter trips and sustainable transportation choices”), does not flinch from saying the goal is to reduce auto-dependence (“Manage the road network efficiently to improve safety and support a gradual reduction in car dependence. Make it easier to drive less”) and understands that the economic vitality and emergency response must also be part of the overall plan (“Support a thriving economy and Vancouver’s role as a major port and Asia-Pacific gateway while managing related environmental and neighbourhood impacts. Maintain effective emergency response times for police, fire, and ambulance”).

Here in Northfield, we need to try to be more Vancouverish (at a scale appropriate for a community of our size/location) for the long term health (financial, physical, environmental) of the city.  

Have we outgrown zoning?

 Zoning is no longer appropriate, writes architect Roger Lewis in the Washington Post recently.  It is easy enough to agree – zoning is essentially segregation.  We put big houses here, little houses over there, multi-family housing way over there (check out some of the history of land use regulation and discrimination), industrial out there, and commercial on the highway.  The inappropriateness comes from both the inequities, but also the community costs in terms of excess infrastructure and unproductive development.

So, have we outgrown zoning?  Yes, but now what?  Here in Northfield, we have a pretty smart comprehensive plan which could use some updating and focusing.  Then we have some really lousy land use regulations which are slated for revision (and with some luck and leadership, for reform or replacement).  What a golden opportunity to move beyond putting things in their zones to plan and regulate for the long term health of the community.

Some inspiration (a very small selection):

Long term thinking, not easy short term answers: some thoughts from San Diego based Placemaker Howard Blackson.  Placemaking is rapidly becoming a planning buzzword which could become just as meaningless as “mixed use” (an oxymoron when you think about it), but I’d like to think of it simply as: identify and work with the specific characteristics of the place – Northfield – rather than overly generic solutions.  Here’s another good one from the Placemakers.

Don’t just ask the community “What do you want/like?” but also educate residents about the features, costs and benefits of various development choices.

Downtown is not a cute museum: work to reinvigorate downtown’s image as the vital and distinctive economic core of Northfield which generates significantly more tax revenue per acre than other areas.

Think local: Consider how supporting local businesses helps keep money in Northfield (some info about co-ops, infill and redevelopment) and how land use and related regulation can help rather than hinder local enterprises.

Streets are really, really important.  The street network helps define the density of a community, connects places within the city and the city to elsewhere, plays a huge role in safety, stormwater, municipal costs, economic development, and quality of life.  Street decisions are also long term and very hard to change. Indeed, how we manage car traffic is critical to thinking about other features of urban development.  Streets matter.

 

 

 

 

 

Walkable urbanism and the future of the world

Whoa.  I’ve been trying to make the case that policy folks need to be thinking about the long term costs of some of our development strategies and not just the instant boost to tax capacity of new growth.  I’ve been thinking about the local sunk costs of late 20th century horizontal growth, but Foreign Policy’s Patrick Doherty takes it global with a New US Grand Strategy:

In the United States, the country’s economic engine is misaligned to the threats and opportunities of the 21st century. Designed explicitly to exploit postwar demand for suburban housing, consumer goods, and reconstruction materials for Europe and Japan, the conditions that allowed it to succeed expired by the early 1970s. Its shelf life has since been extended by accommodative monetary policy and the accumulation of household, corporate, and federal debt.

The upshot: the current path is unsustainable as the planet tries to accommodate 3 billion new middle class members (and the consumption that comes along with them), depletion of natural resources (see my previous post), “contained depression” (and not just a down business cycle or two), and a “resilience crisis” (the drivers of the US economy, crumbling infrastructure, and the soft infrastructure which connect us to markets is fragile).

So, we need a grand plan and the sketch provided includes reforming government, addressing climate change, and vastly improving resource productivity.  It’s a top down vision of national change, but I’m more curious about what state and local efforts can accomplish.  Atlantic Cities picked up on the walkable urbanism part of the solution, but what else could we do?

 

 

How much space do 7 billion people need?

How much space do 7 billion people take up? It depends.

Check out this infographic for a quick visual introduction to how population density and development pattern makes a huge difference in land consumption, among other things.  Per Square Mile points out that the simple visualization just shows the people, but does not indicate the amount of land needed to sustain the population in terms of food, water, transportation networks, building materials, etc. So here’s another image of the size of the footprint the world’s population would make depending on what country is used as a development model.

Density is one of the dirty words of development.  Higher density is equated with grim high rise apartment blocks, crime and overcrowding…although it is also linked to walkability, thriving urban cores, and lower infrastructure costs.  Mostly, though, density is very measurable on a project by project basis (number of housing units or people per acre is very countable and thus easy to administer).  See Strong Towns’ Chuck Marohn’s criticism of density (and planners), too.

So, let’s not get distracted by density and think about productivity, land consumption and carrying capacity and ask: What patterns of development are more productive, consume land more slowly and enable us to live within our resources and how can we foster those patterns rather than the ones we have now?  

Rarely economical disappointing development

First, the NY Times series on subsidies and now the Strib has Art Rolnick (former head of research at the Minneapolis Fed) and business writer Mike Meyers bringing the Times’ information back to Minnesota in the context of Governor Dayton’s tax plan in The Subsidy Bonanza.

A few highlights:

  • Stadium subsidies are “part of a national pattern of taxpayers subsidizing some of the richest people in America.”
  • Minnesota outpaces the nation in job growth, but is not a big subsidizer.  So adding more taxpayer money to lure companies hasn’t proven effective, although it is expensive even for the small players (about 1 cent of every dollar in the Minnesota state budget).  Yet, “Study after study has shown the education of Minnesota’s workforce has been the key to the growth of high-quality jobs for the last half-century.”
  • A catalog of the Twin Cities projects which have been subsidized and not delivered on the promises: Best Buy, stadiums, City Center, Lawson Software…

Rolnick also commented on the Mayo deal over in Minneapolis/St Paul Business Journal comparing Mayo to the Vikings stadium deal.

 

 

Dear Senator Dahle

With the power shift in the state legislature, I’m looking forward to the legislative session with a teeny tiny bit of hope and a whole lot of apprehension.  My apprehension level rose precipitously yesterday when I read my new state senator’s tweet (@KevinDahle) that he’d been meeting with a district mayor as part of working to increase local government aid.  Oh dear, Senator Dahle, but that’s starting at the wrong end of the policy process and so early in the session, too.

Dear Senator Dahle,

A very nice deck chair from the Titanic
A very nice deck chair from the Titanic

Congratulations on your election and the start of the new session!  As a recovering local government official, I know that the state legislature has a great influence on how cities can do their business. I write today to offer a few ideas about how the state could help rather than hinder local governments.  I encourage you (indeed my support in any future election depends on it) to look at the larger, longer term policy picture rather rearranging the deck chairs on the titanic ship of the state of Minnesota.

More than 20 years ago, the Citizens’ League published Remaking the Minnesota Miracle which studied the state/local fiscal system to determine what “realigning of responsibilities and revenue raising authority would have to occur” to finance state and local services and increase accountability.  Although the specific recommendations are interesting (the report calls for eliminating LGA), I hope you’ll consider the 4 principles for evaluating the fiscal system which seem very relevant and not time-bound:

Accountability: Responsibility for services should be assigned to the entity that is accountable to the electorate, the recipient of the service, and the governmental unit or persons paying for the service

Effectiveness: Responsibility for services should be assigned to the entity, public or private, that gets the job done well and measures for results.

Economy: Responsibility for services should be assigned to the entity, public or private, that can supply the service at the lowest possible cost.  For instance, in developed areas, water treatment and sewage facilities can be provided less expensively on a regional basis than on an individual city basis.

Equity: Responsibility for services should be assigned to the entities that can finance the service equitably and ensure equity in the delivery of services to all persons.

Certainly, almost any proposal will address some of these values strongly and others more tentatively or will demonstrate the tension between values.  Equity or accountability might strain economy, for example.  Still, these values can help think about what level of government or what private entity is best situated to deliver or fund services and, as a result, where decision-making control should reside.

I hope you have received a copy of the Property Tax working group’s report which also addresses what property taxes are intended to fund and to disentangle state control from local functions.  The history of the development of the property tax in Minnesota is well worth reading as “You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?”

Finally, consider how other regulation affects the tax picture and how the state legislature can incentivize better spending strategies and foster innovation at the local level.

  • The “grow our way to prosperity” model must be reexamined to allow cities, counties and the state to maximize their existing investment in infrastructure rather than expanding infrastructure (and the obligation to maintain it) in the hope of attracting enough new business to pay for the existing system.  There is a burgeoning amount of data showing the cost of this strategy to local and state government.
  • Consider school siting philosophies which demand open space and favor new schools rather than renovation also make it harder for children to walk to school (adding busing costs and congestion).  
  • Think about how state government, with its larger scope, can help local entities work collaboratively (especially those outside the Metro Council’s jurisdiction) to deliver services efficiently and economically rather than pitting them against each other or forcing a sort of local protectionism.  We need to be able to develop shared solutions for transportation, land use, resource protection, and service delivery.
  • Transportation and infrastructure spending is a big deal at all levels of government.  Land use, environmental regulation, public health and quality of life are deeply intertwined with transportation policy; please try to see the whole landscape to make policy which helps local and state government invest wisely, support productive growth patterns, and build places where we want to live, work and invest time and effort.

Thanks for reading and I await your updates and other news of what’s happening in St. Paul.  I’m counting on your leadership to help develop policies which benefit all Minnesotans for the long term, not just the ones yelling at you right now.  Of course, I also know that change happens incrementally as you work to build support and make compromises (and that’s just within the DFL), but I am looking for the conversation to shift away from reactive government to thoughtful, sustainable policy-making.  Good luck!

Yours sincerely,

Betsey Buckheit

 

 

 

More about development economics and history

IMG_0172
My office…before

I’ve been cleaning out my office at the end of my Council term.  In addition to recycling mountains of paper and gaining a great deal more storage space, I’ve been pleased to discover that my personal policy development has been quite systematic from my days on the Planning Commission to the present.

I even found my first Planning Commission fan mail. This little note from 2002 was sent in response to my questions about one of the residential developments underway at the time and applauding for standing up to the Council which was calling me anti-development.  What I was starting to ask, in a very clumsy way, was what’s the cost to taxpayers of various kinds of development rather than trying to reduce the impact of government on development costs for particular projects (which is what people usually glom onto).

My point all along has been: government 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.

While working to develop policy and regulations which do not unfairly burden business (in the short term), the city must also consider its own (that is, taxpayers’) interests in the long term (call it a governance perspective).

Fortunately, many others have started asking the same questions (and/or the internet resources have been exploding to make them more accessible) over the last 10 years and here are a few of the things I wish I’d been able to bring up in 2002 and certainly want to highlight in 2012:

For all that residential development, I wish I’d had The power of greenfield economics ready at hand and been able to speak intelligently about “the proverbial elephant in the room [which] is the amount of sprawling, redundant public and private infrastructure we’ve built since the end of World War II.”

So now, as Northfield struggles to fund maintenance of all that infrastructure it has already built, the city might be able to ask how government policies (from the feds on down) have been part of the problem and how Northfield can look beyond what seem like quick solutions to longer term, sustainable changes which both support economic development without adding to Northfield’s long term debt burden and forgoing tax revenue through tax abatements or other incentives.

And some follow-up:

That NY Times series on subsidies got a lot of attention from the policy people.  MN2020 published its own 2 part series with Part 1 and Part 2 (the more interesting of the two with details of an Iowa subsidy situation).  MN2020  also cites its 2007 report Chasing smokestacks, stranding small business focusing on shifting MN public policy. Strong Towns included links to the NYT series in their Friday Digest.

...and after
…and after

 

 

 

Not all development patterns have the same price tag

And for my last Council meeting, the business park is on the agenda for discussion…so here’s one more attempt to ask questions about the cost and scope of this project.

The background as we know it: 530 acres annexed west of the hospital to be master-planned and developed as a business and residential development.  Required improvements include roads (to TH 19, North Avenue, Decker Avenue, 320th Street, “Cedar” Ave. and new interior roadways), sewer (including lift station), water (including elevated storage tank) which “should not be assessed to business park property, increasing the cost of development.”  Phase I is estimated at about $14 million in improvements; Phases II-IV would add another $15 million. The breakdown of the development expected includes not just the commercial/industrial development we hear about most, but a substantial amount of housing and retail.

That cost of development issue should make everyone pause…

Of course, it would raise the cost of development to completely prohibitive levels if the costs were assessed to the property.  But, if the costs are not assessed to the property, that burden will fall to the City taxpayers (and state and perhaps federal taxpayers depending on the package of aid that’s cobbled together).  Further subsidies to attract business like tax abatement, TIF, etc. will further increase taxpayers’ costs and decrease the tax benefits.

1. My general question: how can we grow the tax base and add jobs without massive subsidies (which is what those infrastructure improvements would be) which would effectively shrink tax revenue to pay off the improvements.

2. My more specific question: how can the Council, staff, business community and taxpayers learn how much it is likely to cost them (and what assumptions about the rate of growth and the economy underlie those projections) and will that cost ever be recouped through tax revenue.

3. I also have question the wisdom of master planning an area which will take decades to build out.  My experience on the planning commission with residential development was that the master plan would be drafted, but within just a few years changes would be requested to adjust densities, change housing styles, subtract roads, change stormwater management, etc.  Is it likely that the lot layout, use designations, environmental/landscaping/natural features, etc. in the business park will help development or will the plan constrain business development over time?

My bottom line: Northfield has not evaluated the cost of this project for taxpayers over the long term and has not explored meaningful alternatives to reduce cost.  Indeed, the entire process has been conducted backwards with questions about feasibility, cost, location, etc. happening after the plan has been drawn without considering that not all development locations and patterns come with the same pricetag.

I am advocating for 2 things:

  • maximizing use of current infrastructure before building new (because we’ve already paid for it and are maintaining it). Extending infrastructure in the hope of development is a gamble with tax money I am not willing to take.
  • building in patterns which support density (to put more taxpayers per acre or per foot of pipe to support the infrastructure), but not for a particular look and feel.

A little digest of other things I’ve written and where I get my information:

From this blog (with links to many places):

From other places:

 

 

 

 

Different debate questions

Presidential debates usually make me think about moving to Canada since the likelihood of either candidate actually answering a question is abysmally low and the only excitement comes from the random zinger of a comment, factual screw up, or public speaking trainwreck (I depend on the Brits for the most entertaining and pointed commentary and American media for the transcript).  I’d like to believe, however naively, that the President of the United States does more than repeat familiar phrases or score points for verbal jabs in the course of his employment.

I would like some answers from candidates, though, and Chuck Marohn has a different list of questions over on Strong Towns which get at some of the issues I care about. It might be fun to ask them on the local level, too, and see if we can get beyond repeating the usual answers and catchphrases about growth, infrastructure, regulation and the like to ask what would really work and what it would cost.

 

It’s not just Northfield

Audiences for code reform

In the recent primary, business friendliness, or rather the lack of it, was a top topic.  But it’s not just Northfield.  Minneapolis struggles, too, and for reasons sounding suspiciously like Northfield   Blaming Northfield’s Land Development Code for at least some, if not much, of the business-unfriendliness was also popular, so here’s an interesting take on zoning code reform – not the specifics of the code, but the politics of reform.