Land development code issues – update

Really, it's not about the garages

Last week, I was live-blogging the Planning Commission meeting as they considered whether the “new” (about 6 months old now) land development regulations applied to subdivisions which had been approved under the former code.

On Monday, the Council accepted the Planning Commission’s recommendation to allow a broad exemption for lots subject to a development agreement – allowing the projects at or near the building permit stage to move forward – but also directing the Commission to consider how to resolve the issue in the longer term.

The issue is not, as some commenters over on the local newspaper site believe, about permitting 3 car garages.  Nothing in the code says 3 car garages are prohibited.  What’s changed is where the garage can be placed and the proportion of the front facade of the house occupied by garage doors.  The problem is, all the lots were platted (and many graded) on the assumption that the 3 stall, garage out in front, style of home would be built.  Since the platted lots are on wide suburban streets in residential only areas, allowing big front garages on the remaining lots (many of which are zoned as planned unit developments which are clearly exempt from the regulations) does not seem to point toward many problems, or many more problems than are inherent in the subdivision.

Because really, the new code is not about garages at all, but about trying to reverse the rapid horizontal development which makes it more expensive to maintain streets and pipes, manage stormwater, plan transit routes, or walk to school.  To accomplish these goals and save your tax dollars, we’ll have to change streets, setbacks, lot sizes, and larger scale issues than the garage doors.  Garages are just one extremely visible symptom of a development pattern which is economically unsustainable.




Action alert for bike/ped funding – updated

Act now!

Just when I think we’re making progress toward a transportation system that meets the needs of more than SUVs, something bad happens.  Tomorrow, February 2, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will vote on John Mica’s (R-FL) American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act which eliminates Safe Routes to School funding, makes Transportation Enhancements optional, and other steps to remove non-motorized transportation from transportation planning and funding.

Read more at Streetsblog DC, Transit for Livable Communities, Bicycle Alliance of MN, and/or League of American Bicyclists.  Contact your legislators now – the League of American Bicyclists will even help you find your representative on their handy dandy form.

February 2: Amendment fails by 2 votes and Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood blasts the bill as “the worst.”

More about bicycling

More stuff about bicycling:

“The best streets to cycle down are illegal to build in the majority of North America’s suburbs, because they’re too narrow, too pedestrian-oriented, too enclosed. Even the ones that are very pedestrian-oriented often restrict cyclists to bike lanes when they’d be safer mixing with cars” writes Placeshaker Hazel Borys with links to more bike stats (like Grist’s Bikenomics series) and this great video about bike lanes.

And Jay Walljasper’s Winter? Schminter! in MinnPost providing some corroboration for my assertion that there is no bad weather (for bicycling, running, walking or anything else outside) just inappropriate clothing.  Walljasper’s companion piece Bike Boom by the Numbers documents the increase in cycling in Minneapolis.

Finally, what all cyclists really want to know: How not to get hit by cars


The Cost and/or value of sidewalks

Maple Street project map

Last week, I went to the first neighborhood meeting for the Maple Street reconstruction project.

One planned addition for this street is adding sidewalk on the east side of 44′ wide collector street with existing sidewalk on the west side.  So far in my Northfield experience, sidewalks – new sidewalks where none had existed before, that is – always generate opposition and Maple Street is no exception.

Here are the biggest objections plus the existing policy infrastructure of the City:

Property value: Sidewalks will lower property values.  For a particular home in Northfield, it’s difficult to say whether adding a sidewalk raises or lowers property value without a comparison of similar homes with and without sidewalks.  However, realtors are reporting higher prices and preference for neighborhoods with high walkability – sidewalks, places to walk to, proximity to stores, schools and other services.  In addition to Complete Streets advocates, powerful lobbying groups like AARP are advocating for neighborhoods with better pedestrian and transit opportunities.  There’s no readily available evidence to show sidewalks lower property values, except when they’re in poor condition.

Cost: New sidewalks are too expensive.  On the individual plus side, Northfield does not assess property owners for sidewalks.  On the collective downside, the cost of new sidewalks is spread across the entire tax base of the city.  Policy-wise, I think this means the City believes the sidewalk network benefits the entire community, not just the property over which they run.  As a dollar amount, sidewalks add to the cost.  However, if the citywide goal is a comprehensive sidewalk network, this is the least expensive way to do it.

Usefulness: No one will use it (because: they walk in the street anyway, there’s a sidewalk on the other side, there aren’t sidewalks on connecting streets). Obviously, neither I nor the folks on Maple can know what will happen on a future improvement since it’s not there yet.  There is a sidewalk on the west side, but there is also a sidewalk on the east side further south and I look at the addition of sidewalk as completing an unfinished project to link Jefferson Parkway (and soccer fields, walking trails, playground) more completely.

There are not sidewalks on connecting streets yet.  Certainly Woodley Street is the most critical street on which to add sidewalks to connect to Maple and when that segment is set to be reconstructed, I am sure sidewalks will be a major topic (we try to add sidewalks when reconstructing streets to decrease the overall cost). Retrofitting sidewalks is an incremental process – right now, the opportunity is Maple Street (and our other 2012 projects on Linden/Lockwood, Roosevelt Drive and 8th Street).

Neighborhood character: Adding a sidewalk will change/ruin the neighborhood.  There are several issues which surface here: loss of trees, loss of green yard space, or just that the look will be different.  Certainly the sidewalk is a change, however, it may not be a bad one.  The city is really trying to find ways to save mature trees and increase the number of trees overall, but, yes, trees may be removed for both the street reconstruction and a few more for the sidewalk.  The yard space is city-owned right of way, so there’d be the loss of use of it, but no loss of property (private landscaping in the right of way may be destroyed).  Perhaps, a sidewalk will be a place kids will play, families will meet, and more kids will walk to school.  But, yes, a sidewalk will change the neighborhood.

Safety: Most sidewalk opponents considered the west side sidewalk sufficient for safety (traffic speed was the big safety issue- and it is a big one).  For me, however, it’s a big consideration.  There’s a lot of research to show that pedestrians are safer on sidewalks.  With Sibley School in the middle of this stretch of street, there are elementary school kids walking to school from all directions including through Sibley Swale park which empties onto Maple almost at the school with no sidewalk or obvious place to cross to the other side.  Starting in January, Northfield Transit begins its route deviation system which will run south to north on Maple Street so people will board (and wait) on the no-sidewalk side.

Established city policy and practice: Northfield has developed policies to support connectivity, foster streets as places for people to meet and interact, increase pedestrian access, and pedestrian safety.  Northfield’s Comprehensive Plan and Transportation Plan lay the policy groundwork for a multi-modal transportation network with high quality, pedestrian friendly streets.  The addition of the sidewalk on Maple Street is called for by the Safe Routes to School study completed in 2009.  The Land Development Code calls for sidewalks on both sides of collector streets (of which Maple is one).   We’re planning for a Complete Streets policy to ensure streets are safe and accessible for all.  Maple Street is an opportunity to continue implementing this vision and eliminate a gap in our sidewalk network.

Roar! Northfield recieves TIGER grant


Great news for transit riders, bicyclists and pedestrians! said the Transit for Livable Communities update that appeared in my Facebook newsfeed.  The great news is that Northfield has been awarded a $1.6 million TIGER grant (with a $500,000 match from the city), one of 46 recipients from a pool of 848 applications, for a grade-separated crossing of Highway 3 for non-motorized transportation using the underpass near Greenvale Avenue.

My Council colleague, Erica Zweifel deserves a huge round of applause for her leadership in bringing this project forward, soliciting community support, and working with Bolton & Menk preparing the application.  Grreat!

Other information about the grant and project:

The official DOT notice of grant awardees with descriptions of all 46 projects in this round of TIGER grants

Local coverage of the project during the application process: Northfield News, Patch, Locally Grown

The new (context) sensitive MNDOT

The Great MNDOT

This week, I attended a workshop on Context Sensitive Solutions led by MNDOT.   Since when is MNDOT sensitive to anything, let alone the community context in which the road lies?  How many times have we heard “You just can’t work with MNDOT” in response to questions about whether something related to a state highway or state aid road might be changed?  Have we ever heard anything different from city staff?  MNDOT, indeed, has seemed rather like the Wizard of Oz – pay no attention to that man behind the curtain who controls everything, explains nothing, and cannot be challenged.

The perceived insensitivity and unchallengeability of MNDOT (and other engineer/planner types) to context, sensitivity, and (developing rather than imposing) solutions has bugged me for a long time.  Finally, I’ve had the opportunity to pull aside the curtain and peek inside MNDOT and engineer culture.  As an elected official, I was not the primary audience for this event (although the flyer for the workshop indicated “local government” should attend).  Rather, it was continuing education for transportation planners, mostly MNDOT engineers from around the state and that’s what made it so illuminating.

The overarching theme was shifting transportation planning culture at MNDOT from imposing a fixed technical solution to having planner develop context sensitive solutions using the CSS

collaborative, interdisciplinary approach that involves all stakeholders in providing a transportation facility that fits its setting. It is an approach that leads to preserving and enhancing scenic, aesthetic, historic, community, and environmental resources, while improving or maintaining safety, mobility, and infrastructure conditions.

To me, coming from Northfield’s Planning Commission and trying to work towards smart growth and complete streets in Northfield, the CSS approach is common sense.  To have MNDOT working toward implementing CSS in their projects is to feel like we’ve all gained a powerful ally.

The urban cycling theme continued

I learned about Brompton Bicycles (the antithesis of my new bike) during our England sabbatical.  There was a bicycle shop around the corner from our terrace house on Norwich Street which featured Bromptons prominently in its window.  Bromptons posing quietly in a shop window, however, are not nearly as interesting as watching a commuter cycle up to the station, step on the train to London, fold his or her Brompton…then unfold it at King’s Cross and cycle away out of the station and into the city.

So, here’s some British bike fun: the Brompton World Championship 2011 held at Blenheim Palace.


Let it snow

It’s been a hot August here in Minnesota, but winter is not that far away.   Instead of complaining about cold, do as they do in Copenhagen, and get on your bike to do your Christmas shopping this year:

Yes, we can bike in winter!