Tiny Houses need a much larger look

The Northfield Planning Commission took a little look at Tiny Houses back in January, but the city really needs to build tiny houses into the much bigger picture of housing in Northfield.

What’s a Tiny House? Tiny Houses are, of course, small houses. Typically less than 400 square feet, these small homes can be constructed in different ways, used for a variety of reasons, and placed in multiple locations/situations; this flexibility ties the zoning code (and building code) in knots. Here are a small variety:

Ecocapsule (Photo: New Atlas)

Tiny Shipping Container House (Photo: New Atlas)

A Tiny Neighborhood (Photo: Country Living)

Let’s simplify:

  • The City should not try to guess why people may choose to live in or build a Tiny House; there is no compelling government interest I can identify which requires regulating this.
  • Create a simple taxonomy of Tiny Houses:
    • houses on wheels which remain mobile and not connected to city services and
    • houses built on permanent foundations and connected to sewer, water, etc.
  • Decide whether Tiny Houses should be tightly regulated and allowed in a very limited way (if at all) or whether Tiny Houses are a housing choice which should be broadly available to anyone who chooses this type of dwelling (or chooses to build them to sell to others) and craft regulations which are simple and easy to navigate.

Tiny Houses are a problem

Right now, Tiny Houses are a problem because they cut across categories of regulations. Whether on wheels or permanent foundations, there is no regulatory place for Tiny Houses in Northfield.

Tiny Houses On Wheels are not manufactured homes which must be located in the R4 zone, but are somewhat more like transient dwellings “designed to be regularly moved on wheels” like campers or motor homes which can be licensed to be parked and occupied for no more than 30 days. Or, something more like the Temporary Family Health Care Dwelling without the use requirements about family and healthcare. I’m going to suggest we could license Tiny Homes on Wheels in flexible ways to ensure some accountability in time limits and location for a mobile dwelling, plus health and safety items without (like the granny pods) stipulating the reasons people might want to live in a Tiny House on Wheels.

A very colorful Tiny House on Wheels (Photo: The Spruce)

Tiny Houses on Foundations are permanent, but are they primary or accessory dwelling units?

  • As primary dwellings, their small size does not fit well with typical lot sizes and setbacks in residential areas (nor could two primary dwellings be on the same lot), would run afoul of the neighborhood compatibility rules for the R1 older areas, and we do not currently have a location where a cottage court or Tiny Subdivision with appropriately sized lots (or multiple dwellings on the same lot or small lots with shared common space) could be located.
  • As accessory dwellings they are not permitted anywhere in Northfield, since the only accessory dwellings allowed are as part of detached garages.

Cottage Square neighborhood in Ocean Springs, MS of repurposed Katrina Cottages (Photo: RJohntheBad)

Northfield’s current approach

The first stab at Tiny House regulation in the proposal presented to the Planning Commission is to add Tiny Houses as primary dwellings to the N2 Residential zoning district.

The N2 district will create a pedestrian-friendly environment, such as found in the R1 district, with strong neighborhood qualities, such as a grid-like street pattern, consistent block size, compact development, a range of housing types and architectural styles, street connectivity, sidewalks, and homes located in close relationship to the street.

This purpose statement suggests Tiny Homes as primary dwellings would be appropriate as part of that range of housing types and compact development. N2 areas are currently undeveloped, so there is no conflict with neighborhood compatibility standards or, more important, no conflict with existing neighbors of R1 (the older areas near Carleton and St. Olaf). This strategy is politically and technically easy; dropping a new column of small-scale site design into the code to be applied to as yet unplatted land provides for one place to build Tiny Houses or Tiny Subdivisions. This proposal is promising, but very limited.

Northfield Zoning Map (N2 zones are dark orange)

A more expansive approach

Following the guidance of the Comprehensive Plan and Strategic Plan which call for creating more affordable housing, workforce housing, senior housing, a range of housing types, more intensive development and removing regulatory barriers to building affordable housing. I’d call allowing Tiny Houses in Northfield an opportunity to add another tool to the housing toolbox which can be affordable, environmentally sustainable, and flexible for many types of residents.

Where should they go? 

In all low-density, primarily single-family zoning districts; these would include R1-B (older, grid-street neighborhoods near downtown), N1-B (most newer single family home areas), and N2-B (the undeveloped land to be more “R1-B-like”) where Tiny Houses would offer one way to add housing incrementally in older, desirable and well-connected neighborhoods, as well as planning for them in undeveloped places. So, I could build a Tiny House in my backyard in the R1-B district as an accessory dwelling unit to rent now or to move into and rent my primary dwelling if I would like to downsize or income needs change. Someone with a large or double lot could seek a minor subdivision to create a new Tiny Lot or two for Tiny Primary Houses. The HRA could build a new Tiny Subdivision in N2-B. And more, I’m sure.

Tiny Houses could be treehouses, which would really frustrate the zoning code (Photo BaumRaum)

The Strategic Plan, Comprehensive Plan and Age-Friendly Northfield initiatives (AARP supports Tiny ADUs) provide plenty of policy level support for more housing choices (at more price points) and permitting and encouraging infill development.

At the ordinance level, though, there’s trouble. What ordinances need to be changed or eliminated to make Tiny Houses easy to build?

  • Basics: Allowing Tiny Houses as a specific use in low-density neighborhoods and reviewing lot size and setback requirements to allow for smaller dwellings would be required.
  • Accessory Dwellings: Currently limited to dwelling units only as part of detached garages in residential zoning districts, Northfield would need to relax those requirements to provide for freestanding ADUs (and here’s a model code which allows for a range of ADUs which would accommodate Tiny Houses well or this one). The bonus for making these changes would be to allow for a range of accessory dwellings whether on garages, attached to primary dwellings, or freestanding units.
  • Neighborhood compatibility regulations for R1-B: In order to maintain neighborhood character, R1-B regulations include “compatibility” requirements where the “primary focus of these compatibility standards is to ensure that new infill development, redevelopment, or building expansion relates to the massing and scale of the surrounding structures.” Tiny Houses, mostly likely, would be out of scale with neighboring homes as primary dwelling units; accessory structures are exempt but ADUs are limited as noted above. I’d argue that regulations intended to preserve “character” can be code for protecting neighbors (often affluent neighbors) from what is seen as undesirable change.
  • Parking regulations: ADUs must provide one off-street parking space in addition to the two required for each primary dwelling (so, two spaces for a single family home, four for a two-family dwelling, etc.). Requiring two spaces for each single family primary dwelling Tiny House might also be counterproductive. Rather than requiring parking, leaving this decision up to property owners would increase flexibility and possibly reduce costs.
  • Rental code: Even if physical standards were changed, ADUs could be detached, neighborhood compatibility issues were resolved and parking was not a problem, the rental code could still be an obstacle. While the rental code exempts owner-occupied rentals (say, a rental apartment contained within the owner’s home), ADUs which are not part of the primary dwelling do not appear to be covered. The limit on rental licenses in low-density neighborhoods to 20% of the “houses” on a block measures the proportion based on a house as a “single structure containing one or more rental units.” Is a freestanding ADU Tiny House counted as a “house?”As with neighborhood compatibility standards, the rental code is another attempt to preserve neighborhood character in ways which discriminate against renters as “people not like us” in higher income neighborhoods (students, for example, or lower income families). Northfield city staff are already looking at this; the staff report addressing Tiny Houses states “Northfield staff are currently investigating changes to the rental ordinance as part of the strategic plan objectives on affordable housing. The current feeling is that instead of introducing Tiny Houses into the mix, Northfield might be better served by modifying the existing ADU standards to allow ground level development as part of a garage or as a free standing unit. We are also evaluating the impact of the rental ordinance on the Northfield housing market.” Indeed.

So Northfield, read the Plans and policies which call for more housing choices and really consider how to help Tiny Houses be one of those choices without fear of what the neighbors will say. YIMBY!

My Backyard (which has plenty of space for a Tiny House)

Back in the (Planning Commission) saddle again

Back in the saddle again

I started blogging (at the suggestion/arm-twisting of civic blogmeister Griff Wigley) when I ran for mayor in 2004. I was the chair of the Planning Commission at the time and while I lost the election, I kept writing until I left the Commission in 2005. Blogging resumed and reached its peak during my 2009-2012 City Council term, but has languished since then with only intermittent burps of blogging. Now, I’ve returned to the Planning Commission, so let’s see if I can return to this too (despite some pronouncing the death of blogging).

For me, blogging was a chance to analyze and clarify issues for myself by writing about them and then (I hoped) provide a more nuanced, critical review of issues than presented in local “real” media (along with some bits of fun and other random stories). Over time, a couple of basic, guiding questions became clearer in my mind. I’m asking: 

Who pays, who benefits? I was miffed, when Northfield was developing lots of single family housing and major public facilities (hospital, Middle School), why the cost to taxpayers over the long term was ignored, but the the cost to developers in the short term was the only cost considered. My concern was that the City was failing to recognize that government (at all levels) is a player in the market (by regulating what can be built, incentivizing/subsidizing certain types of projects, by its tax structure) and as a party to individual development deals like subdivisions, planned unit developments, etc. Why, as Northfield tried to develop policy and regulations which don’t unfairly burden business (in the short term), didn’t it also consider its own (that is, taxpayers’) interests in the long term for how places are connected, the amount of infrastructure to build and more. Add, more recently, I’ve been thinking about how our regulations privilege the folks who are already more privileged.

Why aren’t land use and transportation considered together?  My very first Planning Commission meeting had the final plat for the hospital on the agenda. The hospital location was chosen because land was cheap (long term almost free lease from St. Olaf) and higher reimbursement rates in (metro) Dakota County. How people would get to the hospital was decided only afterward. For the Middle School, traffic considerations were brushed aside in favor of the beautiful building with lots of playing fields but which has proven unsafe and unpleasant to bike or walk to (and it will take millions to retrofit the 246/Jefferson Parkway intersection). Developers of residential subdivisions chose where street connections and parks would be located, but shouldn’t that be driven by public needs since they would be public facilities? Each decision isolated from the “how do you get there?” question spills over into how we can live our daily lives.

Optimism: These questions were considered pretty nutty in 2001. Since then, the number of cities, organizations, and planners taking these questions seriously and building more connected, more equitable, more sustainable (fiscally and environmentally) places has been growing quickly. Northfield has begun to gather momentum, too, and I look forward to 2018 and beyond.

 

 

Northfield Community Survey – my real answers

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

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

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

Carleton College Arboretum

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

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

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

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

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

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

Library expansion – now finished

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Safe crossing of 7th Street needed

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

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

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

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

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

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

One block in the network

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.

Marvin Lane and its connections in context

Sidewalks

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:

(1) Forget sidewalks, how about shared space? The initial staff report stated the width of this street provides for both a mixed use of vehicles and pedestrians and sidewalks are not recommended. I think this means staff envisioned people walking in the roadway because traffic volumes are low and there is plenty of space for cars to pass anyone on foot or bicycle. But for people to be able to safely and comfortably walk in the same space as motor vehicles, vehicle traffic must be moving very slowly and which would be unlikely given such a wide pavement surface.

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):

Neckdown, Toronto (Photo: www.pedbikeimages.org/Dan Burden)

  • 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.

Chicane, Toronto (Photo: www.pedbikeimages.org/Dan Burden)

(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).

Neckdown with bike access (Grange Road, Cambridge, UK)

  • 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.

Bike Boulevard sign showing the network connections

East Cannon River Trail is in (all) the Plans

The East Cannon River Trail is the only issue on the Northfield City Council’s special meeting agenda (although there are multiple actions to be taken) tomorrow, Tuesday, April 26 2016 (here’s the packet). While there are multiple pieces in the project puzzle, approving the trail should be easy – no-brainer easy – because building this trail segment is so richly supported by prior planning going back more than a decade. This piece of trail specifically or more general guidance for improving access to the Cannon River and increasing recreational opportunities along it is contained in all Northfield’s major planning documents. The Council can take a big step toward implementing the City’s policy vision by approving this trail.

The Trail Itself

Right now, there is a section of paved trail beginning at the Peggy Prowe Pedestrian Bridge extending south toward Dundas, but the trail stops behind the commercial development. There have been wetland issues (and the Army Corps of Engineers) to manage (and wetland credits are also on the agenda tomorrow) as well as inter-jurisdictional negotiation (Dundas, DNR). Now, however, the Northfield city staff have lined up all the ducks for the Council to approve, culminating in approving a resolution accepting bids and awarding the contract for the East Cannon River Trail Project.

Map of Northfield East Cannon River Trail route

East Cannon River Trail Route

This piece of trail is important for Northfield and Dundas because it helps achieve a long-term vision to capitalize on the Cannon River as a distinctive natural, economic and recreational resource, provides an off-road link (along the busy and otherwise difficult to walk or ride Highway 3) to a charter school, commercial areas, and three parks (including Sechler Park which is being developed by CROCT as an offroad bike facility), forms another link to the Mill Towns Trail under development, and can be another small part of making Northfield good to walk, great to retire, and highly livable. No wonder it is included in all these city plans:

General plans

Comprehensive Plan: The Comp Plan highlights the importance of the Cannon River and applauds efforts “to better integrate the river into the community; its scenic beauty and recreational possibilities afford the possibility for further integration of the river into the community. The Greater Northfield Area Greenway System Action Plan is an important resource in helping with this integration.” Land Use, Community Identify and Economic Develop objectives all identify the Cannon River as critical and expanding access to the river, linking to downtown, and connecting parks, places and people.

The Economic Development Plan makes activating and leveraging the Cannon River one of three key findings for economic success; Northfield’s rich sense of place is considered critical. And, the Transportation Plan contains objectives to trail connectivity between areas of the City including current bike and pedestrian route deficiencies (current as of 2008) such as the east side trail dead ending, lack of trail integration into overall design, and challenges linking downtown with the trail system.

East Cannon River Trail specifically

Greenway Corridor Plan: Generally, this plan recommended trails should be considered on both sides of the Cannon River as well as some creeks to link neighborhoods to the river. The East River Corridor (east side of the Cannon River from Highway #3 bridge south to Dundas) was identified as the first priority “because it forms the backbone of the system, due to the potential for development, and because creation of this link will help to create strong support for the system.”

Northfield Greenway Corridors system map

Greenway Corridor System Plan

Park, Open Space, and Trail System Plan: The plan identifies this trail connection as a Destination Trail (which neighborhood trails and linking trails connect to the rest of Northfield). Individual park plans for Babcock, Riverside Lions Park, and Compostella Park also note development of an east river trail should be integrated into master planning for these currently underutilized parks.

Parks, Open Space, and Trail System Plan

Parks, Open Space, and Trail System Plan

Gateway Corridor Improvement Plan: This plan to improve gateways into Northfield incorporated the Greenway Corridor and other plans to highlight trail connections and other green infrastructure.

Costs and benefits

Almost half of the approximately $1 million trail construction cost (with bids substantially less than engineering estimates) is from grants with the remainder coming from the general fund (about $200,000), TIF funding (about $175,000), and the City of Dundas (about $93,000).  I’m not a big fan of grants, believing too often grants are sought to fund projects the City would not otherwise undertake. In this case, however, the plan to build the trail is well established and grant funding has been awarded to complete this well-documented, long-planned project. The City will need to build maintenance of the trail into the budget and CIP in coming years, but the costs relative to the wide benefits of this long-planned trail segment appear very reasonable.

The question of trail surface material must also be answered. In this area prone to flooding, the choice of a paved rather than crushed rock surface would provide a high-quality surface for more users with better durability. The plans for this trail emphasize its importance for access and connectivity; building for residents with limited mobility, children, skateboards, walkers, runners, and people on bikes; choosing the bituminous option provides bigger benefits to more people. I hope the Council will take action to carry out so many of Northfield’s plans by approving this trail project.

Connecting the trail for a bike-friendlier (and age-friendlier, walk-friendlier, people-friendlier) Northfield

Connecting the trail for a bike-friendlier (and age-friendlier, walk-friendlier, people-friendlier) Northfield

 

Development pattern productivity, continued further

Last week, I anticipated the Northfield City Council’s discussion of amendments to the Land Development Code by comparing the tax revenue from a selection of different development patterns around town (thanks to David Delong for mentioning Community Resource Bank – 3 stories on the highway with less than minimum parking – a variance was granted to reduce the parking lot size – would be valued at $2,294,118 per acre with tax revenue of $95,894 which narrowly beats the downtown block and is 5x better than neighboring Target; multistory development wins on or off the highway).  The ensuing Council discussion was somewhat encouraging, mostly predictable, and once unintentionally funny.

Encouraging: My previous post had its intended effect of inserting into the discussion the idea that low density, sprawling development is less valuable to the city’s tax base than more compact, multi-story development.

Predictable: The usual backlash complaining proposed regulations will kill all development along with the (false) presumption that asking questions about how we develop indicates a desire to preserve Northfield circa the Defeat of Jesse James.

More encouragement: let’s see if we can nudge the conversation past the adversarial stance where questions about how we develop are perceived as advocating for no development whatsoever to acknowledging:

1. Cities (with help from higher levels of government) adopted policies and spent money on infrastructure which encouraged and enabled the low density, low productivity pattern.  In the news recently is this report on the policies which have encouraged unproductive development and its costs (See also CityLab, Washington Post, and the press release for the report). “The market” is not free, but the highest and best uses are strongly determined by government action.

2. Developers are not altruistic and will act to reduce their costs and increase their profit. Since government has helped make sprawl profitable for them and create the market for it, we shouldn’t be too surprised about fears that shifting regulations away from sprawl will hurt business.  Private sector development has to be able to make money.

3. Cities need to make development deals which allow developers to make money, but also increase the city’s long-term economic and environmental health. 

Costs

Developer costs and municipal costs: can we consider municipal costs in development regulations? (Image: Strong Towns/Joe Minicozzi)

4. Reversing the unsustainable pattern of low density, high infrastructure cost, low tax revenue development will require a comprehensive and sustained effort involving leadership, education, policy and regulatory change, encouragement (and incentives), collaboration with other units of government and patience. The current proposed LDC changes are just a chance to open the conversation, but will change nothing on their own.

Funny: I just had to laugh when Council Members Delong and Ludescher complained about undermining the Planning Commission’s hard work.  When I was on the Planning Commission, it was the Commission recommending actions perceived as anti-development; Mayor, then Council member, Graham lead the charge to overrule Planning Commission recommendations and encourage developers to come directly to the Council for approval. The Planning Commission is an advisory board; its recommendations can be accepted, revised or rejected depending on Council politics at the time. Circa 2003, it was the Council defending the status quo; in 2015, it is the Planning Commission.

Encourage the Council to continue to ask questions about how to promote the development which is sustainable and creates wealth for all taxpayers.

 

Woodley Street: Narrowing the focus

Northfield’s City Council is getting ready to discuss Woodley Street’s sidewalks on October 28. If this work session conversation follows the well-worn path of earlier sidewalk and street improvement projects, it will go something like this: progressive Council members who consider projects in the context of Northfield’s adopted policy (Comprehensive Plan, Safe Routes to School, Complete Streets), support building transportation equity into the system, and generally look for long-term, high return on investment solutions will support sidewalks noting the importance of the corridor for schools, parks, and downtown. The others will respond to the project in isolation, highlight the shortest term bottom line, question the need for sidewalks, and respond immediately to NIMFYs. Sidewalks have become the litmus test which reveal the Council’s and individual Council members’ priorities and values rather starkly.

Woodley Street project area

Woodley Street project area

My earlier post about Woodley tried to expand the conversation to think about streets as public space, but now let’s narrow it – by 2’ per travel lane to be exact – to help the Council think about sidewalks. Jeff Speck, of Walkable City fame, wrote for CityLab recently that “the single best thing we can do for the health, wealth, and integrity of this great nation is to forbid the construction, ever again, of any traffic lane wider than 10 feet.” While the statement is grand, the rationale is simple:

“When lanes are built too wide, many bad things happen. In a sentence: pedestrians are forced to walk further across streets on which cars are moving too fast and bikes don’t fit.”

For Woodley Street, this statement (and much of Mr Speck’s post) makes great sense since there are three likely arguments against sidewalks on (both sides) of Woodley Street. They are…

There’s not enough space!

Rice County encourages sidewalks (and trails and earthen berms) along minor arterials like Woodley Street (although classified as a minor arterial, the current design of Woodley Street more closely matches the standards for major collectors), but requires they be placed outside boulevards which demands an additional 10-16’ of ROW for 5-8’ sidewalks. For Woodley, which functions as a local street with driveways, homes fronting the length of this segment, and multiple intersections, and its context which connects schools, homes, downtown and more. constrained by the homes on either side, this is not very encouraging at all.

Northfield, in its Comprehensive Plan, calls for 10-12’ travel lanes with an assortment of other requirements for parking, sidewalks, bike lanes, and boulevards depending on how we classify the street. The policy guidance could be seen as more encouraging – narrower lanes, variable shoulder/parking requirements etc. appear possible – but also less clear. Northfield’s Complete Streets guidance to narrow lane widths as part of developing better pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure also gestures in the right direction, but does not require action.

So we could make “more” space by shrinking travel lanes if Rice County could be convinced to consider design changes, and help solve some of the issues noted earlier – shrinking crossing distance for pedestrians and building more function and value into this corridor.

It’s not safe!

“Safe” has become one of those red-flag words for me. When someone on either side of a debate uses the “S” word, it’s intended to stop debate because no one can argue against safety, can they? But what is really safer (and supported by relevant data)? Jeff Speck’s piece lined up the literature showing narrower lanes are often safer, rather than the reverse, in urban settings.

Woodley Street Death Curve

Woodley Street Death Curve

Woodley Street serves as a local street with driveways, regular intersections, etc. but it is also a County road intended to move traffic through town. For a rural County road between, say, Northfield and Faribault through agricultural land, the transportation and access needs are rather different from a street through the Urban Core and the design should shift accordingly.

Narrowing travel lanes (and perhaps the shoulder) on Woodley Street would help cue drivers they had left the wide open rural roadway and should slow down, look for entering and existing traffic, pay attention to intersections and consider non-motorized transportation. Safety could be enhanced, rather than the opposite.

Sidewalks cost too much!

If there’s space and it’s safe, we can still argue about cost. In Rice County, the city bears most of the cost of building (and all the cost of maintaining) sidewalks since these are (quite properly) a city need and the city gets the benefits, too. So, yes, sidewalks will cost some money, but what offsetting savings could there be? Narrower pavement saves money on the paving (initially, and when maintenance is required), reduces stormwater runoff, improves safety by slowing traffic and reducing crossing distances (especially in a corridor with limited sight distances for pedestrians like Woodley’s Death Curve), promotes active transportation and public health and increasing transportation options. Northfield’s Complete Streets policy explicitly calls out the intent to realize long-term savings on the triple bottom line to offset higher short-term costs.

Reallocating space and priorities

Really, the issue is not so much a question of space as priorities. County roads allocate space exclusively to motorized traffic; this is not unreasonable for roads with limited access to property and few intersections intended to move vehicles, including large farm equipment, between cities at high speeds. City streets – or county roads in the urban core – have also allocated almost all their space to motorized traffic, too, with 12’ lane widths and inconsistent sidewalks.

Northfield has waved its policy-making hands at shifting priorities, so at the safe distance of a Comprehensive Plan and Complete Streets policy, sidewalks and non-motorized transportation are important and should be improved, but fall by the wayside when particular projects are on the table. For both County and City, there has been willingness and eagerness to fund “soft” improvements like the Bikable Community Workshop and bicycle safety training (through Rice County Public Health and the City of Northfield), but stopping short of “hard” infrastructure change.

I have two fears. First, the Council will take the County design standards as inviolable and, at best, try to scrape as much accommodation for bicycles and pedestrians as possible under those very limited circumstances/strict constraints. Multi-jurisdictional projects are always more complex, but the Council could ask questions about real safety (rather than just conversation –stopping “safety”) and adapting the standard collector/arterial design to better fit the surrounding land use and community needs. There’s more space for sidewalks than the County standard design suggests, narrowing the street is safe and efficient, and the long-term benefits are great.

Second, NIMFYs (Not In My Front Yard) are loud, angry and persistent in Northfield, especially when it comes to sidewalks. In a recent sidewalk issue on Maple Street, Councilmember David Ludescher stated “Citizens know better than we do what they want” so if current property owners don’t want sidewalks, that’s sufficient for deciding the issue against them. Again, as policymakers for the city as a whole, the Council should consider how to build value and equity into the system for the long-term and broader population rather than capitulating to the loudest and most personally interested voices.

My hope is the Council will see this project as an important time-limited opportunity to both expand and focus their conversation next week by paying attention to lane widths. Considering the simple change of narrowing travel lanes (without sacrificing safety or traffic flow) could change the broader landscape for the better.

A version of this post appears on streets.mn

Reimagining Woodley Street

Streets belong to you…and me…and everybody else; streets are public spaces – like parks – and might just be our most undervalued and underutilized community resources.  Northfield and Rice County are beginning to plan a reconstruction project on Woodley Street and this particular street is a golden opportunity to add value and change the conversation, too.

What might happen if we start talking about streets as a public asset with rich potential to be better places to play, talk, move and build communities rather than arguing about the width of the driving lanes?

SR2S Sibley map

Woodley Street and environs from Northfield’s Safe Routes to School plan

Woodley Street is

  • a local street lined with houses and mature trees with scattered, non-contiguous sidewalks

    Woodley - looking west from Union Street to Division

    Woodley – looking west from Union Street to Division

  • the southern edge of the older traditional grid neighborhood
  • located between downtown and residential neighborhoods, schools and parks making it an essential piece for making schools, homes and parks walkable and bikable both along and across Woodley.
  • Rice County State Aid Highway 28 which links to MN Trunk Highway 246/Division Street at the western end of this project and terminates at MN 3, it is classified as a collector street (according to Rice County) or minor arterial (according to Northfield) and is an important east-west connection bringing traffic into and through town.

Another way, Woodley is a key motorized transportation route worthy of its CSAH status, but its residential character and location between neighborhoods and schools, parks and downtown make it very much a local street. Northfield has a wonderful opportunity to work with Rice County to try move traffic, but build local connections and crossings back into this street.

Building more human capacity into Woodley is already richly supported by Northfield policy from general support in the Comprehensive Plan, strong direction in the Complete Streets policy, and particular improvements called for in the Safe Routes to School Plan and Parks, Open Space and Trail Plan.  But recent history shows there’s often pushback at the project level even with great policies in place.

So the moment is ripe to change the conversation from “you just don’t get it” where some say “You just don’t get it that sidewalks, bike facilities, and human scale design are important for reasons from public health to economic value (and here are the reports and local information to back me up)” and others say “You just don’t get it that sidewalks cost money, neighbors don’t want to shovel them, and no one bicycles anyway (and here are the dollars and angry neighbors to back me up).”

1. How can Northfield change the conversation to foster shared benefits rather than protecting turf?  The residents of Woodley Street are most directly affected, but how to discuss the public space while respecting their private property and hearing their concerns? Rice County has design standards and cost sharing policies in place for city/county projects, but how to engage the County to think outside their urban collector street box to design a project which serves local needs better? Northfield’s City Council tends to polarize at the “you just don’t get it” positions, so how to give elected officials the tools they need to understand and articulate a broader picture of public good?

2. How can Northfield design this project to build the most human capacity and the most public benefit into this street segment?

Rice County design standards

Here are a couple of journeys and connections, I’m hoping can be facilitated by a new Woodley Street and the conversation around the project should reveal more (or more detail about these sketches).

Kids in my east side neighborhood will be able to get to their neighborhood school, Sibley Elementary School, the soccer fields, or the middle and high schools on foot or bicycle easily, safely and independently.

From east side neighborhood and downtown across Woodley

From east side neighborhood and downtown across Woodley

Woodley-Union St. Death Curve

Woodley-Union St. Death Curve

This one is personal.  My daughter rode her bike (alone) to Sibley starting in 3rd grade after we practiced how to cross Woodley Street which is the only significant obstacle in a 3/4 mile trip on otherwise low volume streets.  Crossing choices were (a) the confusing 4-way stop (3rd grade non-drivers do not quite “get” the dance of who moves when) at Woodley and Maple Streets or (b) our preferred route, crossing at the Union Street “death curve” (my daughter’s term) where traffic did not stop and moved about 30 mph, but was still simpler to negotiate with “look both ways” even with the limited sight distance. In middle and high school, crossing Woodley was still required, but now the critical 4-way stop intersection at Woodley and Division Street had to be negotiated or bypassed, too, with no obvious “good route.”

Mayflower Hill to Sibley, etc.

Connections between Mayflower Hill and the pool, downtown, school, and soccer

Mayflower Hill will be able to walk or bike easily, safely and independently to school, the pool or downtown. When the eastern section of Woodley was reconstructed in 2008, the Non-Motorized Transportation Task Force was instrumental in bringing active transportation concerns front and center.  As a result, even though pedestrian accommodations were not standard on a rural road section, a multiuse trail was added on the north side and a sidewalk on the south which helped connect this area to the edge of the current project.  How can we continue the connection along Woodley through the denser neighborhood to schools, the swimming pool and downtown?

Woodley rural section heading west

Woodley rural section heading west

Woodley Street itself will become part of the pedestrian fabric of Northfield.  Reimagining Woodley as a thick thread woven into a rich network of walking, cycling and driving can broaden the conversation about what is possible, what is valuable and how we connect Northfield rather than spur divisiveness.