Sidewalks as safe transportation infrastructure

After tripping in the same hole in the sidewalk on Division Street not once but three times in recent weeks, I was relieved to see City workers repairing curbs and repairing trip hazards. Like these:

Marking repairs – including removing the decorative but trip-worthy panels on Division Street

 

My current inconvenience and surprise at tripping aren’t very noteworthy as I’m still pretty spry, but I’m thinking ahead to how important safe sidewalks and street crossings will be for an older, frailer me and already are for older adults, people with low vision, those with limited mobility or using aids from canes to wheelchairs.

Crosswalk pavers showing damage

Crosswalk pavers downtown – decorative, but dangerous unless repaired

 

Northfield is getting much better about constructing safe facilities for walking and doing annual repairs on downtown sidewalks (adding sidewalks on Woodley; the new Division Street), but we can and should allocate transportation resources to do more to help people – all people – travel safely, not just people driving cars.

Crosswalk showing curb extensions and pavers

Curb extensions and shorter crossing distance on Division Street (but still the pavers)

 

In some places – Atlanta, for examplelawsuits have been filed by wheelchair users alleging ADA violations because of the condition of sidewalks. I’m not recommending litigation in Northfield, but am advocating for thinking about sidewalks as basic transportation infrastructure like streets and maintaining an index of sidewalk conditions, mapping sidewalk gaps, and building the addition and repair of sidewalks into the CIP and annual budget.

Then there are the other obstacles…

Pavement is only one kind of obstacle on narrow sidewalks

 

 

Future essential character: Starbucks, planning, and future development

Planning looks ahead to set policy and draft regulations to guide how a town grows. Development works now to get projects approved and built. When the development does not fit the planning, which should prevail? The long-term planning or the money-on-the-table-right-now development?

This is not a theoretical question; planning and development ran smack into each other Thursday, April 19, when the Northfield Zoning Board of Appeals denied multiple variances for a proposed Starbucks drive-thru at the corner of Highway 3 and Second Street.

Highway 3 concept elevation for proposed Northfield Starbucks (image ZBA packet)

The Starbucks proposal was a near-perfect example of the type of development Northfield’s recent planning documents sought to exclude from this location, so the unanimous decision to deny the variances could be seen as a clear win for planning (the vote was 5-0; I could not attend the meeting and Jay Jasnoch was also absent). However, the decision should not be considered winning a contest, but the start of some different conversations.

The Planning Vision and Starbucks

The problem: Variances let developers break the dimensional zoning rules if certain conditions are met. In this case, the Starbucks drive-through needed to break rules on where the building could be located relative to public streets and where the drive-thru lane can be placed.

As a major amendment to a Planned Unit Development created under the former zoning code, the proposal needed to follow the C-1 (Downtown) zoning district (East of Highway 3 Subdistrict) rules. The variances requested were (see the site plan below):

  • allow the building to exceed the 10 foot maximum front setback and the maximum corner side setback of 10 feet;
  • allow the driveways and parking to encroach on the minimum front, side and rear setback of 5 feet;
  • allow stacking lanes to be closer than 25 feet from rights-of-way;
  • permit the building to be located more than ten feet from the property line on the corner street side; and
  • allow the drive-through in the front setback.

Northfield’s Land Development Code allows variances under these rules:

The zoning board of appeals may only grant applications for variances where practical difficulties in complying with this LDC exist and each of the following criteria are satisfied:

(a) The variance is in harmony with the general purposes and intent of this LDC; and

(b) The variance is consistent with the Comprehensive Plan;

(c) The property owner proposes to use the property in a reasonable manner not permitted by this LDC;

(d) The plight of the landowner is due to circumstances unique to the property not created by the landowner; and

(e) The variance, if granted, will not alter the essential character of the locality.

(2) Economic considerations alone do not constitute practical difficulties.

NOT the problem: It would be interesting to debate whether Starbucks is a good company, whether Starbucks brews good coffee, whether the Unicorn Frappuccino was misguided, why pumpkin spice lattes take over the world every Fall, whether local or franchise businesses are more desirable in Northfield, whether Northfield needs any more drive-throughs, coffee, or Starbucks but none of these are relevant to the variance decision (but hold these thoughts).

The variance problem. The staff memo found that all variance criteria were satisfied, but the Zoning Board of Appeals decided differently (not the Planning Commission as local media stated – the ZBA and PC are the same people, but when acting as the ZBA the panel has a different, quasi-judicial, role and final administrative decision-maker; as the PC, the body is advisory to the Council).

After watching the meeting video, my understanding is that ZBA members generally agreed about (c): the coffee shop use was reasonable. The plight of the developer was less clear from ZBA members’ comments. On one hand, the site development for the original PUD tied the hands of future development, but the choice to build a drive-through on such a constrained lot was the developer’s choice.

Essential character (e), was alluded to by ZBA comments, but not discussed in detail. I would highlight the distinction I used to start this post of future planning and right now development. Right now, this area is near other highway businesses and a drive-through Starbucks is not out of place right now and it would be reasonable to find it would not alter this character.

But, the Comprehensive Plan and the Land Development Code purpose for this zoning district identify this area (and the Crossing original PUD and Gateway Corridor Improvement Plan peg this corner in particular) as a key gateway into downtown Northfield where development will echo the historic with buildings close to the street, where walking and biking are emphasized over driving, and where the distinctive, Northfieldian place begins. As ZBA members gave their rationales for their votes to deny, it was the conflict with this vision which was foremost and I’d distill the concerns to this: allowing the drive-through would not be a step towards building the planned future essential character and Northfield needed to find a better, more appropriate first step toward the planning goals.

Current character: looking south on Highway 3

What next?

This decision should not be treated as planning killing off development nor of planning winning a battle in the development war or any other adversarial interpretation or the outcome. I’d say the ZBA interpreted the policy documents straightforwardly and applied the rules correctly, but now the problem remains of how to take that first step toward making the planning vision more real.

Why the planning vision matters

Northfield has been developing policy which is increasingly focused on Northfield as a sustainable, distinctive place. “Like Downtown” is not simply a statement about aesthetics from a policy perspective. Downtown is beautiful and beloved, but the pattern of downtown is valuable in other ways for Northfield and extending that pattern makes sense in multiple ways and here are just a few:

  • Tax value: Downtown is Northfield’s richest tax base on a per acre basis. Building taller buildings with small or no setbacks concentrates value and makes more use of a smaller amount of infrastructure.
  • Getting around: When buildings and businesses are close together and close to the street, how we travel changes, too. Walking and biking are easier because destinations are closer together. Street entrances and windows make walking more pleasant because there are things to look at. The narrower roadway (both visually from buildings and trees, but also from street parking) slows vehicle traffic to make walking, rolling and riding safer and more pleasant.  A sidewalk alone, like those along Highway 3, does not make a place pedestrian-friendly.
  • Environment: Although not a part of the ZBA’s deliberations explicitly, the drive-through model promotes driving (more fossil fuels, bigger carbon footprint), adds impervious surface (more run-off into valuable water resources like the Cannon River), and uses more land. As Northfield develops its first Climate Action Plan, considering the larger picture of how development patterns can help is critical.

More like this: Walkable, bikable, valuable (Photo: Money Magazine)

Back to Development

Despite the very clear plans for this intersection, right now there is little to make it easy to develop what Northfield says it wants. For a small, walkable, downtownish business, this corner is isolated. Although highly visible from the highway, this location is not a pleasant walk from Division Street (yet) and there are no other downtown-scale businesses to help draw foot traffic. The planned riverfront walkway connecting to the Crossing to the Riverwalk south of 2nd Street has not been completed. The commercial development on the north side of the Crossing is small-scale, but focused inward to the parking lot rather than adding to the Highway 3 streetscape and helping to connect to the corner. The access into the site is constrained by its location on two state highways. The roundabout and interior roadways take a lot of space which might be used better. The south corner across 2nd Street is empty and crossing the street on foot or bike any direction at the 2nd Street and Highway 3 intersection is unpleasant.

Questions I would like Northfield to ask next:

  • How well do the City regulatory tools make developing this area “like downtown” easy, predictable, and as cost effective as possible? What revisions to the Land Development Code regulations would help carry out the purpose of the regulations and the vision of the Comprehensive Plan?
  • How will Northfield’s economic development efforts be directed toward carrying out the land use planning and climate action goals of the City? Are current economic development resources allocated effectively?
  • How will Northfield take advantage of advances in street designs, public health research, and other tools to evaluate regulations and projects for better active transportation results?
  • How can Northfield consider the impact of both its land development pattern and local business development compared to national franchises Rather than look at economic development as simply any growth in jobs or the tax base, how can Northfield compare both in terms of tax value compared to the cost of city services and infrastructure, creating living wage jobs, and keeping more dollars circulating in the local economy?
  • Finally, these questions are all big picture and long term. Right now, what steps can be taken to help connect The Crossing to downtown by improving the walking, rolling and biking connections? How can economic and community development staff think differently to market this property or develop proposals which will fit both the real estate and the planning goals.

High value, walkable development: Downtown block bounded by Division, Washington, 3rd and 4th Streets.

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.

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