Ole Avenue questions persist


Ole Avenue is St. Olaf’s planned residence hall/townhome project:

Artist’s rendering of the view up St. Olaf Avenue (Image: St. Olaf)

This is an exciting project, mostly. New residence halls and townhomes will bring students back on campus, St. Olaf Avenue will be reinforced as the tree-lined entrance to the campus from downtown and the pretty, shady campus look and feel will extend further down The Hill. Older, increasingly dilapidated homes which have been used as the Honor Houses will be replaced with state of the art, purpose-built student housing. It’s a more people-scaled project than Olaf’s high rise dorms and much easier to integrate into the neighborhood. All good.

Less wonderfully, the City Council has had two frustrating discussions focused on irrelevant issues, but managing to steer clear of the big questions; now they are about to take action on February 16, 2020.

Quite a lot of these

The Issue

This development, because it is at the edge of the campus zoning, requires a conditional use permit or CUP. Student residence halls are permitted in this area. If they were permitted “by right” St. Olaf could file their plans and city staff would sign off on it with no public review. Instead, they are permitted, but require an additional layer of public review to grant the conditional use permit because this use, in this zone, in this location is deemed to have the potential to create significant impact to the surrounding property and the community.

In short, there is not much discretion to deny the permit (because the use is permitted) if it meets the requirements of our zoning code, but there is the (golden) opportunity to impose conditions which limit the impact of the more intense use on the neighborhood and the community: “The benefits of the conditional use outweigh the potential negative effects to the surrounding area or community” in terms of such things as traffic, light, noise, and the overall character of the residential neighborhood.

The Condition

Back in November, the Planning Commission (I’m on it – this post is my opinion, not the position of the Commission as a whole) held the public hearing as required by state statute. We heard from staff, St. Olaf as the developer and from many concerned neighbors and members of the public.

I went to the Planning Commission meeting concerned about impacts to west-of-Lincoln neighbors from loading zones and security lighting; the huge amount of surface parking and the lighting, stormwater, and traffic it could create looked completely out of scale for the location. I was struck by how much space St. Olaf has devoted to storing cars compared to the spaces for people and the jaw-dropping mismatch between their lofty sustainability policies and what they have proposed.

Look at the footprint of the buildings for people compared to the space devoted to storing empty cars used occasionally.

To guide our discussion, commissioner Will Schroeer took a bottom-up approach and counted parking spaces, read the code and the policy documents, marshaled evidence about parking impacts and assembled a very thoughtful memo for the PC (which you should read). It confirmed there was already enough parking on campus and the new parking should be considered “excessive parking” (not allowed by our code) and approval should add the condition that new parking should be removed.

Based on his analysis and my own policy commitments to climate action and better streets, I voted to make what I believe is a very intentional, well-supported recommendation to Council to approve the CUP with the additional condition. The parking lots will encourage driving, add security lighting, increase stormwater runoff, and be an incompatible addition to the neighborhood.

The Planning Commission voted unanimously to recommend approval with the condition to remove new parking which has turned out to be a very challenging condition for the Council.

Process

CUPs should be pretty routine. Staff presents the Planning Commission recommendation to the Council along with the materials they prepared for the public hearing and a summary of the input from the community and commissioners. The Council then votes and they can factor in political issues and other priorities which the PC did not, but if they disagree they are required to send their reasoning to the PC in writing.

In January, City staff brought the CUP to the Council noting briefly that the Planning Commission unanimously approved the CUP with the condition of removing new parking, but moving on to the staff recommendation eliminating that condition with the justification that many of the stalls are “replacement” stalls from Honor House demolition and “insufficient accommodation is likely to result in more parking in adjacent neighborhoods.”

It is annoying that staff invited St. Olaf to the table to lobby for their plans, present new information, and revise parking stall numbers two times rather than (at least) fully presenting the Planning Commission recommendation and its policy and research justification.

It is disturbing that the Council discussion has focused on defining terms and counting spaces, rather than whether this project and the Planning Commission recommendation is in line with City policies (in which we have invested thousands of dollars, countless staff hours, and the expertise and labor of hundreds of community members) and addresses the impact to the community which is, after all, the purpose for the CUP. There is no number of spaces which is “enough” without balancing multiple interests.

All the focus on the number of spaces has resulted in stirring up a lot of dust so the Council cannot see their way through to a forward-looking, policy-based decision.

Dust storms limit visibility

There is already enough parking

For campus development, parking is evaluated campus-wide, not on a per-building basis. The parking study St Olaf submitted states clearly that “the number of permitted parking stalls (excluding loading parking stalls) exceeds the required parking” stated in the Land Development Code. While no maximum is stated, the approval criteria does stipulate “an excessive number of parking spaces are not proposed” for project.

St. Olaf’s report goes on to describe how the college also has made efforts to “decrease students’ reliance on personal vehicles, reducing the need for long-term on-campus student parking capacity.”  This suggests fewer spaces may be needed in the future, rather than more or the same amount (parking needs are also usually overestimated).

The recommendation which I believed was to remove the new paved parking lots (and could have been quickly clarified by the Planning Commission members at their last meeting) has been translated into a recommendation to remove “new” but not “replacement” parking spaces. This has triggered a new counting game asking which spaces are “new” and which are “replacement” and other number games which invite the Council to get deep into details, rather than helping them thoughtfully consider the long-term impacts to the community.

So, there is enough parking. It may not be what St. Olaf planned, it may not always be as convenient to each person as they want it to be, and, as always, removing parking spaces makes otherwise rational people batshit crazy. But there is enough.

My vote at to recommend approval with the condition that new parking be removed was meant to condition approval on removing the two large new slabs of pavement.

The proposed parking violates the LDC, Comprehensive Plan and other policies

Regardless of the number of spaces, the concentration of parking at the neighborhood edge of the campus is difficult to reconcile with the requirements for compatibility with the existing historic neighborhood, strategic goal to improve transit, stated goals to reduce carbon emissions, plans to improve car sharing (and bike and scooter sharing in the Climate Action Plan), improve bike and walk connections, enhance the small town character, and mitigate climate impact.

The development patterns of land can dictate transportation and building density, creating barriers and opportunities for where people live and how they travel. More compact land use with adequate options for non-motorized travel or transit can help reduce emissions from transportation. Conversely, low-density land use patterns that are designed for the movement of vehicles will create an auto-centric community that results in higher emissions.

Climate Action Plan

The residential part of Ole Avenue is a fine example of what the City has said it wants compact development, creating lovely streetscapes, and enhancing the interface with the St. Olaf campus which is one of the jewels of Northfield. The kind of land development pattern which can reduce emissions and mitigate stormwater issues.

The large parking lots are an example of what the City has said it does not want: The suburban parking layout is hidden from campus, but will strongly impact the surrounding neighborhood in ways which the City has said repeatedly it does not want because of their climate, human, and visual impacts. It is the kind of pattern designed for movement of vehicles.

Further, an increasing amount of research backs up Northfield’s planning by showing that abundant, cheap (to use) parking means people drive more, that reducing parking and making driving less convenient helps people drive less, and that there are multiple ways to manage parking demand to be able to build less of it. There is an increasing wave of cities eliminating all parking minimum requirements (including new DOT Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s South Bend, IN). I know members of the Planning Commission besides me stay current on these developments and I believe we are trying to guide Northfield to a more sustainable future based on best practices.

Mixed messages: Focus on the renewable energy or easy car culture? Image: St. Olaf College

Important policy and practical questions the Council could ask

There are many questions I wish Council had asked and/or staff had considered rather than counting parking spaces as if there was a right number.

How should we balance convenience against community impact? Much has been made of ensuring students have easy access to their cars for their internships, student teaching, and jobs. Yet that convenience for a few will be purchased by encouraging more traffic in the neighborhood, more climate impact, more lighting, and less green space; is this acceptable? This balancing act applies for every street project Northfield builds where parking is proposed to be removed.

How are taxpayers’ interests being protected in the planning of this development? So far, the discussion has continued to center around the perceived need for convenient parking for students. But the CUP is intended to assess the impact to the community. The spillover effects of increased vehicle use (and lighting and stormwater) in the St. Olaf Avenue/Lincoln Street area will be felt by Northfield taxpayers who pay for the streets, parks, climate action programs, and transit. For development away from this campus/community interface (along Highway 19 or by Skoglund or near North Avenue), taxpayer interests are very small. How are you assessing the community impact — especially to taxpayers — as required by the CUP criteria rather than the student impact?

Will the parking help us carry out our policy goals? For only one example, the Strategic Plan calls for improving transit. Accomplishing this requires not just putting buses on the road, but making transit efficient. If driving is prioritized, will transit be impacted? I believe the Council’s job is to stay on a policy level, not a detail level; it is staff’s job to help them do this. Every project should be viewed through the lenses of Northfield policies focused by the Strategic Plan; how does this one stack up?

Is parking on neighborhood streets a problem? Staff and St. Olaf have both threatened “but they’ll park in the neighborhood” if the parking is eliminated. Certainly, I know homeowners are rabidly protective of their curb space and will defend it against bike lanes, curb extensions, and other people parking there. But if a variety of measures are taken to help students get around without their own vehicle (now and into the future) as St. Olaf has already indicated they intend to do, will parking in the neighborhood be significant, will it be more than a temporary issue, and are there other ways to control parking near campus (neighborhood parking permits, for example, which ensure that parking is not free except for residents)?

What other alternatives besides big parking lots and no parking lots exist? It would have been possible for staff to make a principled recommendation which does include more parking, but still took the neighborhood, traffic, and climate impact seriously by requiring parking to be distributed in smaller lots around campus with only limited parking next to the dorms, placing parking with with easy access only to the Highway 19 vehicle-oriented campus entrance, and prioritizing Lincoln, Second Street, and St. Olaf Avenue as local, walkable, bikeable connections. Can you challenge staff to bring you better answers?

Can you approve the CUP without the parking lots and see if the sky actually falls? Trying to change our planning and building behavior is really hard and Northfield’s past development has worked to make driving and parking very easy. Our newer policies point us in the right direction, but still require political will to take the first step at the project level. Could you approve the CUP with additional conditions which would prevent building the parking now, but leave it possible to construct more later if it is actually needed when other mobility and access strategies are implemented, too?

The other large parking lots on the Olaf campus are well-insulated from the neighborhood and this map shows no other residence hall has a large amount of parking.

Bottom line

This project could be a model for green development and a golden opportunity for city/college collaboration. The City priorities for better transit, climate action, and more compact land use should spur the Council to see possibilities and ask “How can we help students get around Northfield?” and the College to look at its wind turbine and sustainability policies and say “We’ve said we do care about the climate, so let’s think with the city about future-looking solutions.”

“Enough” parking is a political question, not a counting problem or pure policy question. The Planning Commission looked at the numbers and made a recommendation which, I believe, reflects the policies of the City and best practices. There certainly is “enough” if Northfield and St. Olaf follow through on their climate action planning, shared mobility, better transit, and commitment to working with the neighborhood on maintaining a wonderful interface between campus and town. Your job is to weigh the political concerns and decide how much is enough.


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