The late Dixon Bond once observed to me: “Northfield has a tendency to over-plan.” So when the EDA, Planning Commission and City Council meet in a worksession tonight (04/11/2017) to do some (carefully orchestrated, consultant-driven) strategic planning, I will try to be optimistic that this planning effort will lead to action, rather than simply more plans.
My one (big) priority
Implement the policies already adopted by developing the regulations and funding streams to do so with particular emphasis on linking land use, transportation, sustainability, and building equity in city decision-making (or develop a specific plan for updating or replacing policies believed to be outdated or inappropriate).
Northfield’s 2008 Comprehensive Plan (and the one before it) established a clear vision for Northfield to thrive as a non-generic, distinctive, sustainable small town centered in the historic downtown along the Cannon River (I’ve made a little pledge to avoid the overuse of the terms placemaking, sense of place, vibrant, etc.) respecting the natural environment, increasing housing choices. Subsequent planning reinforced the picture of a city connected by wonderful streets which support all modes of transportation. Our project by isolated project decision-making and regulations have not supported that vision particularly well, but let’s give it the old college(s) try with the strategic planning process by focusing on these things:
1. Safe Complete Routes to School and everywhere else:
Transportation planning should rocket to the top of the list because building better, more walkable, more bikeable, better connected streets is so widely represented in our plans and policies (Complete Streets, GreenStep Cities, Parks and Open Space Plan, Age Friendly Northfield…see here for more). But let’s move beyond the project by project tussles about sidewalks and bike lanes to do these things:
- Educate the staff, Council and public about best practices, newer research, and better planning both through workshops or seminars and by hiring better experts for projects. We have a Complete Streets policy, but everyone needs to know how this could transform planning and projects. Learn how walking and biking can save the world (and also here)
- Adopt street design standards which will guide planning and design of projects beyond vehicular measures of Level of Service and Functional Classification to create streets which connect people and places and are sustainable.
- Plan a network of low stress bike/walk connections and commit funding with particular attention to connecting important places and designing intersections for people outside of cars. Recent conversations about 246/Jefferson that a roundabout “is safe” reflect only crash statistics, but not how safe if feels; plan for making connections convenient and appealing to vulnerable users.
- Prioritize completion of the Mill Towns State Trail by adopting the revised route from the Prowe Pedestrian Bridge, along Jefferson Parkway and out of town, collaborating with the DNR, Carleton and other entities to finish the Northfield segment as soon as possible. Trails help connect the city for the people who live here, as well as bringing many to town to ride and spend.
- Collaborate with the Northfield School District to really connect the southern schools, reduce traffic demand, and increase walking and biking. I think “collaborate” should extend to funding, for the schools created the traffic and will benefit from solutions.
2. Land use and sustainability (both fiscal and environmental)
Revise or replace land use regulations: Although the land development code was recently rewritten, the new regulations do little to help Northfield evaluate the cost of development proposals to taxpayers, make sustainable development easier (or really any development easier), or help shift from the suburban model of development which the Comp. Plan explicitly seeks to do. Here are some suggestions (not comprehensive nor exhaustive)
- Housing, affordable and denser: In the early 2000s, Northfield built many acres of market rate, single family homes, but these large lot, 3-car garage sort of houses are not affordable for many nor desirable for some of us and this pattern of development demands much more expensive infrastructure, impedes walkability, and creates income ghettos (see equity below).The Comp Plan principle of more housing choices can be approached by allowing (and encouraging) greater density in existing neighborhoods by getting rid of some of the recent regulations.
- Accessory dwelling units: Repeal Northfield’s over-specific regulations such as the current accessory dwelling unit regulations (must be part of a detached garage among other things), “granny pods” and the rental code. A better strategic priority would be to make it easier for property owners to add accessory dwelling units which meet their needs and market needs (caring for relatives, investment rental property, constraints of the property itself).
- “Missing middle” housing in existing older neighborhoods should be encouraged (see small scale, incremental below).
- Score development proposals based on fiscal productivity to determine whether the private tax value generated will be sufficient to support (and replace) the public infrastructure expenditure. The NW business park is the sort of development which screamed for this sort of analysis, but the same process should be applied to new residential development, too, to take a longer term look at the benefits and liabilities of new projects justified as economic development. Simply repeating “Grows jobs and tax base” without doing some of the math is superstition of the highest order.
- Encourage small scale, incremental development. Current regulations favor big developers and large projects; Northfield should focus on welcoming and enabling incremental development. For inspiration, take a look at Lean Urbanism and the Incremental Development Alliance.
Take a look at the Census income map and Dot race map which show how racially and income segregated Northfield is…and then think who shows up to city meetings. Northfield city government should work for everyone, not just me as an educated, affluent, white woman who shows up at the public meetings and knows how to navigate “the system.”
Consider in a deep and intentional way how the City can learn from the people who live here as well as informing us about city plans and projects. “Asking the same 12 people to come to a meeting on a Thursday night is not the most effective plan…Instead of asking, ‘Who’s not at the table?’ we try to ask, ‘Whose table are we not at?’” Right now, I’d argue, Northfield City government mostly waits for people to come to its table (which is set for 6 pm on a weeknight at City Hall).
Finally, not so much a priority as an exhortation – please do not govern by referendum or public hearing, but as informed representatives who weigh the data, the public comments (which you have worked hard to solicit from a broad range of the community), the budget, and make equitable decisions for the common good of Northfield. Please help residents learn about where the money comes from and where it goes, educate Northfield about possibilities rather than playing to fears, hire the best staff and consultants, and use real data to make decisions rather than voting by gut instinct and who shouts the loudest. Challenge yourselves to learn enough to make equitable, sustainable decisions for the rest of us.