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

Connecting the Community

The MN246 & Jefferson Parkway intersection is a critical link to connect the community.  For Valentines Day, the Northfield City Council will hear from consultant SEH about the intersection control evaluation of MN 246 and Jefferson Parkway which sought to “identify improvements that alleviate peak hour congestion, improve pedestrian and bike access, improve school ingress/egress, improve safety and understand adjacent intersection operation impacts.”

Jefferson Parkway/TH 246 intersection

First, thanks to Northfield for starting to plan how to rethink and redesign this intersection (and thanks to continued pressure from residents and the 246 Solutions group for helping move this along). Let’s seize this once in a generation opportunity to reconnect our places by designing this area to improve the safety, walkability, and bike access to schools, community facilities, and neighborhoods.

The opportunity is even more golden than it was even a year ago as the School District is considering building a new high school closer to this intersection and the Mill Towns Trail is planned to be routed along Jefferson Parkway from the Peggy Prowe Pedestrian Bridge to Spring Creek Road (creating an off-road link to CROCT‘s MTB trails in Sechler Park and the the new East Cannon River Trail).

The Mill Towns State Trail will follow Jefferson Parkway

What’s happened so far?

My past commentary: I’ve already had much (critical) to say about this intersection and the history of planning decisions which have put much pressure on this link. From choices made when planning the Middle School (Schools and where to put them) to more recent efforts to improve safety (Still Not a Safe Route to School), to looking to change the conversation about streets from vehicle traffic to community connections (Reimagining Woodley), I’ve been talking about this for a long time. Now that the City is moving forward, let’s think how to help the City make good choices to help us get where we want to go.

Roundabout recommendation: SEH’s study has recommends a single lane roundabout. When the recommendations were presented at an open house in December, the roundabout was not considered a poor choice, but the people at the meeting were concerned there was still no significant discussion of how to help young people walk or bike to school, how people could easily reach the NCRC, how the Mill Towns Trail would work, or how other improvements near the intersection could be added (such as a safe crossing to the high school), or how improving this intersection for walking and biking could reduce the school-related vehicle traffic.

Recommended Roundabout (Photo: SEH report)

 

Building support: From the open house concerns came this letter with 75+ signatures urging the City to consider three things (and you can hear Will Schroeer and I chat on KYMN along with a link to the letter there, too, for a multimedia approach):

  • The issue is bigger than the intersection: SEH (to their credit) and community members at the open house understand the scope needs to expand from from just the intersection (a critical piece to be sure) to help all Northfield residents (of all ages and abilities, as our Complete Streets policy states) reach important places however they choose to travel, (whether driving, walking, riding a bike, or transit) requires thinking about the surrounding area, connecting streets, and the important places.
  • Northfield needs to better connect people and places: SEH’s report has some good recommendations, but does not go far enough to address the human transportation needs in the south part of the city where so many important facilities are located.
  • Take time to get it right: The letter asks Northfield “to more fully consider the opportunities for safely serving this area” before immediately adopting the recommendations (but also proposing some short term, cheap solutions to improve safety quickly and sustain momentum for change.

What can happen next?

Northfield is beginning to think more broadly about how its development decisions and, even better, there is growing interest in how good design can rebuild connections among places including addressing these issues: [2/14meeting documents]. To amplify and extend the points in the community letter, I urge the Council to address these goals and questions:

  • Reducing vehicle traffic: The SEH report does not consider how to reduce vehicle congestion caused by school traffic by designing for safe, convenient and pleasant biking and walking. Years of development choices, fewer parents at home, and helicopter parenting have contributed to the steep decline in walking and biking to school. Usually not mentioned is that much of the traffic to the schools is generated by parents chauffeuring their children to school. So, rather than accepting traffic projections at face value ask how this projected increase might be reduced.
  • Slowing traffic by design: Speed limit signs, even the speed feedback signs, must be enforced to be effective.  Redesigning the intersection (and the street corridor) to cue drivers to slow down, look for people walking and biking, and (most importantly) pay attention can make the street “self-enforcing.” Pursuing state of the art designing walking, biking, wheelchair rolling, and transit into the roadway rather than trying to add these “amenities” later will make a safer, slower, stickier street.

Current TH 246 design screams “Drive Fast!”

  • Articulating costs and benefits to capture the long term benefits and cost savings of increasing walking and biking rather than just the short term price tag. A project with bike lanes (for example) might cost more initially, but what benefits can be realized as a result? Reducing vehicle traffic (preserving the road surface and reducing the need for expansion), increasing walking and biking (saving on busing to schools), saving lives (over dollars), adding transportation choices, improving the environment and public health…how can the Council begin to think about community benefits and project sustainability, rather than just initial cost?
  • How can the Council, staff, and public learn about the full range of choices and design options to slow traffic, improve walking and biking, and link land uses? Our Complete Streets policy has high aspirations, “to ensure all streets within the City are planned, funded, designed, constructed, operated and maintained to safely accommodate users of all ages and abilities” but how can City officials and the public learn more about how to do this?
  • Collaboration: .With the prospect of a new high school in this area, how can the City and school district work together to site the new school to reduce traffic, encourage walking and biking, and help community and school priorities work together? Smart siting can help save money on busing, improve air quality near schools, and help kids arrive ready to learn. connect the new school to its surroundings. built the schools with worries but no action for managing traffic and no discussion of non-vehicle access; what’s their responsibility for action/funding? Plus, 246 is a state highway, so working with MnDOT to develop a solution which services Northfield’s local needs as well as regional transportation objectives is critical.

Again, thanks Northfield for starting working on this critical link in connecting our community!

Looking forward to riding from the Peggy Prowe bridge up the Mill Towns Trail through a redesigned intersection as Northfield becomes bike-friendlier (and age-friendlier, walk-friendlier, people-friendlier)

 

 

 

 

 

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