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

“No additional financial impacts are anticipated,” claims the staff report accompanying proposed revisions to Northfield’s nightmare land development regulations. Yet the proposed changes will change zoning around Northfield’s downtown to make lower density, less compact development the default pattern and this does have financial impacts for the City of Northfield.

The motivation for the changes is to make development easier and help cure Northfield’s purported reputation hostility to business, developers and development. Yet the discussion has only focused on making it easier and cheaper for developers and not on the longer term impacts for the City of Northfield and its taxpayers.

Mayor Graham was the first (but certainly not the last) person to call me anti-growth and anti-business, so let me say again that neither is true. I wholeheartedly support making the development permit process easy, predictable and cheap for developers. I urge the Council, Economic Development Authority, NDDC, and Chamber to work to encourage business and development in Northfield by retaining current business and attracting new companies.

But, and of course there was a but, I continue to advocate for the City to work to make developing in a pattern which will sustain the City financially the easiest choice rather than changing the regulations to development which is less profitable for the City the norm. Tonight, the Council should have a robust discussion about how to make the most productive use of land in Northfield for the taxpayers and how to help developers make money in the short term so the City can prosper in the long term.

Private development depends on a great deal of public infrastructure water, wastewater, stormwater, and roads.  While developers usually pay for the required improvements (but the proposed business park plans also proposed to subsidize this, too), the infrastructure is all dedicated to the City – to me and my fellow taxpayers – to maintain, repair and eventually replace. It matters a great deal whether the development the City permits can pay for the costs to maintain the infrastructure and some development patterns yield more revenue.

To help the Council consider what I mean about more productive vs. less productive development patterns, let’s do the numbers. Following in the footsteps of Strong Towns “Taco Johns math” in Brainerd and Joe Minicozzi’s work in Asheville, NC (and an additional example from Rochester), I offer three examples of different development patterns in Northfield with taxable market values and tax revenues (from Rice County public records) compared on a per acre basis to compare apples to apples. The downtown block is by far the most efficient and highest producing use of land on a per acre basis.

When considering how to zone and regulate land, the City’s interest should be to guide development in a pattern which produces the most tax revenue for the least cost in terms of infrastructure. The proposed revisions to the LDC help create lower density and lower productivity for the City.

Downtown Block

The development pattern is on a traditional grid street pattern with mostly two-story construction (there are a couple of single story buildings plus the taller First National Bank and Grand Event Center), zero setbacks, and sidewalks. This block has a mix of residential (apartments on upper floors along Division Street as well as an apartment building on Washington), retail and service businesses at street level plus additional business uses on upper floors (this makes for greater density of jobs, too).

Downtown block bounded by Division, Washington, 3rd and 4th Streets

Downtown block bounded by Division, Washington, 3rd and 4th Streets

  • Total acres: 1.71 (not including city parking lots)
  • Total Market value: $4,192,400 (not including value of parking lots)
  • Total Tax revenue (State, county & city level): $148,586
  • Value per acre: $2,451,696 (w/o parking)
  • Tax revenue per acre: $86,892 (w/o parking)

Southgate Mall development, Highway 3

This development was built in 1976, well into the suburban, highway and automobile-oriented phase.  The single-story structure with parking in front on a state highway frontage road is difficult to reach except by car. The sidewalk and new-ish bike trail along the river behind this development get pedestrians and bicycles close, but there is still no direct access. The highway oriented development requires considerably more infrastructure – a frontage road and a state trunk highway – as well as requiring off-street parking for additional distance for pipes and more stormwater runoff to manage.

Southgate development, Highway 3 south

Southgate development, Highway 3 south

  • Total acres: 1.16
  • Total market value: $152,500
  • Total tax Revenue: $4,982
  • Value per acre: $131,466
  • Tax revenue per acre: $4,295

Target/Cub development

Moving further south on Highway 3, the early 21st century big box development of Target and Cub (plus Applebee’s Restaurant) is also single-story, requiring a much greater amount of land for parking and the location at the far south end of town makes it less accessible for many on foot or bicycle.  Additional improvements to highway intersections and local connections streets added to the public cost.

Target, Cub Foods and Applebees development, Highway 3 south

Target, Cub Foods and Applebees development, Highway 3 south

  • Total acres: 26.4 (13.8 for Applebees/Cub + 12.6 for Target)
  • Total market value: $10,721,700
  • Total tax revenue: $446,882
  •  Per acre value: $406,125
  • Per acre tax revenue: $16,927

On a per acre comparison, the denser, multi-story, mixed use downtown block is the clear winner as I’ve argued before, but now provide the numbers.  As luck would have it, the proposed land development regulations share an agenda with a proposed resolution supporting a state omnibus transportation funding bill that provides additional dedicated state funding for city streets (including non-MSA street maintenance, construction and reconstruction).  How much of the pain the omnibus transportation funding bill is trying to solve is self-inflicted by building more than we can afford?

Consider why Northfield and other cities need more money for local roads; one reason is that cities have built a great deal of infrastructure to support very low return development that cannot support itself. Working toward revising how we build can also help change how resilient and prosperous Northfield will be in the future.

 

Next link in the TIGER trail project

TH3, Northfield's car sewer

TH3, Northfield’s car sewer

The tale continues…after the City Council authorized rebidding the TIGER trail project in September, 4 bids were received. All bids exceeded projected costs and the low bid is $828,465 over.  Although it took two tries to get the bids and much procedural grandstanding, let’s catch our collective breath.

TIGER supporters would probably agree that Trunk Highway 3 is a 4 lane “traffic sewer” through the middle of Northfield affecting land use, deterring bicycle and pedestrian crossing, and dividing the east and west sides of town.  Since this is also the picture drawn by the Council-adopted Comprehensive Plan (and other plans and policies I get tired of listing for those Council members who ignorantly or willfully avoid them), their understanding is well-grounded in the city’s public policy.

The City has been implementing the policies by adopting more detailed policies (like the Complete Streets policy and Safe Routes to School Plan) and following through on smaller improvements such as filling gaps in the sidewalk network (despite the failure on Maple Street) in annual street projects.  But, TH3 remains a big obstacle.  The 2009 Multimodal Integration Study (which involved collaboration among City staff, elected officials, various City boards and business owners) identified several grade-separated “concepts” which could provide better access across TH3/TH19 and subsequently form the basis of a grant application.  The TIGER grant application selected one of these and the Council approved the application…and so on.

Here are my questions about the project itself (in no particular order):

  1. Costs of retrofitting: This project builds capacity for non-motorized transportation which has not only been excluded from transportation planning until quite recently but made substantially more difficult by projects like the Highway 3 expansion.  What amount is reasonable to remedy a problem created by a mono-modal transportation project (and how can gradual improvement be added back into the transportation planning and budgeting in the future)?  When answering this question, try to identify the ways in which government subsidizes automobile travel.
  2. Cost and value of completion vs. cancellation: The state and federal government are spending money on this project; in addition to the financial contribution, what value is there in completing this project on time, honoring our commitment, and developing good working relationships with the agencies?  When answering this question, map how transportation dollars are allocated to local government from other levels of government.
  3. How does this project link to other bicycle/pedestrian facilities?  Does building this link help increase the usefulness of those facilities?  What other future improvements will further integrate this link into the network?
  4. Compared to other projects of similar scope/complexity, are the bids reasonable?  This is another way of asking whether the grant application underestimated the cost and/or complexity of the project (and that we can believe the bid numbers are the “right” ones). 
  5. Downstream effects: This project will provide jobs, help increase value in the neighborhoods most directly served, perhaps stimulate development at the stalled Crossings development as well as providing Northwest Northfield residents with additional access to jobs and services.  What are these worth?

Yes, the project costs a lot of money and more money than anticipated.  But determining whether it is “too much” should depend on a thoughtful discussion of how the trail serves the long-term transportation goals, what contribution this project makes to future projects, and how we want to build accessibility and equity into the system.

I would like to hear the Council discuss and reach a shared understanding (if not agreement) about the policy perspective adopted by the City which seeks to address transportation beyond cars and maintain and improve the transportation system in ways which serve the entire community.  It’s a big subject which could encompass everything from walking to air quality to storm water to freight to land use to economic development…but the conversation should start and providing for non-automobile connections is one place to do it.

If a majority of the Council believes the current adopted policy positions are misguided, then change the guiding policy with community participation.  Don’t get to the point of decision on projects and try to dismantle the policy one vote at a time.