December 2011

The 1.2 mile blue line of cultural and financial destruction

The 1.2 mile blue line of cultural and financial destruction

One bad decision can haunt a municipality for decades.

This 1.2 mile blue line represents one of the biggest urban planning blunders in Mankato history. In fact, it probably represents upwards of a $1 billion in extra cost to the City of Mankato and taxpayers over its short 20 year existence. The line is the shortest route that connects Mankato’s Madison East Mall (built late 1960s) to the newer River Hills Mall (built early 1990s).

Instead of expanding the existing mall and using existing infrastructure in the (still) vacant land surrounding the Madison East Mall, the decision was made to sprawl out the town an extra 1.2 miles. How much financially better off would the town be if it didn’t build the additional roadways, exit ramps, water and sewerage pipes and electric lines?
Read more >

The scale of a neighborhood

The idea of a neighborhood is a malleable concept.  Everyone has a different perception of their own neighborhood's extent, and the extent can change depending on context. It can vary from the very small, such as merely counting houses immediately adjacent to your own, to quite large—perhaps miles in size.

Back in my early childhood, my sense of my own neighborhood was toward the extremely small end.  I didn't think of it extending much more than a few houses away, though an exception was the nearby park, which my mother got a decent view of from her kitchen window.  Put another way, the extent of my neighborhood was about the maximum distance at which my brother and I could hear my parents calling us home for supper in the evenings. Read more >

Union Depot Pedestrian Plaza? Or Converted Driveway?

Union Depot Driveway during preliminary construction

The Union Depot which is undergoing a major renovation and transformation back into a transit hub, with the construction of the Central Corridor Light Rail. The way in which people will be arriving to the Depot will soon begin to shift from vehicles to mass transit (predominantly light rail) Read more >

2011 Bicycling and Walking Counts

A random pedestrian on the Lake / Marshall Bridge

From Amber Collett at Bike Walk Twin Cities

More Twin Cities residents than ever are getting around by bike or on foot. Bicycling in the Twin Cities has increased by 52 percent since 2007, and walking by 18 percent. Twin Cities bicycling, in particular, experienced a sharp year-over-year increase - up 22 percent from 2010 to 2011.

The new data comes from an official count of bicyclists and pedestrians passing 42 designated locations in Minneapolis and Saint Paul on weekdays in September 2011, and comparing this data with identical counts conducted each September since 2007. The counts were conducted by volunteers, who were trained based on a federal protocol.
Thank you, volunteers! We could not do this you without you.   Read more >

Plus O' The Day: December 21, 2011

Christmas Tree Sidewalk Sales
Christmas trees for sale in lowertown St Paul.

One of the best things about this time of year is when certain urban sidewalks fill with spruce trees. All of a sudden the parking lot at the St Paul farmers market seems like a forest, smells wonderful, and manifests a mysterious magical quality. Pick up a tree while you walk your dog!

Valuing the Public Realm

West River Commons Plaza

Are we doing enough to create good cities and urbanism? Perhaps we need to be thinking first about the design of public space and then private development. Read more >

The New Minneapolis Plan

The Minneapolis Downtown Council recently released "Intersections" a plan for Downtown Minneapolis. I had nothing to do with this plan, and so am free to comment. The plan is organized according to 10 major initiatives for 2025 Read more >

Peeve O' The Day: December 19, 2011

Second stories that aren't really second stories
The CVS Pharmacy building at the corner of Snelling and University

Continuing with the theme of fake urbanism, two story buildings that aren't really two story buildings are a pet peeve. I suppose its better than nothing, but when cities try to cultivate density they should really actually do it.

Union Depot Pedestrian Plaza? Or Converted Driveway?

The Union Depot which is undergoing a major renovation and transformation back into a transit hub, with the construction of the Central Corridor Light Rail. The way in which people will be arriving to the Depot will soon begin to shift from vehicles to mass transit (predominantly light rail) Read more >

Using bikes for serious emissions reduction

Bicycles in a square - CC licensed by flickr user R Stanek


According to the European Cycling Federation, if the whole of the EU cycled like the Danes, they could achieve significant emissions cuts.

If the EU cycling rate was the same as it is in Denmark, where the average person cycles almost 600 miles (965km) each year, then the bloc would attain anything from 12% to 26% of its targeted transport emissions reduction, depending on what forms of transport the cycling replaced, according to the report by the Brussels-based European Cycling Federation (ECF).

This figure is likely to be a significant underestimate as it deliberately excludes the environmental impact of building road infrastructure and parking, or maintaining and disposing of cars.

These figures are for the EU’s 2050 emissions reduction target.  The figures are even greater for 2020 targets.

Bikes are not a new technology that would require long adoption periods and high initial capital costs.  Almost everyone knows how to use them, and they are cheap.  They also have myriad co-benefits, not least of which is increased physical activity.  To get serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we should take a close look at the bike as a potential solution.

Using ECF’s study as a model and making some estimates, the Twin Cities metro could see some significant emissions reductions if we biked like the Danes, but getting there would be tough.  I’ll get to that, but first some initial thoughts on the Europeans.

  Read more >

What is the Constituency of a Local Land-Use Decision?

In the Linden Hills neighborhood of Minneapolis, a local entrepreneur put together a proposal to develop a surface parking lot into a 5-story condo building with retail space on the ground floor. The location is a commercial node in an affluent Minneapolis neighborhood that was first developed along a streetcar line in the early 20th century.

But some residents of the neighborhood aren't taking too kindly to the prospect of change to their beloved neighborhood retail corner... Read more >

Cedar Lake Trail Speed Limit - Back From the Grave

Be careful what you promise...

In spite of City promises, a 10 mph speed limit has been signed on the Cedar Lake Trail.  This is old news - I got the picture a couple months ago and I'd guess it was added in the City's signing binge around August or September.

I'm not necessarily opposed to speed limits for bicycles but I do have some questions about this particular speed limit:

1.  How and why was 10 mph chosen?  Why not 8?  or 13?  Does it have anything to do with the number of fingers on the average human hand?

2. Since this is the only speed limit sign on the Cedar Lake Trail (that I've seen), where does this speed zone begin or end?  If the speed limit is valid for the entire length of the trail, how are cyclists supposed to know before they come across this sign?

3.  Why is it dangerous for a bicycle to go 11 mph on a facility that's seperated from all traffic except bicycles, but it's safe for a bicycle to go 25 or 30 mph in mixed traffic? Podcast #4: Talking about The Starling Project with Ben Shardlow

The entrance to the Ashton Building near University and Snelling. Podcast #4 is up and running over at Check it out.

It's a conversation with Ben Shardlow, who is involved with the recently launched Starling Project, an effort to incubate "pop up urbanism" along vacant spaces on University Avenue. We talked about the origins of the project, some of the challenges and opportunities presented by working as a catalyst with artists and landlords, and the future of the University Avenue LRT corridor. Read more >

Off Target: The Twin Cities’ cannibalistic economic development practices

[Target's Brooklyn Park suburban corporate campus mirrors a city streetscape]

Target Corp. confirmed this week that they will be moving 2,400 employees and 1,500 contractors from downtown Minneapolis to Brooklyn Park within the next two years into a new suburban office.

 Target will be moving a good portion of its workforce out to Brooklyn Park (with the help of a large subsidy). This move, tax subsidies and all, is yet another example of regressive local cannibalistic ”economic development” policies. This situation is the worst of both worlds – it spends taxpayer money to shift jobs (not create them) AND its shifting them to a less efficient, less centralized and less environmentally-friendly suburban office park.

Read more >

A tour of my neighborhood

















Peeve O' The Day: December 13, 2011

Windows that aren't really Windows
A non-window window in St Paul's North End.

Just like doors that don't open, windows that you cannot see through provide an irksome twist to contemporary elements to add walkability and vitality to the street level. Despite cities starting toc are about the street-level environment, by passing transparency requirements for new developments, sometimes retailers (particularly chain pharmacies and big box stores) will simply make opaque glass windows that serve strictly symbolic purposes.

It's frustrating!

Rondo and I-94 vs. Central Corridor LRT

View Urban renewal in the I-94 corridor in a larger map

There are two buildings near the corner of Rice Street and University Avenue in Saint Paul that are the only remnants of a huge neighborhood bulldozed for urban renewal and the construction of Interstate 94.

Anyone who has followed the Central Corridor light-rail project has heard of Saint Paul's old Rondo neighborhood and how that community was displaced in the 1950s. The story goes that businesses and homes were torn down in the corridor between St. Anthony Avenue and Rondo Avenue (now mostly known as Concordia Avenue) in order to make way for the Interstate. The spectre of Rondo has weighed heavily on planners and transit advocates who don't want to see past mistakes repeated along the Central Corridor line. However, it's clear that many people involved have been unaware of the truly massive scale of what happened in the 1950s and 1960s. For example, did you know that all of the land in the map above had been leveled in the 1950s?

Many buildings outside of that zone were also taken down, but typically in a more fine-grained manner, one or two at a time. But Rondo got painted with a broad brush and saw block upon block torn down. Read more >

Peeve O' The Day: December 9, 2011

Doors that aren't really doors
A non-entrace to the Westin Hotel in Downtown Minneapolis on Marquette Avenue.

As businessess have expanded to occupy the footprint of multiple older establishments, some entrances and doorways get left behind in the wayside. Walking down certain of these 'megablock' streets in downtown Minneapolis, paticularly around Marquette and 2nd Avenues, you find a few entrances that aren't in use.

It's frustrating that so much of the street frontage downtown lacks vitality and pedestrian traffic. Fake doorways are one of the consequences.

The turning lane to nowhere

What happens when the engineers designing our rural highways simply apply standards without bothering to consider the context of the space? Sadly, a more pertinent question would be the opposite: what would happen if they did bother to look outside of their right-of-way?

The following video was shot in Northern Minnesota about four miles outside of Grand Rapids. The mindless waste of money it so clearly depicts is endemic in a transportaion funding system that is rewarded for moving cars, not creating valuable places.

Next time someone talks to you about a society that is living beyond its means, be reminded of this.

Video compliments of -- See It Differently television -- coming in 2012 from Strong Towns.

Taking local action

Minneapolis Skyline CC licensed by flickr user Doug Wallick

Over at Grist, David Roberts lays down the brutal logic of climate change:

With immediate, concerted action at global scale, we have a slim chance to halt climate change at the extremely dangerous level of 2 degrees C. If we delay even a decade -- waiting for better technology or a more amenable political situation or whatever -- we will have no chance.

And what's so special about 2 degrees C?  Well, that may be something like a point of no return.

The thing is, if 2 degrees C is extremely dangerous, 4 degrees C is absolutely catastrophic. In fact, according to the latest science, says Anderson, "a 4 degrees C future is incompatible with an organized global community, is likely to be beyond 'adaptation', is devastating to the majority of ecosystems, and has a high probability of not being stable."

Roberts is citing the work of Kevin Anderson, former head of the UK's leading climate research institution.  Other scientists are making similar predictions.  James Hanson, director of Nasa's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, says, "The target of 2C... is a prescription for long-term disaster".  Increasingly, you don't have to look far to find words like "apocalyptic" being used to describe the path we're on.

So we need to reverse course on emissions by 2015, and in dramatic fashion.  But the latest round of international talks seem to be on shaky ground.  All US climate bills have so far failed.  So what's a local planner or public official to do?  Decry the problem as global in scope and thus unsolvable? Shrug shoulders and pour a stiff drink?  While I have a healthy amount of skepticism about the ability of one jurisdiction or even one state to have a measurable impact on the global trendline, I think we absolutely must be making our best efforts now, for a number of reasons:

  Read more >

Plus O' The Day: December 8, 2011

Icicles hanging from an eave

I was sitting on the corner in front of this house in morning sunlight the other day and enjoying the icicles. They catch the light very nicely.

And then one of them crashed against the ground and made a lovely tinkling sounds. Ice in its many forms is one of the nice things about walking around the city in the wintertime, as long as you don't have to walk on it!

2011 – a big year for bikes with more to come in 2012

Bryant Avenue bicycle boulevard.

by Amber Collett, Bike Walk Twin Cities

It’s no secret that folks like to bike in the Twin Cities. Every year the cycling community grows –and I’m sure this year will be no exception (stay tuned for the 2011 Count Report release scheduled for Dec. 16th!) With supportive city leadership, committed advocacy organizations, and a set of dedicated funds made available through the nonmotorized transportation pilot program (called Bike Walk Twin Cities), Minneapolis has earned it’s spot as the number one city for bicycling in the nation

As I look back on the year, I can’t help but focus on the huge stride forward our city made in building out our cycling infrastructure. More than 75 miles of on-street bike lanes have been added to our network since the start of the Bike Walk Twin Cities program–this is great news!

Here is a little bit more about some of the most innovative projects that hit the pavement this year: Read more >

Plus O' The Day: December 7, 2011

Horse Police
Two St Paul Mounted Police riding down Selby Avenue.

Unless you're a protestor, horse police are wonderful. They certainly make an impression, calming traffic and brightening people's day. I occasionally see the St Paul Mounted Police getting some exercise by riding around the city. Monday night was one of those times! Podcast #3: Campuses, subsidies, W 7th Street with Nate Hood & Alex Bauman

State Street in downtown Madison. Img via Flickr.

Podcast #3 is complete. Access it here!

Nate Hood, Alex Bauman and I sat down yesterday evening at the Aster Café, a lovely place along the Mississippi River just across from Downtown Minneapolis. You can find Nate’s writing on his blog, Thoughts on the Urban Environment, and Alex’s writing is at Getting Around Minneapolis.

Nate, Alex, and I had three things on our agenda this week, and tried not to stray around too much. We chatted about campus design comparing the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis to the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Second, we discussed the role of government subsidies in cities, looking at a recent public private development in Mankato, and finally, we talked about the pros and cons of “greenway” style pedestrianized residential streets, thinking about the current greenway project in North Minneapolis. The conversation went a little bit long, so feel free to turn it off at any time by using the stop button on your audio device.

Enjoy! Read more >

The Urban Future of Hiawatha Avenue

Surely We Can Do Better Than This

There is an opportunity to create a more humane, livable Hiawatha Avenue, and, to try out a metaphor, now may be the time to step out in to the intersection and begin our journey across. Hiawatha Avenue should become an urban boulevard that unites neighborhoods rather than divides them, particularly near light rail stations where pedestrian counts have steadily increased since light rail service began and development continues to occur. What’s nice is I’m not the only one who believes this. Read more >

In defense of zoning

[Minneapolis has seen zoning constraints with the Pillsbury A Mill project, which has been downscaled both due to local complaints and market conditions].

Zoning has been criticized by many of a libertarian bent as denying individual property owners the right to do what they want with their property. It has also been criticized by densificationists who declaim the damnably high rents induced by real density caps enabled by zoning. I discussed some of these issues relating to height limits yesterday. I am of a libertarian bent and I like density, so why do I, in principle, think zoning is a useful concept? Read more >

Greenways vs. The Grid: Is Mpls' Greenways plan a good move?

A rendering of the greenway plan, via TC Greenways.

(written by Reuben Collins)

One of the more interesting aspects of the recently completed Minneapolis Bicycle Master Plan is the inclusion of a long-term vision to convert some local roadways to Greenways. The master plan map lays out a network of future Greenways (most facilities we're currently referring to as Bike Boulevards are envisioned to transition to Greenways over time. Read more > on Facebook! is on Facebook!

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Streets blogging and the future

Some readers may know that will soon be transitioning to, a blog and news site with the goal of promoting better discussion of transportation and land use policy, planning, design and operation in the Twin Cities and greater Minnesota.  

While the exact mission and goals of are not yet finalized, I wanted to outline the topics I hope can explore.  These are issues that should be the focus of planning and transportaiton policy-makers in the immediate future and for the most part aren't getting the attention they deserve. Read more >

Really Narrow Streets: A Missing Element in Twin Cities Urban Design

Even the narrowest of Twin Cities streets are pretty wide. With few exceptions, streets in Minneapolis and St. Paul tend to range in width from 30 to 60 feet, curb to curb. Including sidewalks and boulevards, the width stretches to a ballpark range of 40 to 70 feet. Streets get even wider when you move into the "stroad" territory of suburban and semi-rural commercial strips. An average neighborhood street in Minneapolis may not seem wide in the context of an average American city, but compared to the "really narrow streets" of traditional cities in Europe and Asia they are gigantic: 

Read more >