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?

All of this needs to be maintained into perpetuity. Not to mention that every driving trip for the majority of Mankato’s population burns 2.4 miles more in gas. And for what? In return for the newer mall where city residents get virtually the same stores in a different location? Needless to say, the town is still recovering from this decision, the Madison East Mall is a ghost town and the buildings that once abutted the commercial hub have gone through 25 years without reinvestment.

My favorite example is the Burger King at the entrance of the old mall. It’s now abandoned. The Burger King closed after access to the fast food restaurant was decreased as a result of a $25 million intersection “improvement” project that was designed to accommodate more traffic towards a newly built intersection ($4 million) and away from an old (and “congested”) intersection adjacent to the River Hills Mall. I’m not mourning the loss of a fast food chain, but merely shaking my head in disappointment and begruding acceptance at the desolate environment that will continue to ensue once the building starts to fall into disrepair along Mankato’s busiest road.

This cost $25 million. It effectively saves drivers upwards of 1 minute in time and prevents people from having to turn left. This is in addition to another $4 million to build yet another intersection  just slightly down the road at local Highway 14. All of these expenditures are necessary because of the Mankato’s chosen development pattern. Unfortunately, all of this cost a lot of money and doesn’t pay for itself. Imagine what could be done if Mankato decided to spend the $29 million spent on sprawl-inducing intersections and instead used that money to improve its already existing public infrastructure downtown or neighborhoods?

To give you an idea of the total costs of public infrastructure: The total land and construction of Mankato’s new elementary school costs $8 million less than its two new intersections. It appears that Mankato has money to spend on infrastructure. The town just isn’t spending it in the right places.

The map below shows Mankato's newest civic investments as the fringe: The Justice Center ($42 million) and the new local MN DOT HQ ($24 million). The Justice Center is LEED certified and "sustainable".

These major investments are crucial to a town's psyche and need to be located accordingly. But, we’ve been pushing civic pride to the fringe. The City moved away from continuing Mankato’s rich cultural history of  beautiful public buildings in great locations near downtown.

[The old Blue Earth County Court House is located in a prominent downtown location and built with local kasota stone]

[The downtown Post Office is located in a strategic downtown location]

Instead of leveraging public investments downtown, the City made two new massive public investments on the far, far edge of town. It’s neighbors are each other and cornfields. [FYI: Strong Town's did an excellent piece on this topic: Leveraging public investments].

Where the sidewalk ends, Mankato’s homage to Shel Silverstein

The Blue Earth County Justice Center recently moved from its old downtown location. The concern I have is simple: response time. Mankato’s population centers are downtown (west) and the University (south). The new Justice Center is on the far northeast. It should be noted that the downtown office will still be operational, but at a smaller capacity, while a majority of operations have been moved. Furthermore, placing these buildings on the ample space dedicated to surface parking in Mankato’s old downtown could have been a successful public investment that added value to the community – instead, we get strip mall justice.