Friday, May 28, 2010

Seattle's Backyard Cottages

Homeowners talk about building, and living in, cottages in their backyard to generate more income, and to live in a smaller space where they can keep family as close as a walk across the yard. Full article can be found here.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Transit Rider (we don't like)

For those of us that ride public transit we know all the different types of riders that join us for the daily journey. You could come up with of list of about 100 when you ride the NYC subway on a regular basis. Instead here is a list of these riders from the Bay Area BART rider. Below are some of my favorites:

Not to be confused with the Music Demon, these are the BART riders who wear their handbags, satchels or computer bags over their shoulders and walk down the center aisle banging heads and shoulders as they go, oblivious to the damage they cause. This species is often experienced in the center aisle on domestic flights as well. Be careful because they are also known to attack your cheek, your ears and the occasional eye. Advice: Put your bag on the floor between your feet. I would like to get off the train in a half-hour without damage to my facial features.

Bathroom Bessie
She proceeds to primp and preen herself on the ride in and applies creams, powders and jells, plucking her eyebrows, spraying perfume and, on occasion, painting nails. Please note, those of us afflicted by asthma really don't appreciate the smell of nail polish or cologne in confined spaces.

Usually observed during morning commutes, these riders take the seats just inside the doors. They normally wear dark glasses or read newspapers so that they can't make eye contact with any one boarding who may need the seats. These riders seem to have the built-in ability to ignore the elderly or frail riders, parents with young children and pregnant women. You will see them happen to doze off just before the train pulls into each station and hold that pose until the doors close again. Something in that tunnel is working miracles because the person occupying those seats designated for riders in need has undergone a transformation — by the time we're pulling into Embarcadero they've mustered all their energy, are jostling at the exit door and pushing their way up the escalator and out of the station.

These are the people we share our daily commutes with. You can read about the spitting on bus driver phenomena taking place in NYC here.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Store Front Window No More

I am not sure when it happened, but it did happen at some point where retailers (chain and mom and pops) have decided a window is something that needs to be covered up. I have heard the numerous excuses in regards to safety, safety, and safety. It seems that some business owners don't realize the amount of customers they are loosing because you can't see into the store. There is zero transparency from the street to the interior of the store and vice versa.

These store fronts further kill what street life we have left. The Washington Post had this to say:

So the mature response might be to acknowledge that hollow, empty, blocked-out windows are simply a sign of the times, to be embraced as a truth about the new economy. But while windows were always an extension of advertising, they were also transparent, and transparency brings with it many happy accidents. The best of these is the vision of human activity -- even if in a CVS -- through the storefront.

That voyeurism, so essential to city life, can't be accounted for in a city code, a zoning ordinance or a phrase such as "street activating uses." But it is part of the fundamental substratum of sexiness that makes cities so exciting. A covered window is more than a concession to the hard realities of the retail economy or to the fear of crime. It is the loss of a form of consciousness -- the mutual regard of urban people for one another. It is the loss of an urban space that can't be found on any map, a place where you are on stage but not an actor, in the audience but part of the show, mixed up among I and you and we and us, a liminal space that has thrilled and terrified people since cities grew large enough to dissolve us in collective identity.

This is my plea to small business owners everywhere - FREE YOUR WINDOWS AND LET US GAZE IN.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

I am Limping here!

I'll admit this story totally made me laugh when I was reading it. I completely agree with Pamela Hill Nettleton and all the points she makes in the article. Having worked with numerous transportation groups and elected officials, I am of the mind that we need to plan access for children, seniors, and the disabled. If we do that, and do it right, we are planning for those populations that have the hardest time with access on many different levels. I see infrastructure changes as the first key way of getting people to change their behavior. But first, Pamela's story:

So I have this immobilizing boot thing stuck to my foot. Apparently, there are tendons in my feet, and I have annoyed mine. Or, there’s a fracture and I stressed it. Either way, my left foot is now encased in plastic and I drag it around with me wherever I go.I figured out that I can still garden. I stick my leg in a Hefty trash bag and off I go to sit in the mulch and weed. In a pinch, I can even manage to hoe with my toes, more or less. I can still teach. Once I maneuver myself across campus, a lengthy and hopping sort of task that involves cursing in Gaelic (well, it does for me, anyway), I can sit to lecture, and the students don’t mind.And I can still write. Feet never were required for that gig.

But what I can’t do, as well as one might wish, is walk around town. I cannot get my gimpy self across the street fast enough. Even at a corner, even walking between the white lines, which are supposed to create a sanctum sanctorum for pedestrians, I get honked at for my lack of speed. No, this is not happening because I am so darn cute; the glare from behind the steering wheel telegraphs another message. The driver has been delayed for 30 seconds or so by being forced to share the planet with me.

He has been wronged. He has been maligned. His rights have been impinged upon, his personal space violated, his sense of himself as the center of the universe disrupted. He has been asked to do what is, simply, too much to expect. He has had to pause and wait for another human being. If blood pressure medication sales have spiked over at Walgreen’s, stockholders can, apparently, thank me. I can turn faces red at 50 slow, slow paces.

Complete Streets legislation just passed here in Minnesota so that might be the legislation we need to change the way we live our lives in the public domain. It is time for us to equally share and respect each other on the streets. We have lost the diversity of use and desperately need it back. That is why I was laughing at the story, because it is ironic how disengaged we have all become from one another.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Food Desert

One thing has become clear in my work these days is the lack of real sources of healthy food in neighborhoods. Yes, we find that the better neighborhoods have their selection of grocery stores, delis, and co-ops. When you get into the middle and low-income neighborhoods we see a drastic difference. Usually no food choice or if there is a grocery store, not the best selections. This seems to be the case in the Twin Cities where the food choices are unevenly distributed throughout our metro region.

The Grocery Gap shouldn't be news:

Urban revitalization does not at first glance relate to the growing national interest in fresh fruits and vegetables. But the Pennsylvania-based Food Trust views the supermarket as the perfect starting point for improving the commercial viability of a neighborhood. When the group launched back in 1992, it was originally dedicated to expanding farmers' markets throughout Philadelphia. Today, the group is working tirelessly to eliminate food deserts--areas without any access to "real" food.

To accomplish this goal, the Food Trust is working with Pennsylvania lawmakers to develop a series of public/private partnerships that address food access problems. One such program is the Fresh Food Financing Initiative, a grant and loan program that encourages supermarkets to open in underserved areas. The group is also working on nutrition policy for Philadelphia schools and is helping corner stores improve their produce offerings. Yael Lehmann, The Food Trust's executive director, spoke with The Atlantic about what supermarkets can accomplish for cities nationwide.

It seems we are finally starting to see the connections between land use, transportation, housing, job centers, and now food. We still need to bring education into the mix (with a host of other things), but this is a foundation on which to build and sustain healthy, affordable, and thriving neighborhoods. Just like when you bake, some the key ingredients have to be present.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Let them Leave

So the MN Viking are threatening to leave our state if we don't build them a new stadium. I say let them leave. The metrodome, on the eastern edge of downtown Minneapolis is a wasteland. Very little retail, a sea of surface lots, and little to no housing. What have they really contributed to the economic well being of Minnesota?

With a price tag in the realm of $800 million I say they can pack up and leave when their lease expires in 2011. In our current economic environment we need to spend this money elsewhere.

With two seasons left on their lease and no stadium bill, the Vikings on Tuesday insinuated next year's legislative session is Minnesota's last chance to keep the 49-year-old NFL franchise. "Having an NFL team in Minnesota requires a stadium solution," the team said in a written statement. "This solution must be finalized in the 2011 Session." Lester Bagley, Vikings vice president of public affairs and stadium development, said the team had no additional comments.

"The statement will speak for itself," he said. "But it shows just how strongly ownership feels about this." The team's Metrodome lease runs through the 2011 season. The Vikings say that without a stadium deal in place, there will be no extension. But next year's legislative session doesn't look any more promising than the one that ended Monday with little substantive movement on the stadium issue.
Lawmakers began this session with a $1.2 billion deficit. Next January — when the Legislature begins to draw up a two-year budget — the deficit is projected to be $5.8 billion, though Gov. Tim Pawlenty said Tuesday that number is misleadingly high.

I think the Vikings are forgetting that we had the Gophers here long before they became the new kids on the block. It seems I am not alone with my frustration.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

1 Step Forward, 2 Steps Back for St. Paul's Downtown

St. Paul has the potential to be great, I currently just think it is good. As with all economic development it seems that we have to give a lot to gain a little. Downtown St. Paul has been struggling for years to create a vibrant street life (day and night). What is ironic about this is that downtown St. Paul is at a great pedestrian scale already, near the River, and has some excellent parks. The city wants to move forward with extending some outside seating on one of the main streets that has some great places to eat and drink. The problem, well this will mean the loss of parking and a $270,000 assessment to the building owners - 1 step forward, 2 steps back.

From the Pioneer Press article:

The proposal calls for adding 8 feet to the current 10-foot-wide sidewalk on the north side of Sixth Street between Sibley and Wacouta streets, allowing space for about 25 more tables on the block's patios. Instead of four lanes, Sixth Street would narrow to three lanes, including one for bike and bus traffic. All metered parking on the block would be eliminated.

The Central Corridor project already does away with six of the parking meters that provide $6,000 in annual revenue; extending the sidewalk would mean losing another 16 meters, which bring in $20,000 annually. If the proposal goes through, Bulldog's current outdoor seating would double to 10 tables. Barrio would triple its outdoor space, with seating for 36. Bin, which currently has no outdoor seating, would get room for 14 customers to sit outside. A vacant fourth space on the block could get space for 16 customers. Chuck Repke, a consultant hired by the block's building owners, said Illinois-based Bar Louie has been in talks for that space.

Although no one so far has opposed the idea of more patio dining space on the block, critics say seasonal decking paid for by landlords would be a better option than extending the sidewalk, so the city doesn't risk unforeseen construction costs and losing meter revenue.

Loss of revenue? Adding outdoor seating would add value to the street, neighborhood, and the downtown buildings that front it. This could create a great asset now, and down the line, and would also increase tax revenue. It is called successful commercial economic development.

Call it radical, but what if we closed that block off entirely on Thursday and Friday nights? Might just be a revolution starting in Downtown St. Paul. This investment has the potential to bring in a lot more than $20,000 in revenue in taxes alone, not to mention all the non-revenue benefits it would create.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Share the Road, really!

With bike commuters on the rise I am not sure why drivers are still griping at folks like me. Just the other day I had one of those wonderful conversations with a motorists at an intersection. Clearly, we were just going to have to agree to disagree. During the rest of my commute I realized that motorist should be extremely thankful for my daily bike commuting. I realized I have achieved the following for this driver:

  • One less car on the road
  • One more parking spot freed up
  • One less car on our congested freeways
  • One less garage built
  • One less car at line in the gas station
  • One less car polluting the city
  • One less car to get into an accident with
  • One less car for wear and tear on the streets
  • A shorter commute for all

Yes, I realized that motorists should be on our side. As transit mode shifts and the numbers of bike commuter rises that is a huge win win for everybody. The more I thought about it, it is even a bigger win for motorists. If we can achieve high numbers of ridership, just think of how many cars will be taken off the road. This USA Today article had this to say:

Bare is one growing number of people turning to bicycles for transportation. According to the most recent U.S. Census figures, the number of adults who bicycled to work in 2008 was 786,098, up 26% from 2006. That number continues to grow, says Wiley Norvell, spokesman for the New York City-based Transportation Alternatives advocacy group.

I think one less car should really be for the cagers, since they all have more to gain then I do.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Why I moved to "fly over land"

Mr. Renn's post over at the Urbanphile about authentic cities made me realize once again why I moved to fly over land. For those of you not in the know, this usually consists of the entire Midwestern region of the United States (From at least Ohio to Nebraska). A little less than 2 years ago I packed my bags and moved from NYC (the center of the world) to the Twin Cities. At that time most people didn't know where it was, nonetheless, ever heard of or had a geographic inkling about where the upper Midwest was. If they knew where Chicago was I was lucky.

What I love about living in Minneapolis, and working in St. Paul, is that I, and most residents, could care less about NYC, Chicago, and SF (all places I have lived). It really is ironic that in the Twin Cities region the next "big city" is Chicago (350 miles away), which Amtrak only goes to once a day from St. Paul. Here in the upper Midwest we live in the shadow of nobody. No NYC to Philadelphia, no Chicago to Milwaukee, we just seem to exist up here all by ourselves with no clear reflection from somebody else's shadow.

This brings me to Renn's post about looking at your history, past, heritage, and what you have as a way to identify yourself. From the post:

To renew our cities, we have to build on what they are, not what they aren’t. The lesson of Portland is not the physical things Portland did. The lesson of Portland is that they went their own way and did what was right for them. Other cities need to find their own paths. That doesn’t mean you can’t do something or aspire to be something you’ve never been. That’s how we grow as people and as cities. But suddenly deciding to just chuck your whole heritage, history, character, etc. and go in a radically different direction is probably not going to work. One reason, for example, the 1970’s era amateur sports strategy for Indianapolis worked is that sports was something that was already compatible with the local culture. It was a reworking of something that was already there, positioned for the future – and it fit the city.

People think we are crazy up here with our 6 months of freezing weather, long summer days, pick up trucks, lakes and rivers, thriving economy and culture, and overall pretty good quality of life. I think for the Midwestern cities to hit there stride again we might want to take Renn's advice and stop listening to the Richard Florida's of the world, who make a living pointing out what we are not, instead of what we are and can thrive to be.

I like it up here, and guess what, I am staying.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Braking for the Law

This is a great op-ed in the NY Times. Chris Raschka talks about what has changed in the past 10 years on NYC streets in regards to cycling. It has changed so much so, that the new environment gives Chris the idea it might just be better to stop at the red lights and wait.

Ten years ago, riding a bicycle through the streets of New York was still considered outlandish behavior at best, and possibly insane. At the time, I viewed this with chagrin, but also complacency. I biked everywhere.

Like a goat in a cattle drive, I was jostled by a delivery van on Ninth Avenue, went over my handlebars because of an out-of-town driver on Seventh, and was casually bumped into by a limousine driver on Sixth who stopped and got out to see if I had damaged his side-view mirror, while I lay unattended on the sidewalk.

But in the last few years, bicycling has become an accepted and much safer way to get around the city. Bike lanes abound, putting cars, trucks and vans at least a couple of feet farther from me. On the many paths along the rivers I can find breezy quiet and truly fresh air.

Perhaps looking for a new challenge, I’ve been attempting something unexpected in New York City bike-riding behavior: I stop for red lights.

Is the tide changing enough for cyclist to start following the rules? Or is Chris just showing his excitement for the new changes through his new found behavior?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Being Green in the Twin Cities

The Green Store, which supplies green products for the Twin Cities, is moving it's store a few miles south to a new location. Why you ask, Parking.

May is the last month to shop Twin Cities Green at 2405 Hennepin Ave. S. before the store changes names and moves from the area.

Ryan North, who started the business a couple years ago with wife Tina, said the store would be moving a couple miles southwest, closer to the lakes, but he couldn’t provide the exact address yet because the deal was still being finalized.

The main reason for the move, he said, was problematic parking at the current location.

Oh, the Irony. I also see the move into a wealthier part of the Twin Cities as the real driving force.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Capping I-94

Decking over expressways is not anything new, but since Boston's BIG DIG it seems cities are now looking at this as a real viable option to reconnect spaces that have been cut off from each other because of the creation of the freeway running through the cities.

In the Twin Cities I-94 immediately jumps out as a great project that could be capped from downtown Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul. If we caped it the following could be accomplished:

Re-establishing the Rondo Neighborhood in St. Paul
Connecting Stevens Square with downtown Minneapolis
Creating a public trail, greenway, and even transit way
Parks, parks, and parks
Create a new corridor with mixed-use development

From the USA Today article:

Cities are removing the concrete barriers that freeways form through their downtowns — not by tearing them down but by shrouding them in greenery and turning them into parks and pedestrian-friendly developments.

This gray-to-green metamorphosis is underway or under consideration in major cities seeking ways to revive sections of their downtowns from Los Angeles and Dallas to St. Louis and Cincinnati.

Transportation departments are not opposed as long as the plans don't reduce highway capacity. In most cases, traffic is rerouted.

"It's the coming together of people wanting green space and realizing that highways are a negative to the city," says Peter Harnik, director of the Trust for Public Land's Center for City Park Excellence. "Covering them with green space gives you a wonderful place to live and work."

Have we found a possible solution to our urban freeways? Costs would be high, but would the benefits justify these monster projects of decking our expressways?

Friday, May 7, 2010

The Feds make all the difference

The Central Corridor line is coming. What has become obvious with the new president and significant changes to evaluating projects is that federal politics ruled most of our local decisions. This was simply the case if planners wanted this project to happen. While most won't agree with the process, it seems the Met Council was willing and able to play the funding game. This actually has been a positive change since we are getting the three additional stations and hopefully some more improvements down the road.

From the MPR story:

Politics in Washington also has contributed to the sometimes bumpy road for Central Corridor. The project was largely engineered during the Bush administration, which created a difficult terrain for planning light-rail lines by making cost-effectiveness the primary criteria for evaluating new transit proposals.

Bell said the "cost-effectiveness index" dominated many of his decisions, as it meant that local planners had to say "no" to a tunnel or an alternate route through the university, just as they first said "no" to the neighborhoods that wanted more stops.

Under the Obama administration, cost-effectiveness is no longer the most important benchmark for evaluating projects. That has given local communities a lot more flexibility. So what would have happened if light-rail planners waited for a more transit-friendly administration in Washington?

McDonough, the Ramsey County commissioner, said elected officials debated that very question nearly three years ago. He said the Central Corridor was competing with more than 100 projects across the country, but it gradually slugged its way to the top. As one of six federal transit projects included in Obama's budget, it's poised to receive a commitment for federal funding this fall.

Even with all the struggle and controversy, the new line will be a great project that will help complete a Twin Cities transportation network.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Fighting Giants

So two of the oldest institutions in Minnesota think they know better how to plan and build transportation, than those that actually do it for a living. In todays world with LRT, street cars, subways, elevated trains, trolleys, and all the other sorts of transit avalable around the world, the University of Minnesota (U) and Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) think that no real mitigation can be proposed for their issues.

What is really ironic about this situation is that neither have taken any internal steps to fix this problem, not that they should, but why not be pro-active? The U should be relocating it's sensative laboratories if it really generates millions of dollar for the University. MPR should have some idea how to further sound proof their studios in a dense urban core location. If we could step out of our bubble for a moment we would realize that these are minor issues for a project that is going to change the Twin Cities region forever, in a good way.

From the MPR story:
Scientists like David Blank are at the heart of the debate. Blank, a chemistry professor at the U, reports to work by taking 55 stairs down to the sub-basement of Koltoff Hall on Washington Avenue.

Blank works with laser beams. His lab contains two giant tables littered with mirrors and prisms that steer the lasers in different directions. Blank and his team of researchers are watching how these pulses of light move, so they can help develop the next generation of solar cells.

What's under the table is just as interesting. Its feet are cylinders the size of propane tanks, filled with compressed air.

Blank built his laser systems to rest on the air because light waves are vulnerable to even the smallest vibrations. That's also why his lab is located deep down in Kolthoff Hall.

The tables are designed to hold up against the constant ruckus from buses and trucks on busy Washington Avenue, which is 130 feet from his lab. But he doesn't know how the tables will manage the different vibrations from the proposed light-rail trains along the avenue.

Last year, the university spent $40,000 on lobbying on matters related to the Central Corridor, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. By its own estimates, the university has spent at least $500,000 on outside consulting over issues of vibration and electromagnetic interference, and $1 million in professional staff time.

I realize the U has to keep its own interests at heart, but this seems like an instiution that would rather keep building parking lots and garages to collect more revenue from it's 40,000 students. It really boggles the mind why the U wouldn't want LRT at its front door, but something is simmering just beneath the surface. For the sake of my readers, I won't even begin to discuss the MPR lawsuit and issues.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

In the shadow of I-94

The building of Interstate 94 tore through the Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul during a time this was the norm in urban renewal. Like most interstate and expressways built, neighborhoods were bulldozed over to make sure that these new arteries could exist through the heart of our major cities. Not only does the physical structure remind long term residents of what was lost, this devastating event has cast its shadow over the building of the Central Corridor line.

The Central Corridor line is the largest capital investment in the history of Minnesota so people do have a lot to be worried about. The building of the Central Corridor line has little in common with the history of I-94.

Local Council Member Carter:

The 31-year-old Carter, a former track star at Central High School, wasn't alive when the interstate tore apart Rondo. But he grew up hearing stories about the neighborhood. His great-grandfather, Mym Carter, led a jazz string band in on a horse-drawn buggy down Rondo Avenue. And Carter's grandfather owned a handful of commercial buildings that the councilman says he probably would have inherited.

Carter's own father, who lost his childhood home to the freeway project, often shared his memories of Rondo on car trips around St. Paul with his kids.

"Growing up, we'd ride I-94, and just before the Dale Street bridge, he'd say, 'You're in my bedroom -- now!'" Carter recalled. "And for those folks who lived that, and even for someone like me, who grew up hearing the stories of Rondo far before I ever knew what the letters LRT stood for, and grew up with a gut, gut feeling about how horrible a tragedy Rondo was, I think it's understandable somebody can look at [light rail] and say, 'No thanks.'"

That doesn't mean residents should resist light rail, Carter said. But there is a lesson to be learned from Rondo:

"It happened so long ago, but we're still in the shadow of Rondo," he said. "That's exactly what makes it so important that we choose our steps very carefully now.

Will our past overshadow our future? While the Met Council could, and should, do a better job of engagement, we need to starting looking at our future that include the Central Corridor.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Reconnecting the Twin Cities

The Central Corridor Line has been on the planning stages for over 30 years now. The train that would connect downtown St. Paul to downtown Minneapolis and run through the heart of neighborhoods is a regional game changer. We need better transit in the Twin Cities, but the road blocks for the central corridor have been many and often. Currently, three separate lawsuits threaten the project and meeting the federal deadlines to secure the $500 million. Issues such as route, alignment, and noise vibrations seems to be a never ending discussion. We have no mitigation plan for the 1,000 business that are going to loose 85% of on-street parking and see 30-50% revenue drops during construction.

The line is still right in my opinion, but it seems that the Met Council might have gone about engagement in the wrong ways:

Even in Minneapolis, the Hiawatha project produced no fewer than eight lawsuits. None succeeded in delaying or halting the project. But to say that every transit project spurs a flurry of lawsuits just isn't true.

There's an art to bringing together different factions, said business consultant and light rail advocate Bill Knowles of Salt Lake City, which built two light-rail lines over the past 11 years and now has three more lines under construction. Knowles said after the first light-rail project, which disrupted some downtown businesses, the process for building future lines got easier, not harder.

He said what he's heard about Central Corridor make him think something has gone off track.

"I'm just totally amazed," Knowles said. "When an entity like a university has to sue, it really speaks to lousy communication, doesn't it? The fact there's lawsuits, and the fact that there's still these people who are rounding themselves up individually tells me there's apparently not anybody big enough who is in control of that situation. And consequently, people are flying off on their own deals."

Is the Central Corridor line our modern day urban renewal or is a project this large going to break some eggs regardless? It seems that too many issues are still unresolved, but the rush to get federal funding always makes other stakeholders issues secondary at best.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Streetcars, Light Rail, and the Central Corridor project

MPR has been running a series all last week on the Central Corridor Line that will be running between downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul. This week I plan on running my own blog posts that will cover each segment and give my two cents. First, to understand why we need the Central Corridor Line I think this MPR story about the old streetcar system, and museum, will set the stage.

Like most cities 50 years ago the Twin Cities had an extensive streetcar network that got folks around town. Today, just like most major American cities we have buses as are main mode of public transportation. What happened in that time period that we took so many steps back in our transportation planning?

Check out this interactive map for stories and history of University Avenue.