An Open Letter to Katherine Kersten

Dear Katherine,

Please stop writing the same article over and over and over and over and over and over again.

Being polite Minnesotans, with exceptions being granted to those commenting anonymously on the Star Tribune’s website, we have tried rather unwillingly to disregard your repetitive assertions that our regional government agency is akin to George Orwell’s 1984.

The assertions in your most recent column (“Met Council’s ‘Thrive’ Plan has a bullying effect”) can best be described as click-bait. One day, I would love to address them, but diagnosing the problem and offering alternatives would render this article dry and exhaustively nuanced, and therefore unreadable. I’ll leave that task to someone else.

There are real issues in reforming the Metropolitian Council. However, the mud-slinging, or more politely, the constructive-less criticism, harms healthy debate.

I have criticisms too. It would likely serve our region better if our representatives were democratically elected. I believe that local government should have more control over funding and that subsidizing large-scale affordable housing complexes near a highway exit in an exurb is silly. I also believe that we’ve allocated limited resources towards some rail projects, specifically the Northstar line, that could have been better used elsewhere.

Believe it or not, there is a surprising amount that we can agree upon. We should approach the debate in this manner.

I may be jumping to conclusions, but I think it is fair to say that you’ve found your base. That being, a group of like-minded souls following you precisely because you’ll give them exactly what they want. You write to the blood-thirsty hyenas as if they are caged and starving, and you’re tossing them a freshly cut steak.

You also know how to strike a chord with the opposition. You do this by twisting admittedly overused planning industry buzzwords and placing them within quotations. “Sustainability”. “Equity”. This is how you express mockery onto the subjects without having to address the root issue. These words have, without question, been greenwashed and co-opted. But, when you examine the heart of these concepts, they’re things we as a society should genuinely care about; and more importantly, they are neither left nor right.

Transportation and land use are nuanced, and we need to treat them as such. To say light rail is always wrong, or conversely, that never building another road is good, is to not understand urban geography. It is fair to say that masterplanning can never be perfect, but it’s unfair to say that our status quo, that being of suburban expansion, has resulted in what the consumer wants. Historically speaking, the free market has not driven the suburban infrastructure and development you claim support. Ironically, it has been that of massive government intervention at the federal, state, regional and local level.

I don’t need to lecture. You already know this. And, since when did you fall down that perilous, slippery slope and into the Phil Donohue school of policy making? Such Met Council bashing only makes only your most admiring supporters feel good about themselves, but it’s unlikely to make much of a dent in the problems we face. A smart person once quipped that.

As someone who would like to see real change at the Metropolitan Council, I would like to politely request that you please start writing critically about it, examining nuances and offering real suggestions. You have a great platform and it’d be a shame to squander such a great opportunity.

Sincerely, -Nathaniel Hood


Place versus Not-Place in Mankato

I took a play from the Andrew Price Playbook and applied it quickly to the downtown of Mankato (using Microsoft Paint). Here’s the aerial from Google Earth:


I’m going to define “place” as: a location where people can comfortable stand without fear of being hit by an automobile. This is white with a blue outline. A “non-place” are streets and parking lots/garages. These are red.


This isn’t scientific, but it does a good job of illustrating what places need work. The street grid doesn’t need to be moved, as it serves a good purpose. However, the large swatches of parking lots (particularly open surface) need to be turned from “non-places” to “places”.


The Irrationality of Infrastructure

The Minneapolis-St. Paul Metropolitan Council is gambling $8.7 million on a project to alleviate congestion that might exist in 5 to 10 years if we’re somehow able to build two additional light rail lines and they are operating at full capacity for 10 days a year.

Why do smart people make bad decisions?

The below $8.7 million piece of public infrastructure is intended to create a more safe passageway for travelers at the Downtown East station during Vikings home games. It’ll serve west and northbound train passengers and other pedestrians looking to enter a new football stadium. It is deemed this will be an important pedestrian overpass once all four major light rail lines completed.

The Viking Stadiums Bridge to Nowhere

Download the Downtown East Plan Met Council PowerPoint here [PDF].

Those reading this should have at least two questions:

  1. How did this come to be a thing?
  2. Why is it all of a sudden getting $8.7 million?

I pay particularly close attention to local projects. I read blogs, forums and newspapers daily. I know and follow local decision-makers on social media, track development proposals, and pay attention to those boring committees few care about. I also work in the industry and talk to other people who work and follow the industry across related professions. It’s fair to say that I have a very good idea of what’s going on in the Twin Cities and the transportation and development needs of the community.

Never once have I heard of this project until a few days ago. And now, out of the blue, we’re dropping $8.7 million on a bridge that’ll be needed 10 days a year starting in 2019.

I wrote a blog post last year titled The Politics of Dumb Infrastructure. It was well received, and is even being used as required reading in an undergrad planning course in California. In the article I theorize as to why we make bad decisions when it comes to receiving other people’s money on transit projects;

It’s the orderly, but dumb system that makes planners and politicians play to a bureaucratic equation that is supposed to guide officials towards the best alternative. Only it never actually works out that way and it usually forces smart people into making highly compromised and less-than-ideal decisions.

The pedestrian bridge is different. It may deal with Federal grants, but is also come from local and regional coffers. Regardless, this project is being pushed forward. According to the Star Tribune,

“The transit agency will likely devote $6 millon from its coffers for the project (this figure could be offset by federal grants), with the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority (which oversees stadium construction) ponying up $2 million, and the rest coming from bonds issues by the Met Council.”

Before we go any further, I think we need to ask a complex question.

How did we get here?

The new $1 billion Green Line is done and the $1.1 billion Vikings Stadium is underway. They combine to represent over $2 billion of investment. Our local leaders are concerned, as they should be, that these pieces of infrastructure be as perfect as possible.

To quote a former Governor (one who wasn’t a professional wrestler),

“All too often, the human tendency is to compound one big mistake with a series of additional mistakes in the hope that somehow the results will improve. This appears to be the case with the Vikings stadium.”

Politicians are attracted to big, transformitive projects, so it seems only natural that our leaders, who have expelled a great amount of political capital, want to see every inch of it succeed. Even if that means throwing good money after bad.

How We Justify It All

An engineer at the Met Council, likely under much political pressure, noticed something: based on 2019 projections, during peak hours on Minnesota Vikings game days, there will be only a 120 second headway between trains. This will likely not be enough time to manage safe pedestrian crossings. The proposed solution is the bridge.


Please note the skyway attached to the State-mandated parking structure.

The pedestrian bridge makes some sense. Based on the projections, there will be long lines and delays during this period; and building a bridge for pedestrians certainly isn’t an unreasonable response. The Met Council’s Transportation Committee appears to be interested in the idea.

But, let’s look at these assumptions: they assume that there will be two additional light rail lines in full operation, both of which have not yet even been either fully allocated money or constructed. Basically, the Met Council is gambling $8.7 million that there might be a problem in 5 years if we’re somehow able to build two additional light rail lines and they are operating at full capacity for 10 days a year.

To reiterate: Four (4) LRT lines being in operation (Blue, Green, SW & Bottentieu) and that Vikings game attendees hitting a 40% transit mode share. It also assumes, more importantly, that if there is congestion people will not find an alternative route or change their travel behavior.

It’s just hard not to see this as buying flood insurance for the house you have yet to purchase.

Where are the Met Council’s Priorities?

Why did this project get fast-tracked while other smaller, more “everyday” projects never see the light of day? And, when smaller projects get the public’s attention, why do they struggle to find funding? These are merely a question of priorities.

As Nick Magrino (at has asked so often, “why are we embarrassed by the bus?” He writes,

“… I can’t shake the feeling that many of the expensive transit improvements we get in the Twin Cities are thought up by people who don’t actually use transit. Which is why we end up with Northstar, the Red Line, and so on.”

A bridge like this seems like such a low priority, especially when we have legitimate transportation needs. For example, THIS is a bus stop on a heavily used transit line near the center of Minneapolis.

It’s not that a pedestrian bridge is a terrible idea. Under the projections, at some point in the future, it seems maybe reasonable. But, why is the Met Council prioritizing and fast-tracking this, whereas things like bike lanes, bus shelters, and potholes get ignored? I say this because you could build 40 miles of protected bike lanes for the same price tag.

Projects can take on a life of their own. There is no traditional process to getting things done. In this pedestrian overpass, you have the right person with the right slideshow presenting it to the right people at the right time. From here, you have the Met Council employees and political-appointed representatives who have monies at their disposal. The proposal, while not perfect, seems reasonable enough. And, we’ve just spent $2 billion on infrastructure, so we need to make it right. The presentation looks good, so why not go for it?

What would your City do with $8.7 million?

Imagine if the City of Minneapolis was given $8.7 million that could only be used on downtown pedestrian and/or transit projects. What would they do? The answer is: not a pedestrian bridge to be used during 10 sports games a year.

So, why are we doing it?

The answer is that we can get money from elsewhere to do the things we don’t need to do. But, when it comes to doing the simple things that we need to do, well, that money isn’t available from elsewhere. The pedestrian bridge is a bad idea (right now) that’s made worse when you think of the countless thousands of more useful public investments we could be making.

Our priorities get skewed and we misallocate resources most when our funding comes from elsewhere. In fact, it is precisely why Minneapolis has the below. All of which the City of Minneapolis will be tearing down in 30 years …



Strong Towns: A National Gathering

From the Strong Towns Website:

This is not a conference, but rather a gathering.

First, the National Gathering brings together Strong Towns members (now over 300 people across 49 states) to share the best ideas about making our communities strong. Second, at the National Gathering our members are going to help set the strategic direction of the organization for the coming years.

Special events at this year’s gathering include release of Transportation in the Next American City (the long-anticipated Strong Towns report on transportation) and an update from Gracen Johnson on the Next Generation of the Curbside Chat. Confirmed speakers include Monte Anderson of Options Real Estate, a developer experienced in incremental, human-scale projects, Mike McGinn, former mayor of Seattle, as well as Chuck Marohn and Jim Kumon of Strong Towns.

September 12, 2014 at 12pm – September 14, 2014
Sabathani Community Center
310 E 38th St
Minneapolis, MN 55409
Google map and directions
Interested in registering? You can sign up here. You can get more information here.
target field 1

Mankato’s New School: A Visualization

Here is the size of the site:


Here is Mankato West and East both fitting inside the site (including their playing fields).

two schools

Here is 85% of the Minnesota State University – Mankato Campus fitting inside the site (with some room left over):


Here is Target Field four times over …

target field 1

Now – Here are some alternatives for Mankato East’s expansion:


Anyone who tells you that the large site is required, please remind them that the law requiring open space was changed in 2009 and is not mandated by State standards. Instead, it is locally controlled. Meaning, if there are any requirements dictating open space, they can be easily changed at the local level.

Let’s stop and reevaluate. Let’s assess what’s really important in our community. Building an over-sized school on over-sized road on an over-sized parcel strikes me as irresponsible. We need to return to a neighborhood model. We need to find the locations that don’t need a Safe Routes to School grants and build there. The places we are collectively building are places that our children hate. They’re inhuman, disregard our existing neighborhoods, cost us more money and unnecessarily burden parents.

Also – don’t forget to read Tim Krohn’s two Mankato Free Press Columns on the issue:

1. A Voice for Small Schools:

2. Area Growth Not So Rosy By One View:







North Mankato. Duplexes. Insanity.

Lions and Tigers and Duplexes! Oh my!

In the Mankato Free Press: “North Gate zoning change moves forward” … And, more recently: “No duplexes in N. Mankato Neighborhood”If you’re not familiar with the North Mankato subdivision “North Gate 2″, then I recommend taking a quick look around: Google Maps. Or, check it out …


Turns out the North Gate subdivision has actually bankrupted the City. Well, not exactly bankrupted, but the City fronted the infrastructure and this development has been such a failure that it was the primary reason North Mankato had it’s Bond Rating decreased. This is a financially losing subdivision and is subsidized by all other North Mankato taxpayers.

This subdivision costs the City of North Mankato more money than it brings in. North Mankato gambled on suburban growth in a cornfield and lost. Now, the least they can do is understand that they need to maximize their return. Allowing duplexes is part of this process.

Here we go …

NORTH MANKATO — The North Mankato Planning Commission approved a zoning proposal Thursday that would prevent developers from building future duplexes in the North Gate and North Gate No. 2 subdivisions.

So, this hardly built out subdivision will now have an even lower density? Okay, it’s not the end of the world and it hasn’t gone to the City Council yet. This is just the local planning commission. The article continues:

Around 2011, 17 of the lots went into tax forfeiture, and within the past year, Nicollet County sold four lots in the center of the subdivisions to developer Troy Donahue. City Planner Mike Fischer said Donahue purchased the lots with the assumption he could build duplexes on them.

We’ve got a subdivision where 17 empty lots have entered tax forfeiture. No one has wanted to touch them until this past year. At this point, only four of them were sold at bargain prices. The guy who bought the lots has already built one duplex (or, two dwelling units on one city lot).

Now, here is the fun stuff:

“The building of the first duplex prompted concern from residents and the current proposal.”

Neighbors (40 of 41 people who live there) don’t like it. They don’t want duplexes. But, why don’t they them duplexes?

“He said he has a number of issues with the current duplex, including that it’s unfinished, that it has made access to his mailbox more difficult and that its caretakers push snow in front of his mailbox.”

Let me summarize. This particular neighbor doesn’t want future duplexes because:

  1. There is currently a duplex being built in the neighborhood and it’s under construction (?)
  2. It’s more difficult to get his mail
  3. The people working on the duplex have pushed snow in front of his mailbox

I can’t decide which one of these complaints is the most absurd.

“It’s kind of hard to see our neighborhood kind of step back to an apartment-type feeling … If the whole neighborhood gets built up as (multi-family) … it’s going to be hard to live there with kids.”

Ahhh! That’s it. He doesn’t want that “apartment-type feeling” and it’ll “be hard to live there with kids.” Okay, instead of using sarcasm, let me show him how wrong he is. Here is where he lives. Now, here is a development composed of 4 unit townhomes. These locations are about half a mile away, on the same side of town, same school district, and adjoin the same city park.  Notice how these “hard to live here with kids” townhome developments are actually more expensive per unit than the single family homes in the ‘North Gate 2′ subdivision.

The bias against duplexes (and multifamily) needs to stop.


Reading: Why Nations Fail

I am about about 100 pages into Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power Prosperity and Poverty. It’s a great book. I strongly recommend it. 

The book talks a lot about (of course) why some nations are doing well and others are failing. I couldn’t help but relate it back to our policies on urban planning and economic development and the power structures that concoct contemporary policy (e.g.: Southwest LRT and how in 2012, a parking garage in Duluth was considered by a State Agency (DEED) as the MOST IMPORTANT economic development project in the State of Minnesota). Read here.

Anyway – Here’s a sample …

“Most economics and policymakers have focused on “getting it right, while what is really needed is an explanation for why poor nations “get it wrong”. Getting it wrong is mostly not about ignorance or culture … They get it wrong not by mistake or ignorance, but on purpose. To understand this, you have to go beyond economics and expert advice on the best thing to do and, instead, study how decisions actual get made, who gets to make them, and why those people decide to do what they do.”

Pick up a copy of Why Nations Fail. I’m only 100 pages in and it’s blown my mind. It’s not about the policies themselves, but more so how bad decisions were made and why they were justified. Also, here’s a good podcast with the author of the book.


The Culture of “Let’s Not Go There”

After injuries and deaths on Snelling Avenue in St. Paul, pedestrians are fighting back. Members of a local college group have placed flags in buckets to aid the crossing of this busy street. However, a man on a soapbox – a man who’s opinion is not unpopular with the voting public – thinks that these flags are a “stupid” idea.

“Everyone, motorists and pedestrians, is safest under the old tried-and-true etiquette, which worked for 100 years. Why we are trading the safety of the historic etiquette for a reinvention of the rules can be traced to the progressive idea that it is more important to feel good about change to convention than it is to understand the consequences of the change. Pedestrians have foolproof safety by waiting until the coast is clear to cross the street. Foolproof. It is understandable that the demonization of the automobile has resulted in brainwashing.”

This quote summarizes nearly ever conversation I’ve had about changing our transportation system. That being, it’s not about any particular design, but a mindset. It’s our human nature to become set in our own ways. This is why towns will oppose things as simple as roundabouts when it’s clearly their best option. They aren’t use to them and don’t see a problem with what’s already there. So, why change?

Let’s take the above mentioned dangerous road: Snelling Avenue.

It’s urban. It’s suburban. It’s a highway. It’s a local street. It’s a lot of things. It tries to appease everyone and therefore, appeases no one. This is precisely why there have been so many unfortunate pedestrian collisions.

The question can boil down to who is to blame?

Do we blame the engineers and planners? They were the ones who built the five lane road designed for highway speeds through a historic walkable neighborhood adjacent a college where literally thousands of students live car free.

Do we blame the standards? Those apparently unbreakable rules engineers are skittish to challenge. Those standards that are written into law for which acquiring a variance requires the moving of both Heaven and Earth. Do we blame the professional organizations? The institutions in place to maintain the status quo, whether that be boosting membership, profits, or employment over that of the public’s best interest?

Do we blame local politicians? Those who refuse to take a hard stance because they’re more interested in not dealing with it, or merely don’t have the political willpower. Or, do we blame state politicians who keep blindly allocating money into these highway reconstruction projects that local governments often times don’t even want?

What about the citizens? Those who’ve fully dove into the status quo of car culture, one which has existed and has been subsidized to such a degree that all other alternatives are either unpleasant or simply not feasible. What about those citizens who see nothing wrong with a highway through a neighborhood, in so much as it isn’t their neighborhood?

Do we blame the individual drivers? The ones who drive careless, distracted, or drunk? Those who have been classically conditioned to drive, drive, drive! But, who’s to blame them for driving? Have you tried to walk through our cities? They aren’t comfortable places, and it’s faster to drive anyways. Plus, there’ll be free parking.

This brings me to the last question: what about the pedestrians?

To answer the questions form the soapbox:

  • Why don’t pedestrians cross at signalized intersections? Because those “safe” intersections are spaced so far apart.
  • Why do they think orange flags will make a difference? They don’t have great expectations.  What we’re seeing is one of the few responses that non-drivers can take in a systems that’s relegated them to second class citizens.
  • Why are they challenging a system that’s worked well for 100 years? The system hasn’t worked well. That’s the point. What we’ve created has been deadly for drivers and pedestrians alike.
  • Why do the “virtuous’ hate cars more than they care about kids’ safety”? They don’t. They walk precisely because they do care about safety. Ironic, but yes, the  most dangerous and life-threatening thing you can do to your child is put them into a car [CDC].

If you’re curious how deep our cultural misunderstanding goes, look no further than billboards sponsored by the Minnesota DOT proclaiming, “Hey Walkers … Distracted Walking is Dangerous Walking”.

Meaning, someone thinks that distracted walkers – not distracted drivers – causing all these deaths on our roadways. The clueless nature gets worse when you consider the platform for advertising (an auto-oriented billboard) is specifically designed to appeal to motorists, not pedestrians. By the way, this isn’t the work of an organization that doesn’t care. It’s the work of an organization that doesn’t get it.

In the end, it’s the structure of the system that’s created these outcomes and we’re all bit players; and it’s tragedy that befalls the pedestrian. We’ve spent the better half of a century making all non-automobiles second-class citizens. This has seeped into our culture understanding of transportation so deeply that virtually nothing else matters.

We’ve created a vicious cycle. We change our landscape to accommodate cars, but in doing so make it inhospitable to be anything else. But now, why should we expand pedestrian facilities, because nobody walks.

What to do? I suggest starting off by picking up an orange flag and crossing a street.


Urbanist Manifesto: 8 Simple Things To Improve Your City

We need to stop building bad places.

We don’t need to build Rome or Paris. We just need to stop building Houston.

The following eight rules apply to every major and mid-sized American and Canadian city with no exceptions. If your leaders don’t do these, somebody else’s will. And, you’ll have people asking in 10 years time why you haven’t already done them.

1. Make Accessory Dwelling Units Legal

This is the easiest way to add density without adding “density”. This won’t change your city overnight, but it’ll help lay the groundwork for improved urbanism. We need to see a rise in these types of dwellings because they add to affordable housing stock, expand housing options, add tax revenue, and are Jane Jacob’s “eyes on the street”. Except in this case, it’s eyes on the alleyway. Read more about accessory dwelling units here.

2. Eliminate Parking Minimums As Soon As Possible

There is no bigger detriment to urban centers than parking. It adds costs to private development and drives up rents. Car storage is a terribly inefficient way to allocate land, especially in existing walkable neighborhoods. If you want to make your downtown more livable, the first policy move should be to eliminate (or, reduce if elimination is not politically feasible) all parking requirements.

If you worry about parking (and “congestion”), you might lose great local institutions to the suburbs. I’m looking at you, St. Paul. 

3. Four-Three Conversions of Stroads

Most four lane collector roads are ugly, unsafe and do a poor job of moving traffic. They are the worst of all worlds.

These stroads take up a lot of space and don’t allow for either bike lanes or on-street parking. Conversions have been well studied and the results are conclusive. They improve pedestrian and bicycle safety, calm traffic, improve emergency response and have reduced vehicle crash rates (between a low of 17 to a high of 62 percent (source)). When it comes to re-striping roads, four-three conversations are nearly always a solid bet. These are easy sells because they usually don’t effect Level of Service (by the way, which is something cities need to stop caring so much about).

4. Sell Public Surface Parking Lots for $1

Cities and towns are sitting on a gold mine of under-utilized land, specifically public open-surface parking lots. What is open surface parking getting you? The answer is very little.

This is easy: sell them to the highest bidder. Have an auction, start at $1 and sell to the highest bidder. Code the specific site to hit all the urban guidelines fitting of a form based code and require development start within 3 to 5 years. Imagine the benefit to a City like Minneapolis or St. Paul if someone put (just) mediocre mixed-use buildings on each city own surface lot.

5. Better transit, Not (Necessarily) More Transit

Light Rail is awesome. But, it’s also expensive. Let’s start small and improve the transit that we have, precisely bus service. Adding a bus shelter is relatively cheap ($5,000 to $6,000). BRT is also great and relatively affordable. Make these moves first. They are political feasible and improve the lives of people who are currently using transit. This means, making what we have run on time and run faster.

Don’t let good be the enemy of great. Support small incremental improvements to our transit service and don’t wait for the “big and shiny” project. Because, if you’re lucky enough to get Federal funding for a new streetcar or light rail, it’ll be 25 years away  before any improvements happen (take note St. Paul). Read more about improving transit in a cost-effective way here.

6. Allow more beer/wine licenses

Retail is dying a slow death. Every sale on Amazon, Etsy, or Zappos represents one less sale at a brick-and-mortar book store, gift shop or clothing store. These, and a shift of the nature of work, will make filling retail storefronts more difficult. We need to fill frontages. It’s essentially to walkability.

Food is the rational response as it’s not easily outsourced. And, to make margins for these places, they’ll likely need to sell beer and wine. There is a changing cultural dichotomy going on. More expensive local craft beer sales and high-end cocktails are shifting the nature of traditional 60/40 (or 70/30) beer to food sale requirements. These need to change, too.

If you want to fill your empty storefronts, you’ll need to look beyond retail.

7. Eliminate One Way Streets

The case against one way streets is already solved. The verdict is in.

Converting streets to two-ways has many benefits. These types of streets, as opposed to one-ways, improve pedestrian and bike safety, improve vehicle navigation and overall safety, lower speeds, and improve the financial health of local businesses (source). Many cities have already converted their one way streets to two ways. Your city should too.

8. Allow the “Sharing” Economy to be Legal

Whether the establishment likes it or not, it’s going to happen. The question is, how will you let it happen? Be smart. Be fair. But for God’s sake, don’t make it illegal (I’m looking at you Miami).

Uber and Lyft aren’t competing against taxis. They’re competing against the cost of owning a car. If these services can remove just a handful of cars (or reduce drunk driving) that should be viewed as an urban benefit. And, AirBNB isn’t competing against hotels (which can be expensive), but it more so about providing options for people to safely rent our there apartments and make extra money to off-set the costs of living in an more high-demand urban settings.

The sharing economy might be hard for many to swallow, but it needs to be legal. 

Now, these eight suggestions won’t make your city a success overnight, but they are politically-feasible, small, incremental changes that you can make to help inch your city in the right direction.