Florida is a weird place

I spent the last two-ish weeks in Florida – on a “workcation – to escape the most bitter part of the Minnesota winter; the dreaded February. There are a lot of really confusing things about Florida that I still find hard to understand.

What’s confusing about Florida is that it has some genuinely great places It’s like, some places really get it, while other places are just so absolutely clueless that you don’t what to say.

I spent my time in Sanibel and Captiva Islands. I would consider these “good” places. Both have gone out of their way to preserve charming architecture, add bike lanes, and to slow traffic. Sanibel, for example, is an island that’s about 25 miles long, and has over 50 miles of bike lanes! Captiva is the same way, just add more golf carts. Check out Andi Rosse Lane.

Then you can take a boat to North Captiva (and island that bans cars) … here are some photos:

The above are the quiet, ped-bike-golfcart streets. The slow pace of life might be maddening, but there is something beautiful with the way the streets orient themselves and how one can casually stroll down the middle of a quiet road without fear of collision.

Places like Naples, FL get it too.

Naples is genuinely nice. It’s also expensive. In fact, much more expensive than all the areas up and down the Gulf Coast. I can speculate, without much hesitation, that it has to do with URBANISM. If you live in Naples, you can walk or bike to a nice, historic downtown. If you live in Bonita Springs, well, good luck.

Then, you have this clueless Florida. The Cape Corals and Fort Myers suburbs of the world.

What will the world do with these places?  Anyway, Florida is a weird place where you’ll see the best and worst of America within a 10 minute drive.

Historic Sparkle Panels of Mankato

If $32 million can’t buy good architecture then I don’t what does? Here’s the happenings from Mankato’s new “economic development” project: a hockey rink!

Read about it here:  http://www.mankatofreepress.com/news/local_news/civic-center-expansion-plans-finalized/article_988534d2-c129-11e4-8edd-372712afb0fb.html

The sparkle panels should be a hit, as they were in the past. So, I decided to show some historic sparkle panel architecture …

panels

Note: Comic sans use intentional. Sparkle panels are the comic sans of the architecture world.

Infrastructure on John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight

“To be fair, that D+ grade came from the American Society of Civil Engineers, who would clearly benefit from more infrastructure spending. So, it’s a bit like having the state of our nation’s tennis ball assessed by the American Society of Golden Retrievers” – John Oliver

You can watch the clip here: http://youtu.be/Wpzvaqypav8?t=3m50s

 

The Highway Interchange Confusion Love Affair

As legislatures reconvened these past two months, there has been an active lobbying effort to boost transportation funding across the country. Countless newspapers, magazine, and television programs have dedicated time and space to covering the plea for more money, including a high-profile 60 Minutes segment that didn’t include a single dissenting opinion.

The general consensus in the mainstream media has been that we need more funds in order to have a “21st Century” transportation system. If we don’t, our bridges will collapse. That, and we won’t be able to compete globally (what does this even mean?).

The opposition’s opinion can’t be summed up as easily. It goes something more like this: “It’s complicated.” The nuanced opinion challenges the underlying assumption as to what makes a good transportation investment. In other words, more money alone won’t fix the system, and it might actually make it worse.

But, what does this look like? Well, it looks like this …

Perham is a quintessential small town in central Minnesota with fewer than 3,000 people. It’s a sleepy community with a traditional Main Street and surrounded by lakes. If it’s not the basis for fictional Lake Wobegon, it might as well be.

perham1

It recently received a “Transportation and Economic Development” grant to build a new $6.7 million interchange. The State pitches in $3.5 million and the local government covers the rest ($3.2 million). This project might make sense if the town didn’t already have three interchanges leading to the same highway. As if a fourth interchange is just what this town needs to catapult its economy into the 21st century.

perham2

What you’re looking at is not unique. In fact, I selected it because it is average. And, it’s exactly the type of transportation infrastructure that our current system is looking to fund more of. But more importantly, it’s not just this project – it’s the countless hundreds like it.

You’ve heard the broken record that we can’t afford to fix our crumbling roads? Well, projects like these are the reason why. It’s an unneeded piece of infrastructure that diverts funds from maintaining what we have. A recent report by Smart Growth America outlined this systemic problem; States have dedicated 57% of their transportation revenues to new projects.

As Angie Schmidt of Streetsblog brilliantly opined in “More Money Won’t Fix U.S. Infrastructure If We Don’t Change How It’s Spent“;

But throwing more money at the problem overlooks the fatal flaw in American transportation infrastructure policy: The system is set up to funnel the vast majority of spending through state departments of transportation, and those agencies have an absolutely terrible track record when it comes to making smart long-term decisions. As long as state DOTs retain unfettered control of the money, potholed roads and decrepit bridges will remain the norm.

The reason our bridges are crumbling is because we’ve made the conscious decision not to repair them. Instead, we’ve chosen to build new things (more specifically, mostly roads). And now, we’re tasking the same people who created the problem to help get us out of it?

The status quo will claim there isn’t money to bring existing bridges up to today’s standard, yet will simultaneously spend $25 million to save 7,000 vehicles a day 53 seconds on a commute (see here) and drop $680 million on an environmentally-compromising bridge to cornfields in Wisconsin (see here).

The Perham infrastructure expansion highlights another key issue: the expansion of a road that hasn’t had significant increases in traffic volume in nearly 15 years. In 1998, it had approximately 5,000 vehicles a day. In 2012, that number was 5,300 [MnDOT]. For a comparison, the neighborhood street adjacent my house (with sidewalks, on-street parking and a tree-lined median) carries over 9,000 vehicles a day.

Vehicle traffic in Perham mirrors the population growth, which added around 400 residents between 2000 and 2010. This number is significant in the sense that it hasn’t decreased – much like many other rural towns – but it isn’t a booming community that would justify transportation infrastructure projects.

In fact, a report from the Center for American Progress found that 50% of roads likely aren’t carrying enough traffic to cover their maintenance expenses (see also Streetsblog). I have a good feeling that Perham is one of these places. Of course, this isn’t to say we should have disinvestment in communities (we shouldn’t), but we need to acknowledge that if we’re going to support these places, more highway infrastructure is not the way to do it.

More money for transportation won’t fix the system, and it won’t help places like Perham. Places like Perham need something else.

Minneapolis: An Urban Transformation?

Minneapolis has undergone a tremendous amount of urban growth in the past seven years. And, for all the complaints constructive-criticism that we, at streets.mn, have provided, it should be noted that Minneapolis has truly transformed into a better, more dynamic urban place.

Google Streetview has opened up its archives (dating back to 2007 in the Twin Cities) and we can see the transformations at the ground level. While Streetview doesn’t completely capture the change, it’s a good place to start.

Here’s a look at a few of Minneapolis’ success stories.

Washington Avenue through the University of Minnesota campus, has made the most drastic change; from a road choked with cars to a pedestrian-friendly transit mall. What were once small buildings are now six-story apartment buildings.

wash1

Next, is the Mill City District on 2nd near the Guthire Theater. If you could rewind time to 2005, this would look even more drastic. I use to tailgate for Minnesota Twins games on what is now Gold Medal Park. At that time, it was an open surface asphalt parking lot littered with broken beer bottles.

millcity1

Uptown may have had the greatest population increase. It has successfully transformed industry land and under-utilized empty space into apartments along the Greenway.

lakeigrard

greenway1

You don’t have to look far to see other urban transformations, such as Park & Portland, University Avenue, Central Ave in NE, North Loop, and  behind Target Field. It’s good to see Minneapolis is moving in the right direction …

What did I miss? What are some other success stories?

An Article About Grand Avenue’s Setbacks

beautychaosst

Grand Avenue: Diversity and chaos can help create beautiful, walkable streetscapes

Gerber Jewelers is a small business situated on one of St. Paul’s most desirable streets and it’s trying to extend its storefront to the sidewalk.

“Gerber Jewelers’ bid to extend the front of its building at 945 Grand Ave. to the sidewalk has been rebuffed. On a 7-0 vote … St. Paul City Council rejected owner Rafic Chechori’s appeal and upheld the Board of Zoning Appeals’ previous denial of a setback.” – The Highland Villager, Jan. 21, 2015

The Council is upholding a requirement that the front-yard setback from the property line be 25 feet. Dave Thune, out-going Ward 2 Council Member, said “granting the variance would have set a bad precedent and would have encouraged other property owners to extend their buildings to the sidewalk as well, destroying the residential character of Grand.”*

This is a bad decision and the entire Grand Avenue plan needs to be revisited to acknowledge the real urban character of the street, improve walkability, to help local businesses, and improve the City’s overall tax base.

The problem with the City Council’s decision, and the zoning code in general, is that it’s trying to impose a character that doesn’t exist (and shouldn’t exist).

Grand Avenue is not a street with a residential character. For starters, literally every building on this particular 900 Block is either commercial or mixed use (residential + retail). This includes the building immediately to the Gerber’s left with a 0ft (zero) setback.

gerberts jewerly setback

Gerber Jewelry was denied the right to look like it’s neighbor immediately to its west.

Grand Avenue can be chaotic and disorganized, but unquestionably beautiful. This is the character of a city! This is the character of Grand Avenue. No two blocks are alike, and this is something that should continue. In fact, there is nothing more consistent about Grand Avenue setbacks than that they are entirely inconsistent.

It is not uncommon to see a single family house, next to a 4plex-turned-cooking-store, next to a two story office/burrito/real-estate/pastry/yoga/hair-salon – and all of them have different setbacks! This is the Grand Avenue norm.

house, cooks, com

Nothing is more consistent about Grand Ave. setbacks than the fact that they are inconsistent.

Gerber’s block on Grand Avenue includes everything from a gas station, dance studio, sandwich shop, quality dining with sidewalk patio seating, a cigar shop in a house, a small frozen yogurt shop on the sidewalk, and more than a handful of other small businesses.

These small, unique spaces are one of the reasons that Grand Ave has a disproportionately high percentage of local businesses. It is precisely these types of businesses that we want to thrive as they are more likely to use local services (such as marketing, legal, accounting, etc.) and more of their profit stays within the community. This is precisely the type of incremental growth we should be trying to encourage.

There are few things more important for creating walkable spaces than giving people something to experience at the sidewalk level. The social value of a storefront is too important to pass up, and rejecting Gerber’s application is an unfortunate error in judgement.

This decision is also costing the city money. The adjacent building abuts the sidewalk similar to the new proposal and pays nearly 2.3x times more in property taxes ($31,130 vs. $13,919).** This alone is a drop in the bucket, but when you consider the long-term ramifications it can have some costs.

The entire Grand Avenue plan needs to be revisited, and we need to take into consideration the viewpoints of people other than the Summit Hill Associations. We need to acknowledge the real urban character of the street, improve walkability through more sidewalk storefront, to help neighborhood businesses grow to improve our local economy, and improve the City’s overall tax base.

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* Quote is not a direct quote, but a summary of Thune’s quote taken from The Highland Villager, Jan. 21, 2015.
**
 It’s fair to say a similar new addition would yield similar results. However, you never know since valuations are based off a number of factors, such as building materials, etc.
*** Related Reading: Anthropologie: A Storefront Not Worthy of Grand Ave.

Nicollet Mall Redesign and the Failure of Planning

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” – Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

The biggest impediment to improving Nicollet Mall is not the aesthetic of the street, but the buildings themselves and their poor frontages. This fact is apparently lost among the Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District’s Board of Directors, a self-selected group of downtown building owners, property managers, and corporate stakeholders.

The irony of their push for a publicly-subsidized Nicollet Mall redesign is that the single biggest problem with the street are the buildings themselves. Those advocating for urban improvements are precisely the one’s who are creating most of the problems.

The Downtown Improvement District (DID) driving the Nicollet Mall process is the same group who gave us the universally disdained $6 Christmas Market. This matters because it’s an organization composed of people with a disproportionate amount of power who are disconnected from everyday urbanism and what it takes to make a great place.

In the planning profession, we spend a lot of time talking about the virtues of Jane Jacobs’ works, but pay her little respect in practice. Our planning projects, and the leadership that supports them, still hold to modernist planning practices that have been long criticized. Our leadership, despite good intentions, continues to develop projects that accommodate those who do not live in the city all while paying lip-service to public input, diversity, and the little slices of chaos that make places great.

In a nutshell, here’s how a top-down Nicollet Mall redesign / Robert Moses system works:

The city starts the process by hiring the best outside ‘star’ consultant to tell us the things we already know. They draft renderings with the best design software money can buy that includes the finest superimposed human silhouettes unpaid interns can draft. Minimum engagement requirements are hit by having people fill out online surveys while business and political insiders, not the countless thousands of daily users or small business owners, drive the process forward.

Where projects are funding from State and Federal sources, local input is limited to ensure the process goes as quickly as possible. Local political leaders go along with the process, despite it’s flaws, because it isn’t local money. It is something for nothing, and something is better than nothing.

It begs the question: Are we still in the era of top-down modernist planning?

I think the answer is “sort of”. We have made improvements, learned from our mistakes, and we certainly aren’t tearing down entire neighborhoods for freeways. Yet, in many ways the same general mentality still holds true.

The big-budget process of creating most places are little different than the works of Robert Moses. And, as we historically seen, these top-down approaches tend to give us sterile places. For example, the new Nicollet Mall renderings more closely resemble the Mall of America than that of a real city street. It is not the beautiful chaos nor the street ballet urban dwelling humans crave.

We think we’re doing the right thing. We create neighborhood groups and then gave them limited power. We let them create their neighborhood plan, then we immediately ignore them. In the end, lobbying their local City Council member might be their most powerful tool. We’re better than we once were, but that’s not saying a lot.

Most of our buildings and street designs in our central cities fail to pass even the most basic Jane Jacobs litmus test. There is nothing wrong with Nicollet Mall that can’t be fixed by a small land use tweaks and removing some parking lots. When you traverse Nicollet Mall, you’ll quickly notice that building don’t always address the street frontage in a responsible way. That is the main culprit. As a pedestrian space, it’s already really good.

There is certainly a brick that needs to be fixed here and there. Add some climate-appropriate tree. The sidewalk heating system might need some updates and some fountains re-tooled. The Mall was reconstructed in 1991. At the time, a sidewalk heating system was installed – and it’s not worked since. And guess what? It doesn’t matter – the Mall still works because snow shovels still work (and they are much cheaper).

The main problem is that the buildings need to do a better job of addressing this pedestrian elements of the Mall. It needs more cafes, more food trucks, and more informal activity that integrates with building programming. If anything, Nicollet Mall needs more small storefronts, more diversity, and a little more chaos. It’s as simple as that. It adds to the diversity of the environment and gives people something to enjoy. Large monolithic towers may look good from afar, but often do little for the street.

I once wrote that Nicollet Mall was the heart of downtown Minneapolis and has history of being the Minneapolis’ Main Street. As time passes, I have changed my mind. Nicollet Mall is Minneapolis’ Mall of America. Lake Street and Central Ave are it’s Main Streets, and the countless other more urban streetscapes.

Nicollet Mall is a good pedestrian space, but its far from the heart and soul of Minneapolis. If it ever wants to be something else, it’ll need better building frontages, more doors, more windows with stuff in them, more small businesses, activated laneways (alleyways), smaller adjancent running streets, food trucks all the time, and more residential buildings.

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ATTN: BOARD MEMBERS: If you are a Board Member (or work for DID), fill out my personal website’s contact form, and I’ll send you a free copy of The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs.

2014 Book Recommendations

Here are my 2014 Book Recommendations* (the top five favorite books of the year):
  • “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea” by Barbara Demick – This is a tale of ordinary North Koreas who have escaped to South Korea. It tells multiple tales of every day life that include struggles to survive and dealing with strict government repression. It beautifully details daring escapes and adjusting to life in the modern world. Where this book deviates from other North Korean-related non-fiction is that it tells a much more emphatic story, that of tight-knit loving families fighting famine and the (albeit nostalgic) benefits of not living in the modern world (such as not being constantly distracted by media).
  • “Console Wars” by Blake J Harris – In the early 1990s, Nintendo ruled. Console Wars is a story about how Sega, a new competitor, went from having 5% market share to over half and toppled a monopoly. Sure, it’s a story about video games, but it’s more than that. It’s a story of smart start-up who didn’t play by the rules and had to use creativity. Sega was ‘lean’ before ‘lean’ was a thing.
  • “Masters of Doom” by David Kushner – Side-scrolling ruled early 1990s video game. This is another story of rebellious outsiders who dominated the computer gaming industry and did it all themselves. They went around publishers, warehouses, middle-men, and took atypical methods to change the way we view video games. Ultimately personalities tore them apart, but it’s a great tale of passionate programmers and businessmen. Note: Yes, another video game book recommendation.
  • “Hitch-22″ by Christopher Hitchens – Smart. Poignant. Funny. I had not followed the life of Hitchens while he was alive, and reading this book made me regret that fact. I once heard Sam Harris say, “Hitch had more personality than some civilizations” and I do not doubt this. It tells the personal life of Hitchens, who left school as a Socialist activist and his journey into becoming Americas most loved/hated capitalist, atheist, and political outsider.
  • “Flash Boys” by Michael Lewis – Almost everything I know about Wall Street, I have learned from Lewis. I loved this book; it was short, sweet, and to the point. Lewis knows how to tell a good story, and he continues to do this with his newest book. It’s a great narrative of how two outsiders are challenging a rigged system. My fingers are crossed that they can succeed.
*Thanks to Mr. Charles Marohn of Strong Towns fame for giving me this idea!

The Rise and Fall of Sonic the Hedgehog (and Sega)

For a brand to thrive, it needs to constantly reinvent itself. Sega isn’t doing that and the once unstoppable hedgehog has been diminished to mere nostalgia.

The icon that helped launch Sega ahead of Nintendo during the Console Wars has been relegated to second-class superhero status from an overabundance of sub-par appearances and reckless business practices. As a staple of my childhood, I find this disconcerting.

Originally released in 1991, the inaugural Sonic the Hedgehog had unique gameplay, previously unseen graphics, and fast gameplay. Experiencing Sonic in the early 1990s was akin to the previous generation watching color television for the first time. This was the Launchpad of an iconic brand.

Sega followed up with an impressive sequel that gave most players their first-glimpse at the 3D gaming world through expertly-designed bonus stages. This feat should not be understated. Quality games (and a skilled marketing team) helped bring Sega from a market share of less than 10 percent to the dominate player in the industry.

Sonic ended the 16-bit era with a bright future despite some forgettable spin-off flops, such as Sonic Spinball (Sonic + Pinball = Disappointment). As Sega would soon learn, one failed spin-off is fine, but multiple failed spin-offs is not.

Sega’s mismanagement during the 32-bit era created doubts about the company, including the business decision to release a new console (Saturn) without a title of its hottest intellectual property (Sonic). Doubts amplified as Sega faced increased competition from Sony’s Playstation.

The decision to release Saturn (and then immediately pull the plug) was a move that likely cost Sega billions of dollars. There was a four year period between 1996 and 1999 with no major titles. Imagine this timeframe in the mid of a young gamer: going from eight to 12 without the creation of brand nostalgic. In the minds of these kids, Sonic is irrelevant.

This absence of Sonic during this period allowed Nintendo to dominate, and Mario 64 and Pokémon helped create a near monopoly on this age group while Sony converted mature gamers onto their platform (one of those gamers was me, and I still remain largely loyal to Playstation).

For better and for worse, Dreamcast got the jump on the next generation with the clever “9/9/99” campaign. They had learned from their mistakes and released the new console with their flagship franchise (Sonic Adventure). In 1999, you had Sonic Adventure and everything else. Sonic was back! The game was a hit and was a much needed breath of fresh air for Sega fans.

Yet, it wasn’t enough. Despite a successful launch and masterful Sonic games, the Dreamcast couldn’t compete with Playstation 2. Sega soon abandoned the console market to become a software company. Since the demise of Sega’s console business, the Sonic brand has been a collection of mostly misses. It’s an unfortunate truth that Sonic has been damaged to such a degree the gamers approach new releases with caution, not excitement.

When Sonic does best, it’s through nostalgia-aimed releases like Generations. But new versions of the franchise have failed to revive the brand. One journalist hinted that Sonic 06′ was one of the worst games of the year and the re-branding that resulted in Sonic Boom: Rise of the Lyric had people scratching their heads. Both appeared to be rushed to market at the expense of gameplay. Continually releasing an unrefined product is a good way to kill a franchise.

Sonic now operates primarily in the nostalgic realm. There are still hardcore fans, but without a landmark release like Sonic Adventure, there isn’t much hope for the revitalization of the Sonic brand. A business can run on nostalgia only for so long.

The question is: How can Sega appease the nostalgic fan base while moving the franchise into the future?

This is the question Sega will need to answer if Sonic is going to be around for another 20 years. Sega appears to be making the smart move of tackling the youth market dominated by Nintendo. This is a crucial age group to capture from a marketing perspective. The problem with this approach though is that Sega is challenging Nintendo’s market share while still being reliant upon them to release their games on Nintendo consoles.

Sega’s faults have been that they’ve been absent when competition was strongest and over-eager to release inferior products when unnecessary. I want to see Sonic thrive for another 20 years. To do so, Sega will need to drastically improve the quality of flagship Sonic games, aggressively target emerging gamers, and find a way to control their distribution (e.g.: not being reliant on Nintendo).