What $1.1 Billion Looks Like

“It’s like building a Vikings’ stadium in a single season,” said State Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle – Star Tribune, April 3rd

Ouch. To anyone who followed the Minnesota Vikings’ new publicly-financed stadium, this quote should make you cringe.

In a quest to improve quality of life, Minnesota is pouring $1.1 billion into road projects this summer; the same amount being dedicated to a new stadium. Upon hearing this, most people should have two questions:

1) Wait a minute! We spent how much on a new football stadium? And,
2) Besides maintenance, Minnesota’s road network is built-out, so where’s this money going?

To answer these questions;

1) Yes. We spent an obscene amount of money on a football stadium, and
2) Well, this one is more difficult to answer …

Minnesota has the 5th most paved miles in the United States with approximately 283,828 miles. The numbers don’t look good when weighed to population and population density. This is a big system that needs a lot of maintenance. Yet, while admitting we can’t afford our existing roadways under our current system, we always seem to come up with more money for expansion projections.

We have a cultural misunderstanding about of benefits of mobility. We lack the understanding of what to build and where to build. The $1.1 billion being spent over the course of this summer is turning out to be more of the same. It’s less road diet and more bypass.

Many of these projects are an extension of the Corridors of Commerce program designed to foster “economic growth with transportation investments.” This is a noble goal and it’s worked well in the past, so why not keep it up?

First, we built highways that connected places that were never before directly connected. This was an enormous benefit and opened up to more markets. Towns that were once a 5 hour journey apart turned into an easy 1 hour trip. There is no question that this created an economic benefit. But, we’ve continued building and expanding this roadway system to much diminishing return.

A large portion of the new football stadium worth of funding is just another example of this misapplication of limited transportation dollars [you can read all about it here].

The Good: Bridge and Road Repairs and Reconstructions

Money needs to be set aside for maintenance and repairs. In an ideal world, we’d create an environment where we didn’t need special legislation and additional bonding to cover such costs. It’s an unsustainable system where needed works aren’t conducted because of pending statewide political disagreements. That being said, most maintenance projects appear to be commonsense and I’m not going to comment on them.

The problematic proposals are the existing infrastructure “add-on” projects. Many of which are expensive additions to rural highways that have a low, or a zero-sum, return on investment (at best).

The Bad: Enhanced Frontage Roads

The northern Minnesota town of Detroit Lakes (pop. 8,800) has a traffic jam about once a year. When everyone is leaving the 4th of July fireworks things can get backed up. Otherwise, of all the problems facing this rural community, traffic congestion is at the bottom of the list.

At the edge of town, between the rarely used municipal airport and the Perkins, the State is reconstructing a frontage road [Project Description]. Nothing shows our misunderstanding of transportation investment more than a frontage road.

Frontage roads are a symptom of ignoring how land use connects with transportation. We’ve pushed development to the highways, and to make them work as a private economic model, we’ve needed to add access points. These access points slow down traffic and cause accidents. It’s the classic stroad equation.

And, Detroit Lakes isn’t the only frontage road in need of repair. There are 10 new frontage road projects included in the $1.1 billion appropriations. The question we should ask before reconstructing any frontage road is: why after approximately 50 years is all we have to show for our original investment this?


This is it. There is a Wal-Mart, Subway, Taco Johns (!), KFC, strip mall, car wash, two drive-through banks, a K-mart  and a handful of empty lots. No joke. There have been countless millions of dollars dropped in constructing and supporting this infrastructure and what you see above is all we have to show for it.

The Ugly: The Inappropriate Bypasses

Rice (pop. 1,200) has a problem. There’s an unsafe signalized highway interchange. It’s menacing. The proposed solution is construction of new on and off ramps. At face value, this makes sense: it’ll add to highway safety and improve traffic flows.Yet, the only reason it’s needed is because we’ve decided to build our places in such a sprawling  manner. Dangerous cross traffic is occurring because of this:


Again. This is expensive infrastructure to support a McDonald’s, gas station, and a half-built subdivision. The Rice project isn’t alone, there are dozens of newly funded projects that are similar.

One of the reasons we struggle to fund the existing system is because we have no way to capture value from what this creates. The vast majority of this above $11.3 million project benefits only the gas station, fast food restaurant and the 30 odd homes. The State is picking up the tab. So, why is it that their financial responsibility for the new intersection is nil?

This is a primary example of how not to build a transportation and land use system.

Going back to the Commissioner Zelle’s quote: we’re building a Vikings Stadium in a year? Yes. We are. I think the commissioner is unfortunately right. Both endeavors appears to be regrettably similar.


What if Minneapolis enacted a moratorium in 1895?

Minneapolis didn’t go from single-family homes to towering skyscrapers overnight. It took incremental growth over the course of 160 years to get it where it is today. But, what would Minneapolis look like if we decided to preserve itself in 1895?


The intersection of 5th and 2nd Avenue would look drastically different.


The intersection on 7th [Portland] and 6th Avenue would be lined with elegant homes, which admittedly is better than the existing surface parking lots.


It’s hard to imagine 7th Street as a row of single family homes.

Showing these comparisons is unfair. It misses a step. It’s likely that the demolished single family homes of downtown Minneapolis were the second iteration of development. Homes originally made of wood by settlers transformed into a patchwork of permanent brick buildings. Those mid-sized brick buildings eventually morphed into the larger buildings we see today.

Great places evolve. This is a healthy and historic form of urban growth: start small and build up. Throughout human history, our places have evolved using this approach.


Understanding the quirks of incremental urbanism [Click Image for Source]

We’ve gotten plenty of things wrong along the way. Our wide cultural adoption of the automobile sprawled our places and destroyed a lot of great buildings in the name of car storage. Our towering skyscrapers offer little in the way ground-level urbanism and our skyways keep our sidewalks empty.

It might be time for our single family neighborhoods in Minneapolis to expand upwards once again. The new larger homes will be the duplexes of tomorrow. The duplexes of tomorrow will transform into small apartment buildings, and so on. Urban history appears to not be repeating itself because we’re not letting it; be it opposition to a small apartment building or new,  larger single family homes.

I think the problem is that Minneapolis has forgotten it’s a city.


My favorite compare/contrast image is looking towards the State Capital along what is now Cedar in downtown St. Paul. The image shows St. Paul’s humble origins and tremendous growth. It also shows us the things we’ve done wrong: parking garage, drive-thru bank, dead streetscape, the skyway and the three lane one-way street.



*Important Note: All of the historic images were collected from the Minnesota Historical Societies Collections archives. It’s a great resource and I recommend checking it out. Everything else is from Google Streetview. The historic photo locations are approximate. The collection only mentions that buildings are, for example, “On the corner of 7th Ave & 5th St, Minneapolis.”


Untitled. Some More Sharing Economy Stuff

In a recent interview, Richard Florida said something about disruption that left me nodding my head. According to Florida, the sharing economy is “taking the last frontier of real inefficiently and waste, our cities are just wasteful machines, and making them run more efficiently.” He is referring to government, and specifically to protectionist policies.

— NOTE: This is a rough draft. Please ignore errors —

An economic evolution is underway. It’s a structural shift that we inevitably see with every changing of the generation guard. Here’s proof:

“The following articles of clothing, when worn as outer garments, are prohibited: (1) T-shirts without a pocket or buttons, underwear, tank tops, swimwear, jogging suits, body shirts, shorts, cut-offs, trunks, or similar attire … By prior approval of the director, T-shirts and sports jerseys and shirts may be worn as outer garments in conjunction with special attractions.”City of Minneapolis Taxicab Ordinance

Minneapolis’ taxicab regulations beautifully speak to Florida’s point. They cover everything from acceptable types of sandals to detailed insurance requirements. Skimming through the 35 pages of regulation, I got to thinking: I’ve never had a legal taxicab ride.

  • Listening to music without a rider’s prior approval? Violation.
  • Talking on a mobile device, including a wireless Bluetooth headset? Violation.
  • License posted more than 3 inches from the top of the front seat? Violation.
  • Blocking the normal flow to traffic to pick-up customers? Violation.
  • Wearing a t-shirt without pockets? Violation.

Most all taxicab regulations aren’t even enforced. The City doesn’t have the time, resources or willpower to enforce them. This begs the question of, is there a point to having regulations you don’t care to enforce?

The parade of tech breakthroughs is relentless. Policy makes need to be responsive, not be obstinate. We need to find ways to realize the benefits. The status quo isn’t ideal; and even the regulations on the books intending to make things better, such as taxicab rides, aren’t actually regulated. They just exist as barriers to entry.

We can see the change all around us, from online retail staples like Craigslist, Amazon and Ebay to new financing mechanisms changing the way we raise money, such as Kickstarter, Fundrise and Indiegogo. The list can go on; Lyft, Uber, Airbnb, Kickstarter, Fundrise, Car2Go, Etsy. These services are tools in a toolkit, and while they won’t change our world overnight, they help us better interact with the world around us.

The change is a rational response to our current situation of higher unemployment, less stable and lower paying jobs and increased personal debt. It’s a necessity for some people to get a job on the side. It’s been referred to the greatest economic transformation in human history. This is true for our cities, because, in part, these inventions allow us to live more comfortably in urban spaces.

I remember my epiphany.

It was 2004. I remember looking in awe at the price tag of college textbooks: $100 for an introductory of macroeconomics textbook? I begrudgingly bought the book – a used copy no less – from the college bookstore and proceeded to use it (maybe) a dozen times throughout the semester. At the semester’s end, I brought it to book buy-backs only to find they’d upgraded to a new edition and weren’t buying back copies.

I remember feeling cheated. Like, the system was rigged.

Upon the recommendation of a friend, I decided to check out Amazon. I listed the book and sold it for like $75. I didn’t make money on the deal, but it was better than the alternative. Eventually I started selling my old textbooks.  When that wasn’t enough, my friend and I noticed the college bookstore would discard literally hundreds of “outdated” textbooks each month on a table with a sign that read, “free books.”

We’d grab our backpacks and laundry baskets, fill them up and list everything on Amazon. The college provided free packing materials at the time, so our cost was virtually nothing. I made around $3,500 the first semester and a couple thousand the following semester before the University started donating to Books for Africa.

To this day, I still sell books on Amazon. While my margins aren’t as big as they once were, I still capture value from something that I would never have prior to Amazon. The downside to all of this is that me – and countless hundreds of thousands like me – are putting stores out of business.

Technology disrupted the traditional marketplace by cutting out an inefficient middle man and allowing sellers to connect directly with buyers. Remember travel agents? Newspaper classified ads? Most technological disruptions have flown under the radar of regulators, but they are now starting to bump heads with local policy. This is where government needs to be adaptable.

While other reasons are often cited, this delay often comes down to money, and who gets it. Car hire services, for example, while cities don’t balance a budget on taxi cab fees or taxes, the revenue they generate is not insignificant. When it comes to App-based ride-sharing services, cities like Minneapolis (or Seattle and even Paris) get little in the way of revenue.

Getting started in the taxi business can be expensive. In Seattle, it’ll cost you at least $50,000 for a license. In New York City, a medallion can run upwards of $1 million. The cost in Minneapolis is more sane, but the number of taxi licenses are limited and the rates are preset. At best,  it’s protectionism by keeping the old guard propped up under the disguise of safety.  At worst, it creates scarcity and a monopoly develops.

Direct versus indirect economic benefit. This is the freelance economy in a nutshell.

Every book I’ve sold on Amazon is a book that would otherwise have been sold elsewhere. Instead of someone buying it at a bricks-and-mortar establishment that provides jobs and pays taxes, they’ve chosen to save a little and put $10 in my pocket. It’s a system that has drastically effected a small number of people, but marginally benefited a great number of people.

Never going to watch that DVD again? Sell it on Amazon. Gone for the weekend? Airbnb your apartment. No plans Friday night? Drive around for Lyft. These are all rational decisions, especially for a Millennial graduating college with the equivalent of a mortgage payment. We shouldn’t punish people for trying to take advantage of part time work.

The response isn’t to ignore or fight against, but to embrace. Update the city codes and add flexibility. Make all services viable, because if you try to stop them, you won’t be able to. They won’t change your world overnight, but they should give your city a great tool in a greater toolkit, and a Strong Town is one that embraces the greater toolkit of possibilities.

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Value capture alternative finance model tested on Highway 610

Nathaniel M Hood:

MnDOT considers value capture along 610 in Maple Grove.

Originally posted on Crossroads:

Those who use the roads in Minnesota are generally those who pay for them — through gasoline and vehicle taxes.

But motorists aren’t the only ones who benefit when a new interchange is built or a highway is improved. Home and business values along the corridor go up and the price of undeveloped land can skyrocket.

With highway funds strapped, a new method of funding road expansion, called “real estate value capture,” is garnering attention.

This emerging technique strives to identify beneficiaries of transportation improvements beyond just the highway user, so they provide their fair share of the costs — a concept not dissimilar from residential street assessment.

For instance, a local government might dedicate the additional property tax revenue generated due to a new highway to offset some construction costs, or collect fees on land that is developed near an interchange.

However, value capture is a relatively new technique that has…

View original 237 more words


Lyft: Coming soon to Minneapolis & Some Thoughts

On Thursday, Minneapolis will be one step closer to joining the 21st century. After months of dragging its feet, the City opted to do the inevitable: allow Lyft drivers to pick-up people within its borders.

Lyft. Uber, Airbnb. Amazon. These are technological disruptions to the status quo that cities are struggling to handle. While other reasons are often cited, this delay comes down to money, and who gets it. For example; Lyft and Uber, while city’s don’t balance a budget on taxi cab fees or taxes, the revenue they generate in is not insignificant. When it comes to App-based ride-sharing services, cities like Minneapolis (or Seattle and even Paris) get little in the way of revenue.

Getting started in the taxi business can be expensive. In Seattle, getting started will cost you at least $50,000 for a license. In New York City, a “medallion” can run upwards of $1 million. The cost in Minneapolis is more sane, but the number of taxi licenses are limited. At best,  it’s protectionism by keeping the old guard propped up under the disguise of safety  At worst, it creates scarcity and a monopoly develops.

I can’t remember the last time I was happy about taking a taxi. If your cab shows up, the experience usually goes like this: it shows up late, the backseat is messy, the ride costs too much, the driver won’t take a credit card and insists his machine is broken and doesn’t have proper change.

I’ve used Lyft a handful of times, and it is, hands down, a superior service. It’s more reliable, more affordable and more comfortable. Unless given no other alternatives, I will likely never take a taxi again.

In many regards, Lyft is doing what Amazon did in the mid 2000s: it creates harm to the establishment for the benefit of the masses. Taxi cab drivers will need to either adapt or risk having to find a new job. The upside is that a lot of people like me can make $200 on a Friday shuttling people around. The downside is that people with full-time jobs in that industry are without one. It’s benefit to the many with little regard for the establishment.

The tough question: does this hurt the economy? This is where economics gets tricky and unpredictable.

A few years back, I had a debate during a particularly warm Minnesota winter. It was over an article about snowplow drivers and ski slopes being negatively impacted by the lack of snow. Now, the plow drivers and ski instructors are very negatively impacted. But, what about everyone who didn’t have to spend $12 on an extra show shovel? Or, the government agency who saved money by not paying the snow plow driver? Certainly there is a benefit there.

We’ll eventually get things figured out, but were not quite there yet. In the meantime, I think we need to allow these types of services to prosper. Services like Lyft and Uber aren’t going to solve our transportation ills, but they are a good tool that should be placed in a toolbox of other options.


Don’t be stupid. Be flexible.

Check this out over at Strong Towns!

We need to create an environment with flexibility. It’s crucial in making our cities better places.


Someone painted “ALOHA” – the Hawaiian greeting – into a crosswalk at Lunalilo Home Road and Kalanipuu Street outside Honolulu. With a little paint, an unfriendly suburban stroad crosswalk became slightly more tolerable. But, not everyone is happy. This is a must watch!

A little tactical urbanism has been turned into a crime. Now, it needs to be removed because it violates the Standard, regardless of the support from locals who experience the intersection daily.

One neighbor is quoted saying, “Slow down and enjoy a little aloha. I’d hate to see the city proclaim it is against the law, whether its graffiti or whatever, I think it’s a nice thing.” Another resident agreed“It doesn’t detract from the old lines, so I think its good.”

Residents have started a grassroots effort to keep them via a Facebook page and a Change.org petition.

The Aloha is against the standard. No question about it. But, what good is the standard if it isn’t producing good places? Let’s take this Lunalilo Home Road as our example. It hits the Standard. Notice the four wide lanes, nothing impeding the clear zone, minimal sidewalks, absence of a bike lane, and a speed limit of 30 mph, but a design speed of 50.


You can tell this road hits the Standard because every single house has decided to build a wall blocking it from view.

Now, we have something in the neighborhood that residents like. It was never planned. No one had a meeting about it. Someone just wanted to make their neighborhood a better place and they just did it. Unfortunately, making your neighborhood a little more Aloha violates the Standard.

Here’s where it hurts us most. Does anyone really think the Aloha crosswalks are dangerous? Come on, don’t be stupid. It’s within the original template, works within the lines, and was painted only on the less busy side street crosswalks.

To have a standard that is so inflexible is to say that we’ve perfected intersection crosswalks. We haven’t. Especially Hawaii which has some of the highest rates of pedestrian automobile-related deaths in the United States.  This is where the City of Honolulu should be asking themselves: what has the standard gotten us? A whole lot of places people don’t enjoy being?

How can we change that? It’s simple: we allow flexibility in our codes and standards.

When it comes to infrastructure, government needs to have a role. But, creative displays like Aloha are happening outside the government realm – without permission – because it would either:

a) not be approved,
b) take too long, or
c) cost too much money

I love the Aloha crosswalk. But, if I knew I had to wait four months, go to five public meetings, talk to a half dozen government agencies and still risk the chance it may never see the light of day, well, then I’d probably say “Forget it. I don’t have time.”

The criticism isn’t of public officials. I have friends and colleagues in these roles and they’re smart, capable and creative people. It’s the system. In fact, I’m confident that planners reading this right now would love to have the Aloha crosswalk in their town.

We’ve built a system lacking flexibility. When someone has an idea to paint a crosswalk, it should be welcomed. We take that sidewalk and we experiment. If people like it, then great. If it doesn’t work, we get rid of it. Worse case scenario, what are we out? A few thousand dollars?

Don’t be stupid. Be flexible. We can deviate from the standard. We have to. Otherwise our cities will maintain the status quo and that’s the last thing we want.


Seriously, let’s help the residents out by showing support. “Like” the Facebook page and sign the Change.org petition. I’m skeptical of online petitions, but I think it’s important we show those neighbors who support the Aloha crosswalk that they aren’t crazy.


Travelogue: New Urbanism in the Caribbean & Photos

We don’t have any New Urbanism communities in Minnesota. There are small infill projects that qualify, but we have run-of-the-mill suburbia. So, when I have an opportunity to visit a New Urbanist community, it’s a rare treat. I visited one such place recently and the importance of detail – fine-grained detail – has really stuck with me.

I was in Georgetown, Grand Cayman last week and had the opportunity to visit Camana Bay. The development is about three years old, but the character, complexity and detail as you stroll through on foot is already stunning. It’s as if the place has existed for decades.

Oh! And apparently it has one of the world’s best gelato shops!

I stayed on the other side of the island and was within walking distance to a smaller hub called Rum Point. It wasn’t urban per se, but did do a good job of creating a value place worth walking to.

After being back in Minnesota for a week, I really miss the beautiful Cayman weather. Let me know if anyone knows of any good planning gigs in Grand Cayman.


The Devil is in the Detail

Note:  I highly recommend checking this out over at Strong Towns!

Almost there.

We have embraced a degree of urbanism in our towns and cities. The planning, architecture and development communities have slowly adopted concepts of good urban design. It’s part of an ideological battle that the New Urbanists have won. But, we aren’t all the way there yet. We’ve only finished half the equation.

To illustrate my point, we’ll need to first visit to Troy, New York.

I saw this site plan on Facebook (via Duncan Crary) about two proposed buildings in downtown Troy.


The buildings have a variety of uses, address the street and reacquaint the public to a waterfront park. These are all excellent things. Troy-aficionado, author and urbanist Duncan Crary agrees;

“The urbanism of the buildings … appears to be good. Apartments, yes. Retail, yes. Plaza, sure. Buildings that come up to and respect the “build-to” line, yes! Two buildings rather than one, the more the merrier.”

The problem with Troy’s redevelopment is that the architecture falls flat. It’s a victim of Modernist-Copy/Paste-ism; the act of copying failed designs from our past and blindly pasting them into our present, all with relative ease of computer-aided design. Crary cleverly charts how the buildings resemble some bad apples of local modernist and brutalist architecture [click to enlarge photos].



Fellow New Yorker and author, James Howard Kunstler had this to say;

“The windows look like Mondrian paintings of just geometrical re-arrangements of orthogonal shapes. They’re boring. They’re monotonous. They look mechanical and industrial. They give the message that we don’t really care. And they resemble institutional design, in particular: prison design. They literally look like the balconies of the classic prison cell blocks … ”

He’s right. They are ugly buildings. It begs the question: maybe we shouldn’t be so architecturally agnostic?

Let me switch gears quickly.

We don’t have any New Urbanism communities in my home state of Minnesota. There are small infill projects that qualify, but we have run-of-the-mill suburbia. So, when I have an opportunity to visit a New Urbanist community, it’s a rare treat. I visited two such places recently and the importance of detail – fine-grained detail – has really stuck with me.

I was in Georgetown, Grand Cayman last week and had the opportunity to visit Camana Bay. The development is about three years old, but the character, complexity and detail as you stroll through on foot is already stunning. It’s as if the place has existed for decades.



While in Louisville, Kentucky and I had the pleasure of golf-carting through Norton Commons with the developer. And again, it was a genuine pleasure to see a new community sprout out of a field and in such a short time have the complexity of a turn-of-the-century streetcar suburb. Walking through both of these places, you get the feeling that the architecture will age gracefully.



The critique I hear is that these are over-priced products in green fields with nostalgic architecture. I disagree. I’d say they are a diverse range of market-rate housing in walkable neighborhoods with time-tested, human scale architecture. But, even if this critique is valid, it ignores the strength of the detail of the universal pattern language. Those important little details that can make you forget your standing in what were mangroves three years prior.

Now, let’s bring it back and take let’s look at the streetscape leading up to the new Troy’s new development.


I mean, just look at that! There is an astonishing level of architectural detail. What Troy has is absolutely authentic. It grew incrementally from the ground up into something genuine, resilient and in my humble opinion, it’s beautiful. This is resilient. This is the pattern language of the city. This is what Troy needs to replicate.  History has informed us of what works and it is not modernism and brutalism. So, why are we continuing to replicate them?  Troy has a very easy decision here.

Now, I asked the question earlier, Maybe we shouldn’t be so architecturally agnostic?

As frustrating as it might be, we should be agnostic for architectural style. I believe the devil is always in the detail, and if you don’t have detail, your building will meet a quick demolition. Herein lies the problem. The Troy’s proposal’s architecture lacks the detail and ornament required by its urban design. The math is relatively simple: If you’re going to create a place that requires people to walk, you better give them something worthwhile to walk past. This is the second part of the equation.

Almost there. The urbanism is good. Now, it just needs to add those important little details. Troy is blessed. It has this level of detail all around. All it needs to do is take note.


The New State Senate Office Blah!

We don’t get it. -NOTE: This is a rough draft – see the final version @ Streets.MN …

The new State of Minnesota Senate Office Building is proof: we have an incoherent and approach to urban development and continually fail at creating vibrant spaces.

20140107__140108 Capitol rendering

May I please have my $90 million back?

The architecture. The urban design. The lack of planning. The parking garages. The midnight financing. The confusing lease agreement. It is hard to imagine a scenario playing out that would result in a worse outcome.

Does Anyone Understand Planning and Urban Design?

The Senate building is next to a transit station, but it does not have honor the streetscape. Even worse, the accessory parking structure takes up prime, developable land near the station. In other words, we have spent $1.1 billion on a light rail line that aims to promote transit ridership, walkability, density and urbanism; yet the same people who helped approved the line have also decided to build a parking garage that doesn’t acknowledges the transit station’s existence.

The City of St. Paul and Metropolitan Council have been good at standing up for urbanism along University Avenue. However, this being a State project, exempted from most zoning and building code, the designers of this building have opted to ignore the context of the code’s intention [UrbanMSP].

This is bad planning. No, correction: this is embarrassing planning.

20140107__140108-capitol-rendering - Copy

Undergraduate urban studies students have more sense than to ignore the streetscape at an important transit node

The building ignores people and the people who will be walking along side it. Nothing active is at the street level along any side of the building. Along University Avenue – one of the most important aerials in the Twin Cities – is a blank wall.

To top it off, the public green space has been elevated outside of the public sphere. It is not welcoming to any passerby and gives off the appearance of a private park; no different than what one is likely to find at a suburban corporate campus. These types of green spaces are often left empty. Don’t believe me? Check out every single corporate “green space” in either downtown Minneapolis or St. Paul.


In all fairness, this drab blank wall appropriately echos my attitude towards the Senate


The Poster Child for Parking Subsidies Gone Mad?

Everything written above goes without mentioning the poor design of $27 million six story parking garage. Of which, is required by legislation to have “on-site parking facilities for ALL members [of the Senate] and staff and disabled visitors” [bold emphasis mine].

The legislation was written with the pretext that literally everyone using the building will drive.

This painstakingly detailed design must have taken months to complete!

38 percent of the $90 million price tag is going to subsidize parking.

The project will include a separate $27 million 730 stall parking garage, or approximately $37,000 per space. But, this isn’t the best way to look at it: there are currently 188 open surface spaces, a net gain of 542 parking spaces. Or, approximately $50,000 per additional space created.

185 exisitng

Need. More. Parking. Rawwwrrrr!

Saying that 30 percent of the project is parking is being kind. It’s likely much more. The $27 million for this parking garage does not include the 265 spaces of underground parking. I do not have numbers on the total cost, but suffice it to say that underground parking is expensive. It costs approximately $27,000 per underground space (source, PDF), bringing the total for underground parking to around $7,155,000. The real number is likely higher.

  • $27,000,000 garage + $7,155,000 underground = $34,155,000 million (That is 38% of $90 million).

This is how places decline. We spend tremendous amounts of money on structures near transit investments that will give us a poor return. In this case, our poor return in not just financial, but a genuine assault on our neighborhood, historic building stock and culture. This is the type of investment that will continue to keep our Capital Region lifeless from May through December.


The Wrong Type of Architecture:

Democracy is not an architectural style. But, if it had to be, it’d be neoclassical Beaux Arts. It’s a building vernacular that compliments the awe of civic and democratic aspirations. It’s a typology where you look at and instantaneously know, “This is a place of importance“. Historically, this has held precedence. The proposed architecture all but softly mutters: “I am an office building for a tech firm.”


This building would fit in nicely in an Eagan office park off 35E.

Many of our State Buildings take pay homage to the Beaux Arts – some better than others – but they intentionally express this purpose of democracy and are welcome additions to the public realm. While bland and lacking in technology LEED point generating gizmos, these buildings are handsome and orderly.

Monument buildings have an obligation to present themselves as consistent with our expectations of democracy. In the words of James Howard Kunstler;

“[Monument buildings must] present a sense of decorum to the city. The city can be an intimidating place for the person who lives there. It’s a place where you’re meeting a lot of strangers constantly, you’re around people you don’t know. There are a lot of exciting, stimulating, but also kind of intimidating things that happen to you in the city. So one of the purposes of architecture for a few thousand years has been to reassure us that when we’re in the city, we’re in a place that is safe, in which transactions occur that we can understand. We’re in surroundings that are coherent, that the outsides of the buildings embellish the public realm and honor the public realm.”

The architecture of the new Senate building fails to do this. It is a design fit for an office park in Eagan.

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Should The Dorothy Day Center Relocate?

“I hate being reminded how unequal things are in this city that I love. I hate that I’m forced to confront how little I’m doing about it. And I hate what my lack of generosity says about me, especially on the days I stop at the Starbucks one block down for a $2.15 tea.” – Amanda Erickson, Atlantic Cities

A few years ago, I worked at the Holiday Inn on West 7th St. in St. Paul, about a block away from the Dorothy Day Center. I operated the shuttle van – weddings, hockey games, college visits, bar-hopping, etc.. From short cuts to scenic routes, I learned the local landscape of where to take people, and equally as important, where not to take people.

Half of the job was giving directions, and wanting each visitor have a positive experience, I intentionally gave walking directions that detoured Dorothy Day. It wasn’t uncommon for 40 to 50 homeless people to be sitting, loitering, or sleeping outside at any given time; and having people in their Sunday best walk past made-shift sidewalk sleeping bags on a stroll to a live-recording of ‘A Prairie Home Companion‘ or the Children’s Museum made people very, very uncomfortable.

More times than not, the place would make me feel uncomfortable too. It’d often spill out over into the hotel lobby. Homeless people would sneak into the lobby bathroom, and it was not a rare occurrence that I’d have to stop someone from washing their armpits out in the sink. One homeless man defecated on the floor. That, and it was always battle to stop panhandlers at the front entrance. Police calls, while not commonplace, weren’t exactly rare.

It was a constant battle that I found it endlessly annoying, and I think the Downtown St. Paul community feels exactly the same way.

Here’s the elephant in the room: the Dorothy Day Center is a “gift and a curse”. It provides much needed services: hot meals, health services and a temporary bed for those most in need. Yet, it is viewed by most as an uncomfortable eyesore and an impediment to downtown development.

According to the Pioneer Press,

” …  St. Paul’s largest emergency overnight shelter hosts up to 250 homeless men and women each night … The existing site, which opened in 1981 as a day facility for 30 to 50 clients, has become dangerously overcrowded. Meanwhile, annual counts show homelessness in Minnesota is on the rise.” Pioneer Press (1/02/14)

Should the Dorothy Day Center Relocate? I think there is a compelling case to why it should move. And, in reality, there isn’t much opposition to relocating Dorothy Day facilities [map: proposed relocation]. A new facility, one that mirrors Minneapolis’ efforts on long-term apartments, would be a good move. However, the move also seems unnecessary and it might be better to concentrate all facilities along W. 7th Street, near the existing facility.

In a criticism similar to that of the Saints Stadium, the process has had too little public input (Pioneer Press, 1/5/13). This trend needs to slow, and public engagement needs to be more proactive. In an effort to aid the conversation, I’m compiled a list of pro’s and con’s to the relocation:


  • New Facility: A new, more modern facility that includes transitional and long-term apartment units would be beneficial to the homeless population. The existing facility is small and needs other improvements. This benefit cannot be understated.
  • Redevelopment [W. 7th]: The visibility of Dorothy Day in a prominent location in downtown St. Paul hurts the redevelopment opportunities across from the Xcel Energy Center. People feel uncomfortable around homeless people and developing office, residential or retail space is unlikely until relocation. The “2nd Phase” of the development will be long-term apartments and stay near the W. 7th site.
  • Better Location? [Lafayette]: The proposed relocation site is dominated by local and state government office space. These tenants are not likely to abandon space due to increased proximity to a homeless shelter.
  • Police Department, Regions Hospital, and New Mental Health Facilities: Having closer proximity to police and hospital facilities may be beneficial for public health and public safety reasons.
  • According to Mayor Chris Coleman, homeless and those getting services at Dorothy Day, “felt like they were on display there and they were uncomfortable with that location. We want to make it very clear that we aren’t trying to stuff our homeless in the corner somewhere, but do what is in the best interests of the clients that we’re serving.”Star Tribune, (12/20/14)


  • Cost: Relocating facilities is likely to cost more money. Each dollar spent on developing a site is a dollar not spent on care. This needs to be an important part of the conversation. The cost is estimated to be approximately $63 million (from private and public sources).
  • Redevelopment [W. 7th]: On the record, this is not part of the conversation. Off the record, it is the elephant in the room. If relocated, would private development occur? I am not optimistic. Apartments wedged between a hockey arena and an interstate, and along two busy roads, would be a tough sell to developers; and the office space market is weak and doesn’t justify new space. However, it should be noted that I do hope I am wrong.
  • Out of Sight, Out of Mind?: Oddly, having homeless people visible has its benefits. Income inequality is alive and well in our society, and pushing it outside, no matter how noble the cause, may not be in our society’s best interest. As uncomfortable as it makes us feel, we must acknowledge that it exists.
  • Transit: The proposed redevelopment area is less connected to local transit options (including the proposed streetcar line). This is a secondary concern, but should be considered in the decision-making process.
  • Overburdening the East Side?: Residents near the proposed site believe their neighborhood hosts a disproportionate amount of the city services, including the jail and detox clinic. Residents believe “cramming too many needy people into a handful of city blocks will hurt, not help, the poor” (Pioneer Press, 1/5/14). That’s a little misleading. I don’t think it’ll have a big effect on the poor themselves, but it’ll likely affect neighborhood perception negative.

The Dorothy Day Center  is an asset to the City of St. Paul. It always has been. The expansion should be a welcome addition. However, I want us to be making this decision for the right reasons, and not because we feel uncomfortable with Dorothy Day in its existing location. Although it hasn’t been part of the conversation, the redevelopment of the large surface parking lot across from the hockey arena is most certainly on people’s minds.

The current concentration of homeless that the building attracts can be intimidating and it is certainly unpleasant. As someone who worked in the area, I can certainly attest to that. Yet, I also think that the redevelopment potential for the site is overstated.

Should the Dorothy Day Center relocate or expand on it’s existing site? In my mind, there is no right answer.