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.


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.


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, 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.


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.


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



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?

gerberts jewerly setback

An Article About Grand Avenue’s Setbacks


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.


* 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.


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).


The Impending Decline of Second Ring Suburbs

There is a small war going on in Americas second-ring suburbs.

As many places cautiously emerge out of the housing recession, the uptick in new development has been at odds with concerned citizens, elected officials, developers and long-range plans. The only word that comes to mind: bipolar.

To best describe what is going on countrywide, I’m going to use an example in my backyard: the Minneapolis suburb of Minnetonka (not the lake). It’s a well-to-do middle-class community that has expensive, moderate and cheap suburban living. As far as suburbs go, it has a surprising range of housing price points.

The suburb had it’s largest growth during the 1970s, when its population jumped 43 percent, and again in the 1990s with a 25 percent gain. I only bring this up so you can paint a mental picture of cul-de-sacs of split levels and starter mansions with wooded lots. Add in a regional mall and interstate extension to complete the image.

These suburbs would like to grow their tax base, but they haven’t much additional land to grow outwards. All new growth must go upwards. It is this dynamic that has longtime residents at odds with the future non-existent residents.

Here is a proposed development that will knock down a 1980s bank and replace it with a suburban retrofit mixed-use building on a parcel that sits adjacent a dying shopping mall with hundreds of acres of empty parking.

Highland Bank Minnetonka Redevelopment Site

The existing land use is three-quarters parking and abuts two major regional arterial roads.

The mall and adjacent commercial area are the defacto “downtown” of Minnetonka. It currently looks like what you’d expect it to look like.


The Ridgedale Mall is the defacto “downtown” and commercial core of the suburb.

The proposed redevelopment fits the spirit of the community’s 2035 visioning plan that calls to transform the retail center into a vibrant, mixed use community with improved pedestrian connections. Here’s a snapshot of what the developer is proposing:


The building isn’t perfect, but it is a great step in the right direction. All things considered, it’s a thumbs up.

The decision whether or not to approve the building came down to a close vote. Unfortunately, the Council voted against it and instead, for the wishes of existing residents. Concerns ranged from added traffic, increased density, more difficulty finding parking, and not fitting in with the community character. One concerned citizen was quoted as saying, “I was relieved they didn’t vote for a project that doesn’t fit the core Minnetonka values.”

Many are rolling their eyes now (if you’d like to continue rolling your eyes, read this Letter to the Editor).The objections are classic NIMBY claims. However, please consider that the citizens aren’t necessarily wrong. Developments like these will change the community’s character. But, is changing the character of a stagnating suburban strip mall corridor such a bad thing?

It struck many aging suburban communities in the mid 2000s that they needed some type of mixed use center. Planners, city officials, and neighborhood groups spent the following years hashing out plans. These were often long, frustrating meetings, but alas, in the end, democracy favored those who showed up.

Countless hundreds of hours were spent at countless meetings creating plans that, at the time, had little market viability. They were pie-in-the-sky ideas. Fast-forward a decade and the things have changed. The market is going after pent up demand for urbanism. Now, we have the same type of people who were originally involved in the visioning process who are now opposing the very type of development they sought.

When suburbs need to put their money whether their mouth is, they often get skittish. Its sad because it’s a real waste of everyone’s time when our city plans and market say yes, but the neighbors say no.

Suburbia is designed for the automobile and this development controversy is case-and-point why that is such a bad thing for growth. The nearest single-family home to the development is approximately 950 feet (about three football fields). Yet, there is literally no way to directly get to the development.


As a direct result of suburban design, 900 feet translates into a 1 mile walk along an interstate frontage road with no sidewalk (no joke). This means that traffic and parking will be an issue if this person ever wants to enjoy the added amenities (which include a restaurant and coffee shop).

The disconnecting nature of suburban design takes something that should to be a benefit and turns it into a headache. There is a big difference between a three minute walk and a one mile drive, and your relationship with that place changes as a result. In a way, I don’t fault particular neighbors for opposing. It might be tougher to find a parking spot. And, even if traffic won’t be effected, why take the chance? You live in the suburbs and your commute is bad enough as it is.

Suburban retrofits might be the only long-term financially-viable options for aging suburbs. These places often cover a huge land mass, have lots of roadways and sewer pipes, and not a lot of population density to help pay for it. Minnetonka, for example, has a land mass half the size of its neighbor Minneapolis. Yet, its population that is approximately 8 times less.

Most of Minnetonka’s infrastructure is around 30 to 50 years, and those sewer pipes aren’t going to last forever. They’ll need people to pay for it.

I like to ask the question: If not this, then what?

Aging suburbia is going through an identity crisis. Existing residents would like the place to stay much the same. New residents, including those who do not live there yet, are demanding something else. So, what else? These places can’t continue to stay the same. Yet, the change is to difficult for many to swallow. This is why the default for most suburbs is decline. Growth isn’t built into its DNA.

For those living deep in the suburban pattern, new development doesn’t make your life a better place. Nearly the entire housing stock of the second-ring suburb is  designed in a way that the lack of development is the best option. If a home’s ideal is to be disconnected, then anything near it – whether good or bad – that isn’t nature is taking away from that aesthetic.

Here in lies one of the biggest faults in suburbia: it’s not designed to change. In mature cities, as land values increased, the intensity of development would follow. That’s why downtown Minneapolis, which once housed single family homes, now has blocks of towering skyscrapers. This is change needs to occur.

The harsh reality is that these places will have to change or face an impending decline. Many first-ring suburbs, such as St. Louis Park, have decided to grow upwards. Will the second-ring follow suit?

America: The Random

Here’s the game.

Open Google Maps. Zoom out to the entire US. Grab the StreetView icon.


Hover over the center of the US (aim for Kansas) and close your eyes. Shake the mouse for a few seconds and let go. Let the adventure begin. Boom!


Jackpot. America, the beautiful. I landed at Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah. The place looks amazing, but I can’t imagine being a pioneer trying to cross it with a wagon cart. This definitely looks like a place I’d love to visit.

Okay, now to round two. Here we go …


Some bridge over some road in north North Carolina. Lake Reidsville. Looks nicel America’s a big, beautiful place, and most of our land is rural. We’ve got some great countryside.


A First-Timer Plays Dungeons & Dragons

Has there ever been a better time to be a nerd? No, probably not. So, I wanted to dive in deeper …

My first adventure into ultimately nerdery has left me with one resounding conclusion: if you have never played Dungeons and Dragons, whatever you think you know, forget it. You are wrong. It’s not the broad common assumption supported by mainstream media and it’s certainly not the Simpson’s Comic Book guy.

It’s something else.

Dungeons and Dragons is a game I have been anxious to play for quite sometime, but up until recently, I never had that special someone to introduce me. After what felt like a decade, my friend Chris invited to join his group. I finally had my date. Wednesday night. 7pm. Roseville. Fantasy Flight Games Event Center.

On Facebook, a friend suggested I pick up a bag of Cooler Ranch Doritos, Twizzlers and some Mountain Dew. These were surely the needed rations. With giddy delight, I texted a photo of the junk food to my Dungeons and Dragons playing friend. It was only a few seconds later that I was alerted that “Sadly you can’t bring that into FFG :(.

It is at this point that I realized that I had absolutely no idea what I was walking into. Is Dungeons and Dragons even possible without Mountain Dew?

It hit me. I experienced something I hadn’t in the longest time: unreasonable teenage angst. As if I was going on a first date. I even mentally beat myself up over what I should wear. It was prom night and I was unprepared and unsure of myself. I could do nothing but drive north on Snelling Avenue and sip Mountain Dew in anticipation.

The FFG Event Center shattered any preconceived notions I had as it more closely resembles a post-modernist downtown hotel than your high school friend’s parent’s basement. Which, frankly, was both disappointing and relieving. I quickly grabbed a coffee at the cafe and my friend picked up a Surly on-tap before the game (yes, local craft beer is available).

I was a halfling rouge teamed up with an elf and two dwarfs. It was an unbalanced team consisting of two rookies, a mid-career professional and an experienced veteran. And the ruthless Dungeon Master? A friendly dude named Brian.

After a quick explanation of the rules, we were off. The first mission: get a dragon egg from a barn.

Okay – this is where I’m going to lose a few people. I agree. Getting a dragon egg from a barn doesn’t exactly sound epic. I was along for the ride, even if the whole deal seemed shady. I distrust anyone, fictional or otherwise, willing to exchange money for a dragon egg in a barn. It worked out beautifully though and it was a great beginners story to learn a few tricks and strategies.

For our successful completion (oh! we dropped a few bad dudes in the process), we were granted 200 gold coins by a man I can only assume was going to use that dragon egg for nefarious purposes. Regardless, we got our coin and traversed into something a little more frightening: a goblin cave.

An crying woman’s family had been kidnapped at their now-ransacked farm outside of town (advice to humans living in the world of DnD: buy Goblin Insurance).

Here’s where the real fun began. So, two dwarves, an elf, and a rogue halfling walk into a goblin cave. We head into the cave and it’s at this point, maybe an hour and a half into the game, that I get it. I decide to take two items and use my imagination (lantern + flask of oil) and toss all of them into the cave. The result was a medieval Molotov cocktail with a side of chaos. One fried goblin later, we’re inside and rescuing some humans. Success!

Two missions down, literally thousands to go …

What’s astonishing about Dungeons and Dragons is the learning curve. It’s easy to get started, but the game can get insanely complex. It’s your job to use your best improvisational skills within the boundaries of the game. It’s about asking questions, improvising, and moving within a loose framework. It creates this beautiful platform where you can play the same series of events 10 times and never have the same outcome. It’s a table top game with near infinite possibilities.

What did you do last Wednesday?

I helped rescue some humans, drop some evil goblins, bought a dragon egg, and made a few friends in the process. Heroes in our own minds. Nerds in the minds of others. But who cares? There’s never been a better time to be a nerd.

If you haven’t played Dungeons and Dragons, I think you really should. Grab a coffee (or Surly on-tap) and join us each Wednesday in Roseville’s FFG at 7pm.

If you have the courage to show up, I can guarantee you’ll have a great time.


The Urbanism Crowdsourcing Hodge Podge Twitter Grab Bag

It all started with a tweet …

The responses quickly came in. First from Mike Christensen, who has a quick draw. He’s the fastest tweet in the west.

I have a lot of thoughts on road diets, specifically that we don’t do enough of them. We have a cultural misunderstanding about what makes a good place. That misunderstanding starts with the road. We tend to view all roads as conduits of moving traffic as efficiently as possible. We do this with little regard to the built environment. In urban areas, this recklessness destroys our traditional urban fabric. In suburbia, it doesn’t create a template for future urban growth to occur.

The next Tweet, from Mike Sonn, is about a local St. Paul example of the need for the above. For those who missed it, there was a child walking to school who was struck by a vehicle along a street in desperate need of a road diet.

This is a good question and I don’t know why.

What I do know is that four lanes is inappropriate and a 4-3 conversation should extend into St. Paul. There are a lot of needs in St. Paul’s east side, but I am regrettably not intimately familiar. This comes with embarrassment. It is a place that I genuinely wish I knew more about. But I, like many others, haven’t played close attention; much to the detriment of half the city.

Next tweet, from Nick Hannula, is about the Riverview Corridor:

This is a difficult question (thank you). I have two answers:

1. I support taking the Riverview Corridor right down the middle of West 7th  and giving it a) signal prioritization and b) an exclusive right-of-way. The intersection at Highway 5 should divert car traffic down Shepard Road. This would slow down traffic on W. 7th and help allow the area (especially south of Randolph) to mature and become more urban. A few notes on this; I would be timid in supporting a plan that doesn’t connect to the airport to downtown. The Ford Site rail spur would be best used as a rails-to-trail project.

2. It was disappointing to see the City of St. Paul turning down money for BRT along W. 7th. As someone who lives a stone’s throw from W. 7th, I would rather have BRT today than the potential (maybe?) for LRT / streetcar in 10 to 15 years. If we would have made the BRT move, I think it would have helped push even more development along the corridor and we could have always upgraded it to LRT if ridership demanded that in the future.

Next tweet is from Chris;

Triangle blocks are beautiful. Architects do their best work when they are constrained by space. Triangle blocks do this; rectangle blocks do not. But, why not triangle blocks? When it comes to infrastructure, we’re stuck with what our ancestors gave us. There are some quirky spaces in the Twin Cities, but they are rare. Most of our blocks are based on the land-dividing efficiency of the 90 degree right angle. However, for the few that do exist, we should take them and create great places!

Next tweet is from Fred Melo;

I recommend going nuts.

Next tweet is from Bill Dooley,

This is a good, complicated question. And, I want to apologize for not answering it thoroughly. I don’t know enough about the risks to comment any further. There is risk in co-location. Environmentally it would be a disaster if anything did happen. Will that happen? Fingers crossed it doesn’t.

Southwest Light Rail should have bypassed the Kenilworth Corridor and traveled through Uptown. That ship has sailed. What we’re left with is a political compromise that no one is really happy with. The whole situation would have been avoided if we decided to give transit to those most likely to use it.

Next tweet is from Andrew Price;

Yes! We need to place senior housing in walkable communities. In many American cities, we have adapted senior housing to be in suburban style complexes. They are also often developed at a mega-scale. We need to scale them down. I, however, do not like the idea of a building being a ‘village’ in and of itself. All of our development should strive to connect with the immediate community.

And finally, from Adam;


Dreamcast is, without question, the most underrated gaming system of all-time. It was innovative in many ways that go unrecognized today. For starters, Sega modernized sports game. Prior to the NFL 2k series, sports games were basic. Sega added that spice and everyone (including EA) followed suit. Secondly, Dreamcast was the first to have online multiplayer. The next console to have full online capability wasn’t until PS3’s release in 2007. Dreamcast was 8 years ahead!

The games on Dreamcast were second to none. However, they were games for gamers. They lacked a “Halo” style mainstream game (although Sonic Adventure 1 & 2 were undoubtedly solid). Dreamcast did best when taking risks with such games as Jet Grind Radio, Chu Chu Rocket, Skies of Arcadia, and countless others. These niche games were great, but ultimately lacked mass appeal.

Sega at the time, 1999 to 2001,  was still recovering from flops such as Sega CD, 32X and the Sega Saturn. Consumers didn’t trust Sega and, as a result, were slow to adopt Dreamcast. PS2 killed Dreamcast. Many people didn’t have DVD players and that capability with PS2 really helped give it an edge.

I recommend reading “Console Wars” by Blake Harris. It’s the tale of Sega v. Nintendo in the early 1990s. It primarly concentrates on Genesis vs. Super Nintendo, but hints at the failures of Saturn and Dreamcast as internal conflicts between Sega of Japan (HQ) and their American counterpart (SOA – Sega of America).

Thanks everyone!