Boondoggle Bankrupsyville

The Politics of Dumb Infrastructure [@ Streets.MN]

We have a political situation in the United States where Democrats are too eager to build anything if it creates a job and the Republicans are too willing to call a project a boondoggle without first investigating its merit. It is this standstill that Josh Barro argues in How Republicans Made Both Parties Stupid On Fixing Infrastructure:

Republicans aren’t interested in coming up with smarter, more efficient ways to build rail infrastructure. So;Democrats fear that if they don’t defend wasteful, ill-conceived rail projects, they won’t get any at all. 

Barro uses the example of New Jersey Governor Chris Christy killing a proposed $10 billion railway tunnel into New York City;

The project was overly expensive and the terminal, in particular, was unnecessary — New York Penn Station, which currently receives trains from New Jersey, has plenty of platforms, they’re just used inefficiently today. We could much more cheaply build a new tunnel to serve the existing station.

It’s hard not to apply a local context. The Southwest Corridor light rail alignment comes to mind. The preferred local alternative is one of compromise: taking federal money while it’s still available, getting it done quickly, and bypassing Uptown in the process.


Great example of “Dumb Infrastructure”:

Cleveland Revisits 1960s With Urban Renewal-Style “Opportunity Corridor”


So, to read more on this topic you’ll need to jump over to Streets.MN.

Preference Paths: Don’t go where?

I love it when people make their own path! They’re all over the place [and even have a Flickr group dedicated to their existence].

This is along Minnehaha Creek in South Minneapolis. This section of the trail has been closed for the better part of a year for safety reasons because of flood damage. As a bicyclist and jogger who frequents the path, I’ve noticed that people more or less ignore these warning signs [if you look closely, you’ll notice a little dirt path that has been created on the lower right hand side of the photo].

The closed trail is interesting and really poses no safety danger. In this particular case, I find it to be more interesting because it is closed.

Livability and Bus Stops

“Livability” is a word I try to avoid when describing the urban environment. It has ceased to mean anything to me. It’s a mere buzzword [I’m not alone on this – great article can be read about it here and here].Yet, While I might not be able to pin-point what makes a place ‘livable’ – I can almost always point out what makes an area not livable.

Enter: This bus stop.

This is a bus stop located in south Minneapolis on S. 36th St. adjacent to Lakewood Cemetery between Girard and Hennepin. It is one of a half dozen stops along the road that are virtually inaccessible.

How to get there?

It appears as if there were once painted lines indicating a crosswalk on the Hennepin side, but they have since vanished; and there is no crosswalk on the Girard side. You’ll have to wait for traffic to stop. Once you cross the 3 lanes of traffic (at 35mph), you’ll arrive at the sidewalk along the cemetery fence.

You’ll have to navigate between the fence and the fire hydrant, or just walk in the street. When you count the lack of a curb cut, this might be the least ADA compliant bus stop in the State. The sidewalk isn’t wide – the end of the curb to the fence line is a little over 2 feet in length.

It’s no surprise that these stops are rarely visited despite their convenient access southward to Southdale, the Lakes and going north into downtown along popular routes. The routes (6, 23, 114, 115) are well traveled, especially the high-frequency 6-route. Yet, at these stops – nada.

There is a greater point here …

I don’t want to complain about individual bus stops. I’d rather concentrate on the larger scheme of things; which is that the stop along 36th St S. in Minneapolis is not unique. We have terrible bus stops!

This is along Interstate 394 in Minneapolis on a frontage road. Who in their right mind would use these bus stops? The stops are small, blue signs that read “BUS”. There are no time schedules or route details – just the word “BUS”. [Note: I do like the small consideration made on the lower image. Someone was kind enough to pick the weeds near the stop. At least one person cares]. I can’t imagine missing my bus at this stop – waiting 20 minutes while sitting on the curb, no shade, just watching cars zip by at the 40mph speed limit in the unbearable summer heat / winter freeze.

This is unacceptable

The routes running along 36th Ave S and I-394 are different – one route is traveled often and one is never traveled. Yet, the stops look are exactly the same! Governments have limited resources. Not every bus stop needs to be the deluxe version – but we should be better than the bare minimum. As long as we build bus stops to the bare minimum standard, that is exactly the type of ridership we’re likely to get.

Calhoun Square: The Psychology of Parking

The idea of free parking is so ingrained into the American collective that we have lost the ability to act rational.

Case Study: Calhoun Square

The Star Tribune had a piece about the on-going transformation of Calhoun Square. The quasi-suburban style shopping mall was a neighborhood transplant in the early 1980s over a once-busy commercial streetcar corner. The building and its tenants have had some ups and downs overs the past three decades. But …

In the past year, Calhoun Square has become the home of a busy LA Fitness center as well as the Uptown Cafeteria and Support Group, a restaurant with a popular rooftop patio … And earlier this month, Calhoun Square finalized lease terms for CB2, a younger, hipper version of Crate & Barrel …

Nicely remodeled building. New stores. More restaurants. More parking. What’s not to love? Well, if you happened to read the “comments” section on the Star Tribune website, you’d realize that people are not happy about paying for parking!

Here’s a sample:

“What turns me off from visiting Calhoun Square is the parking situation. Paying outlandish amounts to park somewhere that should really be free is what keeps me away from there. I know I’m not the only one that avoids frequenting the area due to parking.”

“I live less than two miles to the east of Calhoun but I avoid going there because of the parking situation in uptown. There have been several times where me or family members would liked to have shopped for something in the uptown area, but we have a big mental obstacle to overcome when considering the parking. If we do go we often park blocks away where it’s free and walk to the stores.”

“I would think the problem with Calhoun Square is perfectly obvious. I’m never going to drive across town to pay to park so I can get mugged, robbed or beaten, are you kidding me? I used to go there for Haircuts, Dining, Shopping and Movies. Not worth it anymore.”

The thing is that parking isn’t actually expensive.

The rate is $1.00 per hour up to 3 hours, and it tappers off afterwards. The daily maximum (that’s right, parking for 24 total hours) is $9. Furthermore, some businesses will validate parking (usually up to 2 hours free).

This is where the psychology of free, abundant  parking really kicks in: Most businesses in Calhoun Square cater towards a higher-end market; such as the  upscale pet boutique, designer shoe store or the store dedicated exclusively to selling $18 pairs of funky socks. And this doesn’t include the slightly-more-expensive and trendy restaurants that serve $12 mixed drinks alongside $25 entrees. Meaning: the people who are unwilling to pay for parking are the same people who would be willing to shop at Calhoun Square.

Is idea of free parking is so ingrained in our DNA that we are willing to spend $85 on upscale pet accessories (or $18 pairs of socks or $10 on a glass of house wine), yet balk and complain at the idea of spending $2 to park?

Politics and Zoning: Treating the symptoms and not the disease

Redeveloping St. Paul’s Suburban Avenue

The development is simple: built a new strip mall area with a handful of shops including a Starbucks, Dairy Queen, Cowboy Slim’s and a Max-It Pawn. Fair enough – it fits in with the parcel of land that shares a property line with a McDonald’s, Blockbuster, Taco Bell and Papa John’s.

There is a problem: the proposal to rehab the out-of-business used car dealership has been rejected by the St. Paul Planning Commission.

St. Paul probably doesn’t need another strip mall, but Suburban Avenue is an odd place. It runs along a busy Interstate, is littered with cheap fast-food joints, is nearly 100 percent auto-oriented, loud from the humming of the Interstate and is an all-around ugly place. Yet, because of the unfortunate surroundings, it only makes sense to build another strip mall – anything else would be a financial failure.

[Notice how the collection of strip malls next to the Interstate with no sidewalks or nearby residential zoning is still being billed as a “Town Center”]

This development was rejected by the City’s Planning Commission not because of its merits, but because a pawn shop (Max-It Pawn) is considered an “alternative financial institution” and the City of St. Paul says these types of places can’t be within 1,300 feet of each other (or, approximately a quarter of a mile). There is a Piggy Bank Cash Checking Company 1,100 feet away; hence making things difficult for Max-It Pawn.

I’m in stride with those who are skeptical about these types of “alternative financial institutions”, but I have come to understand reality -which is the duality of how these institutions take advantage of society’s most vulnerable while simultaneously providing them a service that traditional banking institutions have ignored.

Society, and therefore zoning, discourages these kinds of businesses. Hence, we have our arbitrary, non-scientific, politically-aimed and overly technical 1,300 feet rule.

Trouble right here in Uptown?

Now, let’s switch gears for a moment and concentrate on Uptown. This area of Minneapolis couldn’t be more different than Suburban Avenue – it’s mixed-used, pedestrian-oriented, close to the city core, affluent and has a healthy dose of small, local non-chain style businesses.

To an extent, these places are polar opposites. But, they do share something in common: arbitrary zoning restrictions aiming to conquering societal ills.

Enter an ordinance that would change the distance calculation as it relates to the required distance a liquor store must be away from a school or church. Currently, liquor stores cannot be closer than 300 feet of the front door to a school or church. The proposed change would make it 300 feet from a property line of a church or school. [Source]

The story about this ordinance is interesting: the change didn’t just come out of the blue – a small business owner applied for a conditional use permit from the City of Minneapolis to open a liquor store in a small commercial space. He met with the local Council member and told her his plan. After the meeting and within the same month, that same Council member proposed a change to the city ordinance (see above, here and here).

Note: It appears as if the Council member will win this battle on Hennepin Avenue. The Star Tribune briefly covered the story. There will be no upscale liquor and cheese store – not because of sound reasoning or rational thought, but because of an arbitrary political motive.

What’s the problem?

These restrictions are put in place for political objectives that have little to do with providing positive public outcomes.  Distance requirements are generally styled to oppose one particular development at one particular point in time, but end up becoming laws that are  overly technical and not based on any sort of scientific, economic, sociological or urban planning styled- evidenced-based research. Once a regulation is on the books, it typically stays put. This makes every new business or development abide by regulations decided by one Council member who happened to disapprove of an upscale liquor and cheese store opening into a empty strip-mall space in their neighborhood.

This is not good urban planning and doesn’t address the real problems of society.

For example; the problem in Uptown is that people drink a lot of alcohol. The problem on  Suburban Avenue is that it’s composed exclusively of people with lower incomes. Instead of tackling the issue of binge drinking or urban poverty, the political solution has been to limit access to services the community desires. In doing so, they are not solving the real problem – but in turn making it worse by creating monopolies that will inevitably charge higher prices for the products and services society disdains.

We are treating the symptoms and not the disease.