29.3.06

density&diversity: Transit Conference

Transit for Livable Communities (TLC) and Surface Tranportation Policy Project (STPP)invite you to join other local advocates for transit, walking, and biking to participate in a special workshop...

Moving from the Margins to the Mainstream:Using the Federal Surface Transportation LawTo Meet the Mobility Needs of Your Community
April 11 (10 am to 6 pm) & April 12 (7:30 am to 2:30 pm)
Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota
301 19th Avenue S, Minneapolis, MN

Register Here: www.transact.org/2006workshops/


This workshop will give you the insights and face-to-face opportunities to forge strategic partnerships to help you expand transit, increase pedestrian and bicycle travel, improve safety of all system users, and conform transportation investments to the context of your community.

SAFETEA-LU User’s Guidebook will serve as the core background material for the workshop sessions.

Participants Include:
Anne Canby, President, STPP; and former Commissioner Delaware DOT
Barb Thoman, Program Director, Transit for Livable Communities
Federal Transit / Federal Highway Administration Representatives
Metropolitan Council Staff
Local and Midwest Regional Transit Advocates

Cost: Free

Register for the Workshop:
1) By going to www.transact.org/2006workshops/

Similar workshops are taking place across the country. When registering be sure to select that you want to attend the Twin Cities workshop.


For More Information: Contact Dave Van Hattum at davevh@tlcminnesota.org

Note: If you can only attend one day please attend Tuesday, April 11.

27.3.06

mpls: Walkable City?

I'm a big big fan of The Rake Magazine, not only because it boasts my favorite local journalist, but beacuse of the way it encourages reluctant suburban enclave dwellers to get out and explore our diverse city. Sure that might mean they target a yuppie audience with writeups of the new BMW 330, but that's the price we pay for living in sprawl-ville.

Anyway, there's a must read article by Jennifer Vogel about whether or not the T.C. is pedestrian friendly. (Easy answer: "No.")
I marched along the sidewalk on Marshall Street Northeast, as cars spit up beads of gravel like BBs. I crossed littered sidewalks, closed sidewalks, unshoveled sidewalks. At the foot of the Broadway Avenue bridge, which has to be one of the most unpleasant in the Twin Cities, I was stopped in my tracks by a driver idling in a crosswalk. Of course, he was looking the other way. The backs of drivers’ heads are now very familiar to me, but in those days, as a new walker, the experience was fresh. “Hey!” I yelled, to no avail. The streets of Minneapolis can be lonely and infuriating for those on foot, but blaming local drivers for not noticing pedestrians is akin to blaming Africans for not knowing all the words for snow.

As I headed into downtown, I found my route blocked by The Landings, an enormous suburban-style condominium development that runs along West River Parkway. I picked my way through a labyrinth of winding sidewalks designed to look private (and maybe they are), parking lots, and all manner of fencing. The few gates that would allow passage were so cleverly disguised that I had to squint to detect them.

Every time I go to New York, I end up walking miles and miles every day -- simply because it comes so naturally there, where the streets are filled with things (people, shops, funky buildings) to see. Here, not so much. The few times I walk any great distance around my forgotten nook of Saint Paul I end up feeling like a Mongolian goat herder or something.

Sure it's getting better (thanks, streetscaping), but there's still a long way to go. The basic problem: in order to make a city walkable, there needs to be something to walk to. I'm luckier than most, because there's a corner store three doors down from my house, and many many people in the neighborhood walk to it for groceries, homemade brats, or smokes. In the summer, kids ride their bikes there for a candy bar -- it's fun to watch.

But, there's a long way to go before people actually feel like going for a stroll in this town. And every time I see a new condo with a street-level parking ramp my heart sinks. There, but for the grace of God, could have been an interesting storefront. It might seem a tad simplistic, but the city should really really discourage putting concrete walls at eye level -- simply so that people have something to look at when they're walking around the block. And if you're still not convinced, go stand in front of the CVS store at Snelling and University . . .

elections: Electoral College Pro and Con

The Strib had an Op-Ed today on the state-by-state Electoral College proposal. I'm sure I'm preaching to the choir, but this is important.

Now that Minnesota is a battleground getting lots of attention, it's a lot to ask the Legislature to do the right thing and endorse the new compact. But it really should. So should other states -- both red and blue -- join, for the sake of a better democracy.

What's Minnesota "getting" out of being a swing state? High dollar campaigns? Local media ad buys? High profile appointments for ambitious pols?

Frankly, who cares? The electoral college is an embarrassment, and there's no reason Minnesota shouldn't board the reform train.

If you need more proof, look no further than the Washington Post columnist David Broder's opinion piece arguing against the state-by-state E.C. reform. Here's his main argument:

That argument is a bit curious. It seems to assume that voters in New York and Texas are somehow excluded from awareness of everything that happens in the campaign -- as if the newspapers and TV stations in their states were not covering it every day.

Meanwhile, it ignores the implications of a direct election plan for two of the fundamental characteristics of the American scheme of government: the federal system and the two-party system.


That's the best you've got, Washington D.C.? That New York voters know what's happening in Iowa, and that the "founders" wanted it this way? The founders never explicitly asked for a two party system, and they certainly wouldn't have argued for a president that didn't get the majority of the nation's vote. And even if they had wanted the E.C., so what? Things have clearly changed, and most of the nation's population lives in large cities. Yet a handful of rural states get greater weight in Washington -- effectively disenfranchising millions of urban Americans.

Given the decrease in public confidence in U.S. elections -- and especially the 2000 debaucle -- civic-minded Democrats and Republicans at the state level should move to reconnect voters with their elected officials. And that even includes the President.

23.3.06

stp: TIF for New Condos

The PiPress has a story on two new condos going up in or near downtown St. Paul. One is the West Side Flats project, right near (in the thick of) where the "Bridges" thing is being plannned. The other is in the old public safety building, near the freeway side of downtown.

The projects are not without controversy. The debate is whether or not any development that received TIF money ought to include affordable housing.
Although the HRA approved the projects, the debate has not ended. Each development would use tax breaks in the form of tax-increment financing, which use anticipated increases in property values to help fund development. Together the projects are expected to receive nearly $12 million in property tax breaks, spread out over many years, to help pay environmental cleanup, new roads and other infrastructure.

Yet neither would provide affordable housing, commonly a requirement for tax-increment financing in St. Paul. WestSide Flats homes, for example, would start at $276,000.
Would an affordable housing requirement impede needed new housing in the depressed downtown region? Are condo developers getting a free ride with taxpayer dollars, and making it harder for middle-class families?

My opinion is that, unlike Minneapolis, there's no shortage of affordable housing in Saint Paul. Instead, the capitol city badly needs developments like these, to increase density (and excitement levels) in the downtown zone. And, $12 M in TIF isn't that much . . .

22.3.06

stp: How Long Has This Been Going On?

I've done some more reading on the LRT situation. First, I want to say that the University Avenue LRT is old news. "How old?" you ask . . . This is from a PiPress editorial from December 1988.

TIME HAS PASSED FOR `GO SLOW' APPROACH ON LIGHT RAIL TRANSIT

For nearly two decades, obstructionists in the metro area have whined about the supposed lack of comprehensive transportation planning, or they have delayed action by demanding studies of weird "solutions" ranging from Personalized Rapid Transit to Bus Skyways. When such proposals were found to be not cost-effective, the cry went up to do nothing until all the regional agencies were in agreement on a total transportation plan including freeways, metered access,...
Yes, that's an article from 1988 that uses the words "for nearly two decades."

Though, because the new Federal standards rate the University LRT's CEI (Cost Effectiveness Index) at around $24.5, far below the $28 cut-off point for federal funds, it might finally happen.

If, as the Strib suggests, the 2011 ETA is out-of-date . . . when will this thing be opening?

stp: Central Corridor Still in Limbo

I can't really believe this, but there's still a question about whether or not the Central Corridor will get any funding this year. ( I should believe it . . . they've been talking about light rail down University Avenue since the mid 80's.) The Strib had an Op-Ed yesterday about it, on the day that the Central Corridor was coming up for funding in the House. It's a good bet the column was intended to increase pressure on MN House Republicans that might not be giving any money to the project this year.

What's less understood is that the University line has fallen two years behind schedule (to beyond 2011) if, indeed, it has any realistic schedule at all. The immediate sticking point involves stripping the 11-mile, $840 million project to its bare bones to meet new federal cost-effectiveness standards. That probably means eliminating a tunnel at the university and trimming some stations and amenities.

The bigger snag is Minnesota's reluctance to commit a reliable funding stream for this or any transit project while bolder markets, having already made such commitments, muscle their way to the front of the line for federal money. In that contest, the Twin Cities keeps falling backward. If you doubt it, page through the 2007 Federal Transit Administration documents that list projects lined up for matching money. Let's see: There's Denver, Seattle, Phoenix, Dallas, San Diego, Portland, Charlotte, Cleveland, Chicago and 12 other cities. Minneapolis-St. Paul is nowhere in sight.

The Strib understandably makes the point that this thing has been delayed for years (nay, decades). And yesterday, David Strom (and his friends) were in Saint Paul again arguing that rail and transit are wasteful and unnecessary -- and that busses are inherently better than trains when it comes to transit. The chair of the House Transportation Finance commttee, Mary Liz Holberg (R - Lakeville) is a pretty stauch opponent of commuter or LRT projects.

On the other hand, the Senate bonding proposal voted to set aside $5M yesterday, which will be a bargaining chip for when the two houses compromise in the end. The real issue, though, is next year. That's when the legislature is going to have to devote a big chunk of money to the project. The cold truth is that this project might depend on whether or not the Republicans maintain control of the House (and Governor's office) in 2006.

Also:

It amazes me how responsive the business commitee (The Stp, Mpls, and Midway chambers of commerce, and the ITASCA group) has been in this transportation debate. The Republican party is in the strange position of fighting their own business donors when it comes to transportation -- and you'd think that many business owners might start giving money to the DFL.

Also Plus:

I went to Hoa Bien (Lexington & University in St. Paul) on Monday evening to attend a TOD information session put on by St. Paul and some other non-profit groups intended for small businessmen and residents along University Avenue. It was a really good idea, and many people voiced their concerns. Speakers from the Midway Chamber, various neighborhood groups, &c. were on hand. I was particularly impressed by the moderator, a woman from a place called the Center for Neighborhoods.

Update:

Never mind, I guess. Apparently the Feds trust our legislature to appropriate money. (From today's PiPress.)

On Tuesday, the [relevant] federal agency accepted calculations by local officials that showed the Central Corridor's projected costs were low enough to allow the project to proceed.

"We clearly came out with very high ridership … better than expected," Ortega said.

Now the Metropolitan Council and the Ramsey and Hennepin county regional rail authorities may take the next steps in the approval process. Local officials will seek public comment about a draft environmental impact statement for the line and decide whether they prefer to operate a light-rail or a bus-rapid-transit system, according to the Metropolitan Council. Officials could decide on a "preferred alternative" early this summer.

Although local officials have not formally said they prefer trains to buses, the cost-effectiveness study was done for light rail. The environmental impact statement projected light rail would provide about 20 percent more rides per day than the busway.

20.3.06

density&diversity: The MVST Amendment

The best hope for transit in the short term, at least according to Rep. Alice Hausmann (DFL - St. Paul), is the proposed Motor Vehincle Sales Tax (MVST) amendment that will be on the ballot this fall. It's the only remnant of the 10-cent gas tax transportation bill that survived Governor Pawlenty's veto last summer . . . and even that was through a kindof loophole whereby constitutional amendments cannot be vetoed by the governor if they pass both state houses. The issue is that the $180 million annual MVST pot would be split at least 60/40 for roads vs. transit. That amount of money would be a big boon for transit funding, and would represent part of the "dedicated source of funding" transit supporters have long sought.

Transit supporters did a little jig when the Governor came out in favor of the amendment earlier this year, boosting the chances for passage.

But last Thursday, Congressional candidate (and diehard libertarian) Rep. Phil Krinkie (R - Lino Lakes) dramatically pushed an amendment through the Taxes committe that would reduce the amount of transit money down to 20% of the MVST pot. Knowing the difficulties of new road construction in the metro area, such a proposal would do little to prepare the TC for the transportion future.

Meanwhile, a senate committe recently proposed a middle ground strategy, which would set in stone the 60/40 split for transit, but not allowing the transit portion to exceed this threshold. Here's the Strib article:
At stake is $180 million a year in motor vehicle sales taxes that now go to nontransportation purposes. Under the current amendment wording, at least 40 percent of the money would go to transit and no more than 60 percent to roads.

Suburban and rural legislators complain that that could funnel all the money to transit and none to roads. Urban legislators oppose any change, saying that highways already have two dedicated sources of funding -- gasoline taxes and vehicle registration fees -- while transit has none.

Those regional divisions were evident in an 11-5 vote of the Transportation Committee that advanced the bill sponsored by Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, to the Rules Committee. Skoe said that without the change, outstate and suburban voters might defeat the amendment at the polls.

The senate proposal is fairly non-controversial, as most transit supporters would be quite happy with a guaranteed 40% of the MVST money. The real question is whether or not outstate voters would vote for the MVST amendment as it currently sits. My gut informs me that most people would support it, but a great deal depends on how hard the Governor pushes skeptical Republican voters. (For consititutional amendments, any non-vote counts as a "No" vote, so they have a particuarly high hurdle to jump.)

Also:

The House Taxes committee meeting actually makes for some good watching, as he spars with Rep. Erhardt (R - Edina), the chief sponsor of the original bill. You can find it here (just click on Thursday 3/16/06), and the Krinkie amendment comes up at about 1:25:00 in on the tape.

18.3.06

stp: Mayor Coleman on Bridges

There was a fairly unrevealing article in the PiPress this week about Trooien's Bridges of Saint Paul project.

Coleman urged Trooien to address several key project details, including the total amount of needed property tax breaks, ways to reconcile the development with zoning limits in the West Side Flats neighborhood and necessary steps if the Legislature limits cities' power to use eminent domain.

"I know that you are fully aware of the project's complexity," the mayor wrote in a letter dated
March 9. "It concerns me that you are inviting high-profile partners to the development without resolving some of these fundamental issues."


I don't thing that eminent domain plays much of role here, except as a shibboleth for the city to use if they want to reject parts of all of this project. Basically, what Trooien is doing is a great example of how not to build a mixed-use development. This guy needs all sorts of zoning variances, and is asking for a ton of TIF funds, but he's doing it in such a heavy handed way, that if the city is going to support him, they're going to have to alienate a whole slew of pissed-off voters. This has the potential to be a "downtown Target" type of boondoggle for Saint Paul's political leadership. Just look at all the heat that the airport dike is drawing -- and that's not even a particularly visible or expensive project.

I've nothing against developing housing/commercial space on the West Side river flats, but given Saint Paul's palpable downtown problems, is it wise to build a competing retail center? Or is downtown Saint Paul just too hostile to pedestrians to ever again be a viable destination?

Plus:

Not to beat a dead horse, but Mythica?

Why do I want to create Mythica? I have always wanted to understand the universe and my place in it. During my early years, I was left unfulfilled by the explanations, preaching, doctrines, and analyses that were given to me. Those explanations were not enough. In 1988 my world "blew up." I saw Joseph Campbell in his interviews with Bill Moyers for the Public Television Series, "The Power of Myth." I heard only a few words and I knew deep inside that "he was me, and me was he".

mpls: Bus Rapid Transit Underway

MN-DOT is gearing up to have two of the Bus Rapid Transit projects partially completed in the next few years.

First on the list is the Cedar Avenue Busway. MN-DOT is going to add a dedicated, seperately colored bus lanes alongside either edge of Cedar, as it goes South from the Mall of America. (North of that, I'm not so sure.) They'd also build or expand transit centers and stations at Apple Valley, Lakeville, and Cedar Grove.

After that, they'd gradually add stations and park & ride lots along the route. It looks pretty slick, but the big hurdle is adding stations in areas with sufficient density.

At the House hearing on the topic, Rep. Alice Hausmann (DFL - St. Paul) asked about the possibility of turning the busway into a LRT corridor once it's already built. While the MN-DOT employee said this was feasible, the committee chair, Rep. Mary Liz Holberg (R - Lakeville), replied that the two hurdles to building a train along Cedar Avenue were the bridge crossing over the Minnesota River and community resistance in South Bloomington. Apparently a new bridge would have to be built in order for a train to run along this route, and that would be expensive.

As for South Bloomington, why are they against an LRT line through their neighborhood? Do they love the smell of busses?

Also:

The other thing in the works for the next few years is a BRT station at 35-W and 46th Street. Dedicated bus/carpool lanes would also run from 494 to 42nd St., with park & ride lots in the South-West suburbs. The entire project will only cost about $6M.

mpls: Sears Building Alight

I went sledding on the Town & Country hill after the big snow this week. It was around dusk, and from up there you can see Minneapolis spread out like a blanket.

It was great fun to watch the lights of downtown light up, but it was even more fun to see the tip top tower of the Midtown Sears Building lit up. It's the dawn of a new era at Lake & Chicago.

elections: NYT Hates the EC, Too

The New York Times had an Op-Ed the other week, about the campaign to end the electoral college (previously mentioned here).
Just as serious is the way the Electoral College distorts presidential campaigns. Candidates have no incentive to campaign in, or address the concerns of, states that reliably vote for a particular party. In recent years, the battleground in presidential elections has shrunk drastically. In 1960, 24 states, with 327 electoral votes, were battleground states, according to estimates by National Popular Vote, the bipartisan coalition making the new proposal. In 2004, only 13 states, with 159 electoral votes, were. As a result, campaigns and national priorities are stacked in favor of a few strategic states.
[ . . . ]
The coalition is starting out by trying to have laws passed in Illinois and a few other states. Americans are rightly cautious about tinkering with mechanisms established by the Constitution. But throughout the nation's history, there have been a series of reforms affecting how elections are conducted, like the ones that gave blacks and women the vote and provided for the direct election of United States senators. Sidestepping the Electoral College would be in this worthy tradition of making American democracy more democratic.

Is anyone trying to get a law like this passed in Minnesota?

lake elmo:More Roundabout Progress

There's another article on the greatness of roundabouts.

Also in store for the Old Village, should the Engstrom plan get put in play, are mixed-use housing and retail areas, a family center, roundabouts to alleviate traffic hazards, a pedestrian trail looping through the area and housing for seniors, families and those with disabilities.

Plus:

Have you heard of The Magic Roundabout?

density&diversity: A Theory of Snow Shoveling

Hypothesis: That the likelyhood of any given homeowner shoveling their sidewalks increases if their neighbor on either side shovels their sidewalk. This increased desire to shovel is prompted by guilt, envy, and the lessening of perceived physical, emotional, and climactic barriers to snow shoveling.

For example, if the neighbors on either side of Citizen A are out of town during a snow event, and fail to shovel their sidewalk, Citizen A will be 25% more unlikely to shovel his/her sidewalks. However, if the two ajacent neighbors of Citizen A are not only in town, but diligent and timely in their sidewalks shoveling, starting immediately at the cease of snowfall and shoveling from "edge to edge," Citizen A will be twice as likely to shovel his/her sidewalk in a timely manner.

This is called the Shoveling-Joneses effect.

Impact: If this hypothesis is true, any given block of sidewalks ought to behave as a unit, with neighbor-to-neighbor S-J effects creating areas of show-shovelled continuity. Any given block, depending on the density of initial likelihood to shovel, will become either a shoveled or an unshoveled blocks. The city would, in this case, act as a self-reinforcing positive feedback mechanism. Sidewalks would, from the air, become a quilt of white and gray, as block-by-block, sidewalks are shoveled or left to melt, as is their wont.

media: Who Will Buy This Paper?

The sale of the industry leader in newsroom gutting, Knight Ridder, to Mclatchy is going to affect both of the TC's main newpapers. Hopefully, it'll be a positive change, but I'm hedging my bets at this point.

When this story broke, I was buoyed by this tidbit, that the Newspapers Guild was looking to buy 12 of the papers Mclatchy is shedding in this huge business deal (including the PiPress).

Alongside powerful potential suitors like Gannett Co. and Denver-based MediaNews Group Inc., the union's vision to buy the papers and convert them to employee ownership sounded naive to many media analysts. But the Guild effort got new respect when it announced that it had secured necessary financing from a major investor. "It sounds like they have a backer, and it's always all about the money," said Edward Atorino, an analyst at the New York-based brokerage firm Benchmark Capital.

It's still too early to know anything for sure. McClatchy might sell the papers singly, all together, or in bunches. Serious haggling lies ahead, with standard price formulas putting the value for all 12 at $1.5 billion to $2 billion. Other interested parties probably will step in. Editor & Publisher, a trade publication, reported Wednesday that an advertising executive and some other investors were putting together a bid "well in excess of $100 million" for the two Philadelphia papers.

The prospect of employee ownership stirs up some big conflicts. On one hand, many U.S. workers are tired of the squeeze that Wall Street's relentless pursuit of profits puts on them. On the other hand, they're wary of betting much of their money on company stock -- after Enron famously imploded and cost many employees their life's savings.

Apart from the mention of Enron in this article, I'd love to see this happen. It would be an exciting new model for the ever-changing newspaper business. I'm doubting whether Mclatchy would sell to the union, simply because they'd probably be stiff jouralistic competition -- and might draw good journalists to the Saint Paul paper.

17.3.06

elections: Republicans vs. Minnesota Voters

The Republicans on the House Civil Law & Elections commitee turned my stomach this week when it met to discuss Rep. Tom Emmer's (R - Delano) Voter ID bill. The bill would require proof of citizenship during the voter registration process, and a photo ID on election day. Currently, Minnesota law allows registered voters to vouch for someone in their precinct, and Emmer's proposed law would add two bureaucratic layers to the voting process.

Generally, I've been impressed by committe hearings I've seen in the House of Representatives. The testimony and questioning is thorough, rigorous, and the legislators are well informed. However, none of that was true Wednesday -- at least for the Republicans on the committee.

The testimony was dramatically one-sided, with three proponents of the bill (including someone from Kiffmeyer's office) giving purely anecdotal testimony about the possiblity of voter fraud. One particularly bitter poll challenger even complained about large numbers of "Hmong people arriving in vans" in her St. Paul precinct. It was entirely unconvincing testimony, not to mention eerily racist.

On the other side were a about 10 non-profit and advocacy groups, with an array of statistics, figures, and testimony. They listed a large variety of problems with the bill, including:
  • The prohibitive expense of obtaining ID's for many people (estimates are around 10%)
  • Lack of birth certificates for many elderly and Native American voters
  • The possibility of disenfrachisement through long poll lines
  • Unconstitutionality of similar bills in other states (GA, AZ)
  • The end of registration drives at places like the State Fair
  • The bill does not account for absentee ballots
  • The bill includes a fiscal note (providing free ID's for indigent people) without going through the House Ways and Means committee

But the two points made over and over again was that this bill would reduce turnout of eligible voters, and that there was no stasistical or scientific (or even anecdotal!) evidence of voter fraud. One good quote was that this was "a solution in search of a problem."

One can only assume that, if Rep. Emmer had had more of a case, he'd have used some statistics. Particularly given the widely reported election day shenanigans in many swing states (the purging of voter rolls, long lines at polls, deliberate misinformation), you'd think that adding hurdles to voter turnout would be unconsciousable. The fact that every single Republican on the committe voted for the bill is pretty sad.

Here are some more opinions on the subject -- here and here. Even more than social wedge issue posturing, this kind of thing really steams me.

Also:

The chair of the commmtitee is Jeff Johnson (R - Plymouth) is Matt Entenza's opponent for Attorney General, and is widely regarded as one of the MN GOP's rising stars. He raised a few eyebrows on the committee by calling a recess before the vote because one of the Republican members was out of the room. Apparently that kind of thing is quite rare, and added a new layer of slime to the anti-democratic aura of the afternoon.

You can hear the audio for yourself -- at the top of the page here.

12.3.06

elections: Caucuses -- Wast of Time or Bottom-Up Democracy?

Here's a blog entry about the Minnesota caucuses, written by a Californian. This person went to Arlington High School in Saint Paul, and has a nice entry about it.

So, what's an outsider to make of the DFL caucus I saw? My DFL friends are pretty cynical about the process. They see a bunch of bleeding heart liberals (like themselves) who vote for feel good resolutions and can't even fill up a slate of delegates to carry their positions forward to the next level.

I came away rather more impressed. I organize in elections. I am impressed by any party system that can attract 85 people from a precinct to a meeting on a rainy March evening, not to cheer candidates, but to express their political hopes and ensure they have some representation at more influential levels of the endorsement process. There are not many corners of U.S. democracy where you get that kind of participation at the grassroots. Sure, these were the experienced and the comfortable, but they do show up and nearly all of them do some work in electoral battles in a highly contested state. That's terrific.

I went to caucuses for the first time this year, and was surprised at how easy it was. But, it was kind of like choir-preaching -- in that nobody disagreed with anyone, and nothing of substance was done or resolved.

Any thoughts?

elections: Down With the EC

The March 6th issue of The New Yorker is chock full of election shenanigan reportage. First, my favorite columnist, Rick Hertzberg, had an article on an effort to rid our country of the electoral college.

Needless to say, without the electoral college, Gore would be our president, we wouldn't be in Iraq, and we'd have a lot more dough to throw around for transit and economic development projects.

Hertzberg elegantly covers the power structure of the election reform debate:

There’s a traditional view that without the Electoral College Presidential campaigns would simply ignore the small states. It hasn’t worked that way. The real division that the Electoral College creates, in tandem with the winner-take-all rule, is not between large states and small states but between battleground states and what might be called spectator states. Of the thirteen least populous states, six are red, six are blue, and one—New Hampshire—is up for grabs. Guess which twelve Bush and Kerry stiffed and which one got plenty of love, long after the primary season? Size doesn’t matter. At the other end of the spectrum, the three biggest states—blue California, red Texas, and blue New York—were utterly ignored, except for purposes of fund-raising.

Minnesota should be on the forefront of this movement.

Plus:

Then, later, there's an article on the Texas redistricting battle, which is now at the center of the Tom DeLay prosecution. Redistriting is one of the main forces behind the undemocratic inflexibilty of our Federal government -- the re-election rate of US House incumbents is on the wrong side of 95%.

Here's an excerpt:
By 2000, Republicans controlled the governorship and the State Senate, but Democrats still had a majority in the Texas House. A deadlock between the two legislative bodies prevented Texas from adopting any redistricting plan, and the conflict ended up in federal court. The following year, a three-judge panel, ill-disposed to take sides in a political fight, ratified a modified version of the 1991 map, with two new seats awarded to high-growth districts.

Minnesota is actually fairly competitive, with a bunch of CD's that could go either way (e.g. 7, 3, 1, 2). The most ridiculously gerrymandered states are those that had "the trifecta" -- Governor, House, and Senate -- during the decade redistricting. Minnesota has rarely (if ever?) fallen into that category.

Unfortunately for Democrats, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Ohio were all in completly Republican hands after the 2000 census. That means there's very little chance of a change of leadership in the US House until after 2010, and that would only happen if those states have a "balanced" government after the census.

It's too bad that issues like these (instead of the will of the voters) determine who controlls our government.

mpls: De La Salle field

I'm not sure how I feel about the Park Board/Nicollet Island dispute, reported here in the Downtown Journal.

The Park Board voted March 1 to approve the high school’s concept plan for the new athletic field and a reciprocal-use agreement with the school.

Before construction can begin however, the high school must get approval from city officials and the Metropolitan Council.

While [field opponent Annie] Young said the Park Board has taken significant steps to improve its agreement with the high school, several issues remain troublesome, such as the field’s potential environmental impact on the river and the legal implications of moving forward.


On the one hand, if this athletic field brings people to the island, and opens the place up for more of the city to use, it's probably a good thing. There's no reason why the Mpls Park Board should be mantaining tennis courts on Nicollet Island if nobody's using them.

On the other hand, if people actually use the tennis court park as it currently sits, I'm against giving away precious park land for a private (and religious) high school. Don't get me started on sports stadium subsidies . . .

stp: Grand Avenue Formula Business Regulation

For anyone interested in why/how Siant Paul is going to regulate new business development along Grand Avenue, I refer you to the Institute for Local Self Reliance's excellent "New Rules" project. (They're a locally-based, national think tank that encoruages grassroots economic activity.)

Here's a snippet:

Economic Development

Support and fund comprehensive downtown revitalization and small business development programs.

In many cases, state economic development programs are focused on trying to attract outside corporations. Very little attention is paid to helping small businesses expand and new entrepreneurs get started. States should direct more of their economic development resources toward local business development. They also should establish comprehensive downtown revitalization programs and review state infrastructure and transportation policies to ensure they do not undermine the health and vitality of downtowns.


Saint Paul is leading the way. This kind of thing could happen anywhere neighbors and city brass agree on the unique value of a particular place.

mpls: Midtown Exchange

The Strib had an article about the Sears building this weekend, featuring this in-depth reportage:

"It is such a tremendous success and is the largest contiguous redevelopment ever accomplished" in the United States, Minneapolis City Council Member Gary Schiff said. He said the original plans called for redeveloping the massive building in stages, the way other Sears buildings around the nation have been redeveloped. But with a commitment from Allina to locate its headquarters in the building and a positive response from the community, the developer, the Ryan Companies, was able to tackle the $189 million project all at once.
[ . . . ]
The project is in the heart of a community that has one of the highest concentrations of poverty and new Americans in Minneapolis. While the Midtown Exchange has clearly been a boon for the neighborhood, rising property values in the area have created challenges for many of those who are being priced out of the housing market or are facing rising property-tax bills.


"The only downside," Schiff said, "is [that] the area has come back so quickly it has given whiplash to the residents who have stuck it out."

I wish local papers would be a little more willing to write about why some area residents don't like massive development projects. Sure, the editorial board has a justifiably big picture view, and is right in pushing their readers to embrace the urbanizing changes underway. But (unlike the City Pages) the Strib hasn't been doing much critical reporting of condo projects. Perhaps the current residents of Lake Street (and critics of some aspects of this project) deserve more than a Gary Schiff sound byte.

That said, I'm super excited about the Sears redevelopment. I drove down Lake Street the other day, past the new bumpouts and streetscaped benches. It looks very good.

Also:

There's a brand new transit center hiding behind the Sears Building, and the 21 now goes off of Lake to pick up passengers over there.

Is it just me, or is the Midtown transit center kind of awkward to get into/out of? Will people actually use it?

strib: Bloomington "Center"

The Strib published a front page bit about how much mixed-use development is happening around the Bloomington LRT stops. It's a compelling read.

The developers had a big chunk of land in Bloomington surrounding a planned light-rail station, and they thought they knew what do with it: Build hotels, office buildings, parking lots.

That's when a West Coast investor nearly laughed in their faces.

"He literally looked at [us] and said 'You guys don't know what you're doing. ... You need to get out of Minneapolis and get around the country and take a look at what is being done in other markets around a light-rail line,' " said Greg Miller, a manager with Roseville-based developer McGough Cos.

I'm of two minds on this. On the one hand, I think that this is the kind of dense, mixed-use development that we need to see more of around current/future LRT lines. On the other hand, this particular area in Bloomington is a pretty bad place for TOD density. It's simply too small, bounded by 494 on the North, the Minnesota River on the East and South, and the MOA on the West. It's this tiny triangle that will not serve as an economic attractor for the region, unlike some of the other transit-dense places in Minneapolis (e.g. Hiawatha Avenue, or possible Northstar stops). Transit has the potential to vitalize entire square miles of urban area, with density and economic activity spilling into ajacent neighborhoods, but that can't happen with the Bloomington LRT.

A while back, Driver2165 suggested that there are already too many stops in Central Bloomington, and I'd probably agree.

mpls: Nicollet Avenuee Freeway Overbuilding

I read somewhere the the city of Minneapolis was thinking about building an overpass/tunnel thingy over I-94 along Nicollet Avenue. It would connect the two sides of Eat Street, and allow buildings to be built over the freeway.

Does anyone know more about how/when this beautiful idea could be funded? Does anyone know how much such a thing would cost?

stp: Smith Ave. Transit Center

The March Avenues has a story on the City Council finally giving the go ahead to the Smith Avenue transit/parking ramp. Waffling and indecision on the council's part meant a $1 million loss for the city.

[Councilmember Jay] Benanav said City Council members "swallowed hard" last year whhen plans fo rthe transit center and ramp were shelved. The council's plan was to build the facitily on the northern portion of the site and leave the southern portion open for future development. Target was looking at developing the entire site, but wanted too much city subsidy.

Mayor Chris Coleman wanted the transit center and ramp to move ahead. He also was unhappy about the delay and what it has cost the city. "This may be the perfect exampleof how not to do a project," he said.

Downtown Saint Paul has a lot of problems, most due to the unfortunate 60's freeway/skyway development that took all the street life off the street level and placed inside, on the 2nd story of half-empty office buildings. Developing the Smith/Kellog site is a golden opportunity to connect downtown with the W 7th area. That's why the real question is what's going to go on the Southern half of the site.

Any suggestions? Dave Thune brainstormed a hockey rink. That's a great idea, but this is the wrong place. Perhaps they could put a hockey rink on top of the bluff, where that unused fountain/pedestrian space is . . .

6.3.06

pipress: Stadiums as Development Tools?

I'm am so skeptical about stadiums being anything other than glorified parkland. Here's today's PiPress article about it.

Sports complexes can spark economic development, but look no further than downtown Minneapolis for an example of one that did and one that didn't.

At the east end of downtown lies the Metrodome, which, since its opening in 1982, has spun off one bar — Hubert's. On the west end is Target Center, which has spawned two dozen bars and restaurants since it opened in 1992. In St. Paul, the Xcel Energy Center has spurred the establishment or major renovation of about a dozen bars and restaurants.

But Xcel and Target Center were built in dense urban areas where redevelopment of nearby old buildings was a natural fit.


Of course, the Warehouse district (and W 7th St) would be hopping with or without a stadium there. There was even a recent study that showed local Saint Paul bars didn't lose any revenue during the year-long hockey strike, putting a big hole in the theory the the Xcel is anything other than a really expensive neon sign (at least from a development perspective.) Just look at the wasteland that has surrounded the Metrodome for the past 20 years.

Question: Can anyone think of a better development use for $1.5 billion? (Here's a hint: Think about two light rail lines . . .)

5.3.06

mpls: Two Photography Sites I Like

http://uptownmpls.blogspot.com

http://mplsphoto.blogspot.com/

nyt: The Boston-Minneapolis Effect

The "real estate" issue of the New York Times Magazine has some interesting stuff in it. Primarily, a bit about the "Boston-Minneapolis effect," which somehow guides housing markets.
Relying on data from the Census of Population and Housing in 1980 and 1990, Hsieh and Moretti compared home sales in 282 metropolitan areas. But their story can be told using just a pair of cities: Boston and Minneapolis, which are similar in size and demographics — but quite different in the price of their real estate.

In 1990, a typical house in Boston cost roughly twice as much as a typical house in Minneapolis. Since commission rates were fixed, an agent would earn twice as much selling a house in Boston. But the Boston market, with so much more commission money up for grabs, attracted many more agents than Minneapolis did — even though it turned out that more homes were actually being sold in Minneapolis.

The result? The typical Minneapolis agent sold twice as many homes (6.6 per year) as the typical Boston agent (3.3 per year) — which left the Boston agent, despite the higher prices in her market, no better off than her Minneapolis counterpart. What should be a competitive marketplace — which would inevitably lead to lower prices — is not, since the price of the agents' service is essentially fixed in place.


It's just kind of interesting, though Boston and Minneapolis aren't really the same size at all, now, are they?

Plus:

There's also a short interview with Brookings' "suburban policy" expert, who sounds an awful lot like Myron Orfield to me.

4.3.06

mpls: Rybak's Action Plan

There's a Strib op-ed and a press release about R.T. (Rootin' Tootin') Rybak's meeting this week to unveil his Transportation Action Plan. It's quite exciting.

Here's my favorite bit from the Strib.
Rybak's is a superb vision. But we await the policy, the political will, the funding. We await the actual experience of leaving our car at home, walking down a safe, clean, leafy street lined with interesting shops, condos above, streetcars clanging past, on our way to the library or the ballgame or the farmers market. Then we will believe.

You and me both, Gyllenhaal.

I wish I could have been at the meeting, because if you believe his rhetoric, Rybak really seems to get it. He talks at length about density and diversity, and is working with the Urban Land Institute and the U to plan ways to make Minneapolis a walkable, liveable place.

Apparently job #1 is Washington Avenue.
At the top of Mayor Rybak's list of streets as destinations was Washington Avenue. "Imagine this street transformed into a grand promenade connecting the University of Minnesota, Guthrie Theater, Center for Book Arts, Mill City Museum, Brenda Langton's new farmer's market, MacPhail Center for the Arts, the Central Library, new condos in the North Loop, the Cedar Lake Bike Trail and a new Twins ballpark. The remarkable concentration of new attractions along
Washington Avenue make this an opportunity we have to seize, and in the grandest way possible. The lessons learned here can be applied in streets all across our city," Rybak said.

Except for the new Twins ballpark (won't happen), this sounds good. Washington Avenue (and the riverfront area next to it) are one of the most promising areas of the "new downtown," and a wide street that's been languishing for a long time. Even the Nicollet/Hennepin parts of this stretch are still the pits.

Plus, Rybak talked about bike and transitways, streetcars (!), and the importance of sidewalks. Sure, he was preaching to the choir (the Am. Insitute of Architects), but hearing this feels like winning the lottery.

I can't think of a better thing for the newly elected mayor to spend his political capitol on, apart from forcing the MPD to patch things up with the minority community.

That said, 150 architects sounds like about 125 too many . . .

Plus:

It appears that Rybak has a planning blog! Join the club, R.T.

stp: Howard Hughes Grabs a Headline

The PiPress had a story today about the purely hypothetical Bridges development. Some of you might have seen the outdoor ads last fall touting the proposal. It hasn't gone anywhere yet, and isn't likely to in the future. Can anyone see a movie theater on the Saint Paul floodplain?

This guy Trooien is probably the wackiest of the Twin Cities wealthy real estate wackos -- a list that includes Kelly Doran, Zigi Wilf, and now Bill McGuire.

The developer bought a large portion of the 75-acre site in 1987 and has been talking about his ideas for it for more than a decade. He formally unveiled the Bridges plan in November 2003.

The Bridges would add nearly a half-million square feet of retail space, including a movie theater complex, restaurants and shops. In addition to more than 1,100 condominiums initially, it would include Mythica: The Center for Human Mythology and World Journey, a monument of sorts to the human experience.
[ . . . ]
Several calls to White Plains, N.Y.-based Westin Hotels & Resorts were not returned.


The last thing Saint Paul needs is another hotel. Is there anyone who doesn't think this is a snow job?

Plus:

I spotted a pretty artist's rendering of what the new (natural gas) High Bridge power plant will look like, and how beautiful Saint Paul's river valley will be without that giant smokestack.

On the other hand, won't we kind of miss the ugly thing?

density&diversity: Rush Hours Nostradamus

The PiPress has a story this Saturday (when nobody reads it) about how bad traffic will be in the future.
While overall congestion was better, some areas went from bad to worse. And the report also predicts congestion will resume its upward march. The number of congested miles stayed steady at 21 percent over the past two years. The report predicts that by 2030, 33 percent to 41 percent of the highway miles will be congested.

This kind of thing is the inevitable consequence of all the freeway construction they did in the 70's. I never really realized (because I don't live over there) how bad the traffic is in the Western suburbs. Highways 169 and 100 are some of the most congested parts of the freeway system.

3.3.06

mpls: The Wave = Downtown Park?

Astute reader anonymous suggested a better use for the possible money that would come from developing "The Wave" -- the proposed condo along the 3rd Ave Bridge riverfront. S/he writes:

How about developing the land and taking the money to purchase land for parkspace in downtown, where a the need is evident.

I kind of (kind of) like this idea, providing it actually happens. I can think of quite a few surface parking lots (and old buildings) that would make better parks than lots. For example, the block b/w 9th & 10th streets and 2nd and 3rd avenues would be great!

Does anyone have any particular ideas?

But on the other hand, wre they to use the money to fund "park police," I'd be less than pleased. And, I highly doubt that the city could be willing to use up a (very) valuable open downtown block on a park without some sort of landmark or historical reason as a call to arms . . .

Update:

Just when I post on this, the story appears in the Strib:

United Health Corp. CEO Dr. William McGuire is offering to build a $5 million park just east of the new riverfront Guthrie Theater as part of a personal effort to preserve a leafy urban reputation.

[ . . . ]

McGuire's proposal envisions leasing the land from the city for 10 years for $500,000. He would plant approximately 325 mature trees, including about 100 lindens along 2nd St. S. McGuire would take care of maintenance -- probably through an endowed organization -- including irrigation, garbage collection, snow clearing on pathways, electricity and water costs.

media: Is 100.3 the New MPR?

I've been wanting to post about my other areas of interest, but haven't found the opportunity as of late.

Namely, the Twin Cities media and election scenes. (If you'll bear with me.) These are the "sidewalks" of our democracy, the public spaces where citizens share ideas and participate in an informed debate . . . at least in theory. And maintaining the media and democratic venues takes a lot of collective work.

Yes?

But really, I just wanted ot point out that the new (swing state) 100.3 Talk Radio (Limbaugh) FM radio station's billboards are coincidentally very much like those of Minnesota Public Radio.One is blue on white, the other is white on blue, and both feature a wave-y logo thing and some sort of punchy slogan.

Coincidence or not?

Also:

Another uncanny happening happened when the Strib story about MPR's high executive salaries broke right in the middle of the MPR fund drive. Did anyone notice? Did they reach their goal? How businesslike can/should MPR get before they start abandoning their principles?

Or, is growth nothing but a good thing, when you consider a) the abysmal state of corporate media and b) the vibrant independent public radio scene in this state . . .

I report. You deride.

2.3.06

elections: Minnesota's Nation-Best Turnout At Risk

On the election front, a few weeks ago I made the bold pledge that I would "move to Woodbury" if anyone high up in the DFL endorsed the IRV (instant runoff voting) proposal being floated to the Minneapolis City Council.

Well, a week or so after that I was listening to MPR's mid-morning and they had the two party chairs on the radio, "debating" each other. The Republican's Ron Casey and the DFL's Brian Melendez went back and forth, and I couldn't really listen to it.

But right before I could reach up and turn the radio off, they started talking about the Governor's race, and the candidacy of one Peter Hutchinson. (Damn you!!) And, as they pressed Mr. Melendez about the precise meaning of the word "spolier," he actually came out and said he was in favor of IRV. I couldn't believe it -- and I promise, someday, I'll drive through Woodbury. (Here's the link to prove it.)

Of course, it'll still never happen, becuase I don't think Melendez really means what he said. (Or even if he does, he'll not spend much time pushing other Dems to support it.)

But he should mean it, and he should push for it, because he should know that third parties are never going away. They're going to continue to pop up and make things very difficult for big tent parties in this state, and with our partiuclar political landscape, most of those third party challenges are going to come from the left. (That is, unless the Libertarians can get organized.)

Without IRV or something like it, the big parties will continue to live with the Hutchinsonian axe hovering over them threatening to bleed 5% off their vote each time they have a tight battle.

Or, does anyone really thing that Hutchinson is going to steal voters from Pawlenty?

Plus:

One thing that pisses me off is all this talk in the Republican Party about requiring photo ID's at the polls. What an anti-immigrant, anti-democratic idea! I guess that's why they're not called the "democratic" party . . .