Question for Readers: SOTU Edition

I was watching the State of the Union on CNN tonight at a friends house, drinking heavily (as one must). After it was over, as Bush was doing the handshaking / program-signing thing. I kept waiting for Michele Bachmann to show up and lay one on him, but someone told me she'd been cornered by handlers or something.

Anyway, at a certain point, CNN was feeding some live audio of Bush making small talk and shaking hands, and some tall white male Gooper came up to him with a program for him to sign and I distinctly heard him say, "Mr. President, it's from Michele Bachmann."

Did anyone else hear this? Did anyone else laugh?

What would be funny is to have a Dem senator hold out the SCHIP bill for him to sign...


"News Flash!" News Roundup #5

Here are some Twin City Sidewalk-related bits that have been accumulating in my Sidewalk folder, that I will share with you in a feature I've just renamed "News Flash!" News Roundup.

Minnesota, you're not alone. Our recent LRT cutbacks, where Bush cronies at the Federal DOT and in the Governor's Office have urged trimming costs to the proposed Central Corridor line, are part of a larger pattern of underfunding transit throughout the country. For example, here's a Washington Post story on a failure to fund a DC Metro extension running to Dulles Airport, money that local politicians had counted on receiving.

My favorite part of the story is where federal officials use costs overruns at Boston's Big Dig
to justify cutting back on transit.

Officials with the Federal Transit Administration say they are concerned about the price tag and the specter of another Big Dig, the Boston project built by the same contractor in charge of the Dulles rail line, which took years longer and cost millions more than planned, according to the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the negotiations are sensitive. In addition, the agency has been reluctant to promote large-scale transit projects.


Thanks a lot Boston!


Relatedly, here's a related Washington Post opinion piece on Federal Transportation commissioner Mary Peters and her Molnau-esque uber-conservative leanings.

This just reinforces my theory that Pawlenty is G. W. Bush writ small, or as close to the Bush Administration as you're going to get in family friendly Minnesota. He's like Bush's mini-me.

The story mentions the Minnesota bridge disaster, and in my mind, sheds some light on why the DOT head came to the Twin Cities and seemingly un-blamed the Governor for neglecting infrastructural maintanence. (As Nick Coleman pointed out in his column a lil' while back.)


The Strib had a piece on downtown Minneapolis, and the fact that a few businessess are leaving (esp. T.J. Maxx 'double x'). But it also carries an important caveat: a lot of new stuff is opening too...

Here's a quote from someone at the Downtown Council, the business assn.:

Her first order of business: Keep momentum alive on Hennepin Avenue by creating an arts hub sprinkled with complementary retail. She’s not overly concerned by the recent departures. “Changes are natural in retail,” she said. “We don’t need to get overtaken with fear.”

That's about right. There's nothing less natural than an artificially created, pedestrian-only shopping mall...


A friend of T.C.Sidewalks is back up and blogging, a few posts a week on urban studies, if his homework will allow it. Check it out The Gross Report if you haven't already...


I love the idea of building buildings over interstates...

As the ever-interesting former MN city blog AUWUP says, it's a great way to connect across the epic border divide that is an interstate highway, which can prove to be severe barriers to growth and pedestrian walkability. Plus, their linear uses of space end up serving as perfect catalysts for large unwalkable land uses, like Convention Centers, parking lots, or Big Box stores, so that freeways become veritable bastides of urban life, literally 'walled cities' where downtowns become little islands of commerce surrounded by unpeople'd industrial and residential uses.

Well, in my mind, Downtown Saint Paul b/w 10th and 5th Streets would be an excellent place for some of this over-head freeway building/bridging... as would Nicollet Avenue on the edge of Downtown Minneapolis.

Of course it'll never happen, unless the city/state funds it itself (which it won't). Its amazing to me that Seattle is still one of the only places where this kind of thing has been built.

Apart from medieval London and medieval Venice, that is...

... to wit:

[Carpaccio's Healing of a Madman, showing buildings which spanned the Grand Canal in Venice, over the famous Rialto bridge c. 1494. -- h/t Olga's Gallery]


Branding the Suburbs

The Pioneer Press had a cute little fluff piece today on attempts by suburbs to brand themselves, describing how city councils, chambers of commerce, or whoever's in charge has spent a bit of money on logos, mottos, &c, in order to distinguish themselves from competing municipalities, in order to attract business, development, and taxable capital. For example:

But marketing a new brand isn't cheap.

Cities can spend as much as $25,000 on branding consultants. Local businesses paid for the $3 million to $5 million rebranding campaign in St. Paul and Minneapolis.

"Some of the suburbs have a greater identity than others," said Louis Jambois, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan Municipalities. "It's worthwhile for those communities to think about what their identity is."

They even have a fun little quiz, inset at right, that lets you try to identify the motto with the town boundary... For example, try and guess which city has "Think Hopkins" as its motto! (Hint... It's Hopkins!)

The apparent efforts reminded me of the conclusion of Louis Mumford's The City in History, an epic quasi-modernist tome from the pre-eminent public intellectual/urbanist of the 20th century, where he describes his rather grim prediction of the "potentialities" of the American city post-1960. In describing the likely end of urbanization, a grim path that he charts from the beginnings of agriculture to 50's American suburbia, Mumford writes in his typical bombastic manner,

And so today: those who work within the metropolitan myth, treating its cancerous tumors as noraml manifestations of growth, will continue to apply poultices, salves, advertising incantations, public relations magic, and quack mechanical remedies until the patient dies before their own failing eyes. No small part of the urban reform and correction that has gone on these last hundred years, and not least this last generation -- slum demolition, model housing, civic architectural embellishment, suburban extension, 'urban renewal' -- has only continued in superficially new forms the same purposeless concentration and organic de-building that prompted the remedy.

Surprisingly, given his instrumental position within the 20th c. power structure, Mumford is arguing that surface alone cannot create urban spaces. (He's also an interminable windbag.) Mumford's ideal city was a mix of city and country that maintained neighborhoods and communities, something along the lines of Ebenezer Howard's Garden Cities or the FDR-era Greenbelt towns (which he helped to promote).

[An Excelsior street in the 1880s -- Image from MN Historical Society]

In that light, its interesting that Hopkins was one of the places I went to last week, in an attempt to tour the metro area's older suburbs. Along with Hopkins, I went to Deephaven, Excelsior, and South Saint Paul, all places that developed along streetcar lines in the early 20th century. (Excelsior is much older than that, actually. It dates back to being a resort town at least since the 1880s...) Hopkins has an charming main street that seems to stretch on for miles, with a movie theater and host of shops; Excelsior is beautiful and historic on its point jutting out into the lake (even if their Chinese food sucks); and South Saint Paul has an absolutely riveting historical story, having once employed thousands of workers in the meatpacking plants, and still boasts a very nice main street with diners and restaurants worth frequenting even in winter's coldest climes.

Suburbs like these, and even suburbs built later, would do well to heed Mumford's advice... Creating memorable places is really the key to attracting people and business to your area. Cultivating streetcorners and sidewalks worth walking on, emphasizing historical landmarks like a watertower, old church, library or city hall, and trying to get people to come together physically in the same spaces at the same times are all ways to really brand suburban cities, and to replace empty spaces with memorable places.


MPR Decoder: Minneapolis' Strategic Plan

Occasionally, I listen to Minnesota Public Radio. So, occasionally, I share with you what I have heard in a segment I call MPR Decoder.

For example, the other day, Tom Cranz (sp?) interviewed someone named Karen Berkholtz, who runs the planning office for the city of Minneapolis. They're preparing a new "strategic plan," part of the MetCouncil's attempt to control the market forces at work in the regional development economy by having each city share some of the housing and infrastructural burdens, and attempting to balance out where growth will occur in the metro area.

Here's the interview, followed by a few comments. Listen for yourself, or read it here:

MPR: Specifically, what are some of the goals… to make Minneapolis what kind of city?

Karen Berkholz, planning director of city of Minneapolis (KB): We’re looking at a number of things, one is housing to be able to provide a variety of housing types for a variety of incomes all throughout our city… Another is to make sure that our city is sustainable in a number of ways. Sustainable means that you’re using incentives for green building that you’re providing options for people to get out of their car, in a number of ways that are not only good for the environment but are healthy too… Also showing that we value our business community and through our planning and zoning that we want them there, that we want to provide the jobs that will fuel our economy. [Meaning, we're going to try to get poor people, yuppies, and businesses to all live together in harmony. We're not going to put the interests of one group ahead of the other! We're going to be incredibly neutral. Watch as we put affordable housing in Kenwood, and force the Lake Street Target to get a green roof!]

MPR: What do you do when those interests or imperitives that the business community has versus green space... When they collide?

KB: When they collide we can incentivize. [Meaning: Good God! Did she just say "incentivize"? What the hell does that mean? I think it means that we're going to screw you.]
MPR: How do you… what does that mean?

KB: Say for example that a business comes into our development services counter that they want to do a development on a block in town. They want to be able to put in a large structure. That structure they want to see it abut the sidewalk and get it as close to the street as they can so that it will maximize the footprint. Through the planning process we will try to influence that, saying, lets push it back, let’s put some windows along the sidewalk so that people can feel like it isn’t one big blank wall. Let’s put some trees or greening there. Not only to help with the environment but to provide an aesthetic and shade. […] Lets incorporate public art, and you know if you did that maybe we’d let you go up one story higher. And if you stepped it back from the curb so that it feels open and lets in some sunshine, we’ll let you do that too. [Meaning: Our only lever over developers, as long as the city stays broke, is to say 'no' to projects and delay ones we don't like. I guess that's OK.]

MPR: You went through this process in 2000, and you looked ahead to 2010. What has, if you will, "come true" as you come closer to 2010 that have become a reality?

KB: One of those things is the Midtown Exchange with the Midtown Greenway. [Even though its under severe financial stress...] You see lighting, streetscape, you see revitalized economic areas. The Sears Building now is something totally different than it used to be.

Imagine the Hiawatha Corridor. We have light rail now. We’re entering the third generation of planning along the Hiawatha corridor, we have projects proposals coming in… Real life projects that have mixed use development, where you have retail along the street level, sidewalk seating, and dwelling units on top… So that people don’t have to have a car, they can hop on the train downtown and come to work. [This is all great! If only more interstate bridges would fall down...]

MPR: Why is this process going on now when you had a process in 2000 that looked ahead. In 2008 why are we looking ahead to 2030?

KB: A couple of reasons why. First metro council offered its systems statements. That’s a trigger not only to our city but all the cities in the 7 county metro area that they should update their long term comprehensive plans. Plus they updated new population growth projections for us.

MPR: And what does the population look like in 2030?

KB: In 2030 we’re about a hundred thousand higher than we are now.

MPR: So that’s close to half a million..

KB: Correct, which is actually what we had back in 1954. [Ahh the 50's. The good ol' days.]

MPR: What kinds of comments do you look forward to hearing that might come to fruition from a process like this?

KB: A number of things. [Well, Tom, you realize we don't actually pay any attention to the comments we receive from the public... the only public comment session worth attending is Lisa Goodman's annual fundraiser.] One is when we did our forums in the Spring. One of our favorite questions was "Tell us about your favorite place in the city". [We like this far more than the questions, "Tell us about your least favorite place in the city" and "What do you hate about Minneapolis?"] And it gave us some food for though. Why do people like the way that Peavy Plaza feels? Why do they like Crystal Court? [Notice how I mentioned two old remnants of the 60's and 70's Nicollet Mall planning... I'm playing it safe here.] Why do they want places that are green and comfortable and people oriented? And how do we promote this kind of living in our cities? [I'm not actually sure that Peavy Plaza or Crystal Court are very 'green'. They seem rather to be made of metal and concrete, and you'd be hard pressed to find anything growing in either location...]

That kind of input helps us craft policies and implementation strategies to help realize that vision and make this a city that people really want to live in.

MPR: Is it possible to identify one big challenge to the vision in this plan, that might stand in the way of achieving something?

KB: Sprawl. Urban sprawl is one of our biggest challenges. Many jurisdictions around the metro area want the same things that we have. They want to be able to have the housing, the jobs, the economic base because that helps them pay for the essential services that their citizenry expects. [I mean, its the damn people out in Maple Grove, Chanhassen, Blaine, Woodbury, Apple Valley, Minnetonka, Buffalo, New Hope, Lino Lakes, Rosemount, Lakeville... If only more interstates would fall into the river...] However, greenfield development costs money. New infrastructure costs money. We have existing infrastructure with capacity in the city of Minneapolis. Lets use it as a region because it helps us make our region more sustainable and the state more sustainable.

MPR: So you see the sprawl outside of the city of Minneapolis into the suburbs and the outer ring suburbs as actual, a challenge for the city and its competition for the city of Minneapolis.

KB: Yes, I believe so, and I think that we aren’t alone in this. I think our first tier suburbs that are outlining their plans right now feel the same thing that we are. Because they’re maturing into, not suburbs, but actual urban cities like we are.

MPR: It its possible to summarize, paint us a couple of pictures of what Minneapolis, in 2030 will look like according ot this planif all goes according to what you want.

KB: Imagine West Broadway today, an area of the city where we have some challenges. We have some planning underway on West Broadway too, where we are looking to conditions that will promote investment by the private sector. There’ll be a new YMCA, there'll be arts, there will be more vibrancy right along the core. We’re going to intensify with more density along that area so that people have a walkable, liveable, workable environment. [Meaning: See North Side? We care about you too, even though the vast majority of new construction is taking place elsewhere. If only we had a budget...]

MPR: You have to do this neighborhood by neighborhood because people envision different things for each neighborhood, right?

KB: That’s a really neat thing about the cities, is that you have people with a very very strong sense of identity at the neighborhood level. We actually, have five of these open house events scheduled throughout the month of January, one in each sector of the city, to try to get at what those different sectors needs, priorities may be.

MPR: At the same time you have to innovate and make sure there is room for the new central library and the new Guthrie and other architectural things of tomorrow.

KB: Oh yes, I mean the McPhail center is a wonderful example of how you can incorporate new next to old. the whole riverfront area is an amazing success. You look at photos from the 1960s and the 1970s where you had vacant houses, vacant streets, the rail bed was just abandoned, and now you have a vibrant area with high rises, shopping, people using that waterfront on a daily basis.

I think Karen makes a lot of sense, but I think her anti-sprawl argument is a bit limited. She essentially makes the case that building in the city is a more efficient use of resources, i.e. its cheaper use of governmental dollars.

This is true, most of the time, as long as the building iste isn't horribly polluted, but unless you're a bureaucrat, its hardly the kind of argument that can get you excited.

I'd rather see people talking far more about environmentalism and community, two things which infill and city development can offer in spades.


Plug-In Hybrids on the Way

A year and a half ago, the Minnesota Legislature passed a bill requiring the state government to buy plug-in electric hybrid cars should they ever come on the market at reasonable prices. (Plug-in Electric Hybrid (PEV) cars are just like regular hybrid cars, only they don't need the gasoline engine to operate, effectively making them 100+ m.p.g. vehicles that, given clean electricity sources, make them the greenest cars around.) At the time, the idea that we'd have 100+ m.p.g. cars available on the market seemed like a science fiction fantasy, but the NY Times had an article today about how close these cars are to production.

On Sunday night, Toyota, the world’s largest producer of hybrid-electric vehicles, announced it would produce a plug-in hybrid vehicle equipped with a lithium-ion battery by 2010, for sale first to big commercial customers like corporations and government fleets.

Toyota’s best-selling hybrid, the Prius, runs on nickel-metal hydride batteries. Lithium-ion batteries, like those used to power digital cameras and other small electronic devices, can potentially hold a longer charge than nickel-metal hydride versions, but they are also more expensive.

The Volt is set to run on lithium-ion batteries. Last fall, G.M. announced that it would build the Volt in its assembly plant in Detroit in 2010, although executives have said production might start after that.


It's exciting, and makes the Minnesota Bill requiring the state gov't to purchase competitively priced PEVs, sponsored by Rep. Frank Hornstien (DFL-Minneapolis), look rather brilliant. As the 2002 Iraq War Resolution proves, It's always easier to pass bills through government when they're 'hypothetical' and the consequences are only possibilities. Its far harder to pass bills when the financial and political impact is a near certainty. Hornstein had little trouble getting Republicans in the State Legislature to agree to this bill when these cars were only a (tail)pipe dream, but it seems we'll have PEV Toyotas or Chevys on the road in a matter of a few years... certainly far sooner than we'll have a Light Rail line running down University Avenue.