Pothole Pawlenty's Petulant Pique

A lot has gone down since we last checked in with Pothole Pawlenty, and it looks like some potholes might be filled. (So long, potholes!)

As I'm sure you know, the legislature over-rode a gubernatorial veto, fulfilling a reneged promise to use a gas tax to raise money for transportation infrastructure, and ending years of stalemates over funding for roads and transit projects in the state. (And the MN GOP was not happy about it, either!)

The actual package that was passed was a bit larger than previous years' incarnations. It includes:
  • A 8.5 cent tax on gas, all of it constitutionally devoted to roads, putting Minnesota almost equal with Wisconsin in terms of the tax on gas, and (by my really, really rough calculations) raising the total amount of money spent on roads by something like 40%
  • Raised registration fees on cars and licenses, most especially on luxury vehicles (and I'm not sure where this money goes . . .)
  • A metro-wide quarter point sales tax devoted entirely to transit funding
All in all, it will raise about six and a half billion dollars . . . and I think that's measured over the next ten years. And most excitingly, the transit portion of the package will amount to at least 1/6 of the total (though half of the originally drafted amount). That's a pretty good ratio!

In a way, these last few days I've been feeling sad for the potholes. Potholes are like speedbumps, only backwards. They serve the same purpose, though: they make cars slow down. And under Pothole Pawlenty's transportation department, we were installing a lot of them every year. Entire streets would have their speed limits infrastructurally lowered to 25 mph. Entire interstates would fall in the river! (Accomplishing in a moment what it took cities like Boston and San Francisco years to pull off...)

In a way, I'm a huge advocate of the Governor's transportation plan . . . kind of the automotive equivalent of Grover Norquist's bathtub. But the downside to Pothole Pawlenty 's peevish project has always been that it didn't invest in anything as an alternative either. The bus system has been constantly cut for his tepid two terms (including a huge cut about four years ago), even as ridership has reached twenty five-year highs, even as the environmental need for transit becomes ever clearer.

Part of the problem with the transit system then and now has been its lack of a 'dedicated' funding source, i.e. some sort of consistent stream of revenue that would support transit without the kinds of bi-annual political negotiations that turn transit into an expendable political football. And I think, finally, this new transportation bill might finally give Twin Cities' transit a good start on that dedicated stream.

Of course, other U.S. cities (like Denver, Colorado) have successfully passed entire one cent metro sales taxes to fund transit . . . but that's another story. And yet another story is the the simple fact that sales and gas taxes are regressive, disproportionately hitting the poor. Minnesota had long had an emphasis on the income tax, which is progressive . . . until Pothole Pawlenty pranced past pounding pavement.

[Phase One of the State of Minnesota Neighborhood Walkability Improvement and Mississippi River Access Initiative]

<<< News Flash! >>> #7

The Met Council approved the "Plan B" compromise proposal for the Central Corridor Light Rail, which runs at grade through the U of MN, includes room for stops along University Avenue, and connects to the downtown Saint Paul train station. See the Star Tribune or the Pioneer Press articles. For example, the Strib quotes U of M V-P Kathleen O'Brien:
The university had hoped for a tunnel through campus but endorsed the plan "with reservations," said Kathleen O'Brien, a vice president at the U. Specific concerns include traffic congestion and patient access to health services on campus.

I think the U is more likely concerned about how to get people to and from the new stadium complexes they're building along the North end of campus. What good is a new stadium, and all its parking lots, if the roads don't connect.

Anne Geske at the Minneapolis Observer, which despite Craig Cox's best efforts has long since stopped being relevant, has a kind of an interestingly pointless report on psychogeography and the Conflux festival held yearly in New York City. It's a really great way to experience the city, kind of flaneur meets Wheel of Fortune .

In related news, I saw this book at Micawber's bookstore a while back, and it looks great.


WCCO reports that Edina apparently finally decided to place some zoning restrictions on teardowns and "McMansions" , the giant homes that homebuyers like putting up after they clear lots in the TC's "nicest" neighborhoods.

I think the possible zoning patterns have something to do with floor area-to-lot size ratio . . . but regardless, its great to see a city doing something to prevent unrestrained growth, rather than encourage it.


A house built from an old streetcar in San Francisco


Friend of TC Sidewalks, Steven Gross, penned a piece on surface lots in cities . . . pointing out what a big waste of space they are.

I couldn't agree more! I cannot think of a worse use for valuable city space than a surface parking lot. In some ways, I'd rather see the land devoted to drug dealers (if it didn't send property values crashing, that is).


An interesting story on L.A. transit troubles, for those of you who might start getting frustrated with how frustrating the transit funding situation is in the Twin Cities.


The Atlantic Monthly had a feature story on how certain speculative suburbs may be becoming the next American "slums" thanks to subprime lending problems . . . i.e. that these giant conspicuous consumption homes cannot find buyers, and their planned obsolescence starts to bite them in the ass after a while, leaving entire brand now neighborhoods vacant and derilict.



And MPR had a Myron Orfield-inspired article on how suburbia relates to ideology, pointing out how neatly the red-blue divide maps onto the metro area 'donut' map.

That said, there's no exurb that is as monolithically conservative as the 'inner city' is monolitically liberal. That's the benefit of concentrated poverty, I guess . . .


I'll have a full report on the State Transportation bill debate in the next few days, I promise.

Unitl then, here's a picture of the wall they built in Detroit, Michigan to separate the black suburbs from the white suburbs. (h/t DetriotYes.com)

[Today it basks in sunshine, covered in murals. Detroit has become a utopic vision of inter-racial harmony!]


Light Rail and the University

Once upon a time there was a University. It lived on the banks of a middle-sized river, along a middle-sized valley, in a middle-sized city in the Middle West. One day it decided to grow. It would build a bridge across the river.

"It would be a magnificent bridge," thought the University, "a bridge to the 21st century, spanning time, bridging the past and the future." "It would be a bridge," thought the University, "for the future top three public research University in the World!" And it lived happily ever after.

Well, I've long thought that the Washington Avenue Bridge (WAB) was an unusual space, a bridge of mystery and paradox housing endless riddles. And I've thought for some time that this bridge holds within its double-decked beams all the history of 20th century urban planning. And, as such, its a bridge where dreams go to die.

Because it has something for everybody. It's a fine experience, crossing the WAB on a lovely winter's morning. You can bicycle in the long bike lane, looking off to your left at the twisted steel beams forming a bridge graveyard on the flat land that once housed a large fraction of Minneapolis's bohemian culture. You zip along in your very own lane, through the cool air high over the Mississippi.

[The view of the WAB from the Gehry-inspired pre-WAB bridge, that connects the green grass of the mall to the student union.]

Or, you can take a five-minute walk on the other side, a 'pedestrian only' land lit by lines of round lamps. Feel free to pause and gaze on the broad river valley twisting away downstream toward Fort Snelling, your cold hands on the endless metal railing that stretches to a vanishing point, shakes with the sounds of a truck, with faintly felt vibrations of traffic passing just beneath your feet.

On the coldest days opt for the middle passage, a long and endless tunnel filled with empty benches, concrete lit by grated, aging lights, sitting under heaters that don't work. But it's probably my favorite space on campus. Each panel is painted with a different group and the University. They're refreshed and repainted every year, and every time you walk across the bridge you're surprised by a new student group you never imagined might exist. (E.g. The Christopher Walken Appreciation Society!) [h/t MN Daily link]

And all the while, underfoot, four lanes of traffic whiz by at fifty miles an hour, streaming unimpeded from the interstate or downtown.

If pressed, I'd say that the WAB is the third most thoroughly modern part of the Twin Cities, falling somewhere on the down side of the M. O. A. and the Metrodome, and right before the Skyway system. It's a modernist fantasy straight out of Italian futurism, Fritz Lang's Metropolis, or Le Corbousier's sketches . . . pedestrians and cars, each getting their separate spaces, neatly severed and stacked, each living in peace at their own paces. It's the dream of speed.

[The rather sterile pedestrian wonderland that is the top deck of the WAB.]

That said, the WAB seems like a failure today. Sure, its probably the most democratic space on a campus filled with students . . . anyone can paint a panel, anyone can hand out fliers. On the WAB, I've seen political canvassers, hunger strikers, and even trenchcoat-clad middle-aged men with combovers passing out little green Gideons' New Testaments to anyone who would take one.

[The ground at the West Bank hangs over the street like an apocalypse, lifting the thousands of students away from the banks of the Mississippi.]

But every day that I get off the bus to the West Bank and walk all the way down the sidewalk, around a staircase railing that takes you fifty feet out of your way, up the stairs and through the two sets of double doors into the basement of Wiley Hall, down to the left, around the blank hallway to the right, down the thirty foot corridor, to the left and up the two flights of poured concrete stairs, around the corner to the left, and through the doors out into the clear blue West Bank sky, I wonder how the hell this long and twisted labyrinth is the only way to get from the bus to the Campus's main street. This may sound like a petty complaint, but the WAB's neatly modern separation of uses makes any sort of modal reintegration paradoxical.

To take the other example, try waiting for the Eastbound bus on the West Bank. Here, you stand in a windswept concrete hell next to a freeway, cars whizzing past you every four seconds, lit by sodium lamps that flicker in and out like clockwork. The building behind you seems abandoned, and the bleak grey tones of the dirty concrete belie the fact that you're perched next to a riverbank filled with nature. Here you are, in a city where wild topography is at a steep premium, you happen to be a hundred feet from a beautiful bluff, and all you can see is the inside of an interstate. Hordes of students wait for buses huddled like hobos, or hunkered like hobbits in the eternal darkness of Interstate Mordor.

[Somewhere out there, birds are singing, the sun is shining, and it's a beautiful day.]

At this point, I'm sure you're thinking: Why is this important?

It's important because all this is going to change. Finally, after almost thirty years of planning, the Central Corridor Light Rail line is going to run thorugh the U of MN campus, and tomorrow the Metro Council is going to vote to close off Washington Avenue to passenger cars, and turn all this space under the bridge into a pedestrian-and-transit mall (like Nicollet Avenue downtown).

Washington Avenue, instead of running through the main campus mall like a knife through whipped cream, separating the student union from fields of green green grass like a Belfast "Peace Wall", running its four lanes of unceasing traffic through the heart of campus like an ice skate at a sandal convention . . . instead, this space may one day become a pleasant plaza, a place where students gather, cavort, play frisbee, and hit on each other. One day soon, this campus may have some life in it!

It's always boggled my mind that the U of MN campus feels so lifeless. Here we have close to fifty thousand twenty year-olds in large groups getting drunk, and barring the occasional hockey riot, nobody ever seems to be having very much fun. There's little in the way of street life, public merriment, or public fraternal idiocy. Sometimes the place feels like downtown Saint Paul on a weekend, and I'm convinced that one of the reasons for this hormonal dearth is the detrimental effect of the WAB.

In fact, the problem with modernism has always been its inflexibility, by which I mean that the two sides of the WAB are completely incompatible. By which I mean, you either have modernism, or you don't . . . that there's no in between. On one end, you have high-speed car traffic neatly separated from pedestrians and people, and an actually four-lane freeway flowing into the very center of a packed and crowded campus. On the other end you find the main University mall, the grassy bits between Northrop and Cauffman, and what passes for street life at 'the U'. And eventually, these two transportation regimes must meet. Whose idea was it to have thousands of cars drive at 40 mph into crowds of pedestrians? Can freeways and sidewalks coexist? Cars come streaming out of the freeway bridge, and run smack dab into the 20 mph, pedestrian-friendly stadium village. I'm surprised more people aren't horribly maimed!

The Star Tribune had an article today about the Met Council's impending decision on the Light Rail route, which will serve as a compromise between the various constituencies along the corridor (The Saint Paul Chamber of Commerce, the U of MN, and residential neighborhood groups). It's going to bring the train right up to the front of the renovated Union Depot train station, cutting kitty-corner through one of the blocks downtown. It's going to include some room to one day expand with stops every half mile along University Avenue, while keeping them a mile apart for the time being. And, most importantly, its going to run at grade along the University of Minnesota campus, instead of tunneling underneath the school like a real subway.

And while the U of MN administration lobbied heavily for the tunnel option, Vice-Provost Kathleen O'Brien even going so far as to claim that trains would endanger pedestrians (as if the thousands of cars moving at them every day pose a lesser threat), I think the "compromise" option is actually far better than a tunnel would have been. This way, the campus can maybe start to rethink the relationship between automobiles and people.

[Once upon a time, there was a giant snow-gopher, who lived in a long dark tunnel on a long dark bridge over a long dark river in a long dark town . . .]


This is what Larry Millett's AIA Guide to the Twin Cities has to say about the WAB:

The only double-decker bridge in the Twin Cities, with pedestrian on the upper level and vehicles below. Intended to provide a strong link between the university's East and West Bank campuses, the bridge is utterly prosaic. As built, it was also impractical: the pedestrian deck was left open to the elements. A clumsy enclosure was added later; if anything it made the bridge look worse. Over the years, the bridge has been the unfortunate site of several suicides, including that of poet John Berryman, a university professor who jumped to his death in 1972.


Sidewalk of the Week: Washington & 11th Avenues

Along come the pumps. Gallons of water, streaming from deep underground, lofted high into the air, arching streams of cold water on this cold week, crusting and frosting and flooding the sidewalk, the streetcorner, to turn the old building to a giant glazed doughnut.

Sometimes these things happen, even to the best of sidewalks, even to sidewalk cafes with awnings and tables on small old-ended streets on riverbanks in river cities. Overnight, or in the middle of the day . . . you never know when men with trucks will appear to transform your street into wedding cakes. It looks delicious to me, this decorated sidewalk.

[Shackleton braves the arctic sidewalk, venturing forth into the unknown. Will be he rescued in time?]

Another thing happens, too. The street is closed off, the stream of cars detouring round the collapsed and rebuilding bridge are warded away and people with cameras gather in the early Spring sun, glinting through icicles hanging from eaves. Hipsters in clusters wearing crampons, scaling waterfall walls. Well-dressed folks with trip0ds and waiting cars. Gawkers executing drive-by shootings through rolled-down windows. For some reason, a lonely man with a golf club wanders past, looking for summer, a lit cigar lip-hanging.

[The flags paused mid-flap . . . Sadly, he'd stuck his tongue to the balcony railing, failing yet again to heed advice, a frozen pose.]

Is this the future, or the past? Is now the time to build igloos? If Minneapolis was once underneath a mile of ice, was it like this? Did this glacier bar serve frozen drinks? Should we build a fire, form clubs, and paint caves? Or, will the Earth freeze again? Is this the future . . . a city in ruins, the ground rising up, the water flooding forth, freezing butts to barstools? Is this a microscopic climate change?

[Washington Avenue was forever entombed that day. Centuries later, tourists would flock to the site, to see the primitive culture encased in amber.]

This is a sidewalk for iceskates. It's a sidewalk fancy, a fairy tale of ice and cornice, stalactite and heatlamp, sheets of glass and sheets of water, an accidental winter. While wading over hills of lumps of iced fire, with ashes of beams embedded, I wondered when it would disappear. Soon it will all melt, and bits of burnt board will flow down Washington Avenue. Interior fixtures will flow away. Bits of broken snow will flake off signs and bricks. Frail flags defrost and unfurl. Chairs melt. Heat lamps emerge from icebergs. Umbrellas find their purpose.
[Stuck somewhere between hot and cold, sits the ancient building, a frozen fire.]


News Flash! #6

A friend of mine informed me of a fun fact the other day:

Projected Number of New Enclosed Shopping Malls Built in the United States Last Year: ZERO

(Warning: He may have made that fact up.)

Here's a website devoted to dead malls.

Does anyone remember the Seven -Hi Mall out Southwest of Minneapolis?

Recommend the city council adopt the ordinance on pages A1–A4 of the staff report, which amends the Seven-Hi Shopping Center master development plan to add a new vestibule, walk-in cooler/freezer, and a second drive-up window to the existing Wendy's Restaurant.

[h/t City of Minnetonka City Council Minutes]

An excellent ex-mall.


Part of the Carol Molnau / T-Paw 'no new tax' plan: Pay for your own damn streets. (But don't use a gas tax.)


I completely agree with Platt on terrible Twin Cities slogan. I'd prefer anything to "More to Life." I'd even prefer HRC's slogan ("Ready"), or Wisconsin's motto ("Forward").

At least they're to the point.

I think "Twin Cities: Twice as Good as One City" would be a good start, only we can't use the name "Twin Cities" any more.

Sucks to be me.


Transit ridership is up, and the LRT is looking good.

A little birdie told me that they've been trying to get an ridership exemption for some time for the Cost Effectiveness Index, something that only the Federal DOT can grant. Apparently lots of transit lines get exemptions for the federal CEI (for example, the Hiawatha LRT), and some MN congresspeople were in town the other day having a meeting to discuss whether or not it was possible.

Speaking of little birdies, both mayors were on last week's show of KFAI's Truth to Tell. They were talking about regionalism and Local Government Aid (LGA), both of which have been under attack under the Pawlenty administration.

(Quality program, that!)

I'll have more on the U of MN's LRT dilemma coming up this week, looking at the wonderful/terrible Washington Avenue Bridge.


One of these is an Onion article. Can you spot which one?

A) Pint Sized Parks Make Safer Streets and Cleaner Rivers
B) 3" by 4" Plot of Green Space Rejuvenates Neighborhood

They each come with photos, too!


TC Sidewalks v. Google StreetView

Occasionally TC Sidewalks basks in limelight, as for a split second dozens of people around the sub-region click a link, fix briefly their attention, and give this webpage a half-hearted glance. And sometimes they share their conclusions with the world.

For example, the other day a Mnspeak.com commenter had this to say:

who needs the TC sidewalks blog now that we have google street view?

»» Submitted by »»» Kal at 8:31 AM on February 13

At first I laughed defensively. But then I thought, good question!

Like everyone else, I am blown away by Google's StreetView. It's amazin'! It's awesome! You can find every house you ever lived in, and see what what the world looked like on some random day during the summer of '06. It's like a giant 3-D photograph, like someone stopped time, like a little snowglobe real life world on the internets. (I've noticed that you can even see, from time to time, that cars following the Google camera car stay in the photo, tailgating, or stuck in traffic. In that case, the StreetView is a voyeuristic flipbook . . . if only you could zoom in far enough to see the increasing bewilderment on the faces of the other drivers as they notice the GoogleCar.)

So Google StreetView is good. But that doesn't mean, as some have suggested, that StreetView has rendered obsolete all sidewalk blogs, and Twin City Sidewalks in particular.

On the contrary, now more than ever, we need sidewalk blogs.

For example, take a look at the Google StreetView of major Twin Cities' landmark, Chino Latino:

[The glittering facade of an empty, mid-day Chino Latino, basking in the warm summer sunshine.]

I ask you: Does this capture the unquenchable thirst that is Chino Latino? Does this image do justice to the very palpable energy flowing from the place? Is this any replacement for that special feeling you get when, walking past the open windows of Chino Latino you turn and stare dumbly, torn between envy and disdain for the amount of sheer bachannalian oblivion that flows from underneath its unmarked facade, flooding out onto the street and forming an almost gelatinous social substance that explodes out onto Hennepin Avenue and leaves you trapped like a marshmallow in jello salad?

No, it does not.

Alas, Google StreetView is an auto-centric view of the world. It shows you the view from the driver's seat, it allows you to roll down the window of life and peer through the stoplights, traffic cones, the sides of parked cars. The sidewalk is different. And frankly, the world looks much better from the sidewalk.

It just occurred to me that it would be nice if Google StreetView contained some notion of time . . . I am imagining a virtual tourist who, looking at StreetView, believes that Minnesota is a land of eternal summer.

On the contrary: Is there any way to capture online the bleakest qualities of winter? The squeaky sound of snow underfoot on the coldest day? The thunk of a dead car battery? The way that sludgecrust freezes? The feel of numb cheek or frozen nostril?

That said, if they come out with a product called Google SidewalkView, then my work here is done. I'll call it quits.

[The icy slushy mucky salty crusty dirty dead grey black bleak brittle grubground.]


Sidewalk of the Week: North Sixth Avenue

What do you call a sidewalk that's not a sidewalk? Here's a sidewalk that seems at first to delight. It runs through canyons of ancient warehouses, forgotten gods lurking high overhead, the path leading around quiet corners and alleys and my feet reading the bricks in the street like a lost language.

I guess you call it the warehouse district. And unlike the "warehouse district," North Sixth Avenue is the real thing, filled with alleys and large imposing buildings, some warehouses still housing wares, like the big C. J. Duffey paper buildings that seems to still be somehow humming, and surrounding on all sides are the nicest of condominiums, chock full of architects and lawyers and all the pretty horses that struggle vainly to keep Minnesota labeled correctly on the maps. Filled with people in hiding, packing trucks and BMW's in equal proportion.

[The sidewalk rises and fractures, posing problems for the distracted.]

You walk along the sidewalks here and are immediately lost as they start to rise and fall like waves, jagged edges high over the street laying in wait for the proverbial truck, then disappearing, throwing the walker into the middle of unmarked streets. Sidewalk becomes street, street becomes sidewalk, and allatonce there is a truck coming at you and which way do you turn?

[Here the sidewalk takes a dip down, a split second San Francisco.]

North Sixth Avenue asks whether or not, sometimes, less is more. These streets have no yellow lines, no well-meaning paint pointing at when and where cars can turn. Here, place is a jumble. No curbs, no lamp posts, neither bench nor flower pot nor prettifying amenity. And yet, their silence and sunshadows and feeling of closure make walking almost holy. Here lie the last remnants of Minneapolis' history, the workers who filled railcars with grain and lumber and whatever else came through town . . . commodities of all stripes bound for farms across the horizons of prairie to the West.

[Where is the sidewalk? Do we walk on the side?
Or follow the shadows of lampposts, betwixt brick and ice?]

If this sidewalk had been anywhere else, it would have been paved over and improved into submission. If this sidewalk had any sense, it wouldn't bounce up and down like a bear on a trampoline. But it's here, on the other side of the tracks, beneath the overpass, the forgotten ground.

I love that you can still find places like this in the city, little sidewalk terrains, distinct sidewalk landscapes, alone and illegible. It's like going from earth to moon, and here I am on the sidewalk moon, walking aimlessly lost amid in a concrete funhouse, a brick kaleidoscope, a maze of warehouses where you don't know where you will next find your feet.

So, here's to you, North Sixth Avenue. May your long lost sidewalks lie forever in the shadow of the city, behind and beyond and beneath the gaze.

[The sun shines through an ageless scene, and for a moment it doesn't matter . . . sidewalk and street, past and present . . . it only matters that we're here, walking along the last bricks of Minneapolis.]


Now's the time to talk about: The Gopher Bar

Joe Kimball over at MinnPost has a fun post on the current status of the Gopher Bar, located at East 7th St. and Wacouta over in downtown Saint Paul, which he approvingly declares "won't ever be mistaken for high class."

He gives a nice history of the place, a little hole in the wall that (until the "Total Restoration" of the Original Coney Island near Mickey's Diner is complete) is the best place to go downtown if you want a Coney Island hot dog. Apparently the economics of the hot dog is changing, probably due to the smoking ban, global warming, floods, lurking bird flu, and communists. Kimball writes:

My lunch hours held up, because I've got something unique. [The Coneys.] But the ban kicked the [crap] out of my after-work crowd," Pappas said.

To make matters worse, Kappas said his liquor license fee went up by $2,000 this year.

"Too many communists running things," he said.

And now, the price of wheat has caused an increase in the cost of buns. "They went up a month ago, and they're going up again," he said.

That's raising havoc with his price point.

Right now, a regular Coney goes for $3.25; with cheese, $3.75.

"You get two with cheese, and a pop, and it's still under $10. Get two regulars and a beer, still under $10. But once you escalate over that $10 mark, I got to think it ain't working."

Kimball also mentions how the current owner of the Gopher Bar had at one time, right after the smoking ban took effect, posted "handwritten screeds" in his window, whose language was "inappropriate" . . . signs which have since been removed.

Seeing as I happen to have taken photos of these screeds when they were up, I thought I'd share them with the world . . .

[The front door of the Gopher Bar, shuttered as I'd found it. Note the inverted notice.]

[The inappropriate sign trifecta (or quadrafecta, including the 'coney island' neon hovering just out of the frame).]


Geography Watch!: Can you find Louisiana on a map?

As a professional geographer, a mistake like this is a personal affront to my profession. I found this graphic on the Strib main page tonight. I didn't know Michael Brown had taken over the DC bureau!

This following hot on the heels of CNN's mistaken labeling of South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas . . .

[The CNN graphic, since removed . . . South Dakota is labeled as having a Dem caucus instead of Nebraska, Nebraska is labeled as having a GOP caucus instead of Kansas, and What's the matter with Kansas? h/t www.willbardwell.com/]

My point: now more than ever, we need geographers.