Reading the Highland Villager #10 (December 16 - January 12 Edition)

[Basically, the problem is that the best source of local streets & sidewalks news in Saint Paul is the Highland Villager. This wouldn't be a problem, except that its not available online. I'm reading the Highland Villager so that you don't have to. Until this newspaper goes online, sidewalk information must be set free.]

Total # of articles about sidewalks: 4
Total # of articles about sidewalks written by Jane McClure: 3

Title: Public to weight in on Central Corridor streetscape assessments
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: The assessments to pay for the streetscape (trees, sidewalks, etc.) are a lot of money, and people are going to have a chance to complain at upcoming meetings (January 6th at StP City Hall).

Title: St. Paul revises regulations for electronic sign displays
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: Changing electronic digital billboards are now legal in St Paul as long as they're 75 feet from a "residential district"/

Title: Costs v. benefits of light rail
Author: Michael Mischke

Short short version: Justifiable complaing from editor Mischke about how the cost of streetscape improvements are going to be borne by small business owners. While he wishes for an alternative, he also points out that $175 / foot isn't all that much money. The Highland Park area paid double that when they re-did their sidewalks over a decade ago.

Title: City buys Midway Chev lot in hopes of selling it for affordable housing: Council is banking on the value of parcel to rise with the coming of light-rail line
Author: Jane McClure

Short short version: City buys one of the many abandoned giant car dealers on University Avenue to flip it, someday, in a better market. They spent $580K and are going to use the space for affordable housing.


Sidewalks and Climate Change

[Weather change affects sidewalks by snowing on them. Climate change affects people by making them use sidewalks.]

The climate change conference is wrapping up this week, and people all over the world are justifiably talking about how the US needs to cut its carbon emissions. 350 parts per million, 1990 emissions levels, 20% reductions by 2020, etc.

But all these numbers don’t seem to have much meaning. They’re abstract. They make you think of smokestacks or coal mines or hot and humid greenhouses with polar bears growing in them. They make you think about the milquetoast list at the end of Al Gore’s movie, maybe something about buying a Prius. But what does cutting carbon emissions really mean?

To put it quite simply, cutting carbon emissions means sidewalks. If we Americans are at all serious about fighting climate change, we’re going to have to start by changing our cities.

[Transportation is a huge chunk of US carbon emissions. We use far more of our energy in our cars and trucks than other countries. Img. BTS]

Cutting these numbers means dramatically reducing the amount of oil that we use in our cars and trucks. It means changing how much, and how far, we move around. Luckily, we have amazing new advanced technology that will replace these inefficient, CO2 spewing machines…

We all have feet, which, given advanced futuristic shoe and rubber technology, will step in to fill the car-sized hole in our lives.

Imagine the future...

Picture yourself walking to and from bus stops, schools, workplaces, corner stores, smaller movie theaters…

Are you happy? Of course you are!

On top of that, by designing walkable cities, we will necessarily start making smaller, denser homes that will reduce the energy spent on heating, another big contributor to climate change. If we start living in sidewalk-centered cities, we can cut emissions in both short- and long-terms, and the effects will begin to multiply as our everyday lives become more closely intertwined with feet.

(Granted, I am not remotely optimistic about much of this happening, or mattering. I have asymptotically close-to-zero hopes about governments reigning in their rates of GDP growth, which are very closely tied to fossil fuel use. Even the UK, one of the most aggressive Western countries at changing public policy, isn't meeting its goals. Though, they are kicking our English-speaking asses. And even re-designing cities won't really solve our problems. Carbon is pretty central to almost everything we do or produce as an industrial capitalist society.)

But, if change begins at home, then climate change begins at sidewalks. A low-carbon future will look a lot like our low-carbon pasts: sidewalks and dense living, walking far more and drive much less, neighborhoods replacing freeways as the centers of activity. Frankly, its not so bad.

[Famed urban designer, Jan Gehl, talks about what other (cold) cities can learn from Copenhagen about reducing auto-dependence and cutting carbon emissions.]


University of Minnesota still holding up LRT over mitigation money

[Students wait for buses in the cold winter along Washington Avenue's busy traffic.]

Here are some meeting notes from the University's Faculty Senate Finance Committee, detailing the current University position on the Light Rail lawsuit. Compared to the hyperbolic language of the lawsuit, the University seems to have a far more reasonable position in its internal discussions. Apparently the main sticking point is about who will pay for ongoing monitoring of vibration and magnetic interference while the line is in operation.

Light-Rail Transit (LRT)

Professor Luepker convened the meeting at 2:05 and welcomed Mr. Berthelsen and Ms. Fiske to discuss facilities issues, but turned first to Vice President O'Brien for an update on light-rail transit (LRT).

Vice President O'Brien noted that this Committee has discussed LRT many times over the last several years; the University is now at a sensitive point in negotiations with the Metropolitan Council. Last August the Council approved the environmental impact statement, which allowed work to start in downtown St. Paul. That action started the clock ticking, under state law: Within 30 days the University had to support the statement or take legal action to protect its interests (federal law allows 180 days). Because no agreement had been reached about mitigation sufficient to protect the University's research, the University filed suit.

At this point nothing is happening with the lawsuit. The Metropolitan Council has filed action to dismiss the lawsuit; that motion will be heard on December 10 in Hennepin County court, but there will likely be no decision until early in the year.

The University has used three sources of information to evaluate the protection needed for its research from electro-magnetic fields and vibration. One is a consultant's report from experts on light rail, another is a faculty committee chaired by Vice President Mulcahy that included faculty experts, and the third is a study of research universities around the country that have dealt with light-rail issues. (The University of Minnesota is not unique as a research university in having to deal with light rail.)

With respect to other issues—the pedestrian mall, traffic interchanges, land easement—there is agreement. The remaining debate is about mitigation—protection of University research labs and equipment. The faculty experts say there are technical solutions to the vibration and electro-magnetic interference problems. In terms of vibration, the University needs the LRT to meet specific performance standards and the LRT has to be built, tested, and corrected to meet these performance standards. In terms of electro-magnetic interference, the labs can function if they are outside a corridor approximately 100 feet wide on either side of the tracks. Most of the labs of concern are outside that corridor; those that are not will have to be moved or have protective equipment installed. The University has established a committee composed of associate deans and faculty to work with the faculty and the labs as construction takes place.

Will the Metropolitan Council agree to the standards of correction that the University seeks? Vice President O'Brien said it is likely it will agree to the testing but it is reticent about monitoring. The University believes monitoring is essential in order to keep the labs working and also to determine what happens if the standards are not met. If there is a documented exceedance of standards, remedies would be pursued, with consequences to ensure timely correction.

The Board of Regents is resolute in their protection of research at the University, Vice President O'Brien reported, and believes it is possible to both promote mass transit and protect the University's research.

Professor Chapman asked if the Metropolitan Council budget for the project includes funds for mitigation. It does, Ms. O'Brien said. Then what is the argument about, Professor Chapman asked? The Council does not have funds for monitoring, Ms. O'Brien said, and is hesitant to commit to the performance standards and the remedies for consequences.

Professor Seashore said that LRT has been a public-relations disaster for the University and that outside groups believe the University is making unreasonable demands. She is involved with transit-equity groups and the information the University has made available has not made a dent compared to what the Metropolitan Council is putting out. Is there a way the University can be more aggressive? There have been unanswered accusations in the press, and while the University could "win" on the scientific and technical arguments, it would still engender the public perception that the University does not care about poor people.
University Relations needs to take this more seriously. The University's
responses thus far have been measured, but at some point the gloves need
to come off in the public arena. The lawsuit is being portrayed as a
lawsuit against poor people.

Mr. Driscoll said that as someone who lives along the LRT corridor and would use it, he would like to see the project completed. He agreed with Professor Seashore and said that this is the first time since he's been at the University that he has heard the University's position explained in a reasonable way and had not been talked down to. He said he understood that the University has reached out to graduate students in the affected labs and said it would be a good idea to have them talk about the effects of LRT on their research. Vice President O'Brien said there have been about two dozen people working on the issues over the last few years and they have been collecting information from people in the labs.

Mr. Erikson asked if there has been any examination of the cost of mitigation if there are unwanted effects after initial mitigation has been done. What would it cost to move the research? Those specifics would be interesting for the public to know. Mr. Driscoll added that knowing such figures would help him better understand the University's position, both as a Committee member and a member of the community. They have presented some stories, Vice President O'Brien said; there are 80 labs in 17 buildings with highly-sensitive equipment. The fields of research in these labs are in three broad categories: health-related (treatments and cures), renewable energy, and eco-nanotechnology. That research is not solely the University's; there are other research institutions and about 160 businesses involved in much of it. Washington
Avenue truly is Minnesota's research corridor. She said she can ask Vice President Mulcahy to bring some of the stories to the Committee, if it wishes. Bring them to the media as well, Mr. Erikson suggested; the public needs to know that the University's concerns are valid and that the research has broad and important implications.

Professor Olin asked if the tracks would be fenced for safety reasons. There will be hedges with a metal fence 42 inches high so people do not run through them, Vice President O'Brien explained.

Ms. Stahre asked if the Washington Avenue Bridge can handle LRT trains, a concern given that there has already been one bridge collapse in the Twin Cities. Does the University own the bridge? It does not, Ms. O'Brien said; Hennepin County owns it and will retain ownership, although the University maintains the pedestrian deck. The bridge will be one-half open during construction (one side and then the other), including the pedestrian deck. The bridge will be strengthened to accommodate LRT trains.

Professor Konstan suggested that the Committee consider how the University manages public relations risks as a future agenda item. He reflected that it seemed that earlier in the process the University had to make decisions about whether to "move forward" on this project trusting that important issues would be solved later versus appearing too obstructionist. As the project gains momentum, though, it becomes too easy to be seen as "in the way" and to get run over in the process. He thought it would be helpful to hear from University Relations as well as the University's risk management people on how (and where in the chain of authority) decisions are made about where to expend the University's political capital and good will. He said he meant such a discussion to start with LRT, but to understand it more generally (since it is a similar issue with Stadium, labor relations, etc.). His concern, he said, is that there may not be someone "in the loop" who is actually both watching out for the risk to the University and knowledgeable about how those risks play out in public relations.

Vice President O'Brien noted the University's Board of Regents 2001 resolution has guided the University's policy position: first, the preferred route is the northern alignment; second, if the CCLRT line was on Washington Avenue through the campus it be underground; and third, if the CCLRT alignment moves to at-grade on Washington Avenue, that traffic be removed.


UMN V. LRT: The Final Round Begins

It's getting down to crunch time for the LRT v. UMN battle (Round 2 in the Great Minnesota Institutional Vanity Fest). Today's the day when the two sides, both ostensibly representing the Minnesota "public", need to have settled their dispute over where, and at what cost, the light rail will run through the University of Minnesota campus.

Today's paper carries this nice letter to the editor:
A Nov. 25 letter writer argues that the University of Minnesota is only acting responsibly in demanding mitigation to protect expensive lab equipment from the effects of light rail trains. But responsibility is a long-term effort, not a card that can be played just when it's convenient.

My copy of the 1993 Alternatives Analysis and Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Central Corridor clearly shows a Washington Avenue alignment through the U of M campus.

Yet, for nearly 20 years, the U has located ever more costly lab equipment ever closer to Washington Avenue.

Perhaps the university was betting that light rail would never be built, in which case it lost. Or perhaps planners simply ignored those plans, in which case the University of Minnesota is guilty of poor planning. Or perhaps the U simply assumed that any mitigation was someone else's problem, in which case it is guilty of arrogance.

Yes, a light-rail tunnel was in the original plans, but surely planners at the U would have known that placing trains even closer to underground labs would have exacerbated the impact, making mitigation even more costly.

It's hard for me to understand why the Central Corridor project should bear all the costs of the mitigation necessary because of the University of Minnesota's lack of foresight.


Lack of foresight is just one of the ways that the U hasn't been a good citizen of the Twin Cities. John Dewitt joins a rather large chorus of U of MN critics. For example, there is this Strib editorial pointing out how late to the party the U has been in thinking about the impacts of the LRT. Or Adam Platt's op-ed pointing out the self-absorption involved for one taxpayer entity to sue another, and the rather outrageous list of University demands that includes loss of parking revenue and bureaucratic expenses. Or the Strib Editorial about State House Rep. Alice Hausman's efforts to force a compromise between these two public bodies, for the greater good of the state's planning efforts. (You'd think that the chair of the State House committee that funds a big part of the University's budget could get something done!)

[The soul-less design of the West Bank epitomizes the U's out-dated modernist planning mores.]

I've never been a fan of how the University of Minnesota designs and maintains its public space. The campus has a highly auto-dependent system of parking garages and anti-pedestrian roads (Washington Avenue, and the one-way streets on the North side of campus), seems committed to lifeless and defensible spaces like tunnels, skyways, and little-used green fields, intentionally separates itself from surrounding communities, and does very little to encourage biking to and from campus. In short, the U of MN acts as like its located in a college town, and doesn't do enough to be a part of the Twin Cities metro area. This latest fiasco, where the University may very well scuttle an urban transit project that is massively important for the region, only reinforces my impressions.

The general opinion on campus is that the University is "playing hardball" with the Met Council because it wants to get as much money as possible from the project. People say that UMN officials aren't happy with the steps that project coordinators have taken to mitigate problems involved with construction and vibration.

In my opinion, that's only partly true. The other part of the picture involves institutional arrogance. The University of Minnesota administration is deeply committed to the principle of its own importance. It touts its goal to be one of the "top 3 research institutions in the world", when its not even one of the top 3 research institutions in the Big 10. Administration officials make their name off of bringing in grant money, growing private/public research projects, and increasing institutional prestige. They don't really care about their role as part of the Twin Cities, or about something like growing regional transit ridership. (Note: They also go out of their way to bust grad student union efforts, cut general college access to needy students, and force high fees and tuition increases onto politically powerless students.) To the extent this LRT project interferes in any way with these larger research goals, even it the project is good for the region, it must be stopped.

Then there's the added hubris of the Met Council planning a street that runs through the University Campus in a way that conflicts with the U's own plans. For various reasons, the LRT proposal for Washington Avenue surely doesn't make the University "transportation and safety" department very happy.

I think that, for the administration, autonomy is more important than anything else. Its own institutional power is more important than the urban future of Saint Paul, or a real transit system that serves students and staff on campus. I can only hope that this gets resolved in the next few days, but when it comes to the University administration, I don't have a lot of hope.

[The too cool for school wins the chickie run as TC transit falls off the cliff of red tape.]