Back home from Cleveland, Cincinnati, Nashville

It’s been a whirlwind of a week, which has kept activity on here to a minimum. I start an exciting new job, and consequently chapter of my life, this week. It is my hope that getting back to the 8-to-5 schedule will give me some time in between or in the evening to finish building out this website in a way that meaningfully contributes to revitalization planning.

Cleveland is always a gem. I’m not sure of the utility of signage to tell you that you’re obviously in the City of Cleveland, but the organic PR value of these signs have paid for themselves several times over.

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With and without photo editing, and signage. Considering the photo editing I used was just a few adjustments on Instagram, that gives us a representative sample of whatever is on the hashtag #Cleveland right now.

Cincinnati is also a gem. Being a Cleveland partisan, I suppose I’m supposed to rag on Cincy. Truth is it’s tough, especially with a streetcar! They were just doing testing when I was walking around OTR. FTA requires each of the 5 rolling stock to undergo 500 km (about 300 mi) of testing spread across different days and pedestrian/traffic/weather conditions.

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And then lastly, I recommend all revitalization-minded planners take a trip to Nashville sometime soon. You don’t have to take in the country music – there is plenty of other music, sights, and sounds – and above all, you really can just feel the energy and effort that goes into a city on the rise.

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The above photo is the Parthenon replica that was built to commemorate the centennial of Tennessee’s statehood, and the latter was my hotel view near downtown. The growing Nashville skyline comes with a westward gradient that often goes unseen in the city’s skyline postcards.

And lastly, the Columbus skyline view from my new loft’s rooftop deck! Always nice to come home to another emerging city, albeit the Most Normal City in America (really puts my travels in perspective once I come home).

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Probably some better angles of this view to come. It’s hard to really get in the groove on a realtor’s leash, who probably wouldn’t want me scaling the gutter for the perfect clearing/proportions/angles etc.

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Not-Smart Grants?

This has been a big week for bike and pedestrian mobility in Northeast Ohio, as the region’s dual urban cores both received small TIGER grants that will cement the place of bikes and pedestrians in the built environment. Cleveland’s winning TIGER proposal is more significant, with a number of new bikeways connecting the Near West Side including the long-awaited Red Line Greenway. Akron also now has the opportunity to complete its pedestrian promenade along the historic canal frontage that gave rise to the Rubber City.

Of course, these grants pale in comparison to the FTA SmartCity Challenge, for which Columbus (the only “growing city” in the state, pulling from the larger Cleveland/Akron area) will see a windfall of $150 million for displaced transit (driverless cars instead of transit). Even with awards of $5 and $8 million, Cleveland and Akron are still implementing “old school” transportation projects – the kind you can actually see and use.

ar-160729793This view of Akron’s Main Street, taken from a “loft” project I once worked on, shows the existing condition of Main Street, which is really fine. I think the back-in angled parking generally works. In Akron, you have a lot of blue collar folks who won’t be “fooled” by such newfangled parking contraptions, so it’s common to see a pick-up truck rebel and park front-facing on either the wrong side of the street, or across several spaces on the right side. The back-in angled parking is designed to reduce accidents from people backing out into traffic, and instead shifting the reversing to when people first park. It is smart, it works, and it improves safety. I hope they retain this feature, especially as people are just now getting used to it. The Akron proposal, which will ultimately cost $14 million including state and local funds, will also add a roundabout at Mill Street, which is needed. The roundabout will keep traffic moving through congested, one-lane downtown streets that legitimately do bottle-up.

11094642_gCleveland is getting a little more for its $8 million TIGER grant, sponsored by the Cleveland Metroparks, which has recently gotten much more involved in urban parks, waterfronts, and recreational connectors. The thrust of the grant is two bikeways, the Red Line Greenway (which has been in planning for almost 5 years) that will run adjacent to the Rapid, and the Whiskey Island Connector that connects downtown to the lake. The overall project totals $16.5 million, including funding from the state and foundations like the Gund Foundation, Cleveland Foundation, and Wendy Park Foundation. This project is a prime example of the type of catalytic community improvements made possible by bringing the non-profit sector into the TIGER effort, which wasn’t possible until recently.

The Red Line Greenway will serve as a legitimate form of transportation. It will nicely augment bikeways that are also underway (the dotted green lines) including completing the Towpath, on-street bikeway that will be added to W. 65th, and the “new” Shoreway. These latter additions will be served by two major connections also funded by this applications, including the Lakefront Bikeway Connector and Canal Basin Connector. The City of Cleveland is also still moving forward, albeit slowly, on the Lorain Avenue cycle track. All of this will turn the relatively-flat west side, which sits in the lakefront coastal plain, into a bikeable oasis (during warm months). This is one $8 million grant that will make a major, lasting difference in how Clevelanders get around and experience their community.

I fail to understand how we can spend $150 million on smart car technology that so few people will ever see, let alone use (due to the incredibly narrow scope). I am at least reassured that some places in Ohio are still doing old-school mobility projects that stretch funding into as much impact as possible. When I typically reviewed grants in the past, I too often prioritized impact over novelty.

Now if we can just get the Lorain Avenue cycle track off the planning boards!

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Out with LRT, in with AV

Perhaps not surprisingly, there has been some push-back from my last post on the Smart Cities grant which went to Columbus. I called it the Columbus, Ohio Grant Program and -Surprise! – Columbus, Ohio won.

Not to incite “technology wars” between different transportation modes, but in a world of trade-offs, this is what is getting DOT grants in Columbus, Ohio; a stark contrast to most of Columbus’ peer cities, which get grants for light rail (LRT) or streetcar.

bus-on-street_2For the record, the grant is an incredible win. Columbus bested 6 other finalists including Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Denver, Portland, San Fran, and Austin. Not a bad city there. Furthermore, the grant will do good things like augment technologies on the Cleveland Avenue C-MAX. I admittedly didn’t realize Smart Cities had a component to that, but I also didn’t realize the original Small Starts grant didn’t actually include costs for signal prioritization, which is normally standard for even BRT-lite.

However, there is no denying that the autonomous vehicle (AV) pilot project is the calling card of Columbus’ winning application. It’s the meat and the potatoes, and everything else (the universal transit card) is the garnish.

And none of these are bad things. For one, I would never turn down $40 million in federal grants – then again, I would never want to do anything to jeopardize $200 million in Hardest Hit Funds, or turn down $400 million in FTA funding for 3C Rail. Leaving these kinds of opportunities on the table is painful for a state that desperately needs resources for everything – housing, transit, workforce development, you name it.

starter-routeSometimes, however, the decision has been made and you just have to walk away. Such is the case with rail in Columbus. It’s done, it’s over, and it will never happen. I myself am the eternal optimist to a fault, especially when it comes to cities, and I know how the well springs eternal for a strong vision around which to build a city. Columbus will continue to grow, but it probably won’t be growing around fixed-guideway transit, such as the previously proposed $100 million streetcar that city council defeated. Moving forward, I’m not actually sure what place-based opportunities there will be in Columbus, especially if this becomes ground zero for testing AV in an urbanized built environment.

Columbus Underground, another eternally optimistic news/commentary outlet, has also come to this realization. The site itself is home to many authors and bloggers who have kept alive the hope for rail transit. And then there is this choice quote in today’s CU article, from the CEO of the Columbus Partnership:

“I don’t think it’s about one mode versus another, it’s about what the options are going to look like in the future,” says Alex Fischer, Columbus Partnership President and CEO. “Some decades ago, the community at any number of levels made its decision as it relates to rail,” he added.

So there we have it.

I’m also not alone in asserting that autonomous vehicle pilots do not make transit. Shortly after my post last Friday, CU also editorialized that “Driverless Cars Could Usher in a New Era of Suburban Sprawl.” Ya think?

As did Slate.

As did Fast Company.

As did Nature.org.

As did the Wall Street Journal.

And also Bloomberg.

The suburbs are going nowhere anytime soon, driverless cars to the rescue. And it will be okay, as we will find a way to adapt. This post is just to serve as realistic notice of the impact that autonomous vehicles will soon have on our cities, which will be an urban form not unlike this:

As for the glimmer of hope that remains for light rail enthusiasts and advocated in Central Ohio, the odds just grow all the more with this AV pilot. They need to find a way to make the community want rail, which they simply do not at this point in time.

Columbus is an ideal city to try something new with transit: It’s growing, it’s already walkable, it’s very linear, and it has legitimate transportation needs. There is also a culture that is enthusiastically excited about the local culture, or as the excellent former mayor Michael Coleman would say “our swagger,” which is one reason for the exuberant fanfare given to the Smart Cities victory.

William Murdock, the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC) Executive Director, may be among those keeping the glimmer of hope alive for rail. At least it appears that way in the Columbus Underground article on new technology’s impact for LRT:

“Rail is a time-tested transportation mode for moving lots of people and goods in an efficient way,” says William Murdock, MORPC Executive Director. “It’s possible that the new autonomous technology when combined with shared models (i.e. Uber, Lyft, Car2Go) might replace some of the service traditional light or commuter rail might have provided…but it might also open up new opportunities to focus on a few high-capacity corridors with bus rapid transit, light rail, or something new.”

Perhaps that “something new” could be an elevated transit vehicle that glides over traffic, either on tires or rails (gasp!) as depicted below:

While expensive, the above solves many of the issues that Columbus has with transit, specifically that the transit vehicles aren’t in the way of drivers and that it is undeniably cool.

I wouldn’t underestimate the importance of “cool.” Here in the first world, where we still have challenges, we can make available miraculous amounts of resources for solutions that we think are cool. We tend to ignore the problems and solutions that aren’t sexy (like infrastructure). Here in Columbus, I am friends with a great many of developers, just from hanging around planning and development functions – knowing these guys, I know they just aren’t interested in transit. They know that the young professionals occupying their cool Short North condos and lofts are just going to uber everywhere, like Madeintyo. AV is even better because it’s an uber that won’t try to make small talk.

duvallgraphTo the point about the infrastructure problems that we tend to ignore, that makes AV all the more easy to do now, and foolish to invest in for the long term. Given our infrastructure backlog, it’s hard to see the sense or the cents in investing in an AV model that will further deplete revenue in the Highway Trust Fund. The graph to the left assumes normal trends including: A) refusal to raise any taxes; B) vehicles that become more and more fuel-efficient; and C) driving habits of Americans continuing to wane. It does not take into account “AV subscriptions and/or memberships” becoming the next foreseeable transportation wave.

I used to think that autonomous vehicle technology was crazy. I still think it is (I am someone who loves observing my surroundings, which this will divorce people further from), but that is not keeping it from coming to fruition, whether we like it or not. So perhaps something like the above video isn’t crazy either, I don’t know – it probably requires a pilot city that cares about transit as much as Columbus cares about driving. Perhaps that city at that time will also be lauded as “Smart.”

An Ode to the Blank Slate

The Federal DoT created a program for cities without real transit to further-develop vehicle-based mobility alternatives with which they will then call themselves “smart” for doing so. In other words, DoT created the Columbus, Ohio grant program, and – Surprise! – Columbus, Ohio won it.

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I’ve written about the Smart City Challenge before, including when I came across a CityLab article that discussed this proposal along with possible mobility-oriented interventions in the Linden neighborhood (one of those interventions was my “Bus Box” proposal). I was pleasantly surprised to see Linden, a neighborhood for which I’ve done a lot of work, getting CityLab recognition. Now that the surprise is over, I am sorry to say, I am a little underwhelmed.

Columbus’ Winning Proposal

It’s complicated. To be fair, this application is about getting people moving, and not necessarily providing old-school “transit.” This grant is deliberately intended to pilot future technologies that should rightfully deviate from how transit is usually provided. That said, it’s also an awful lot of hoopla for a proposal that scrapes the bare minimum. This Wired article offers an excellent and unbiased (well, glowing) account of the full application, which will execute the following projects:

  • Autonomous vehicle pilot project to link currently non-accessible (via transit) employment centers
  • Mobility kiosks in the low-income Linden neighborhood, specifically geared toward pregnant women
  • Development of a universal transit pass that syncs with COTA (the bus authority), rideshare apps, taxis, and bikeshare

The real strength of the application was the local partnerships brought forth by Columbus’ determination to win this grant. A classmate of mine with an excellent blog detailed the following “total packages” among the 7 finalist cities, in order of leverage:

  • San Francisco: $150 million pledged by local partnerships
  • Columbus: $90 million pledged by local partnerships
  • Austin: $50 million of in-kind services pledged (which could be worthwhile coming from a tech hotbed)
  • Denver: “Total value of $84 million” (so an additional $34 million of leverage?)
  • Kansas City: $15 million pledged by local partnerships
  • Pittsburgh: Additional $11 million pledged by Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
  • Portland: None

Edge, San Francisco.

However, Columbus’ real advantage may have been the blank slate of transit offerings it currently boasts. We have a bus authority. San Francisco has BART which is underfunded but still excellent. Austin has commuter rail. Denver has one of the top LRT networks in the world. Kansas City just opened their new streetcar. Pittsburgh has the T, augmented by really cool “busways.” Portland has it all. DoT may have been attracted by the fact that a Columbus pilot offers the opportunity to implement “smart” technologies in an isolated environment, without cross-over influence of actual transit. As Gizmodo puts it: “Columbus will be able to demonstrate how a city which doesn’t have the time or capital to build out a massive rail network can use the next wave of transportation tech—autonomous vehicles, smartphones, sensors—to get residents moving in an efficient way that will get more cars off roads and lower emissions.”

Smart Challenges For Wicked Problems

Who’s to say Columbus doesn’t “have the time or capital” to build out a rail network? We won’t make time. It’s been a non-starter my entire time in Columbus.

For those that live, work, and get around in Columbus – what does the “Smart City Challenge” victory actually mean? If you’re not pregnant in Linden, what does this victory actually mean? Is everybody in Linden pregnant? What does an autonomous vehicle pilot project really do for a struggling built environment that needs placed-based, not dis-placed, solutions? Having a cool car that can pick you up for your OB/GYN appointment does little for job access, education access, creating recreational opportunities, and fostering passive walkability.

Having written a study on infant mortality in South Linden, I can tell you that lack of car ownership is not an environmental cause. Lack of mobility options, yes, car ownership – not exactly. The full gamut of factors contributing to this neighborhood’s unacceptably high infant mortality rates are:

  • Poor access to affordable and fresh food
  • High obesity rates vis a vis unwalkable environment
  • High stress resulting from crime, speeding traffic noise, and economic insecurity
  • The neighborhood’s only OB/GYN is across the tracks, on a site that was available on the cheap, for lack of resources to build a true neighborhood health center
  • Housing that is often riddled with environmental contaminants
  • Poor maternal care education (prevention of tragic accidents)
  • Other

Linden even has an underfunded BRT-lite project, in need of additional funding and wraparounds to qualify as true BRT, that this grant ignores.

For myself, I deliberately forced myself to use Columbus’ transit for the entire two years that I was in grad school. My thesis was on TOD, and to develop a sense of empathy and deeper understanding, I wanted to experience what it is like to actually rely on transit – too few planners have done this, in my opinion. I can tell you that being reliant on transit in Columbus is not fun. It means waiting for buses that are irregular (my outer backpack pouch has schedules for the #7, #18, #2, #8, and #21 – which I’m pretty sure are just suggestions), unpleasant and stressful, occasionally unsafe (frequent reports of LGBT discrimination and abuse), frequently broken down (I have had three COTA buses break down on me), and so on. For half of the year, add the bitter cold. During the warm months, the buses are often re-routed or indefinitely delayed due to frequent marathons, festivals, or parades on High Street. So while I don’t mean to be a fly in the ointment, I am very passionate about Columbus developing the first-rate transit it so badly needs, and this is not that.

This reminds me of the time I asked the otherwise-excellent outgoing mayor, Michael Coleman (a true role model of civic leadership, I must say) if Columbus was interested in pursuing transit to capture more development demand in the form of sustainable TOD, and his response was “Columbus is so TOD, we now have Car2Go!”

The Case for Real Transit in Columbus

The background context is that Columbus is a community that harbors deeply anti-transit sentiments. It’s a car culture. As Columbus has re-urbanized and more or less “gentrified-in-place” (raising density while developing true mixed-income), it has found auto workarounds. The city routinely grants TIF deals to cover the costs of parking garages to facilitate neighborhood redevelopment. The frustrating thing, as a planner, is that Columbus is a really great city that has what it takes to be “the next Great American City” (sound trumpets) a la Austin or Portland. Transit is the one disconnect – the stubborn pitfall that Columbus can’t get out of.

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The essence of Columbus is neighborhoods, which is ironic for a city best-known for its iconic commercial spine. Above is the most important photo you will ever see (to-date) of Columbus. Of course I am biased, because it is my own, but this photo illustrates better than I could describe the relationship between downtown, the “neighborhoods,” Ohio State, and the High Street corridor. Despite being such a linear city (not to be fooled by the radiating hub-and-spoke of sprawl, density levels and economic activity literally follow High Street) many voting citizens in Columbus pretend to be pro-transit, but just unsure of where it could go or who would use it. This oft-repeated refrain requires the above aerial study. If any city were ripe for a transit corridor, it is Columbus. You don’t need a Nelson Nygaard study (though we have that, too) to tell you where a rail corridor should go, just go up high and say “Eureka, I have found it!”

cbus.JPG What gives Columbus so much potential is that it is a vastly underrated historic city. Overshadowed by the former fourth-largest (Cincinnati in the 1800s) and fifth-largest (Cleveland in the 30s, 40s, and 50s) cities – Columbus falls for the notion that it too is not historic. On the contrary, Columbus is one of the most historic state capital cities, and features some of the most impressive Victorian-era neighborhood fabric anywhere in the United States. These historic neighborhoods are also dense, walkable neighborhoods. However, it is also best summarized as a collection of independent fiefdoms (unique neighborhoods or “villages”) that have spurned planning and transit to stave off the threat of connectivity to their surroundings. A great example of this is Clintonville, a truly wonderful neighborhood whose infamously NIMBY residents are either known as Clintonvillains or the Independent Republic of Clintonville. I truly empathize for any developer feebly attempting to build very high-end apartments for “those people” (you know, renters, like myself).

These fiefdoms are wonderful places. They’re walkable, charming, and valuable. They could be very transit-supportive. Columbus has an almost-endless list of them, from German Village, to Beechwold, from Franklinton (an emerging fiefdom), to Olde Towne East (shout-out to those OTENA gentrifiers, Flag Wars!) and the rest of the “Villages,” be they Victorian, Italian, Merion, and so on. Their calling card is that they all occupy inner-city locations without inner-city connectivity. While I adore cobblestone and brick-paved streets for aesthetic and sense-of-place arguments, I suspect they have been preserved so well to inhibit drive-through traffic.

The divisions of Columbus bring us to realities about inequeality and the geography of opportunity. The Kirwan Institute, based at Ohio State, is an excellent think tank dedicated to the study of poverty and urban inequality, and best-known for “opportunity mapping.” Their Columbus Opportunity Map, essentially a blended metric of quality of life and economic opportunity across Columbus census tracts, is viewable on Arc online. You have to open the filter control and turn off the neighborhood layer, which is just meaningless color-blocking, and turn on the neighborhood opportunity index. You will then see the following map for all of Franklin County:

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While economic opportunity follows High Street, those who enjoy that economic opportunity do not cross High Street. To the east lies a sea of neighborhoods cut off from the city’s spine, by railroads, freeways, etc. These neighborhoods’ problems are largely due to issues with access, whether it be to jobs, education, healthcare, etc. We need a transit network that connects these neighborhoods to the economic spine of Columbus. On top of that, truly linking the diverse and multifaceted (and almost entirely densely-populated) communities that line both sides of High Street would catalyze additional economic potential by bridging the gaps wherever they exist.

Toward the Right Solution

m-1_20map-0Columbus just won $150 million of funding through an incredible public-private partnership. Cincinnati, Kansas City, and Oklahoma City are all building their modern streetcars (trams) for less than that. However, Columbus needs much more than a downtown circulator streetcar. Columbus needs something like the M-1 Rail, which I’ve covered extensively, which serves a true need by filling the gap and forging strategic connectivity. The 3.3-mile corridor, envisioned as the first phase, connects two currently-disconnected rail systems and makes the broader Detroit Transit Authority bus grid more efficient. Ran by the suburban RTA (SMART), the M-1 Rail will also link the two disparate transit authorities serving Southeast Michigan, and it will do so through a corridor that links all of the city’s major economic, cultural, and institutional assets.

The M-1 Rail is a slam dunk because it is the perfect place-based transit project. It was also made possible by significant private- and philanthropic-sector contributions, which covered most of the cost, in addition to about $45 million in FTA grants.

Sound familiar?

Columbus needs an M-1 Rail, whether that is “smart” or not – something that provides real, meaningful transit. Columbus does not need a ride here and there for expecting mothers – it needs a transit pipeline for everyone.

Nuanced Thoughts on RTA’s Fare Hikes + Service Cuts

Nobody ever stops the press when government works. Everyday, government works to get people to work, to ship goods to markets, to power our economy, and protect our national defense. Occasionally, we do stop the press for major stories when government does not work as we expect. When a bridge crumbles, it’s a headline. When a train derails, it’s a headline. When bus drivers strike, it’s a headline. In all of these cases, lives are disrupted. Also, in all of these cases, rarely is the fundamental issue ever addressed: We do not pay, and seemingly will not pay, for the infrastructure and services upon which we rely; we insist on something for nothing.

The problem with infrastructure and transit is that the entire nation, or even the entire State of Ohio, does not collectively rely on the same bridge or the same transit route. However, as we complain about the cost of individual projects and transit services, our own community’s infrastructure is crumbling because we refuse to also pay for that of our neighbors.

In Ohio, here is how we got into this situation:

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Nation-wide, here is how got into an even bigger situation, regardless of mode:

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Among modes, the decline has been particularly steep among federal transit and passenger rail spending, which was basically slashed in half during the 80s and never recovered.

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This all collectively means we find ourselves in a situation in which local government picks up more and more of the tab for transit.

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Lastly, for a most interesting chart, particularly for “equity planners” whom decry spending on anything other than bus routes to poor neighborhoods – there appears to be a correlation between overall transit services and poverty concentration. As transit funding declines along with the varieties of constituencies that it serves, the differential between urban and suburban poverty rises. To advocates for “transit equity” meaning transit as a social service: What are you really trying to do?

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We now find ourselves with the transit service that we deserve, pretty much. The fragmentation is pretty much complete. Where a unified front could possible exist as an effective force to solve these issues collectively, we find drivers succeeding in shifting money for transit to roads, we find transit-dependent constituencies advocating to shut down transit that serves middle and upper income people, and we find developers and transit growing farther and farther apart. It is 2016 and things are getting worse.

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What gives? Flats Forward (and/or Backward)

The big debate in Cleveland right now is whether to continue service on the Waterfront Line. The Waterfront Line, completed in 1996, is a 2.2-mile light rail that bends around downtown, following the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie waterfronts, hence the name. Cleveland’s RTA spent $70 million to build it, and then not longer after opening it, decided to eliminate weekday service on it in 2010. Service levels were then revived in 2013, upon the accumulation of $500 million + in development spurred by the route, adding jobs at Ernst & Young, hundreds of dwelling units (soon to be thousands), and dozens of new entertainment venues.

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It so happens, that the Flats East Bank project was built with an over-supply of parking. So while ridership has risen on the Waterfront Line, the trains aren’t exactly packed. Transit “advocates” (can you call those who advocate against transit, “transit advocates”) have dubiously branded the Waterfront Line as the Ghost Train. Mark Naymik of the Plain Dealer, generally considered that newspaper’s foremost loudmouth, wants this route to “be the first service trimmed to help close budget shortfall” (sic). (Personally, and this is the only personal opinion I am writing in this piece, but I’m still not over Naymik’s nasty fight in favor of the Ohio City McDonald’s by labeling opponents including myself as the “$6 Beer Crowd.” Seriously, who advocates FOR a McDonald’s in a historic district??) Flats Forward, a non-profit development arm aimed at revitalizing the Flats as a beloved community gathering place, has led the charge to retain service.

What’s at stake, besides hopes of continued ridership growth on the Waterfront Line? Well, developers did make a $500 million investment along it. One of the historic advantages of rail over bus service is that tracks can’t be moved like a bus route often is – and that goes out the window in this political climate. By burning the developers who invest in sites along transit, we get further and further from an ultimate solution to this wicked problem. Let’s not lose sight of a potential solution, in that Americans overwhelmingly want TOD – 73% support changes in land use zoning to encourage TOD. 73% of Americans rarely support anything.

Where the Waterfront Line was just one example of the solution, combining forces between transit and development, that is now at-risk. The reality is that the Waterfront Line is a choice rider service. By spurning those choice riders, as is often the goal of supposed “transit equity,” it becomes harder to pass needed local tax increases to support transit for everyone.

Don’t forget that the only reason Cleveland RTA is able to provide Ohio’s only decent transit system isn’t fare revenue, but rather the 1% county-wide sales tax that supports RTA. While other Ohio cities would kill for that (COTA in Columbus for instance must operate on half that), will County voters renew Cleveland’s RTA tax next time it is up the renewal? Keep burning choice riders, and County voters are less likely to see how they could benefit.

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What we have here is ultimate dysfunction and fragmentation in which transit segments have turned against each other to throw each other under the bus. While we are all implicit, it is hard to blame anyone specifically; while each side seems to have missed the big picture, can you blame them considering what an ugly picture it has become?

The impact of impact fees

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Impact fees, designed to mitigate the adverse impacts of growth and development, are stirring controversy in communities where developers aren’t used to exactions. The issue is causing consternation across the board, as evidenced by Oklahoma City walking back its proposed impact fee schedule amid lawsuit threats, but it is also an important hurdle to cross if cities are at all interested in smart growth.

What is “Smart Growth?” For that, we have Smart Growth USA.

Smart growth is a better way to build and maintain our towns and cities. Smart growth means building urban, suburban and rural communities with housing and transportation choices near jobs, shops and schools. This approach supports local economies and protects the environment.

At the heart of the American dream is the simple hope that each of us can choose to live in a neighborhood that is beautiful, safe, affordable and easy to get around. Smart growth does just that. Smart growth creates healthy communities with strong local businesses. Smart growth creates neighborhoods with schools and shops nearby and low-cost ways to get around for all our citizens. Smart growth creates jobs that pay well and reinforces the foundations of our economy. Americans want to make their neighborhoods great, and smart growth strategies help make that dream a reality.

How could anyone be against that? Make America’s neighborhoods great again, I say.

How do impact fees encourage smart growth?

The smart growth tool kit includes many tools that fall roughly into the categories of carrots or sticks. Among the carrots, or incentives for smart growth, are programs of reducing fees (building permits, utility connection fees, impact fees, etc) in the urban core, offering financial assistance for urban developments, various forms of tax abatement, and so on. These things are expensive and it stands to reason you can’t give someone a break on a fee that doesn’t exist in the first place. Then, among the sticks, or penalties for other-than-smart growth, are heightened fees, growth boundaries, environmental protection areas, building moratoriums, and so on.

In the case of Oklahoma City, which just wrapped up the Plan OKC process in which it produced a new comprehensive plan that seeks to curb the negative impacts of sprawl, a balanced approach toward smart growth promises to “not rock the boat.” Toward this goal, the city will implement a balanced slate of minimal incentives and minimal penalties to shape development. Despite not rocking the boat, this has elicited the typical responses from developers, including these reactions in today’s Oklahoman linked above:

  • Oklahoma City’s proposed increases outpace those of surrounding communities
  • Commercial developers threatening to take their developments to surrounding communities
  • Impact fees won’t be spent in a way that benefits the developer
  • Proposed impact fee benefits include things the city should already be doing (widening streets, resurfacing roads, maintaining parks, etc)

These responses suggest a callous disregard for the residents that will occupy the communities built by these developers. Toward that point, it is also difficult to convince some developers (that don’t normally offer resident amenities) of the value of public amenities. Furthermore, you’ll also notice that not all developers are the same, and that the plan to enact impact fees was actually shaped by the local developers who do believe in the value of public amenities.

While I can’t predict what some developers will do – and taking their low-budget strip mall plans to another community may not be the worst outcome – it’s also a fascinating claim that these impact fee benefits include things the city should already be doing. Indeed, it is true that it includes things that the city already does, however, it’s questionable if the city should be forcing residents in the entire city to pay for new roads and new parks on the fringes of the city. If the low-budget builders traversed the city streets on their way to argue at City Hall, surely they noticed the condition of city streets closer into the city. Oklahoma City is the poster child for spending all of its resources, levied against the entire city, on new roads on the fringes, and putting very little into long-term strategic maintenance of inner city infrastructure. The inner south side of OKC, where my family lives, is a mess and always has been.

There will always be this rift, in any industry, between those who strive toward quality and those who strive toward value. We are seeing the cheap developers and the quality developers duke it out over these impact fees.

So how big a deal are these fees really?

  • Originally, residential impact fees were 55 cents / sq.ft. in previously undeveloped area, and 40 cents / sq.ft. in urban area.
  • For a typical 1,800 sq.ft. Central Oklahoma home, this would have meant a $990 impact fee on the suburban fringe, and $720 impact fee in the urban core.
  • As of now, they have been reduced to 33 cents / sq.ft. in previously undeveloped area, and 24 cents / sq.ft. in urban area.
  • For the same 1,800 sq.ft. typical home, this means a $594 impact fee on the suburban fringe, and a $432 impact fee in the urban core.
  • For greenfield strip malls, proposed rates were slashed from $4 / sq.ft. to $2.20 / sq.ft.
  • This means proposing a typical 50,000 sq.ft. fake stucco nightmare on NW 176th Street will cost you an impact fee of $110,000.
  • For greenfield office and hotels, proposed rates were slashed from $1.88 / sq.ft. to $1.03 / sq.ft.
  • This means a typical 50,000 sq.ft. greenfield office park will generate an impact fee of $51,500.

On its face, these impact fees are extremely minimal for residential development, and increasingly more substantive for commercial development. The impact fee on office and hotel development is probably not going to be that significant of an impact; however, this proposed fee schedule should properly penalize retail sprawl. Oklahoma City, as a core city of a larger metropolitan region, has every incentive to do everything in its power to stop retail sprawl.

Retail sprawl, more than any other form of sprawl, is incredibly damaging and offers no positive outcomes for Oklahoma City. As retail sprawls further out, it will eventually just leave the city as it largely already has. Furthermore, retail provides stable, low-income accessible jobs – so we also call this “job sprawl,” because the jobs are sprawling out of reach of those that we need to connect to these jobs. Retail centers are almost exclusively built outside of transit accessible areas, and away from affordable apartments. Lastly, as this game plays out – sales tax is the primary collateral damage – and cities in Oklahoma, barred from collecting income or property tax, are almost completely dependent on sales tax.

To solve that issue, the sprawl issue, and many other issues, I am a huge proponent of this smart fee schedule. I liked the initial plan, proposed by the quality developers and approved by council, even better. However, we will take what we can get – this is a good step in the first direction. As it stands, Central Oklahoma budget builders are completely unused to impact fees, exactions, and other forms of real estate finance that you see in most other major metros.

As this game becomes less alien and less scary, there is an opportunity to further enhance these fees, so that the city can reallocate its resources toward fixing inner city infrastructure, and getting back to the business of the entire city at large. I would like to someday see an impact fee system similar to Kansas City, with a completely fare-free zone in the urban core:

kcmo-impact-fee-photo

These types of exactions are a real opportunity to create a fair system of encouraging good development, and discouraging bad development. The reality with infrastructure is that somebody has to pay for it at the end of the day, and that new infrastructure is always more fun to pay for than maintaining existing infrastructure. The goal at the end of the day must be to first prioritize the necessary maintenance of existing communities, and then find ways to develop new communities commensurate with the region’s growth. That way we aren’t just building a tremendous excess of expendable housing and especially strip malls.

DC: WMATA TOD Tour

IMG_4554The Washington Metro is by far one of the most successful transit networks in North America, both in terms of ridership as well as economic development. As it relates to economic development, it isn’t just that WMATA makes TOD a priority, but also that the system performs well for practical commuting trips (with surge pricing to operate 2-minute rush hour frequencies), and revitalizing neighborhoods by concentrating 713,000 daily riders into walkable marketplaces.

Such was the case with Columbia Heights in particular, where I have spent a lot of time on the ground myself. One (delicious) word: pupusas. The area surrounding the Metro station at 14th and Linwood has been totally revitalized, but not without a high degree of public planning, investment, and long-term involvement.

Ravaged by riots in 1968, the neighborhood was subject to decades of failed revitalization efforts before transit reached the neighborhood. This included the creation of two redevelopment authorities (RLA, NCRC), and a string of failed development projects due to the neighborhood’s struggling economic base and subpar purchasing power. According to this MNCPPC presentation: Things changed in the 1990s as WMATA invested over $500 million into three new entrances, which surrounded 14th & Linwood with air rights development that the District of Columbia then provided $48 million of subsidy to support an anchor shopping center.

It looks great:

The $48 million District investment, following WMATA’s expansion into the neighborhood, catapulted the neighborhood to revitalization. That investment created a 20-to-1 ROI, with over $1 billion in resultant TOD, spread across 55 development projects.

• Since 2001, within a half‐mile of the Columbia Heights Metro Station, 55 development projects, valued at $912 million, under construction or completed

• 3,200 new residential units  Nearly 700,000 SF retail

• >36,000 residents live within a 10‐min walk of the Metro station, and nearly 40% of the population is between ages of 25‐44

• Projects include:

– 53,000 sq ft Giant Food grocery

– DC USA with retailers such as Target, Best Buy, Marshalls, Staples, and Bed Bath and Beyond.

– The 250‐seat GALA Theatre and the Dance Institute of Washington

– Highland Park and Kenyon Square mixed‐use developments: 412 residential units; 20% affordable; 20,000 SF retail– The redevelopment and reuse of the Tivoli Theater

Source: MNCPCC

While placemaking is one obvious ingredient in the success story of Columbia Heights, perhaps the most successful transit placemaking project in DC is the arch at the Chinatown/Gallery Place station – directly adjacent to the LED rotunda above the Metro escalators. This is one of the most-utilized and most-central Metro stations in the entire District, anchored by the Verizon Place arena.

 

Chinatown/Gallery Place is also one of a few of transfer stations, making it a natural fit as a TOD hub. Other less obvious TOD hubs have benefited from substantial WMATA and DC/VA/MD support, including 3 in Virginia, 6 in the District, and 13 in Maryland.

Farragut Square, near the heart of Downtown DC, is one of the most obvious examples of air rights development, with Class-A office space built above the Metro escalators. Of course, two of the Farragut Square stations have bikeshare stations, providing intermodal connectivity.

The station at U Street, one of the District’s most vibrant and active neighborhoods, models a different site plan prototype. In this development at 14th and U, an L-shaped development surrounds an open-air plaza with the Metro escalators, creating a dispersal point between pedestrians emerging from the escalators and queuing at the crosswalk. One of the city’s highest-traffic intersections, it makes sense within this context to shield the Metro station.

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There’s a Wal-Mart at the NOMA station.

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The DC Convention Center is also an interesting prototype, with the Metro station underneath the Convention Center, accessible by escalators inside the Convention Center itself. In this picture, notice that the street pavement is concrete, whereas most of DC’s streets are asphalt. This is because the exhibition hall is underneath the intersection, Convention Center, AND the affordable housing picture to the right (dwarfed but not displaced by the Convention Center).

 

Union Station, the city’s commuter rail and Amtrak hub, as well as a Metro station, is encapsulated by TOD inside and out. The interior of Union Station has been turned into a shopping galleria, with retailers such as H&M and Ann Taylor. Behind the station, to the east, is also infill housing separated by a cycle track.

On H Street in front of (but not connected to..) Union Station is the “beginning” of the DC Streetcar. That said, there are a lot of similarities to how Megabus often dumps you off under a bridge “adjacent” to a transit station, and how the DC Streetcar dumps you off on the H Street overpass above the tracks, but not at all connected to Union Station. This lack of direct connection to Union Station, and particularly the broader Metrorail system, is the only legitimate fault I can find with the DC Streetcar. The route, while short, manages to traverse three distinctly different neighborhoods.

phase3

First is the historic commercial corridor of H Street, which is heavily revitalized, and almost entirely infilled since the streetcar project began. Second is the area around H Street and Benning Road, where the streetcar bends in front of a large outdoor transit plaza (for buses and bikeshare), surrounding by transitional urban fabric with some suburban-style shopping strips. Last is the stretch of Benning Road approaching Oklahoma Avenue, which is primarily suburban-style public housing.

As I rode it in its first week of operation, riding was fare-free, not to mention a relatively festive environment with several other curious riders taking their first ride. Some of them were taking selfies, others brought friends to check it out. In talking to a few residents, I noticed two unique POVs I never would have considered: 1, mothers with strollers were the biggest fans, because it is so much easier for them to board than a bus; 2, the eventual connection to Georgetown has area residents scared that they won’t be able to afford the fare.

The fear is that surely they won’t actually be given equitable access to the same infrastructure that Georgetown residents enjoy. By starting first with a largely disenfranchised neighborhood that was passed-up by the Metrorail, this project has an opportunity to renew these residents’ faith in local government.

DC: Trains the Old News, Bikes the New News

The Washington Metro, for all its problems including fires and crashes and more fires (just this morning), is the gold standard for transit in this nation. It is a showpiece metro system; a gleaming architectural accomplishment that makes other systems look like functional sewers (ahem, New York). Also count me as a big fan of its iconic waffle-grid station patterns, possible in part because it is one of North America’s deepest subways (due to the swampy terrain along the Potomac).

I will go into great detail on the station TOD programming, but needless to say that TOD is still one of the few things WMATA does flawlessly. Nearly all of their station-area TODs are air-rights construction, which is an amazing level of physical integration between the subway escalators and surrounding development. You often get the sense of emerging in the middle of an open-air shopping mall.

bike-lanes-1bike-lanes-2-e1401476005192All of this said, DC is the nation’s bicycle capital. It has truly become the District of Cycling – little could be more emblematic of this than the protected bike express lanes in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue. Beyond Downtown DC, the District has an incredibly extensive network of bona fide cycle tracks (marked in purple). Biking is actually the fastest means of getting around the District, plain and simple.

Washington is also perfectly set-up for biking. It’s extremely compact. Markedly flat, except up north. It may be one of the most pleasant climates on this side of the Mississippi – rarely too hot or too cold. Not to mention, the demographics are young, diverse, and fit. All of this makes a perfect storm for a city that can (and has) embraced biking as a legitimate mode of transport

As a city, the District will realistically never achieve the statehood it so badly wants. However, its real function is as a national role model for planning. Other cities big and small should look to DC for innovations in planning; as our nation’s capital, it has always done a fine job of implementing new ideas. As the 117-mile Washington Metro first opened in 1976, DC has since modeled how to do TOD, air rights construction, and intermodal connectivity. The new frontier DC is pioneering is bike infrastructure. Not just with some pilot infrastructure, but with comprehensive infrastructure: 72 miles of cycle tracks. In fact, no other city has seen as large an increase in bike community as DC.

Grabbing lunch with several different friends while I was in town, they all asked me, “So what do you think of our new bike lanes?” They are top of mind. And unlike nearly all change, people already don’t mind them one bit. Drivers even are surprisingly courteous toward bicyclists. Not to mention, the day that I hit the Hill to lobby for historic preservation, the bike lobby was in full force – passing out bike lapel pins. Many Congressman and even the Architect of Congress proudly display their bike lapel pins during the spring. Bikes aren’t just tolerated, an achievement for most cities, but they are cherished, for which DC stands nearly alone (perhaps amongst Minneapolis, Denver, and Portland).

Better yet, the bike lanes are flawlessly-executed. Curb cuts minimized. Left turn lanes are negotiated with bikes having right of way. Almost all lanes are protected. Bikeshare stations abound – in fact, one of the real strengths of the kiosk-based bikeshare model (as opposed to the cheaper displaced, decentralized Zagster model) is that all station kiosks have bike maps. Even if you aren’t bikesharing, the wayfinding signage at over 350 stations is still invaluable.

With the entire DC Metro system off line tomorrow, an unprecedented move in response to yesterday morning’s “arcing fire” that erupted in the tunnels, there will be more bicyclists than ever before in the District. More may decide to switch permanently. Many already have.

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Biking is making the District more pleasant, equitable, active, green, and attractive. Biking is the new news in town.

Meet the coolest transit project in America: M-1 Rail

Detroit, the city that refuses to die, and the city that got America moving, has gotten a little well-deserved help with their new streetcar. Detroit is long-known as one of those cities where transit projects go to die, with countless different iterations of this same project reappearing every few years. To this point, it’s worth mentioning that the People Mover system (photographed extensively in my 2016 trip) was always envisioned as a “last mile” circulator once people get downtown on a larger transit network that hasn’t materialized until now.

I don’t really know if this project is the coolest transit project in America. I’ll say it’s pretty unlikely. M-1 Rail is a mere $125-180 million endeavor, which puts it firmly in the New Starts realm, while more established transit cities like Seattle are doing crazy things like capping an entire urban freeway, LA is doing subway extensions, Atlanta is developing a copy + paste model for air rights construction over MARTA stations, Minneapolis wants 75,000 downtown residents, and Dallas fully intends to protect its claim to the most light rail of any city. These cities don’t blink at spending billions – yet Detroit’s little $125 million project has been such a topic of controversy. Vox’s Matthew Yglesias called it “The worst transit project in America.” It’s hard not to wonder if this is a cogent anti-streetcar argument or just thinly veiled annoyance that this city refuses to conform to the negative outside press. (I feel guilty even offering this up as click bait, but I still feel compelled to offer totally contrasting viewpoints.) If he can make such an unfounded claim, then surely I can counter that by calling it the coolest transit project in America. M-1 Rail brings out the best in transit projects and has a tremendous array of benefits to offer Detroit. In many ways, this small transit project is the little engine that could.

dettransit_mapBoiling M-1 Rail down to its lowest common denominator, this project is a very small but vitally important link that ties together a regional rail network that is finally coming together. M-1 Rail, spanning the Cass Corridor between downtown (served by the very cool and very retro People Mover) and New Center (where Amtrak’s Wolverine and SEMCOG’s commuter system cut through Detroit City), is a 3.3-mile link (red) between these two existing (blue) transit systems that don’t currently intersect.

Now, given that there are some interesting corridors in the rift left by these two systems, doesn’t it make a lot of sense to connect the closest points of these two disparate transit networks? Even without knowing much about Detroit and specifically the neighborhoods that lie between the two transit systems, it would seem to make sense within the regional context: By making that connection, rather than having three disparate transit systems, you now have a single whole network that serves the Detroit region.

b99329484z-1_20151130190435_000_gvcmn04b-1-0It so happens that besides the obvious slam dunk within the regional context, that the localized context further propels the case for M-1 Rail. Woodward Avenue, Michigan Highway #1, is America’s only urban national scenic byway. There are only 30 national scenic byways. Step aside Euclid Avenue (CLE), High Street (Cbus), Wash Ave (STL), Fifth and Forbes (Pitt), Vine Street (Cincy). Woodward Avenue is the granddaddy of all of the great urban main streets.

I have a lot of “crazy theories” one might say, and one of them is that you can usually go up to a tall vantage point and look out over a major city and either point out specific transit corridors, or what should be specific transit corridors. Go to the CN Tower and you can literally see the veins of high-rises that fan out across the city, most notably along Yonge Street, where towers rise up for a dozen or so miles from the low-rise scale of Toronto’s surrounding neighborhoods. In a city without rail, the same experiment is basically a quick-and-dirty method of studying prospective corridors. In Columbus, go to the Rhodes Tower observation floor, and even if you know nothing about Columbus you still can’t help but notice how the entire city literally rises up at High Street. Similarly with Detroit, go up to a tall building on Wayne State’s campus and then look out over the city. You will see the above view. If you were struggling with where to do transit three years ago, the above view would be somewhat illuminating.

The financing of M-1 Rail is the most interesting urban experiment I have ever seen. Detroit City is in fact kind of an outsider to this entire project. This project has been planned, approved, and implemented by a complex partnership between Detroit’s non-profit sector and the federal government, which literally “required an Act of Congress” to allow public-private partnerships to count as the local match required by FTA. It also leverages New Markets Tax Credits, which is the first time NMTC’s have ever invested in public transit, thanks to LISC, Great Lakes Capital, and others. Four foundations, including the Ford and Kresge foundations, also contributed millions. Detroit’s corporate community stepped up to the plate to buy naming rights at each station, contributing far more than a name is really worth.

The financial pieces (totaling $180 million) of this project are as follows, mostly in little $3 million chunks here and there:

  • Kresge Foundation – $49.6 million
  • FTA TIGER I grant – $25 million
  • FTA TIGER VI grant – $12.2 million
  • Quicken Loans – $10 million
  • State of Michigan – $10 million
  • Detroit Downtown Development Authority – $9 million
  • NMTC (LISC, Great Lakes Capital, etc) – $8 million
  • Penske Corp. – $7 million
  • MEDC – $7 million
  • Illitch Holdings (Little Caesar’s Pizza) – $6 million
  • Ford Foundation – $4 million
  • Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan – $3 million
  • Chrysler Foundation – $3 million
  • Detroit Medical Center – $3 million
  • General Motors Co. – $3 million
  • Henry Ford Health System – $3 million
  • Wayne State University – $3 million
  • Wayne County – $3 million
  • Ford Motor Co. – $3 million
  • DTE Energy – $2.9 million in-kind
  • Compuware Corp. – $1.5 million
  • J.P. Morgan Chase – $1.5 million
  • Hudson-Webber Foundation $1 million
  • Bank of America Foundation – $300,000
  • Ford Motor Co. Fund – $100,000

Notice you won’t see “City of Detroit” anywhere on said list. Nor will you see “taxpayers of Detroit” on the list, in any way (through some taxing district, etc). I just think that this is amazing. At a minimum, it’s a testament that the Rust Belt community ethos is alive and well in Michigan, even after a community has broken down and weathered such a storm. 

At this point I must confess that I started out intending to just whip up another quick photo tour and press “publish.” While that is still forthcoming, I just can’t stress enough that with this transit project the devil is in the details. If you bother to look at these details, it really is the coolest transit project in America.

And it is becoming reality.

Progress as of January 2015:

Progress as of February 2016:

Which eventually will resemble these renderings:

So, if you like what you see, mark your calendars for sometime in 2017 when M-1 Rail leaves the station, revolutionizing how visitors (tourists and suburbanites alike) will experience Detroit City. It will be an experience that keeps people coming back and hopefully creates enough concentrated activity to rub off on the less-revitalized remainder of the city.

Rather than insist that every project solve every problem (zero-sum), M-1 Rail is worthy of our support and admiration as a singular solution in a city that collectively needs a lot of singular solutions. M-1 Rail doesn’t fix everything overnight; however, it does fill in the missing link, build on Detroit’s existing assets, connect the city to the broader region where most jobs have moved, and give the city something captivating to build on for the future.

Design Ingenuity: Vikings’ new MetroDome

maxresdefault1When stuff turns 50 years old, a switch is flipped. Nobody wants that junk anymore. And if it wasn’t junk, it is now. This happened in the 70s-80s with Art Deco mid-rise buildings in Oklahoma. Once the grandiose old urban core became 50 years old, it was time to bring in I.M. Pei and tear down 2,000 great old buildings. But this post isn’t about OKC and its troubles and rubbles. This is about what’s rising out of the rubble of the MetroDome in Minneapolis. (Or maybe not rubble as much as tattered pieces of inflatable roof.) It’s about an NFL stadium, which is an odd thing to celebrate in a new feature I’d like to call Design Ingenuity. I’ll do these posts for anything I see that really inspires me as an urban designer. Just perusing through Minneapolis projects, an all-around inspirational city honestly, I was really blown away by the new US Bank Stadium.

Important Note: This inspiration is also in part underscored by the fact that NFL stadiums are among the worst thing our society is building right now. It’s a beacon of corporate excess and waste, public finance and corporate welfare, and all of these evils. Yes, I get it – we have people starving, even a small proportion living in poverty in Minneapolis I’m sure, and yet the Twin Cities are subsidizing a $1 billion stadium. IT is what it is. For some perspective however, they’re getting a lot more for it. “JerryWorld” AKA AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX was $1.3 billion in 2009, $1.45 billion in 2016 dollars. They got nothing. A super huge dysfunctional venue that can only host sporting events, surrounded by not a sea but an ocean of parking, across the street from a Wal-mart and an interstate freeway. North Texas for ya.

By comparison, the Vikings stadium is $1.06 billion which is a lot, but nearly 50% less, for a more impressive football stadium. Beyond that, they got the Vikings organization to financially contribute significantly. $551 million from the Vikings, $348 million from the state, and just $150 million from the city. Also compare to Cleveland, where the Browns organization LEFT TOWN in order to force Clevelanders to pony up most of $300 million for their new stadium, and just last year broke the bank again for $120 million in renovations, with $30 million coming from the City of Cleveland just to pay for a new scoreboard. Since $30 million is nothing, most of it actually comes from Cuyahoga County’s sin tax. Ugh. Did I mention that Minneapolis is getting a true architectural gem and a real catalyst for economic and community development? It isn’t a difficult argument to make that neither Arlington nor Cleveland will see similar outcomes from their stadium boondoggles.

I saw this stadium (nearly complete even) when I was in town. You ride right past it on the Hiawatha Line LRT, and switch over to the Green Line LRT at the transit mall right in front of it. Still yet, I didn’t realize how cool it was. My impression from seeing it still under construction was that it was cool, but not necessarily inspirational. Actually, when I came around the bend approaching it, I didn’t realize it was an NFL stadium. It doesn’t look like a stadium. It looks like.. I don’t know, you tell me:

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US Bank Stadium construction aerial from mgoblog.com

From the other side and inside:

It’s a Viking ship!… “setting sail toward downtown Mpls.” How cool is that? The entire stadium’s design has been inspired by a Viking ship, and not just its exterior. The internal structural supports, holding the roof up, are designed to look like sails. Outside, on a corner where you can see the tapered “ship-shape” angles of the stadium, is a public art statue called the “Legacy Ship,” where local die-hards can buy “legacy bricks,” which they will do because you can coherently envision a great legacy coming from this design. My family are primarily Vikings fans, especially my aunt and uncle who have season tickets in Minneapolis, and even though I never got into it I am thrilled that they can be a part of something that is very cool.

But it gets better. The stadium is located right downtown, on the site of the old MetroDome, and totally surrounded by rapid redevelopment. Minneapolis is booming. They have 40,000 downtown residents and are trending toward 75,000 by 2025, which they will probably reach. Minneapolis, indeed, is booming. One of the main reasons for this would be the extent to which they invested in transit, and this project is no different. While most of the $1 billion is for a football stadium, just as the public art was not cheap either, they have also integrated a not-cheap light rail transit mall into the project. Local Tea Party folks are balking at the “ballooning expense” of the $8.7 million pedestrian bridge that carries fans over the tracks and onto the platform, where a train takes people to and from the game. Right now you can just walk on top of the tracks because they aren’t grade separated. There are numerous at-grade crossings that work just fine. So why the bridge?

The explanation lies in this Finance & Commerce article. Once the still-incomplete Twin Cities light rail network is complete, at least as envisioned up to this point, this stretch of tracks will serve as the central hub and transfer point for the entire system. Trains will come through on average every 2 minutes. Let me say that again: Every two minutes, a light rail train rolls through this transit mall. Since trains take a minute (especially at an important transfer point with other LRT lines) to allow for on- and off-boarding, there won’t be many opportunities to cross these tracks on foot. Especially when 65,000 fans get out of a game, along with countless thousands more that fill downtown bars and restaurants during game days. So in this instance, the light rail bridge is a core piece of this stadium project, which has led the city and Vikings organization (which contractually captured ad revenues from the station to pay off its roughly $2 million contribution) partnering on this.

So there you have it. Rather than just building a stadium, Minneapolis is building a legacy. Not just a Legacy Ship, but a project that has been inspired by this legacy in every way, including when it comes to structural supports, the roof of the stadium, its shape, it’s orientation on the site, and so on. Most importantly, they are building a legacy of equitable access not just to and from games, but the surrounding area as well. They didn’t just think of transit, too; they made the light rail access point a core piece of this project, recognizing that by doing so they can legitimately expect Vikings fans to take the train to the game.

Go Vikings. – Sincerely, city planners.