Category Archives: urban design

Washington Avenue SE Revisited |

Cross-posted from  Washington Avenue SE Revisited.

Washington Avenue SE Revisited

As test trains already run, an in-service Green Line will be puffing honking, whistling, zooming, gliding, buzzing down Washington Avenue through the University of Minnesota campus shortly. Already there are issues.

Green Line on Washington Avenue SE - The Crane is becoming the state bird

  1. Signs, signs, everywhere signs. The more signs and signals there are, the less each sign means.
  2. Violators – as seen in the second figure, Metro Transit Police should be able to make up the line’s operating deficit by ticketing violators.
  3. Bus bunching abounds on the road, though one hopes it reduces once the LRT starts operating and the 16 and 50 (and maybe the Campus Connector) stop running.
  4. Signal timing – which leads to pedestrians ignoring the signals. (see also Signal Priorities should Signal Priorities)
  5. Noise, bells and whistles and honking and pedestrian warnings, and so on have significantly altered the ambient sound quality of the route.
  6. The road has hardly even been open to traffic and already the paint is disappearing. Paint is of course cheap, but either we need to invest in it more frequently or do something somewhat more substantial.
  7. The crosswalks are particularly slippery in winter. I am told this is being remedied.

Violations abound of cars in the bike lane on Washington Ave. SE


I argued two years ago, when was much smaller, that the car-free Transit Mall should be extended all the way from Walnut to University Avenue. It’s almost all six story walk-ups now, with nary a driveway needing to be accessed from Washington (and one assumes those will disappear shortly).

I suspect the violators problem will be reduced (though not eliminated) were Washington Avenue more clearly designated a transit/ped/bike mall for its entirety. Additional design features (but please no more signs) may help the road become more self-explaining to its users.


Modern Streetcar in Istanbul

The signals are just absurd, and along the lines of advocating drivers and pedestrians wear helmets. The road should be open to pedestrians except when there is a train or bus, and even with buses, this should be doable as a shared space with a minimum number of signals (ideally zero, but perhaps something for trains, though lots of trains operate in perfectly civilized and safe areas of the world with many fewer signals). The ideal solution in my mind is that the signals are default to pedestrian phase (Barnes Dance) except when there is an explicit call from cross-traffic, emergency, or transit vehicles, flipping the tradition beg button philosophy.

(Yes, I know, liability).

Seven types of urban redevelopment sites |

Cross-posted from Seven types of urban redevelopment sites.

Seven Types of Urban Redevelopment Sites

Riding the #16 back from the Writers Conclave, one sees that the Green Line (nee Central Corridor) has left a path of destruction in its wake. From downtown Minneapolis to past the edge of the University of Minnesota, parking ramps, the Star Tribune headquarters, the Metrodome, and WaHu are just some of the largest redevelopment sites oriented toward this line as Minneapolis strives to become Manhattan(or perhaps we should say Maxiopolis).

Green line train on Washington Avenue

Before we are too quick to credit transit investment as the cause of the development, note that even off the line, in places like Uptown, the Wedge,  and Dinkytown, the 2010s say out with the old and in with the new.

Yet regardless of the causes of redevelopment, it is here, it is generating controversy, and that controversy in part is a result of insufficient policy tools.

Hierarchy of Redevelopment (with examples)

I will propose these guidelines for seven types of urban redevelopment sites:

  1. If it’s a vacant lot – Build on it. [Example: 2700 University Avenue (now) ]
  2. If it’s a parking lot – Build on it. [Example: Latitude 45 ]
  3. If it’s a parking ramp – Tear it down and build on it. [Example: 4th and Nicollet ]
  4. If it’s an urban-hostile building (e.g. fast food restaurant with surface parking and a  drive-thru) – Tear it down and build on it. [until we get to the last one]. [Example:WaHu Student Housing (contra: Save the Hat)]
  5. If it’s a really, truly about to fall down building (formally: 5(a) structurally deficient and not cost-effectively  remediable or 5(b) functionally obsolete and not cost-effectively adaptable – and thus abandoned leading to 5(a)) – Tear it down and build on it. [Bad example: Minnesota Multi-Purpose Stadium (leave aside what you should put there, and who should pay for it)]
  6. If it’s an ugly but structurally sound building (i.e. occupied or occupiable) with little or no historic or architectural importance –  Wait until all of the above sites have been completely used up, see if you can do adaptive reuse and improve its attractiveness, then consider tearing it down and building something new on it. [Example: House of HansonDinkytown Hotel/Mesa Pizza, ]
  7. If it’s actually a viable (i.e. occupied or occupiable), attractive or historic, functional building – Wait until all of the above sites have been completely used up, see if you can do adaptive reuse, before even considering tearing it down. [Example: Marshall High School,  Wesbrook Hall]

Nicollet and Fourth, Parking Ramp coming down for Xcel Energy HQ (photo: UrbanMSP)

The examples are far from a complete list, and certainly there will be debate about what constitutes 5, 6, or 7, and lots of nuance and qualitative decisions.

Nevertheless, I think we are far too quick on type 6 and especially type 7 sites when there are so many sites still remaining in categories 1-5 in much if not most of the city. An aerial view of Dinkytown, e.g. will show that surface parking lots are disappearing. It will also show they have not already disappeared (the block between 14th and 15th Avenues and 5th and 4th Streets is more than half parking).

This hierarchy is not simply my personal preference (although it is my personal preference). It is a hierarchy that will lead to better urbanism. As I have written before:

The Marshall - Site old Marshall HS and UTEC

A key lesson is that it is often easier to grow an urban neighborhood from an existing lattice of structures than try to plop one down on a brownfield site. … Thus we should try not to destroy viable structures or neighborhoods until we have considered renovating them and we have exhausted vacant parcels. Of course, one might say, that is the obvious lesson from urban renewal some 50 years ago.

But this still happens: The old Marshall HS in Dinkytown, e.g., or the Colonial Building at Emerald and University on the Central Corridor that has been a vacant parcel for about 7 years now. While construction is well-underway on the Marshall HS site, the Emerald and University site (variously 2700 The Avenue or City Limits Apartments) sits fallow. Things might happen between demolition and construction, so that construction which was planned falls through mid-project.


Economic rationale for the hierarchy

Consider a simple two-block walking route. One block (X) is a functional, occupied one-story building (with doors and windows) and one block (Y) is a zero-story parking lot. To go from A to B one passes the building (which might be interesting), and a parking lot (which probably is not). Now a developer comes in and wants to build a non-awful six-story wood frame apartment building. Where would you rather have him build this. The answer is block Y because then when you are walking, you will walk past two buildings, instead of one building and a parking lot. This improves walkability, which is a good value to have, since it likely increases walking, personal connections with the city, and even retail sales;  but it also improves accessibility (the number of places which can be reached in a given unit of time), which produces positive economic spillovers in the interim. A six story building plus a one story building is better than a six story building and a parking lot.

In the end, both blocks may have apartment buildings, that is fine. But you want to develop the empty lot first because “in the end” is not “right away”, as the recession of 2008-09 showed, and we are losing urbanism in the interim as projects can get deferred a long time. The sequence of development matters. In the interim, the walk accessibility (local density) will be higher when the empty lots are developed before existing buildings are torn down and replaced.

[For the math-inclined, if we integrate accessibility over time, it will be larger if we defer tearing down #6 and especially #7s until after filling all the vacant or vacuous #1-5 sites.]


Improving the sequence of development

Site of the former Wesbrook Hall which was leveled so Northrup Hall could have an outdoor gala space (er, Breathing Room)

Property is private, and developers should  (in order to maintain political stability by ensuring a consistent legal framework (i.e. the US Constitution) that guarantees property rights) be allowed to develop what and where they are legally permitted. But cities intervene in these markets all the time, both through zoning codes (police powers) and subsidies (purse powers).

There are a number of solutions to improve the sequence of development. The land value tax is one, but that has political difficulties in that it creates winners and losers compared to the baseline.

Another idea in this regard is the awarding of Transferable Development Rights on existing #6 and #7 sites that are built less than code allows, which can be transferred to vacant lots to allow those parcels to be developed more intensely. (Thus compensating the sellers for not developing right-away).  These would temporary rights, so if sold, the selling parcel would not be able to be redeveloped more intensively than its current structure (for a period of time (e.g. 10 years)) without either buying rights from other properties, or waiting until the expiration. Of course the buyer would get to build somewhat more intensively than current zoning allows as a permanent structure (so even after the rights expire for the seller, the buyer does not need to unbuild their building).

These kinds of rights are used for agricultural parcels in many places, to preserve agricultural uses in places where it might otherwise be developed into a subdivision as a matter of right. These are also used for air rights developments.

So imagine our scenario above. Instead of redeveloping right-away, the owner of Parcel X sells to the owner of Parcel Y a TDR that defers development on Parcel X for 5 years and gives Parcel Y one extra story. Parcel X gets enough revenue to put off development. Parcel Y may now be slightly more financially feasible with the density bonus. The community gets more walkability in the interim five years.

The only prospective downside is if you don’t like the additional density. TDR donating / receiving areas can be downzoned as part of the package to ensure the end state is no denser than it otherwise would be (so the as-right development would only be 5 stories, with the 6th story coming from the TDR).

Main Street – Faribault |

Cross-posted from Main Street – Faribault:

“The economics of the town are not as strong as some others. It does have a correctional facility. Unfortunately, while also an institution, its residents don’t get out as much as the college students of Northfield.”

Main Street – Faribault

When writing my post praising Northfield last summer, someone (probably from Faribault) said “what about Faribault? I had never been to Faribault so I had no opinion. Recently we did a short road trip to some towns in Southern Minnesota, and here is what I saw.

Faribault, Minnesota

Caveat: This is at best drive-by urbanism, I didn’t do any investigative reporting besides citing Wikipedia and visiting and photographing. I don’t really know what makes the town tick, but even at a short glance, some issues can be identified.

Faribault is [the county seat of] Rice County, Minnesota, United States. .. The population was 23,352 at the 2010 census. Faribault is approximately 50 miles south of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

The “Main Street” of Faribault is Central Avenue, a north-south street sandwiched between 1st Avenue NE and 1st Avenue NW. (The original main east-west street is Division Street, this seems to have been replaced by 4th St NW). [photos]

Faribault, Minnesota

Now, I wasn’t around when the streets here were named, but this seems a small enough town that numbered street names need not have been repeated, especially given the ravine, Cannon River, and railroad tracks just to the east of 1st Avenue NE. One should also note that the Streets and Avenues are both numbered. So 1st Ave NE meets 1st Street NE and 1st Street SE, AND, 1st Ave NW meets 1st Street NW and 1st Street SW. So there are four “First and First” intersections within a 4 block area. I suppose numbering aids in way-finding, but hasn’t anyone here heard of the alphabet?

1st and 1st in Faribault.

The Main Street itself is nice and well-maintained, with lots of diagonal parking. The buildings are very nice classical period piece of late 18th century small-town midwestern architecture, with a great deal of ornamented brick and nice windows. You really need to credit the masons of the era for building something that required high skill to create such detail and texture, and also something that has lasted 130 years. And also credit the developers of the period for creating permanence. I doubt you could say similar for today’sarchitecture.

Faribault, Minnesota (1882)

There are people on the street, though clearly the downtown has seen more prosperous days, as the business occupying the main street were not the type to pay very high rents. Nothing wrong with that, those businesses need to be somewhere, and occupancy is better than vacancy, but it is an indicator of the state of health of the downtown and the level of demand. Overall the town is still gaining population, which is a good sign.

The economics of the town are not as strong as some others. It does have a correctional facility. Unfortunately, while also an institution, its residents don’t get out as much as the college students of Northfield.


Announcing the Journal of Transport and Land Use

Announcing the
Journal of Transport and Land Use – ISSN 1938-7849

The Journal of Transport and Land Use is a new open-access, peer-reviewed online journal publishing original inter-disciplinary papers on the interaction of transport and land use. Domains include: engineering, planning, modeling, behavior, economics, geography, regional science, sociology, architecture and design, network science, and complex systems.

Summer 2008 issue available:


Sprawl and Accessibility
Martin Bruegmann, Professor of Art History, Architecture, and Urban Planning, University of Illinois at Chicago
(Author of Sprawl: A Compact History)

Counterpoint: Sprawl and Accessibility
Randall Crane, UCLA Department of Urban Planning
(Co-editor of the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Urban Planning)

Cities as Organisms: Allometric Scaling of Urban Road Networks
Horacio Samaniego and Melanie E. Moses, Department of Computer Science, University of New Mexico

A Use-Based Measure of Accessibility to Linear Features to Predict Urban Trail Use
John R. Ottensmann and Greg Lindsey, Center for Urban Policy and the Environment, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis

Integral Cost-Benefit Analysis of Maglev Rail Projects Under Market Imperfections
J. Paul Elhorst and Jan Oosterhaven, Department of Regional Economics, University of Groningen (Netherlands)

To learn more about the Journal of Transport and Land Use, visit or contact:
David Levinson, General Editor:
Kevin Krizek, Editor (Americas):

The Journal is housed at the University of Minnesota and sponsored by the Center for Transportation Studies.

The Elements of Vibe

What is vibe? Vibe is the vitality of street life, the feeling that there is something going on, of being where the action is. Successful places have vibe, dead places don’t. We don’t want vibe everywhere and probably can’t support it. But surely we could have more active places then we do now with a better location of activities.
We drive to places we can walk around, rather than walk around our own neighborhood, unless we happen to live in a place with vibe.
Why do we want to walk around? Because there are multiple things to do: find food, browse books, hear music, entice the intellect, stimulate the senses. This concentration of activities only happens because of the crowds around, and the crowds only gather because of the concentration. More begets more.
These are ‘economies of agglomeration’ as the economists might say or perhaps ‘network effects’. But they allow for the spontaneous walk-in business rather than the planned trip. Many businesses are unlikely to attract spontaneous walk-ins, for instance vacuum cleaner repairs, [I don't normally walk around with a vacuum cleaner on the hope I will find a repair shop] and thus lose little by not being located in the center of action and save much on rent. Some restaurants are so good, they require a reservation, and thus there is little spill-in traffic. But other businesses, by saving on rent, are foregoing additional business.
Moreover, those businesses are denying potential spillover traffic to their would-be neighbors. It is a calculation that proprietors must do for themselves, but there is a coordination function that a good entrepreneur can serve, matching businesses that attract walk-ins with compatible stores, and maybe subsidizing (lowering the rent for) those that generate more spill-over traffic than they attract.
There are three seeds:
* A concentration of people (customers, though they need not be spending money, that helps)
* A concentration of stuff (suppliers, who need not be selling)
* An environment that encourages people to spend time doing stuff (marketplace)
People concentrate for a variety of reasons – to exploit the material resources of the earth, to have safety in numbers, to find a pool of potential mates, or simply because it is at the intersections of routes between two other places. These intersections (nodes in transportation lingo), create opportunities. In the streetcar era, people might change lines at a node, and those pedestrians would create the streetlife necessary to support new businesses. In the highway era the scale changed, and nodes are the interchanges of freeways. Businesses, and especially shopping malls, take advantage of these points of high accessibility. But the shopping mall is now clearly the destination, not a side-product of a transfer point in the same way street-car corners were.
Some further assertions about human nature:
People like pleasant climates – dry, not too hot, not too cold, clean air, not too loud.
People want to feel safe – they don’t want a car careening out of control disturbing their sidewalk café meal, they don’t want to think they will get run over crossing the street.
People are lazy – they don’t want to walk too far to get where they are going. If they are driving, they want easy convenient parking near their destination. They like to cross the street midblock and don’t want to have to walk to intersections.
People are cheap – they don’t want to pay for that easy convenient parking, they prefer lower to higher prices for the same good.
The last two be summarized by the idea that “People take the path of least resistance�?.
Observing cities around the world with an informed, but casual analysis leads me to assert some rules about the environment that lead to vibrancy.
Buildings on the sidewalk – vibrant areas have buildings that abut sidewalks with not large gaps between the building and the walk. The density of activity is necessarily reduced by space between building and path (and thus other buildings).
Sidewalks on the street – to have vibe, sidewalks must abut the street, or *be* he street in pedestrian only areas. Pedestrian only areas can work, and anyone who says otherwise has other interests at heart. This does not mean that they will work, but given the right environment, people would prefer to shop without having to look out for motorized vehicles.
Streets move slowly – fast streets make pedestrians feel unsafe, and thus reduces the benefits of being on the sidewalk. Ideally streets are moving at pedestrian speed in the pedestrian area. Of course streets leading to the pedestrian area move faster, or people could not get there.
Vehicle space on the street is minimal – wide streets increase the distance pedestrians must walk to reach other activities. Narrow streets give access to more stuff in less time. Hence the reason many enclosed shopping malls work better than many shopping streets is the density of stuff is fairly tight.
Street two way – One way streets may not be inherently problematic, but one-way streets are generally that way to move more vehicle traffic faster through the area, which is the opposite goal of moving pedestrians between buildings within the area.
Opportunities to explore just around the corner – hidden (pleasant) surprises are one of the things that make cities interesting to be in, if I go around this corner what will I discover. The same opportunities do not exist in an enclosed shopping mall, where everything is pre-mapped and tightly controlled, and I know each “block” ends at a parking ramp. Hidden unpleasant surprises however are one of the things that can kill a city, I don’t want to experience dread when I walk down an alley attached to my favorite shopping street.
This set of rules is by no means complete, but rules like these created streetlife in streetcar era places, and they create vibe in the better shopping malls.