Tag Archives: urban planning

Interesting Reading, 5/11/19

11 May

A return of the sporadic feature in which I highlight interesting articles I’ve read this weekend:

First, I was floored by a piece by an anonymous DC-area mother in the Washingtonian that detailed her 13-year-old’s descent into the world of the alt-right. The author is a witness fragility of a childhood in an online environment, a victim of so many of the worst aspects of contemporary life. First, call-out culture and a bunch of sorry bureaucrats wreck her son, and his depression finds an outlet in chats with people he’s never met and tumbles down into an algorithm-reinforced echo chamber. The son drags his mother through a horror story that culminates with an alt-right rally on the National Mall, a sequence that reminded me of George Packer’s biting summation of the absurdity of the Covington Catholic incident, and by extension the entire national mood, earlier this year. But the author’s ability to recognize that absurdity, and draw out her son’s nascent recognition of it as well, starts to show us the way out. How many adolescent lives, and in turn entire lives, go off the rails because no one takes a kid seriously, whether out of clueless condescension or well-meaning protectiveness?

I’m also a sucker for articles that validate my wariness of a childhood spent glued to electronic devices and communities that do not meet in person. I’m young enough that an early online world was available for me to fall into as a teenager, though I took the much more benign path of living countless hours in online forums discussing a baseball team. It was harmless and was even the source of my college admissions essay, though if I had the chance to do it all over again, I would get out a lot more. (I would not label my online hockey commentary the same way: that has produced many genuine real-world connections and brought me into a genuine real-world community; one, probably not coincidentally, where the high school kids involved seem to do a better job than many of not living out their lives online.) This is only the latest that makes me believe that the online world, while with many benefits, has left us with a new form of malaise that we are only beginning to understand.

Speaking of George Packer, he’s out with a new book, one that will shoot to the top of my summer reading list. Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century is a sprawling portrait of Holbrooke, one of the most iconic diplomats of his era before his untimely death in 2010. “[I]f you could read only one book to comprehend America’s foreign policy and its quixotic forays into quicksands over the past 50 years, this would be it,” writes Walter Isaacson in a New York Times review. From Vietnam to the Balkans to Iraq and Afghanistan, Holbrooke was a larger-than-life figure who tried to re-write world history, and Packer’s take on his ambition and hubris make this a book that combines sweeping history and an incisive character study. When my favorite social commentator writes an authoritative work on my own road not taken, how can I not be absorbed?

As for the road I did take, here’s Addison Del Mastro in The American Conservative riffing on a new book on Midwestern industrial decline, Tim Carney’s Alienated America. Carney laments the demise of civil society in Middle America; while sympathetic to their value in creating strong communities, Del Mastro doesn’t think a few new churches will fix anything. He instead points to the social contract that built these place: one or several dominant companies endowed pretty much everything in the company towns, and when the companies contracted or died, the towns did with them. They arose in an era of corporate benevolence and hard-won labor peace, but that consensus is now long dead, crushed by the rise of global competition and corporate thinking. At the end of the day, places need “to transcend the economic conditions that gave rise to them,” lest they become places left behind by history.

The world is more complex than it may look from Del Mastro’s perch in Washington. My own city is part company town, but also part pretty lakeside retreat and part later suburban outgrowth, and has diversified reasonably well, both through the “eds and meds” new gloss that Del Mastro mentions rather dismissively and as a regional center that still enjoys the benefits of a working port. That isn’t enough to keep a substantial chunk of a city out of poverty, but it has been enough to generate some sense of collective hope about the future, which, as he notes, can make a real difference. So what, then, constitutes death for a city? If the old industry dies but it bounces back thoroughly, as with Pittsburgh, is that still a death? Maybe we should stop trying to anthropomorphize something that by its very nature includes tens if not hundreds of thousands people all in various stages of living, dying, thriving, and struggling.

What is true, however, is that the road back for most of these old industrial cities and towns, if there is one, will look very different from the corporate dominance and benevolence of the 1950s and 1960s. Those days had their glories and also their downsides, but we are now several generations removed from them, and while there’s value in preserving some history, that part of the past is not prelude to the future. Nor, perhaps, should it be. But, more on that later.

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The Zenith City’s Blurred Red Lines

12 Apr

As someone known to paper walls with maps, I’m loath to recognize that these representations of world beyond us can cause serious problems. But some maps have had lasting, serious consequences, perhaps none more so over the past century of American life than the residential 1930s redlining maps preserved by the University of Richmond, a collection that includes the map of Duluth that inspired this piece. (I was routed here by one of the city’s annual Housing Indicator Reports, which often involve fun research digressions beyond the rote reporting of statistics for various planning areas.) The urban planning field has, for some time now, been on a noble quest to educate the world about what these maps have wrought.

These maps come from the Home Owners Loan Corporation, or HOLC. HOLC drew up these maps to designate the safety of making loans in certain neighborhoods in cities across the country. It was part of a New Deal push to create consistent, predictable, non-predatory lending practices for home sales, thereby avoiding the disastrous wave of foreclosures that came along with the Depression. Its maps were also one of the most effective non-coercive tools for racial and income-based segregation ever devised by any government anywhere.

These maps, which color-coded neighborhoods by their desirability, basically walled off certain areas for development (“redlining,” in planning parlance), all under the guise of a well-intentioned program to help homeowners. They also included brazen designations of neighborhood desirability based on the race or ethnicity of their inhabitants. The HOLC-enabled postwar suburban housing boom was one of the least free markets ever devised, and it had a fascinating jumble of consequences to both lift the wealth of a vast swath of the (white) working class and shut out a portion of the country from ever enjoying those benefits.

Some parts of Duluth’s urban history follow standard narratives on HOLC-age development. The ring around downtown, where significant early construction happened, remains one of the poorest areas of the city today. From there, the east side follows a fairly steady transition up the income ladder into Congdon, a change I can still see every day when I go for runs around my current home in Endion. (It’s amusing to see Endion get labeled “generally…declining, many of the old houses being transformed into small apartments and duplexes.” I’ve heard some people bemoan the neighborhood’s transitional status as if it were a trend brought on by college students in the past 20 years, when in fact it is a stable equilibrium dating back nearly a century.) But at the same time, as the little chart next to the map shows, Duluth’s urban form breaks down from the prescribed theory more than in many other cities. A substantial part of Duluth a certain distance from the core that is supposed to be “in transition” is not actually in transition, and the outlying “residential zone” saw basically no new development at this time, with its only housing being stuff in the lowest tier out in Gary-New Duluth and Fond du Lac.

Some parts of the city have also changed substantially since the New Deal era, and not always in predictable ways. I was fascinated to see that the bit of Lakeside where I grew up in a 1920s mini-foursquare, which now is one of the hottest real estate markets in the city, was “definitely declining” at this time. A chunk of Duluth Heights, which now also ranks fairly high on the income scale, was a total no-go zone for HOLC loans, as was Park Point. A number of other red zones on this map are basically non-residential now. The I-35 corridor follows a series of red zones, as interstate highways did in most urban areas; poor people are always the easiest to displace for massive infrastructure projects, and the U.S. became very good at that in the 50s and 60s. There is very little correlation between yellow districts and the current quality of the housing stock; yes, some remain, but just as many have flipped into comfortable middle-income areas, and not just those on the east side. It’s not unfair to conclude that the boundaries drawn on this map, while sometimes predictive, were in no way destiny for Duluth’s ultimate housing development.

As usual with Duluth, the simplest explanation for this is geography. Duluth grew outward along the ridge and lakeshore instead of in concentric rings, with development squeezing out here and there where terrain allowed. The city also absorbed a few older towns such as Fond du Lac and Lakeside, which may explain HOLC’s skepticism of their housing stocks even though those would normally be destinations for the next wave of development. The neighborhoods that had some room to grow outward from their 1930s limits, like Lakeside and Woodland and the Heights, had a chance to diversify their housing stock and evolve. The plodding pace of Duluth’s growth over the 20th century, oddly enough, kept some neighborhoods from filling out too quickly, and also invited updates to the existing stock to keep it viable for a sale. Those complex neighborhoods are a vital part of Duluth’s story, and a reason why this city has not gone down the road of a Flint or a Youngstown, where nearly all of the money fled the city proper.

Another explanation comes in the racial and country of origin stats tucked away to the right of the map. Despite the map text’s frequent concern about “negroes” occupying certain areas, this shows Duluth was over 99 percent white in the 30s and 40s. But in 1930, fully a quarter of Duluth’s residents were foreign-born, and while that figure had dropped to 20 percent by 1940, that is still far higher than it is today. Duluth was a city of immigrants. Idle speculation might lead one to suspect that steady decline in the immigrant population over the middle of the 20th century (which correlates with statewide and national trends, as driven by U.S. immigration policy and global economics and politics), coupled with a fairly negligible rise in the population of people of color, would have been an equalizing force in Duluth’s housing market. By the 1970s, there was nowhere in town where there was much of the immigrant stigma that comes out in a few of the HOLC descriptions of west side laborer neighborhoods. Duluth at that time was the perfect all-white control in a national experiment in urban housing markets. And yet, the 2016 Duluth HIR report lays it bare: every one of those neighborhoods that had a description about immigrants or African-Americans in the 1930s remains low-income, even if many others that were in the same class as them back then have now flipped. That legacy, somehow, endures.

I would still, however, venture that the greatest reason for Duluth’s divergent neighborhood paths, one that captures both its old HOLC maps and its current east-west divide, is a structural economic change. Pre-war Duluth wasn’t some bastion of equality, but there were two distinct economies: an immigrant-heavy industrial working port on the west side, and a downtown and east side dominated by a white-collar class and its attendant lower-income service economy. One of these got absolutely decimated in the 1970s and 1980s. The other plugged along, certainly damaged by the trend on the other side, but had much more staying power and adaptability.

Now that it’s unrecognizable from what it was a couple of generations ago, I don’t think many of us moderns fully appreciate the complexity of Duluth’s old blue-collar economy. People with some sense of the history can tell you that Morgan Park (which doesn’t even register a color on the map) was a company town for U.S. Steel, but the map text describes Gary in much the same way. People actually used to live down in the port and industrial areas below the freeway near Denfeld, in a neighborhood known as Oneota. But I was most fascinated by the note in the area around Denfeld, which outranks places like Lakeside and Woodland and Hunter’s Park on the HOLC map. The residents of the Denfeld area, the text explains, are “salaried persons from nearby industrial plants, business and professional men of the west side of the city.”

That line about West Duluth reminded me of the extensive time I spent doing some interviews in Silver Bay, a company town built by what was then the Reserve Mining Company. We have this habit of thinking of blue-collar work as providing stable working-class jobs with modest incomes that allowed a family to get by, but to hear the Silver Bay old-timers tell it, company towns were some of the most rigidly segregated in America, at least in terms of income. Subtle features set apart seemingly identical homes, and management clustered in certain areas. There have been, and continue to be, many very lucrative jobs in industrial work; what set the pre-war era apart was that management was on the ground nearby, not out in relative suburbia (or in some other state or country at a hedge fund or holding company, though even in Duluth, there’s an old line about the city being Pittsburgh’s westernmost suburb). In industrial Duluth, that area for the blue-collar elite was the West Duluth neighborhood surrounding Denfeld High School.

Nowadays, the very notion of a blue-collar elite seems bizarre, and a perfect storm of conditions weighs on the west side housing market. If neighborhoods that age at different rates are far more likely to hold up over time, the more uniform ones—which company towns tend to be—have the misfortune of aging into obsolescence at the same rate. Those west side neighborhoods were also trapped between a river and a ridge, unable to find easy escape valves for steady outward development as in Lakeside or the Heights; instead, it had to leap up the hill to Piedmont (another neighborhood with well-diversified housing that doesn’t register on the HOLC map) or beyond the city limits. Most of those immigrant-heavy neighborhoods, where stigmas apparently lingered in ways they did not for areas occupied by native-born Americans in similar job classes, were toward the west side. It’s also just easier to commute from further away now. Throw in a two-decade crisis of mass layoffs and unemployment and plant closures, and it all starts to come together.

This isn’t all doom and gloom. The area around Denfeld is still comparatively wealthy for West Duluth, with some historic older homes. Eastern Lincoln Park, colored a respectable blue in the times of HOLC, has seen real estate values start to rise again after many decades of stagnation. Some growth along the river corridor has occurred, and room for more remains. As my friends at the Port Authority would ask me to remind the world, Duluth’s blue-collar economy is also far from dead: it may look very different, but the city still moves vast volumes of cargo and has a thriving industrial sector that usually pays a solid salary. The changing nature of industrial work, combined with the attractiveness of well-paying jobs that do not require vast loads of student debt, are starting to change some narratives about a once-stigmatized line of work.

But the ravages of deindustrialization tell a story that HOLC maps alone cannot, and join up with cultural clashes and geographic barriers to explain why cities come to be the way they are. Causes are rarely singular, and momentum did the rest. While real estate agents no longer use maps with explicit racial or immigrant-skeptic language, there’s no shortage of coded ways in which the real estate market designates the desirability of certain neighborhoods. These tools range from practical concerns about returns on investment to the asinine practice of grading everything that goes into public schools on a 1-10 scale, a tool now ubiquitous on any real estate aggregation site. We still live with the consequences of century-old maps, but the ways in which we build our economies and the stories we tell about our towns will decide their futures.

Words and Phrases that I Hate

10 Sep

What follows is an incomplete list of phrases I dislike. There is no real rhyme or reason to them; some are things I’ve encountered in my school or work circles, while others are just things I’ve stumbled across here or there. I list them in rough order of hatred, beginning with the most repulsive and concluding with the merely annoying.

Resiliency. This is an awful word devised by someone who deserves to be expelled from the urban planning field. It is a word that says absolutely nothing that the perfectly good “resilience” does not in one less syllable. Even that is overused to the point of emptiness, but at least it doesn’t sound like an invented piece of jargon designed to make one sound intelligent. Which is exactly what it is.

Any scandal ending in “-gate.” This construction stopped being amusing circa 1974. Now it just shows your lack of creativity.

Outstate. This is a Minnesota phrase invented by Twin Cities people to refer to people who are not like them. It implies that people not in the Twin Cities are somehow out of the state, and plays into the conceit that Duluth, Worthington, Moorhead, Grand Marais, and Little Falls all share something other than the misfortune of not being the cool big city. Attempting to use it innocently with a resident of Greater Minnesota (an acceptable alternative) is a good way to lose any credibility you might have aspired to.

Impact when used as a verb. Sadly, most dictionaries have now allowed their standards to erode far enough to accept this flaccid business school concoction as a valid word. Sometimes having a living language has its drawbacks, and this is one of them, when an abstraction is invented to rob a verb of any helpful context. It must die.

Disrupt. Silicon Valley techno-speak at its worst. If you tell me your goal is to “disrupt” your industry, I will refuse to buy your product, even if your field could use some disrupting. Just stop.

Create synergy or synergize. More vacuous techno-jargon. What are you even trying to say?

Creative destruction. Since I’m on a roll, here’s another stupid tech phrase. Also, it doesn’t mean what its users think it means. It was invented by a Marxist to describe the affects of capitalism, and the context is far from positive.

The phrase “public school” or “private school” to refer to a plural concept, e.g. “I would never send my kids to public school.” I’ve seen this even in journalism from respectable sources. I don’t get it. Why? Is it that much more difficult to add an ‘s’ to make something plural like we do with, I don’t know, almost every other plural word or phrase in the English language, including the word “school” in any other context? I especially hate it because it somehow implies that all public or private schools are somehow the same, which anyone who has ever spent any time in more than each type of school can assure you they are not.

Literally. It’s literally become so overused that it’s literally no longer useful to show whether something is literal or not.

Utilize. Why use this clunky three-syllable word when the one-syllable “use” does the job? Probably because you’re trying to convey some sort of technical know-how. Unfortunately, you have failed, and have instead just earned my ire.

Leverage when used as a verb. This comes with an asterisk; it’s acceptable to use it when talking about, say, using a $1 investment into a project to leverage $25 in funding from other sources, or in the context of leveraged buyouts. But when it’s just a substitue for “use,” as in, “We marshaled all our resiliency and leveraged all our resources to disrupt Outstate education and utilized all our capacities for creative destruction to send our spawn to private school,” you probably should have used a different word. (I lost part of my soul writing that sentence. The things I do for this blog.)

Activate (a space). A word used by urban planners to make themselves sound disconnected from the people they are planning for. See also “tactical urbanism” and the somewhat more acceptable but still underwhelming “placemaking.” The general concept these words are trying to get at–doing creative things with a small urban space to encourage activity–is indeed a good thing, but frame the concept in a tautological manner that loses track of the fun necessary to make things work for normal people. It is self-aggrandizing and highlights the planner’s activity, not the activity itself.

Liveable. Another urban planning word whose sole purpose is to add fluff to introductory sections of official documents.

Any word ever used in deconstructionist theory. If you know what I’m talking about, you don’t need an explanation.

I’m not going to touch words that just sound unpleasant but are useful, such as “moist” or “slabs” or “flesh.” But the word “smegma” is worthy of a mention because it is so remarkably bad in so many ways. Look it up.

Cultural appropriation. This one may appear on the list due more to my dislike for the concept than for the phrase itself, but that’s a debate for another time.

The American people. A phrase used by politicians to make it sound like everyone agrees with them when, in fact, probably half the country doesn’t.

Neoliberal. Sticking with the political theme, a word that was once useful but has become so abused by people who are trying to sound intelligent that it has been stripped of all meaning.

A New Deal For ______. You know you’re a liberal who lacks creativity when…

Web site as two separate words, or Internet with a capital “i.” What is this, 1996?

Demonstrate. I’m probably guilty of this one, and it’s not nearly as bad as utilize, but it’s another word that probably only exists so high school students can take up more space on a page instead of just using “show,” which really does the job just fine.

Non-use of the Oxford comma. Not a phrase or a word, but a very easy thing one can do to make things that much clearer. And if you fail to use it, it may just cost you $5 million. Best to be safe, cover your bases, and use the Oxford comma.

I could go on. I’m only touching the tip of the iceberg when it comes to business buzzwords in particular, but that’s almost too easy a target, and the political world can be somehow even worse. But, I’ll stop myself here and invite others to create some synergies and add some of their least favorite words.

The Tyranny of Lazy Narratives

30 Aug

Today, I take to my keyboard to make a brief but important gripe. I’m here to lament the way in which local media so often frames narratives, and how that framing can, intentionally or unintentionally, become a force that sets the battle lines within debates without giving the consumers of the media a thorough understanding of a situation. It is a pervasive issue, and hardly limited to local media, though at least at this level I have some hope that something can be done about it.

My prompt for this gripe is the Duluth News Tribune’s coverage of some of the changes in store for Canal Park in Duluth, which emerged from the Imagine Canal Park process. Imagine Canal Park is a Knight Foundation grant-funded effort to engage the public and install some creative new features in the Duluth neighborhood that so many residents abandon to the tourists, particularly in summer months. (In the interest of full disclosure, my boss played a key role in launching Imagine Canal Park, though I will add that my own reaction upon learning of the process was a bit of a sigh and a few questions as to why we can’t put this type of effort into neighborhoods that are more oriented toward Duluth residents. That’s a debate for another time, though.)

The DNT, however,  took the innovations planned for Canal Park and turned them into a story about…traffic congestion. The required sacrifices were made before the altar of the Parking God, which must be appeased anytime anyone anywhere ever suggests any changes that might make someone park 20 feet further away or drive around the block again in search of a spot. The lede could have been the heaps of people the city engaged with in the Imagine Canal Park process. Instead, the story fixates on the concerns of a single “resident.” (A resident of what? Canal Park? Park Point? Duluth? The story never says.) People are upset, and apparently the media must reward upset people with coverage, because grumbling in a Facebook comment apparently now passes for news.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t some valid questions about traffic flow when closures like this occur. Those questions have a place in this story. But to frame it as if an annoyance caused by the change is more significant than the change itself resorts to a tired trope, and frames the debate in ways that bias the casual reader against the cause before it even has a chance to get off the ground. It becomes an implicit force for a status quo that is taken for granted, one that reinforces a lack of creativity and makes acceptance of the current conditions the default against which all efforts for change must overcome. And we wonder why local politics is so often dominated by inertia and a handful of powerful voices.

This particular article set me off because so many of the premises of the complaints are shaky. We know from decades of experience that people adapt to changes in traffic patterns pretty quickly, and learn to go on with their lives. (For similar reasons, added roadway capacity almost never reduces congestion.) Aside from some necessary accommodations for the disabled and elderly, Americans are fat and could stand to walk that extra 20 feet, and likely will not suffer for it. The “people will drive through it anyway” complaint does not exactly jive with the picture atop the article showing large orange barrels and ROAD CLOSED signs that would take some pretty serious cluelessness or alcohol consumption for anyone to drive through. And yet the entire story is framed around the complaints of one commenter with no obvious credentials to comment on the subject. While this is an especially grating example, it’s not hard to imagine any number of topics where the rants of the uninformed or lazy both-sides-must-be-covered-without-assessing-the-merits reporting predominates, and leaves an impoverished discourse in its wake.

Normally, I think the News Tribune does a reasonably good job on things like this. Most of its writers do their homework and give a much more thorough picture than one gets on, say, TV news, where simplified black-and-white narratives are far more pervasive. But that doesn’t excuse the tyranny of lazy narratives when it rears its ugly head, and anyone who writes should resist it at every opportunity.

Of Vacation Rentals and Density Debates: Duluth City Council Notes, 4/10/17

11 Apr

The Duluth city council was on the forefront of urban planning debates this past Monday, as it discussed vacation rentals and density within the city limits on the same night. In both cases, I’m going to poke at urban planning orthodoxy mildly, not because I think it is wrong, exactly, but because I think Duluth needs to ask some questions rather than simply accepting trendy thinking. The details:

Vacation Dwelling Units and Neighborhood Effects

The first debate involved a permit to allow a vacation dwelling unit (VDU; think Airbnb) on Berwick Court, a cul-de-sac off of Arrowhead Road near Hartley Park not far before Kenwood Avenue as one heads west. John Ramos at the Reader covered this one in detail when it was before the Planning Commission, so I won’t belabor the background. At Monday’s meeting, several neighbors said the VDU was wrong for many reasons, though they gave only one concrete one beyond the vague “character of the neighborhood” stuff one always hears on this sort of issue: an immediate neighbor is old and not exactly in possession of all of her faculties, and may have some unfortunate run-ins with VDU guests. Council President Joel Sipress delicately described his interaction with her as “challenging” when he went up to do his due diligence on the property. As a result, he and Councilor Em Westerlund amended the permit to require the addition of a screen between the VDU and the elderly neighbor. Both the amendment and the permit passed 8-1, with Councilor Noah Hobbs preferring to stick with the original screenless recommendation from the Planning Commission, and Councilor Howie Hanson opposing the thing entirely in a screed against an the “erosion of neighborhoods.”

This was an issue that blew up normal battle lines and inspired good debate. As with the Uber debate two weeks prior, the normally solidly progressive Sipress expressed considerable leeriness of this supposed progress, and went into his nuanced monologue mode to worry about the effect on neighborhoods. Councilor Barb Russ seconded this, and suggested the city revisit the criteria for VDUs and find some way to limit dramatic changes. Councilor Jay Fosle, normally the voice of no to this sort of newfangled scheme, showered love on VDUs, saying they created economic activity and scoffing at the suggestion that “a bunch of nasty people will come and rent the house.” Hobbs, meanwhile, brought up the biggest sticking point with any neighborhood-based policy: how on earth do we devise a “hierarchy of neighborhoods” for awarding of VDUs without making some potentially prejudicial decisions? Sipress and Russ both readily conceded this point. Anyone who’s observed city politics knows this runs the risk of just opening up a door for whoever yells loudest to get permits denied, and that these people are inevitably going to be older, more affluent people who have the time and resources to devote to hammering city councils.

If the city does revisit this and sees a need for continued limits of VDUs, I would advocate for quotas within neighborhoods, set by some blanket standard such as population. This would remove the influence of well-connected neighbors and prevent the emergence of “vacation rental ghettoes.” That phrase sounds silly as I write it, which perhaps betrays my natural bias here: in principle I think VDUs make a lot of sense. However, I prefer not to make unfounded assumptions about how their consequences at a large scale, and while this is a different phenomenon from the fashion in which neighborhoods tip from majority homeownership to long-term rentals, a neighborhood that achieves some critical mass of homes without long-term residents does probably start to erode some. (No, one or two houses on a cul-de-sac do not represent that sort of critical mass.) I also think decisions that take good single family housing stock off the market may pose some problems in a city like Duluth, as the council’s next great planning debate showed all too clearly.

The Great Density Debate

The other hot button issue involved a resolution that, as initially worded, would have encouraged the city to consider “high density zoning”—basically, taller buildings—in its ongoing comprehensive plan process. Councilor Zack Filipovich brought it forward, and took a beating for his trouble. A big part of the issue was the process, which Filipovich conceded: this resolution appeared seemingly out of the blue immediately before the previous week’s agenda session, and Hobbs seemed to speak for many on the council when he said he’d wished they’d had a chance to debate this before it came before them all as a whole. He and Sipress, who once again seemed quite presidential in his ability to give a nuanced take on the concerns of the council writ large, offered an amendment which dramatically reworked the resolution, and instead pitched it as a call for greater density using all potential development tools, from infill to redevelopment to townhomes.

No one found this broader emphasis controversial, though Filipovich tried again to get at his original point, which seemed to come out of his conversations with city planning staff: they think the city is already doing what it needs to do on the infill and redevelopment fronts (which is mostly true), but needed this added pitch to encourage height. The rest of the council balked at this, given the political sensitivity of views; Hanson went off about how this might be in response to specific projects (which Filipovich roundly denied), while Fosle found the whole debate much ado about nothing, as it is the unified development code, not the comp plan, that ultimately settles these questions. While there is probably some merit to further outlining standards for upward growth, Duluth’s planners need to do a much better sales job instead of ramming a quick resolution through. In the end, the councilors tabled the whole mess.

Discussion strayed far and wide and to interesting points, though, and one of the more frequent topics was Hermantown. Filipovich first noted that it is the fastest growing city in the region (which is true), even as its prices are not inflating, whereas Duluth’s are doing so despite the fact the city isn’t growing. Real estate listings in Hermantown are up considerably, whereas Duluth’s market only seems to get tighter and tighter. Hobbs countered that this was a bad analogy for this resolution, as Hermantown’s growth was anything but upward: instead, it sprawls outward far more so than Duluth. Given Duluth’s relative lack of available land and aging infrastructure that is difficult to maintain, let alone extend, that sort of growth pattern is not a realistic option at any sort of scale.

The Hermantown debate also illuminated the battle lines between those who we might call the critics of the happy talk about Duluth’s direction in recent years (Fosle and Hanson) and the liberal optimists’ club. I will counter one of Fosle’s critiques, in which he wondered where this supposed job growth was coming from in a city with a stagnant population: while the Duluth metro area may not be getting dramatically larger, its job growth over the past decade is reasonably good, and relative to its population growth is actually very good when compared to most peer cities. (If someone wants numbers to back this up, I can oblige.) As I’ve been at pains to note in other posts, the metro area has been growing steadily since 1990—not quickly, but steadily—and basically all of this growth is beyond the city limits, namely in Hermantown. As Hobbs noted, these outlying areas have the obvious perk of having a lot of available land, and Fosle and Hanson tagged on a few additional concerns that may lead people to move beyond the city limits, such as perceptions of crime or newer infrastructure or a desire for space. (No one mentioned the other major driver I’d put up next to land availability, though. Hint: it involves a different Duluth elected body that I cover on this blog from time to time.)

Still, I think the Hermantown-Duluth comparison is illuminating, though perhaps not in the way councilors thought it was. Whatever the benefits of density, large new apartment or condo complexes do little to make Duluth appealing to a lot of the people who are electing to move to Hermantown and its ilk. To the extent that housing decisions drive this move—and they certainly do—any response by Duluth to try to stem that tide will require an expansion of the single-family housing stock. Given the relative lack of buildable land within city limits, that’s going to mean renovation (or teardowns) and infill or bust. That isn’t cheap, and requires further study to understand the costs, but if the city does want to retain younger families and build the tax base through housing development—a goal I firmly support—I see no other option at this point.

This doesn’t invalidate the broader emphasis on density, which is spot on, especially when it comes to commercial property. On the residential side, I think the city can handle a few more Bluestones and Endis, and would wholeheartedly support them. However, I’m skeptical that the market justifies a broader glut of market-rate apartment complexes that would build the tax base. Duluth doesn’t have a ton of upwardly mobile twenty-somethings, and those who are tend to get on the marriage-and-kids train faster than in other cities; for that matter, there is still a reasonably affordable single-family housing stock. (Yes, options are tight, but the market here still looks heavenly for this soon-to-be-house-hunting 27-year-old when compared to Minneapolis, to say nothing of anything on the coasts.) And while there have been some increases in other populations that lend themselves to density—seniors, low-income people—the sort of dense housing they need isn’t going to prove a windfall for city coffers.

I’ll quickly note that I’m not saying Duluth shouldn’t build dense housing for these populations; the city does have some real affordability concerns, and I applaud the recent push to get more lower-income units in a development in Duluth Heights, which is both near jobs and may help de-concentrate poverty. We do need to be clear-eyed about the realities of who uses dense development, though, and recognize that there’s a clear role for the Hermantowns of the world to house some of these people, too. The density gospel in contemporary urban planning gets a lot right, but it’s not a panacea, either. We need to think beyond that to get to the heart of issues.

Little Things

15 Feb

I’ve had a good and busy week so far, one filled with reminders of why it is I do what I do, and how exactly we have to go about doing it. This goes beyond the day-to-day tasks of work and hockey and other activities, as the world around me finds ways to take small steps forward in a very long game.

This article by George Monbiot, a British activist and radical, circulated through my planning network earlier this week. Monbiot makes a  case that caters to left-leaning readers (this is The Guardian, after all), but it goes deeper, reaching toward a sphere of life both sides of the political spectrum have come to neglect. He’s talking about building “thick” networks of people to share things and ideas and generally just support each other, allowing them to escape the anomie of lonely modern lives and bring up the standard of living. He also makes the necessary point that a large welfare state can indeed “leave people dependent, isolated, and highly vulnerable to cuts.” This isn’t government-driven at all. Regulation alone won’t save us. Monbiot follows up his diagnosis with a refreshing array of real-world examples of British communities pulling together to build participatory little democracies that make life happier for a lot of people. To underscore the nonpartisan nature of the pitch, this actually sounds a lot like the “Big Society” that Tory ex-Prime Minister David Cameron gave some attention, even if it was never central to his agenda. Influential Britons left and right seem to understand what their politics has been missing.

If only we could say the same of the American system these days. But, instead of looking to party brass or public intellectuals, maybe we can look a little closer to home.

Take Monday’s Duluth News Tribune story on the new OMC Smokehouse in Duluth’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. Alone, the lede here doesn’t seem too unique: some successful local restaurateurs have decided to open up a second  restaurant. But this is more than that. The Hanson family’s first restaurant, Duluth Grill, is both a social and culinary institution. Sure, Duluth Grill checks all those eco-friendly and locally-sourced boxes, which any localist will like. But it’s so remarkably popular because it makes damn good food, and anyone who goes there can just taste the difference between it and the competition. I’m not sure anywhere better encapsulates Duluth than Duluth Grill, with its lack of pretention (a former Denny’s!), broader ethos, and ability to deliver a remarkably good product.

Duluth Grill and OMC Smokehouse don’t aspire to just make good food, though; their success in the kitchen allows them to take the lead in the building of one of those dense networks. They’re part of a broader project to remake a neighborhood, and to give life to an area that still feels decidedly Rust Belt. The decision to locate OMC right on Superior Street in Lincoln Park underscores a commitment: this neighborhood can once again be a thriving hub of business, and the leadership from places like Duluth Grill, Frost River Trading Company, and Bent Paddle. The city, with its loan programs targeting local business growth, gets it. This is a chance to revitalize a neighborhood in the best sense of that phrase, and to fill it with new life.

Sticking with Lincoln Park, another DNT article over the weekend highlighted the efforts to bring teachers into students’ homes and build community schools in ISD 709. This is a welcome change of pace from talking about the existence of the gap between the east and west side schools, and a foray into actually doing something to address it. Schools can only do so much with the cards they’re dealt; as I’ve noted before, the west side schools actually don’t do terribly considering the poverty, barriers, and broken homes that plague too many of their students. That reality, however, is no excuse for not trying to do everything within their power to improve outcomes, and this effort to get teachers into homes is an excellent step toward creating a community that can prove demography is not destiny. It’s a simple but crucial step, one that acknowledges the value of humanity and building ties over cramming people into a something formulaic and hoping it spits out good little workers in the end.

These are examples from just one neighborhood, but they go to show why I love this city, and why, for all its travails, it seems to be the perfect place to build the dense sort of community that can withstand any manner of swings beyond. The challenges, which range from that divided school system to a sudden spate of gun violence to a political consensus that seems to be breaking down as a center-left and an activist left left stake out territory, are all real. But these are little ways to build networks that can help to alleviate all of these troubles, and they can bring anyone on board because the basic tenets that support them–cleaned-up neighborhoods, good food, better student-teacher relationships, free chances to learn things, easier access to capital–are things that anyone can support.

I know a lot of people seem to be coming to this sort of worldview in reaction to our new President and his agenda, to the extent that we can distinguish one. I’m fine with that; I welcome fellow travelers however they come. That said, I do want to make something clear: personally, I’m not advocating for positions like this in reaction to broader national trends. I’m doing this because I fundamentally believe it is the right way to do things, no matter who is in power and what is going on in Washington. The intimacy of local politics (in the broad meaning of the word, covering any manner of relationships among people) will always have greater effect over the lives of people than the diktats of an increasingly powerful executive and unelected court system and a occasional input from a rump Congress. Taking part in these seemingly small activities will do much more to make things happen in actual human lives than posting another freaking article on Facebook about why the politicians you dislike are unlikable. (Over the past few weeks, I’ve stopped checking the news more than once a day, and find that I’m just as informed and now have far better uses for my time than I did before.)

Keep it simple. Start local. Start with what you can control. Make some sort of commitment in the next week. It doesn’t take much.

Planning Duluth: Let’s Talk About Housing

20 Nov

As Things happen in national politics, Duluth marches along with…community engagement sessions for its comprehensive plan! I attended a meeting for my council district last week that allowed me to draw things on maps and be a good, engaged citizen. At this event, I received a list of planning-related research questions, which it shared at a community event I attended last week, divided by topics. Today, I’ll offer up my semi-solicited opinion on the housing-related questions.

What three qualities make your neighborhood a great place to live?

I live in Endion. Its perks are its big, cool old houses; easy access to downtown and multiple east side business districts; and an eclectic mix of people, from college students to old money to lower-income people.

I will also answer for Lakeside, where I’ve spent a majority of my life. It’s a reasonably affordable yet very pleasant place to raise a family; it has great neighborhood schools; it has easy access to big parks.

What three aspects of your neighborhood would you like to see changed?

Endion: Better maintenance of some rental properties; lack of a defined neighborhood center, or real sense of neighborhood at all. The third thing isn’t necessarily something I’d like to see changed, but at least investigated: how necessary are these one-way numbered streets? I certainly appreciate them when I drive to work, but they slice through the neighborhood and make it less pedestrian- and child-friendly. I’m not convinced we need two one-way streets (First and Third) going the same direction.

Lakeside: Some renewal in the old business district; something happening with the old Rockridge property, so long as it preserves access to the Hawk Ridge trail; continued gradual, planned growth on the edges and redevelopment of vacant/declining properties to meet market demand in a desirable neighborhood.

What does a healthy neighborhood look like?

A variety in age of housing stock. Easily accessible local businesses that provide most basic necessities, and connections to jobs. Thriving schools, and children playing freely. Outdoor hockey rinks. (Okay, I guess we can allow other sports in the neighborhood parks, too.) In Duluth: access to a more wild park space. Few to no highways or high-speed roads carving through the neighborhood. All those pretty things.

What types of housing are missing from Duluth?

The same type that’s missing from a lot of places: a middle tier that rises above student or-low income housing, but isn’t on the top end like some of the (very welcome) new apartments coming on line on the east side. Mid-tier homes for new families. Homes that are accessible for aging people looking to scale down some.

Are you satisfied with the quality and quantity of housing that is affordable to you?

As someone who just went through an apartment search, I found myself a gem, and after living in larger cities, Duluth is remarkably affordable. That said, I was looking for a while before I landed the unit I got. There’s a lot of older housing here that just isn’t in great shape, but could be phenomenal if it were patched up. It’s all right there in front of us if we invest in it. The top end was also thin for a while, though that is changing.

What kind of housing should be planned for individuals and families moving here?

Housing that does not rely on the passive voice in its planning process. Also, I’m not sure why people moving here should have different types of housing than those who are here already. Am I missing something in this question?

How should people who need assistance with daily living tasks be provided with housing?

With housing that makes it easier to do the tasks they need assistance with, presumably. But, yes, it is important to keep this consideration on the table.

How should parking needs of residential uses be accommodated in neighborhoods?

Woo, heavy planner-speak in this one. If there was any question about it, I support alternate side parking; it’s just so much better for snow removal. I think this question is also getting at the city’s recent rediscovery of its limits on parking on lawns and “improvised” driveways, which is an issue in college areas. The city’s approach to date appears sensible: give people a year to adjust, but then, yes, enforce it to clean up those rental properties with yards that have become mini parking lots. Densifying the campuses so that not every student needs a car would be a win, too. As someone who went to an undergraduate university where practically no one drove, I can assure people that it’s actually a great arrangement for all involved. Also, if the city is ever in a position to develop new subdivisions with alleys, do it: this gets cars off the street and also opens up more street parking, since there isn’t a driveway every 20 feet.

Do neighborhoods need assistance in managing small conflicts like noise, trash, parking, and snow removal?

I will say this: for a city that has such pronounced and recognizable neighborhoods, Duluth has surprisingly little in the way of organized, visible neighborhood organizations. The neighborhood level could be a great place to achieve greater responsiveness on the issues listed above.

But, I urge caution here: it’s very easy to do this badly. I spent the past two years living in a Minneapolis neighborhood with a batshit crazy neighborhood board that should not have been allowed anywhere near the purse strings it had. Neighborhood boards also have a tendency to not be very representative; that is, they’re run by old people with free time. Renters and low-income people are often shut out. The well-attended council district session last week wasn’t a bad example; my council district includes both college campuses, but I was probably the youngest person there, and there were a lot of unpleasant things said about college students. I was offended before remembering that I’m not a student anymore.

I don’t mean to dismiss those concerns. Noise is an issue, and as I’ve written before, it would be great if more students could live near the college campuses instead of mixing in with neighbors who don’t like to have people puking on their lawns at 2 AM. Perhaps there is a role for city action on these fronts, but it must walk a fine line between making sure everyone is actually represented and overbearing big-city government.

Should there be more incentives to improve existing housing rather than new construction or vice versa?

Whatever the city’s stance is on new construction, yes, there should be more incentives to improve existing housing. This city has a large housing stock, and a lot of homes that could be very nice with a little loving. On the new construction front, there is plenty of room for infill in this city too, and demolition and reconstruction on lots with blighted properties. Duluth has done a good job this sort of redevelopment for tourism, so there’s no reason it can’t expand into housing, as long as there’s some money to help it along. (Big if, I know.)

Are you concerned about the resiliency of your neighborhood to withstand a natural disaster?

Not especially; I’m no expert here, but I don’t see any immediately obvious things that Duluth can do to shore up its neighborhoods against disasters other than generally making sure infrastructure is protected from 2012-style flooding. However, this question does give me a chance express my annoyance at the use of the word “resiliency.” While technically a word, it is an obnoxious piece of planning jargon and adds an unnecessary syllable. Do not use it. Thank you. Grammar police out.

How and where should/could we densify the community, particularly if we want more convenient locations for mixed uses?

Well, I’ve already mentioned the UMD area, where we’ve seen considerable success in this already, and there’s plenty of room for more. But lots of the old neighborhood downtowns, from Woodland to Lincoln Park to Spirit Valley, have potential here. Near East Fourth Street, and downtown beyond the already-dense core, also seem like obvious targets. London Road, too; I’m also looking forward to the project at Arlington and Central Entrance in Duluth Heights. These efforts to fix up lousy strip malls that have been outstripped by development elsewhere are excellent developments. There are lots and lots of opportunities here.

Should we consider a “no build” (or urban growth) boundary to limit infrastructure extensions and preserve open space on the periphery of the city?

In principle, nice idea. In practice, it would be a disaster.

Urban growth boundaries are a sexy urban planning idea best known for their implementation in Portland. There, it basically does what it intends to do. It limits the outward growth of the city and forces more density, though there is evidence that such limits on growth inflate housing prices.

Leaving that debate aside, however, there is one huge difference: Portland has a governing body, Metro, that oversees the entire metropolitan area, not just the city proper. Its regulations work because a developer who’s limited in Portland can’t just pack up and move a project to Gresham or Clackamas. If Duluth imposed this, it would have no such luck unless the suburbs and townships (in two states!) played along, which would take some colossal legislative work. Not only would it deprive the city of potential development and subsequent tax base growth, it would actually make the environmental situation worse: market-rate developments would be even further out, leading to even longer commutes and infrastructure extensions. Let’s devote our attention elsewhere.

That’s it for now, but stay tuned…