Tag Archives: urban planning

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…

Data on the State of Affairs: Duluth and the Iron Range

29 Oct

My new job has me hanging out with Census data some, and this spins nicely into a blog post that builds on some of my past studies of the Duluth area. Last time, I focused just on Duluth and outlying areas in St. Louis County. This time, I’ve expanded it beyond Duluth for a few reasons. One, there are parts of the Duluth ecosystem—most obviously Superior and Douglas County, Wisconsin, but also large parts of Carlton County and even bits of Lake County. The U.S. Census does publish statistics for metropolitan areas (MSAs), which they determine by county. However, when one of the counties in question is the size of Connecticut, as St. Louis County is, that’s going to wreck the data. As far as the Census is concerned, a cabin on Lake Kabetogama is in the Duluth Metro, and the area’s population lands around 280,000. For our purposes, I chop out everyone from the Iron Range on north, while also subtracting outlying bits of Carlton and Douglas Counties and adding Two Harbors, which the Census does not count as within the area. I was also curious about the Iron Range, a big region that I now work with on a near-daily basis, so I decided to pull its data, too. The end result: I have numbers on St. Louis, Douglas, Carlton, Lake, and Itasca Counties, and subdivide those five into regions so that we can draw some conclusions about different areas.

I subdivide the cities and regions in ways that try to explain a few things about them. To clarify this first table, “Outlying Towns” refers to communities like Cloquet, Proctor, and Two Harbors, which can stand alone as identifiable towns, but are within the Duluth commute shed. There are some differences between them, but they share a general trajectory. A separate, very large category is the wide swath of semi-rural area around Duluth and Superior, from townships to the north and south to Esko and Midway to the west. I include Hermantown and Rice Lake here because, unlike the cities in the previous category, they lack the defined town centers and history of planned development, and have indisputably arisen as outgrowths of the Duluth metro.

I divide the Range into four portions: Grand Rapids and its surrounding rural areas, the West Range (basically, from Coleraine to Chisholm), Central Range (Quad Cities and surrounding townships), and East Range (beginning with Biwabik and ranging all the way up to Ely). Apologies if anyone is offended by these groupings, deal with it; census tract names are also my own. Anything that doesn’t nest comfortably into any of the above categories gets lumped into the “Rural Areas” group, which I’m not going to devote a lot of attention to here: basically, they are shrinking, much older, and generally somewhat wealthier, probably due in part to the elevated age. Here are population, household income, and age statistics by region:

2014popincage

First off, for all the moaning about the struggles of northeast Minnesota in the current economy, the region modestly outperforms the nation in a lot of areas. Population growth may be lower, but income growth is higher, and household median income hovers above the national average. Some of this may be due in part to an older population; old people just generally make more money. But on the whole, I think these numbers are more of a reason for optimism about the area, at least when painting with the broadest strokes.

Also, to combat another common narrative, greater Duluth is not shrinking, nor flat in population growth. Since 1990, when the economy and population basically bottomed out, the region has had steady, modest growth, all driven by the outlying areas. Sure, it’s slower than national growth, but it’s real. The populations of Duluth and Superior have been remarkably stable over that 24-year stretch.

1990comparison

It’s not happy for everyone, though, and as Table Two shows, there is certainly evidence of divergence. Duluth, predictably, dominates both the top and the bottom of the income list, with pockets of great wealth and realms of substantial poverty. Those areas haven’t changed much since 1990—in fact, I was a bit surprised to see so little movement near the top, given the growth of the exurban areas—but the rich do seem to be getting richer while the poor get poorer. (See the table at the end for a breakdown by census tract.) This is less extreme on the Range, but it is noticeable in places, especially around Grand Rapids. It’s worth noting that the “Grand Rapids – South” tract split in two over this time period; I kept it together for consistency’s sake, but the southern, more rural part followed the trajectory of the wealthier areas around Pokegama Lake, while the more central parts slumped a bit.

The influence of Duluth’s colleges is also unavoidable. I split out East Duluth stats with and without UMD to show what an effect they have on incomes in that part of the city, while at the same time boosting an otherwise shrinking population, especially on the far west end of the area. Student housing has spread further afield, and the Census has also made more of a commitment to counting students where they live instead of counting them as living with their parents. (For my part, I’m not a fan of this decision, as I think it distorts things and gives an inaccurate account of the economic standing of students’ situations and of the area they live in, but no one asked me.) This leads university campuses to look like poverty-stricken wastelands; just check out the University of Minnesota campus sometime. Given the number of students, the income measured in a neighborhood like Lower Chester in Duluth is actually pretty substantial, even though it appears below average.

The Range, again predictably, is older and poorer than the Duluth area, and parts of it do worse than the national average. Grand Rapids—whose labeling as “Iron Range” is always a source of controversy anyway—also really carries the region economically. And while the East Range as a whole struggles, it could easily be split between the Ely and Lake Vermilion areas (which are growing in income, though still not rich, and fairly old) and East Range towns like Hoyt Lakes, Aurora, and Biwabik. These are among the worst-hit areas over this 24-year stretch, with the 2001 closure of LTV Steel in Hoyt Lakes looming large. Basically, the areas that have emerged as vacationlands are doing better than the more mining-dependent regions, and this is probably only even more true following the steel price downturn of the past two years.

It’s true that hospitality jobs don’t pay a ton. Ely and Tower aren’t getting rich off their recent tourism growth. But diversification does allow them to do somewhat better than their neighbors, and have something to fall back on in difficult mining times. The advantages are real, and are even more real around Grand Rapids, which benefits from being somewhat closer to the Twin Cities and on a couple of major highways.

Now, we’ll boil it all down to census tracts, which usually have 2,000-6,000 people and are roughly aligned with neighborhoods and towns.

ChgsinIncome.JPG

The tract with the greatest income growth was a surprise to me: Leech Lake Reservation west of Grand Rapids in Itasca County. The other reservation tract, Fond du Lac, also did quite well for itself. Granted, these native communities are both coming from very low starting points, but it’s worth acknowledging that success, and taking a broader look at outcomes across the board in these areas. The other big gainers are mostly exurban lake country and a handful of Duluth neighborhoods that have seen some growth on the fringes plus, I suspect, some turnover as an older generation fades and gets replaced by a younger, upwardly mobile one. The biggest drops are in UMD tracts, a few of Duluth’s poorest areas, and in mining communities.

youngestoldest

The age table reinforces the effects of the colleges. I’m over the median age in my own Endion neighborhood, proving once again that I am an evil gentrifier who is ruining the neighborhood. The oldest tracts, excepting the two central Duluth areas with large retirement complexes, are all very rural, and the top of the list stays very rural beyond the top ten, too. Central Duluth also trends young, and this is worth watching: are the people here upwardly mobile, and will they move up in time, and perhaps move east or west? Or is this another generation of entrenched poverty?

Answers to a lot of these questions will have to wait, but our friends at the Census can give us some clues. I’ll continue this series at some point, too. As an appendix, I here add the table with income stats on all 98 census tracts in the five counties I looked at:

AllTractsDLH.png

Planning Duluth: Endion and East Side Traffic

20 Sep

Oh Duluth politics and planning blogging, how I’ve missed you. My return was inspired by this recent Perfect Duluth Day post on mall access on Duluth’s east side, an idea that includes big plans for 21st Avenue East, a major artery in the near east Endion neighborhood. In the next month, I’ll become a resident of Endion, so I feel entitled to an opinion here. Endion is a funny neighborhood; one that makes sense only in terms of its history. The U.S. census splits it into two tracts, and my future home is on the 20th Ave. E. dividing line; one side of the street has a median household income that’s $45,000 more than the other. I’m on the poorer side, so I guess I’m an evil gentrifier coming to ruin the neighborhood.

Endion is an area where three different Duluths collide. First, there’s old money Duluth, the realm of stately old homes. Go eight blocks east and you’re in the wealthiest pocket of northern Minnesota, but over by me, it’s a jumble of well-maintained beauties and faded grandeur. Next, there’s Duluth as a Rust Belt city, a realm of lifelong renters in often transient states of poverty. Head eight blocks west, and you’re in Duluth’s poorest area. Third, there’s college town Duluth, which has slowly leached down the hill over the decades. The big old houses get carved up into student apartments; some are clearly declining student properties, while others are hard to tell apart from the single family homes. It’s a complicated place with an unclear future, and several paths open up before it.

The poster on PDD suggests turning 21st Avenue East into a four-lane highway, which is both a terrible and an unrealistic idea. Four-lane streets aren’t any more efficient at moving people, unless they become limited access highways, in which case we’re talking widespread destruction of homes. It’s even worse when we factor in such considerations as 1) unless given some even more destructive switchbacks, it won’t lessen weather concerns—in fact, as a viaduct, it will worsen them; 2) 21st is not a federal highway like Piedmont, so it would have to be built on the dime of a city that already struggles to fill potholes, and 3) as someone who’s spent most of the past eight years living part-time in larger cities, I giggle at this alleged “bad” traffic on 21st. (I drove it at rush hour today for kicks, and got to my destination maybe ten seconds slower than I would have otherwise.) Such a project would be a horrid waste of money, and it won’t happen. But, thankfully, it does open up a conversation about planning the Endion neighborhood as a whole.

The commenter mentions college-driven housing stock decline in justifying the 21st Ave. project, but this mistakes the symptom for the disease. Some college spread is inevitable, and anyone who buys a house within a few blocks of a college should expect some residual effects. But in the long run, college properties spilling down into Endion don’t do anyone much good. It leaves students with long, unpleasant commutes, and ups the odds of drunken incidents involving vehicles. It encroaches on neighborhoods that might reasonably not expect it, and leads to headaches for neighbors and universities as they try to keep the peace. The root cause of declining housing along 21st isn’t the spread of college students; it’s decades of poor development practice that led them to fan out in the first place.Colleges are more fun for everyone when they’re relatively self-contained, tight-knit communities.

The solution is simple: densify the area around campus. Pull down the worst of the student slum housing and replace it with things that can hold more people. Fortunately, this is already under way with Bluestone and Kenwood Village; ideally, these higher-end properties will allow other nearby homes to filter down and become affordable. As a corollary, build things students enjoy next to the university so that they’re less inclined to go traipsing down the hill in search of a good time. I have some quibbles with the design of Bluestone, which appears awfully proud of its parking lots, but it’s hard not to argue it’s been an economic success, and that organic explosion of development is pretty remarkable in a city that doesn’t usually grow a whole lot. The demand is obviously there.

Elsewhere in Endion, the commenter is right to call out London Road and its lame “stroad” status: it seems so wide that it’s trying to be a highway, but has the speed limits and business development patterns of a city street. (Though I would defend futons from Mr. Marohn’s unjustified slur.) The thing needs work. Once again, there’s progress: the Endi development at 21st and London Road has some potential to galvanize that whole stretch, and there’s room to make the current sprawly commercial and retail space a lot more attractive to us neighbors. I drove down this as well today, and there’s more than enough vacant or underused property to develop a serious commercial corridor, with a ready-made consumer base and workforce in neighboring areas. The PDD commenter complains that the East Side doesn’t have easy enough access to mall-land, but with the right developments, maybe East Siders will have more convenient options than trekking up to Duluth Heights or Hermantown.

I beg to differ with some of the commenter’s characterizations of the city’s development patterns. If downtown is dying, what’s with the new maurices building? East Superior Street? The Tech Village may not be stuffed with innovative incubators, but it is basically full, as is every other newer project downtown. Build it (or renovate it), and they will come. That said, the person isn’t wrong to emphasize the growth patterns over the hill. I’m not one of those urbanists who thinks the suburbs are about to stop growing, and that everyone will magically move back to the city. The exurbs have driven the Duluth area’s population growth since 1990, and will continue to grow at a faster rate than the built-up East Side. Barring an armed invasion of Hermantown, I don’t see Duluth hitting that 100,000 target population anytime soon.

Much as I’d like to see growth, though, I don’t think it should be the goal in and of itself. Instead, I want to see new life in somewhat shabby neighborhoods, and intelligent planning that builds communities that offer a bit more than carbon copy suburban development, and a tax base to fund all these bright ideas. If we want to recharge this city, it takes two steps: first, retain us young professional millennials, whether they’re recent grads or kids like me who come home; and second, keep us here with reasonable starter homes, career growth opportunities, and decent schools for our kids. Better highways won’t do that; better amenities and intelligent planning will.

I’m moving to Endion because I think it has a ton of potential: easy access to downtown (where I work, and do most of my play), reasonably good (and improving!) amenities around it, and architecture that would be a treasure with a little updating (expanded renovation funds, anyone?). It will take some work, though, and these scattered thoughts are, at least, a starting point for the city’s new comprehensive plan discussion, which kicks off at Denfeld High tomorrow. It’s time to radically rethink the solutions to those “stressed” street corridors identified in the previous plan. Don’t treat the symptoms; treat the underlying cause.

Family Planning

10 Jun

In planning, we’re careful to say we’re planning “for people” or (better yet) “with people,” as a way to juxtapose us against those mid-century planners who pushed through giant, home-destroying highway projects in the name of efficient transportation, or from those architects who value form over function. It’s our way of showing we care about public opinion instead of self-interest or some ideological program.

At the same time, however, some efforts to plan run the risk of adopting some ideology of people based on whichever abstract version of humanity it chooses to adopt. Maybe it’s majority opinion, maybe it’s the opinion of the handful of people who show up to the public meeting or write angry emails, or maybe it’s a group that we believe will be ignored (if not actively damaged) by the powers that be. There are defensible reasons for choosing any one of these ideas of the public, and for ignoring them all in the service of some other end. The simple reality is that there is no logically coherent “people” we can claim to serve all of the time, so we have to make some careful choices.

Right next to the definition of the public we serve, however, there’s another important, often forgotten element of planning and policymaking: its temporal dimension. We not only have to consider the people we’re planning for now, but how the histories of the people and places we’re planning for affect things, and how they will affect people in the future. And when we think in that way, short-term decisions about which group of people we’re planning with can prove directly at odds with what might be right ten, twenty, or fifty years down the road.

This leads me to a recent piece by Benjamin Schwarz, and two accompanying follow-ups at The American Conservative (obligatory disclaimer: their definition of “conservative” is not what you think it is). Schwarz leans on planning prophet Jane Jacobs to show the importance of planning for cities with children, and how the rising urban young adult playground neighborhoods (called “vibrant urban neighborhoods,” or VUNs), which have revitalized some parts of large cities after years of decline, ignore them. (Think Williamsburg in Brooklyn, the Mission in San Francisco, Wicker Park in Chicago, or Uptown or the North Loop in Minneapolis). These neighborhoods, models for many in my field, are just shells of the bustling neighborhoods Jacobs lauded in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Sooner or later, these neighborhoods will need to accommodate children, or they’ll just stay on as temporary resting places for young adults before they head out to their suburban destiny. The “back to the city” trend will sputter out.

This emphasis on children is something I’ve instinctively looked for in communities: long before I considered becoming a planner, my first question in evaluating neighborhood health was, ‘are there children playing freely outdoors’? These may just be the instincts of a Duluthian who expects a ten-acre park a couple blocks from home, but even in fairly dense urban environments, this is more than possible, as Jacobs’ tales of mid-century Manhattan show. If we believe it to be a worthy goal, true urban recovery from the planning horrors, economic troubles, crime waves, and political disinvestment of the mid-to-late 20th century has to reach into childhood.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I also don’t think this is always a chief concern for many in my planning cohort. This is probably because most of my peers are twenty-somethings who, like me, have foregone child-rearing until after graduate school, if they ever expect to go there. Our slow lurch toward family life feeds into broader debates about my generation, which is famous for marrying and having children at later ages than its predecessors. Among planners and my fellow Georgetown alumni, it’s mostly a calculated move for career-life sanity and near-assured economic stability; say what you will about that trend, but it stems from genuine and understandable concerns. But elsewhere in my millennial cohort, it’s often an entirely different picture, and we’d be blind not to acknowledge that many of us still do settle down at young ages, and that others possibly would if there weren’t so many barriers discouraging them.

Schwarz is pessimistic about attacking these barriers due to economic forces, but does have one memorable line: “Two words begin and end any real effort to create truly vibrant city neighborhoods: public schools.” In the second comment, Emily Washington expands on this point, but only to make a vague argument for “education reform.” The details are unclear, but it’s obviously important. And yet, somehow, there’s no hint of education policy in planning school curriculum. School districts may not be governed by city planners, but they are an essential part of planning cities, and we ignore them at our own peril.

There are hopeful hints in planning ideas like “safe routes to school” and “lifecycle housing” that get back to some idea of planning for families. Still, in the end, a philosophical disconnect lingers: we plan for the individual abstract person, not the person within a dense network of relationships that define human interaction—of which the family is the most fundamental part. For related reasons, family-level thinking has been somewhat lost in the shuffle among the many important and necessary victories for women over the past half-century, as they’ve escaped potentially crushing norms and climbed toward economic equality with men. These are essential steps for sane policy as well, but in the process, talk about families and their roles in personal formation have often posited them as something to be liberated from instead of a goal to build toward. Both can be true, depending on the situation, but the state is a crude substitute for the closest of bonds. The future of cities is inseparable from future generations of humans, and a stake in its fate requires a stake in humanity that transcends the here and now. Trite as the phrase may be, families are the building blocks of society, and its motor forward into whatever comes next. There are enough economic and other issues pushing against them that we can ill afford to let planning trouble them.

Schwarz is right when he says that Jane Jacobs-style neighborhoods aren’t coming back. But there are still other ways to build more family-friendly cities. The solutions need to look beyond VUNs and the highly educated, upwardly mobile young people (like me) they seem to want to cater to. That alone won’t keep me here. We need housing that allow for more variation in family type that can accommodate multi-generational families or large families, instead of single-bedroom units. We also need varieties of housing types, both in age and style, from starter homes to modern-day palaces, from “luxury” flats to modest apartment buildings. Building this sort of city means real pedestrian infrastructure and connections to parks and schools, and assurances of public safety along those corridors. It means green space, both in backyards and inviting parks. It spreads people out somewhat, instead of segregating rigidly by stage of life.

The list could go on; the solutions aren’t secrets. But maybe more fundamentally, we need an understanding human life that remembers that people’s closest ties are often the most important drivers of decisions. Unless plans take meaningful steps to include the next generation, the cities they build for will have a hollowness at their core.

Masters of Reality

14 May

I’m not normally one thrilled by public speaking, but for some reason, the idea of giving a commencement speech has a certain allure that would cause any anxiety to melt away in a heartbeat. Alas, that day will have to wait until I’m famous and one of my alma maters invites me back. Perhaps fittingly, I’ll settle for a written version. This has been percolating since last December, and now it’s time to share some collected thoughts from my nineteen years in school, which come to an end this weekend.

Masters of Reality

Hey, we’re done. We did it. We finished graduate school. Now what the hell did we just do for the past few years?

Hard to say. What’s a graduate degree for, anyway? A credential to help us up a job ladder, and little more? On the most cynical of days, when I plowed through some of my less inspiring papers or group projects, it was hard to think otherwise. A pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, and nothing more? Spare me. In my own wing of our dear modernist mecca on the Mississippi, the Master of Urban and Regional Planning program, there’s even a common complaint that we don’t get nearly enough practical skills, to the point where I had to suppress a laugh when the first question in a recent job interview asked about my experience reading zoning code. Instead, we get taught how to think, whatever that means. I eat this up, but it’s such a fluffy description that it can crumble under the duress of yet another slog through a group project.

This is a public affairs school, so this means there must be some sort of overarching vision…though anyone who took Intro to Planning with Ryan Allen probably isn’t sure how to define the public good anymore anyway. Still, there are frequent nods underlying mission here, one rife with clichés about public service and human progress and peace and justice for all. To find the most eloquent flavor of this take that’s weighed on me over the past few months, I’m going to commit a Humphrey School sacrilege and quote one of Hubert’s rivals for the 1968 Democratic nomination, Robert F. Kennedy. RFK’s words to an Indianapolis crowd on the night of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination laid out a simple mission in the shadow of death: “Let’s dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”

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1968 might have been the messiest year in American politics this side of the Civil War, but 2016 could be a contender before all is said and done. We’re graduating into a world where reality doesn’t quite cooperate by the rules we’ve tried to impose on it in our studies. Theories of international politics and democratic order that I learned as an undergraduate have never seemed so tenuous. Political upheaval has come to this country in a presidential campaign that shreds all our political niceties and assumptions of proper decorum, and it strikes home here in Minneapolis, where, in the past year, we’ve had glimpses behind our façade of Minnesota Niceness and found a community with rifts we still need to heal.

Moments like this are a reminder of how tenuous our quest for knowledge can be, how all our careful efforts to catalogue each event before us and filter it through our rational methods never quite manage to capture everything. It makes us realize how radical RFK’s project was. Humans are savage creatures, capable of falling to great depths in craven, base lusts for power, and even a constitution with the most meticulous checks and balances may not guarantee any sanity. A master’s in public affairs can only tame so much. The very name of the degree seems oddly archaic, suggests this piece of paper gives us a right to own or at least control other people: what exactly have we mastered, anyway?

As master’s students, we sit around and argue and opine from on high; not that we didn’t do these things already, but hopefully we’re a little better at it now. We learn our history, though there’s little consolation in recounting past failures to ease our inhumanity and bend history toward justice, whatever that might look like. The more we know, the more we realize we don’t know, and we risk that moment of sheer terror when we realize how small and clueless we are.

And so we find ourselves part of a generation mugged by reality, forced to confront an uncertain world where we don’t have easy answers. And it doesn’t get any easier. We endure tragedy, and before long, none of us are young anymore, marked by a string of steady losses and shocks, some grand and political; the most jarring, deeply personal. It is in these darkest hours when we are often at our most human, our most able to be honest with those around us and hone in on what we truly value. Pain and suffering prove necessary steps along the road to excellence.

So much of freedom, you see, is a myth. We’re forever bounded by who we are and where we come from, and the days of fundamental change are probably gone: we can only become more and more our true selves. But we do have the power to author our stories, to pull all these scattered events that happen to us into a narrative, give it a trajectory that pushes us toward some yet unseen end. We can choose whether we’re tragic heroes or triumphant survivors, whether we drown in hubris or rise up in humility.

GU

Knowledge of this choice requires a rare self-awareness. It requires us to take a step back and assess the whole story, either in a salon of trusted confidantes or alone with one’s mind in the dark of night. This isn’t a skill anyone has innately; it’s something we have to cultivate carefully, time and again, to be able to crawl out of the ongoing string of nothing to remember why it is we do what we do. At times we endure long tunnels of darkness of the soul, or at the very least of a Humphrey computer lab, but it’s all worth it for those little glimmers of light, those little moments of wonder or awe that give life its driving force.

And so the great benefit of this broad education is the power to stop and process everything. It is the ability to recognize these narratives and impose a small dose of mastery, however brief it may be. And if we take that imperative seriously, follow it to its furthest conclusion, it presents a great burden. Every certainty comes under scrutiny, and every last object of worship threatens to fall away. We’re forced to confront our most unsettling worries, and it can bring out the best and the worst in us, depending on how we respond. Down here, we see how our greatest strengths and our greatest weaknesses so often stem from the same source.

The trouble is, for all of this human drama, few will care what we wrestle with. Any inner turmoil isn’t of much interest beyond our inner circle, and the Humphrey, for all its strengths, doesn’t always set up easy dialogue outside of that circle. The question of our time is how we respond in a world of indifference, and in one where we resort to grabbing attention by the cheapest of means: knee-jerk righteous anger, 140 characters, and snarky dismissal. Delicious as these may be, they are always shortcuts, never quite able to admit nuance or submit to the vulnerability of knowing that, no matter how far we reach, we will never know all the answers. We all have our blind spots, must take our leaps of faith, and none of us can truly master it all.

The diversity of human experience is too great, and if we stop to appreciate the extent of that diversity, we understand just how hard it is to bring people together into some sort of community. It’s so hard because it should be: even people from fairly similar backgrounds come to radically different outlooks, and no amount of imposed education will produce the same worldview. Sobering, perhaps, but maybe a source of hope: it’s all still a mystery, and mystery begets curiosity, an endless, restless search. And as this search continues, we must always cling to that sense of wonder, even amid the daily tides of tiring monotony that come in reliably every day. This wonder takes commitment, and with commitment and love poured into people or a cause, there is always the risk of further heartbreak and pain.

We must choose carefully, make sure those ends to which we direct our lives are worth the faith we place in them. We have a narrative; we might not be able to explain exactly where we’re going, but we need some idea of how to get there, and why everyone else should come along for the ride. If we urban planners can contribute something, it is a scale on which we can think about starting our efforts: right here, in our most immediate communities, where we can know the details intimately and have the power to turn vague wishes into concrete action. Grounded, we’re free to plot out our dives into the arena in search for moments of glory.

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I’m reminded of a line from Rollo May: the opposite of love is not hate, but apathy. To resist that apathy is not just one option among many, but an imperative, one that requires a moral courage to claim that, in our wanderings, we’ve found something to live for. And while those dreams and ideals help frame our work, no abstraction can substitute for what we learn from living in and among the people closest to us, entranced by the whole spectacle. Instead of living a dream, live reality: realize that what we have before us is all we’ve got, and it’s up to us to take that history we’ve lived and turn it into something coherent, to blend all those disparate threads into one. Somewhere in here lies the mastery of reality, as best we fallible humans can achieve it.

And so we head forth to pursue it. This can’t be a burden, something we do out of some resigned sense of duty. We must do it with panache, with a joie de vivre that fuels the fire through the tremendous barriers we confront and the thousand insidious, nagging bites that drag us down, day by day. Life is not about balance. Balance implies stasis, a resting place; life is instead a constant flow in among any number of streams that pull us along, tugging this way and that and leading us down toward whatever destiny may await. We will waver on our way, and at times it will be anything but tame. Mastery cannot mean an imposition of control, but instead only momentary escapes, and in the times when we don’t have that lucidity, a knowledge of how to ride the waves, catch the swells and surge and retreat as we see fit.

How do we do that? I can’t see far into the future, but right now, it all seems simple enough. It’s time to bring these grandiose words to a close and head out into a beautiful Minnesota spring, to spend time with family and friends and revel in what we’ve done over these past few years. And then, renewed, we can head forth and leave our marks on reality as we see fit. We’ve finished countless assignments over the past few years, but our real work is only beginning.