Donjek Project: Final Phase of Penn-American District Plan in Bloomington, Minnesota

We are pleased to announce that Donjek has been retained to assist the City of Bloomington, Minnesota and its consultant team in the final phase of district planning for the Penn-American area.  The team includes Close Landscape Architecture, ESG Architects, Lander Group, and Kimley-Horn and Associates.


Penn Avenue and American Boulevard intersect in the western half of the project area; the district occupies significant land area on the southwest corner of interstates I-494 and I-35W, as shown in the adjacent graphic.  The site as a whole remains largely underutilized and is recognized by the City for its potentially powerful connections to Minneapolis, the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, and the I-494 corridor.
Our charge is focused on assisting with public finance content for the final report and organizing and refining the report text itself.

Photo:  Courtesy of City of Bloomington, Minnesota.

Review: The City, A Global History

Imagedb The “tragedy of the commons” is a metaphor employed by economists to describe the difficulty of providing and pricing public goods.  Because grazing sheep in the commons is cheaper than owning private land, theoretical shepherds overuse the common thereby eliminating the available grass and value of the common generally. 

Joel Kotkin’s book, The City: A Global History, earns its broad title in its only 160 pages – and among other things, identifies for the reader how cities have over time managed the commons.  In particular, what has characterized cities that have thrived in their times?  In my view, these characteristics suggest a highly symbiotic relationship between public and private investments.  Successful cities of history are not defined by their size or their location as much as by the strategic thinking of their leadership, investment in infrastructure, and social openness. 

Pollution, high unemployment, rising residential foreclosure and commercial vacancy rates and strained education systems, these are costs that burden the public, private and civic sectors – not one or the other.  Whether costs are borne by a business or individual, or paid via the public sector using tax revenues from the same parties, is immaterial where regional vitality is concerned.  Either way, these costs reduce regional productivity and vitality and, to follow the metaphor, erode the commons.  Conversely, public investment can serve as a lever for the private sector, and vice versa.  Two points about how this played out in European history:

Two success stories are inseparable from their emphasis on public investment.  In the 1400s, the Venetians established urban zones devoted to key industries of shipbuilding, munitions, glassmaking and others, putting the authority of the Venetian Doge behind a physical urban organization that matched the market’s interest in locating vendors and financiers near their respective industries.  By 1500, Venice was the wealthiest city in Europe.  In Amsterdam, the investment in the canal system and city sanitation, as well as mandates to use brick to manage the risk of fire, provided a foundation for what Kotkin called “the first great modern commercial city,” and the capital of an unprecedented merchant and cultural engine.

Two success stories trace to recognition and control of “primary avenues to a widening world.”  Kotkin describes the approach of the Phoenicians, Mediterranean powerhouse of the 8th/9th century B.C., as focused not on rote acquisition of territory, but on controlling coastlines and trading with larger neighbors.  Consequently, Phoenicia developed what is widely considered the first influential merchant class in an urban society.  In the late 1500s, the Dutch (yes, again) adopted a similar strategy, rapidly coming to dominate the Spanish, who had continued to emphasize military power fueled by religiosity at the expense of economic strength.

Vital cities have been with us for our 10,000 years of urban life, and we can learn from successful models used to finance thriving places through history.  If nothing else, The City speaks to how fostering strong urban economies is the responsibility of public, private and civic sectors alike.

Reviewing 2007’s “Great Neighborhood Book”

Bookpic As a “forum for discussing financial issues around placemaking,” the Cents of Place blog cannot fail to remark on this year’s publication of “The Great Neighborhood Book” by Minnesota author Jay Walljasper.  The book covers a range of issues with an approach that is whimsical and populist, and at times reads like a love letter to places that allow for spontaneous and informal interaction.  In the process, Walljasper ignores the economic and financial issues that are in some cases at the core of his evaluation of what makes for great urban neighborhoods.  Perhaps a sequel is in order.

In the introduction, the author mentions the eleven principles of placemaking that have been developed by the book’s publisher, the Project for Public Spaces, and which serve as a framework for the book.  Principle number ten reads:

Money is not the issue.  If you have a spirited community working with you, you’ll find creative ways around financial obstacles.

I admit a bias here:  I believe that whether and how we finance placemaking is a critical issue, not one to be casually dismissed.  Moreover, the suggestion in principle number ten is that neighborhoods stymied by financial obstacles are dispirited, weak or lacking in creativity.  Instead, I suggest rephrasing the principle to read:

Money is not the only issue.  A spirited community and/or local booster can surmount a broad range of financial obstacles through creative problem solving.  Initiatives described in this book have succeeded not only because they offer aesthetic values and are homegrown, but because they enhance community differentiation via unique spaces and hence “pay off” in terms of dollars and quality of life for residents and visitors.  It’s human nature that we like to live in and visit places that are distinct, and we respond by investing our time, money and effort in those places.  If these various forms of investment do not take place, even much-adored places can be jeopardized.

In an October lecture at the national conference of the Trust for Historic Preservation, Ed McMahon of the Urban Land Institute offered a sound point about community differentiation.  “Why,” he asked, “would anyone be interested in coming to invest themselves in a community that is failing to invest in itself?”  Just as it would be incomplete to ignore the social capital and relationships that support great neighborhoods, the financial component – unsavory as it can be – needs to be addressed.

I enjoyed this book and am hoping for a second edition with a chapter on placemaking finance!