Donjek Project: Minneapolis’ Lowry Avenue Strategic Plan

Lowj Less than two miles north of downtown Minneapolis is Lowry Avenue, the focus of a project recently initiated for the City’s Community Planning and Economic Development (CPED) department. Partnering with Cuningham Group and Biko and Associates, Donjek is contributing economic development, market and finance perspective to the development of a Lowry Avenue Strategic Plan. Three nodes along Lowry Avenue hold particular significance as transportation access points and potential commercial hubs: Those at Penn Avenue, Emerson/Fremont Avenues, and Lyndale Avenue.

At a recent community meeting, Cindy Harper from the Cuningham Group organized an exercise where participants reviewed images of various building types and designs, and selected those best (and worst) suited to Lowry Avenue. Three groups of people undertook this process at once, and (with the exception of one image) each group selected the same five photos for ideal redevelopment types, and the same five photos to represent redevelopment they wished to avoid.

The consensus was interesting. Even more striking was the response I received when I asked a participant why she thought the five favored images had been chosen by each group. “They look like they’re going to last,” she said, and turned her attention elsewhere. Building materials can present evidence of commitment by investors and developers, or they can convey a short horizon and lack of interest in a structure’s relationship to its surroundings. 

Several of the preferred images reminded me of the scale of streetcar nodes still traceable in both Minneapolis and St. Paul. Along the many streets served by the streetcar system, observers can identify street-facing buildings of two to three stories centered around intersection points or other higher-traffic streetcar service areas. In part because the real cost of materials and labor was lower in the early 20th century, many of these buildings have proven durable and flexible to reuse. The future appears bright for such commercial space integrated into primarily residential areas.

Some suggest that fixed-rail transportation represents a similar kind of physical and financial commitment to a series of places strung together. But unless the marketplace shifts substantially – and private capital leads – I don’t see the streetcar network replicated by a 21st century fixed-rail version soon. So in lieu of fixed rail and affordable stone and brick materials, how do neighbors, developers and investors effectively signify that places are built to last?

Transportation Stimulus Projects Should Reflect Modern Economy

A New York Times analysis of over 5,000 transportation-related stimulus projects released todayFour-lane rural road near Fort Ripley, MN indicates that less than half of the funds are slated for investment in metropolitan areas. The analysis suggests that these transportation investments have been selected based on formula as opposed to what the American economy of today looks like.

As I’ve recounted at the Cents of Place in the past, the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas:

• Use 12% of the U.S. land area;

• House and employ 65% of our population;

• Generate 78% of patent filings; and

• Create 75% of total U.S. economic activity.

The report shows that the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area, while producing 1.36% of the country’s economic activity, is the location of 0.72% of the transportation-related stimulus projects authorized. Readers will note that the seven-county metro area contains just 12% of the state’s total lane miles. So doesn’t it make sense that stimulus funds reflect lane miles?

In its most succinct form, the answer may well be no. Here’s why: The federal stimulus legislation will provide capital grants to build, renovate, and replace transportation infrastructure – but it does not fundamentally address how state and local governments will pay for maintenance and operations. Over 87% of Minnesota’s total lane miles are county, township and city streets, paid for from limited state and local sources. Overbuilding may create long-term costs that will stifle prosperity in greater Minnesota, not the reverse.

Just ask my colleague Chuck Marohn, President of the Community Growth Institute, who provides planning and zoning expertise to small towns across Minnesota. In recent weeks, Chuck has blogged extensively about how and why our current approach to locating infrastructure investments is financially unsustainable. Moreover, it undermines the quality of life in communities like Brainerd, Minnesota, where Chuck grew up.

In metropolitan areas, the higher concentration of economic activity will allow for the funding of ongoing maintenance of road, rail and other systems, which will in turn bolster the metro economy as well as the statewide economy. Future stimulus funding, and the coming debate about a new federal transportation bill, ought to be designed in this light.

Photo courtesy of Resedabear/Flickr: / CC BY 2.0