(This posting is another in our Brainerd/Baxter Strong Town series, which focuses on land use practices in my neighboring hometowns. In doing so, we are seeking to highlight problems with the current approach small towns take to growth and development and provide real-world strategies for growing Strong Towns. If you have not read the kickoff article for this series, I would recommend it before reading this post. You can also read other posts in this series by clicking here.)

On Monday I proposed a Strong Town option for the development of the Forestview School property in the City of Baxter. The premise was that the millions of dollars of infrastructure put in the ground by the City of Baxter and the school district are investments that are underutilized. Making better use of this infrastructure - which the public is essentially pledged to maintain from now on world without end - is something a Strong Town would seek to do. 

In writing Monday's post, I anticipated a number of objections to the approach and promised to address them here. Without further delay.

  • We don't want 300 homes next to a school like that.

Granted, the forest-like setting of the Forestview School would be diminished somewhat by building a residential neighborhood around it. However, what really are the benefits of such a setting? This is an especially important question since every other school in the district (Baxter, Nisswa, Lowell, Riverside, Harrison, Brainerd High School) is in a residential and/or commercial neighborhood.

Possible Benefits: Solitude. Serenity. Security. A chance to learn from natural systems. Someone give me a few more because I'm stuck.

The obvious drawbacks of the remote setting include very high transportation costs along with the high infrastructure costs, short and long-term. I would also add that the value of this magnificent public building - the great architecture, the incredible public spaces and the beautiful recreational grounds - is also underutilized. This site would add tremendous value to any neighborhood. Imagine being able to walk a block and watch soccer practice at the field, participate in a social gathering in the cafeteria (called a cafetorium, actually) or just have this magnificent structure as part of your scenery. Wow!

Interestingly, if you believe the website www.schooldesigns.com, the school district actually wanted a neighborhood feel to the school.

The major design challenge—the client’s desire to create the feel of a neighborhood school with the amenities of a large facility—was accomplished by designing four classroom wings.

The only thing that prevents Forestview from being a neighborhood school is a neighborhood. A Strong Town would have it built.

 

  • Nice idea, Chuck, but we're in a recession and we are not going to get 300 new homes anytime soon.

First, someone better tell the City of Baxter, which touts itself as:

A rapidly growing community in one of Minnesota's fastest growing areas...

Populations projections have Baxter's population nearly doubling over the next 20 years - an increase of thousands of households. 

But the concept here is not when Baxter will grow or how fast - we can probably all agree that it will grow larger at some point - but where and in what pattern. Whether it happens in the next year or over the next ten, Baxter is much better off having those three hundred homes connect to this existing infrastructure - which it is maintaining - than to build yet more infrastructure to accommodate the growth. 

 

  • Who would want to live 3 units to the acre? Nobody we want living next to a school with kids.

Oh, only roughly seven out of ten (at least) people in the United States. There are a couple of important things here for residents of small towns to understand. 

The first is that growth and development does not have to be ugly. I understand that everything you see in the marketplace, especially high-density options, are things you would not want to have next to you. Me either, but this is a function of poor design, not density. Some of the most gorgeous places in the world are the most dense. Heard of Venice?

Now I am not suggesting we put canals in the forest next to the school. I'm just pointing out that density is not the problem - design is. Build it well and it will be a memorable gem. Build it like the rest of our barren, faceless landscape and I'm with you. Not In My Back Yard.

(Incidentally, next month I am leading a whirlwind tour of the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow - also known as Epcot - along with Disney's Magic Kingdom and the neighboring New Urbanist community of Celebration. The tour is designed to highlight the design principles of creating memorable places and Strong Towns. This session is not open to the public, but we are considering a future tour that would be. If you might be interested, send me an email.)

 

  • The school district is not in the development business. We don't want them competing with the private market.

There are two sides to this objection. The first is that the school is in the business of educating kids, not developing land. Don't ask them to take their eye off the ball. Keep them focused on kids.

Well, with Forestview costing $42 million - vastly more than any residential development done in Baxter's history that I am aware of - I am certain the school has access to competent people that could make this happen. And there are good reasons for-the-kids to do it. Try 4.5 million reasons.

The other side of the objection is that the district is an unfair player in the market. I understand, but a private/public partnership would not only shield the school from most of the risk of such an endeavor, but it would ensure that the market would govern the home prices and ultimate profit margins.

 

This seems like a relatively easy way for Baxter to start switching directions and transitioning to a Strong Town approach to growth.