What’s the plan now?


Election 2012 Note:

There is something great about experiencing an election with a group of strangers over a beer in a public place.

Unlike the last Presidential election, I stayed in this year. It was quite the juxtaposition to 2008 and 2010 (read: Sweeny’s Pub, plenty of ale and countless mini-corn dogs). Last night I enjoyed my girlfriend’s delicious Midwestern-style dinner of chicken and biscuits and a nice, relaxing night in – yet, it didn’t quite rival the excitement of experiencing election results with a large group of strangers over a pint. There is something excellent about being surrounded by people from both parties, cheering for different candidates, all in the same space.

We need to create built environments all over this country where these interactions can happen more often. It’s one reason that I stress our need for more quality “third” places. Twitter is a good place to communicate, but a great third place is tough to beat.

Now, I’m sorry for the rest of this post (read: possible grammatical errors and wayward thoughts). Like the rest of America, I was up late glued to the television and social media, and all I can say is: Well America – that was fun, but can we please get back to upbeat television ads about fast food, laundry detergent, beer and shiny electronics?

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This is a post-election results tweet from Minnesota Public Radio’s Bob Collins (from NewsCut). He nailed it.

What’s the plan now? That’s a good question.

I’ve often contemplated what this election mean for America’s towns and cities? I’m not really sure. My guess is that is resembles something like what Bob Collins’ tweet was hinting.

In my mind, one of our political faults is that we ignore how we build places and don’t have anything that resembles a consensus on urban and rural infrastructure development. Our collective culture is still set in the idea that large infrastructure projects will help us grow our way out of debt [See "Debate Questions" on the blog and the related podcast].

The establishment, both liberal and conservative, view projects like the $750 million St. Croix Bridge and the $125 million 169/494 interchange as catalysts of growth – not agents of future debt and long-term maintenance obligations. It’s embedded in our economic culture and how we develop our landscapes.

A great example of lacking a consensus is my hometown: Mankato, Minnesota.

Mankato really wants a vibrant downtown. They’ve pulled out all the usual stops: promote mixed-used development, a historic building facades grant program, improve street, pedestrian and bike connections and reacquaint the town with its riverside. The plan is good, but the City has absolutely no idea how to make it happen.

All the money and time spent towards revitalization efforts is moot if Mankato doesn’t stop subsidizing large competing suburban infrastructure projects that add no real value to the community and quickly become financial liabilities. Public officials on all sides of the political spectrum want the best of both worlds: 1) more quick tax revenue windfalls from easy-to-build suburbanism, and 2) a vibrant downtown. This point is best illustrated by Mankato’s new expensive intersection and its relationship to “new mall building.”

This 1.2 mile blue line represents one of the biggest urban planning blunders in Mankato history. In fact, it probably represents upwards of a $1 billion in extra cost to the small City and its residents over its short 20 year existence. What is the blue line you ask? Well – it is the shortest route that connects Mankato’s Madison East Mall (built late 1960s) to the newer River Hills Mall (built early 1990s). This also ignores that they also built a mall downtown (destroying good urban fabric) in the 1980s.

In the early 1990s, instead of expanding the existing mall and using existing infrastructure in the (still) vacant land surrounding the Madison East Mall, the decision was made to sprawl out the town an extra 1.2 miles. The question I wish would have been asked in the 1990s is: how much financially better off would the town be if it didn’t build the additional roadways, exit ramps, water and sewerage pipes and electric lines?

All of this needs to be maintained into perpetuity. Not to mention that every driving trip for the majority of Mankato’s population burns 2.4 miles more in gas. And for what? In return for the newer mall where city residents get virtually the same stores in a different location? Needless to say, the town is still recovering from this decision, the old Madison East Mall is a ghost town and the buildings that once abutted the commercial hub have gone through 25 years without reinvestment.

My favorite example is the Burger King at the entrance of the old mall. It’s now abandoned. The Burger King closed after access to the fast food restaurant was decreased as a result of a $25 million intersection “improvement” project that was designed to accommodate more traffic towards a newly built intersection ($4 million) and away from an old (and “congested”) intersection adjacent to the River Hills Mall. I’m not mourning the loss of a fast food chain, but merely shaking my head in disappointment and begrudging acceptance at the desolate environment that will continue to ensue once the building starts to fall into disrepair along Mankato’s busiest road.

This cost $25 million. It effectively saves drivers upwards of 1 minute in time and prevents people from having to turn left. This is in addition to another $4 million to build yet another intersection (just slightly down the road) at local Highway 14. All of these expenditures are necessary because of the Mankato’s chosen development pattern. Unfortunately, all of this cost a lot of money and doesn’t pay for itself. Imagine what could be done if Mankato decided to spend the $29 million spent on sprawl-inducing intersections and instead used that money to improve its already existing public infrastructure downtown or neighborhoods?

To give you an idea of the total costs of public infrastructure: The total land and construction of Mankato’s new elementary school costs $8 million less than its two new intersections. At the end of the day, Mankato has money to spend on infrastructure. The town just isn’t spending it in the right places.

This is the problem we have and this is where I agree with Bob Collins’ Tweet: What’s the plan now? For development of infrastructure and our built environment, it looks to be more of the same. If politicians were looking for a stronger economy, they should look to build Strong Towns.