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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?


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.

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Reader Comments (6)

Nathaniel - Just a couple of comments:

1. You said "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. " How do you force an existing mall to expand? You might be able to deny the new mall (maybe). But if the City is unreasonable in withholding permission to build the new mall it constitutes a taking of property rights which would require compensation. And even then, how do you make the existing mall owner expand their site? i presume the new mall was built because the existing mall owner was not diligent in keeping their site competitive. Sometimes government can prevent things from happening, but its very hard (and really, unsustainable) to force someone to do something (e.g., expand their mall).

2. You said " 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?" I don't know the funding mechanism used to develop the $29 million, but I bet there was Federal Aid involved based on congestion mitigation or safety or some other federally subsidized funding category. Currently there are few if any Federal Aid funding sources that pay for local street maintenance or neighborhood investment. Oftentimes Federal funds are targeted towards specific types of improvements (e.g., vehicle capacity improvements) and can't be used for other improvements (e.g., neighborhood revitalization). In other words, Mankato probably did not have the choice to shift the Federal Aid from one use to a different use. They would have had to give up the grant (which is usually 80% Federal and 20% Local match) and find a different grant source for the alternative purpose. This is very hard for cities to do. Why would you pay 100% (using local money) when you can get a project for 20 cents on the dollar using Federal Aid? Now, if the $29 M was all local funds, then yes they can choose to spend it wherever and however they want (within State statutes).

November 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJeff Morrow

Jeff, your second point did an excellent job summarizing the problem with Federal Aid: it is very hard for cities to use Federal funds for anything other than specific types of improvements such as sprawl-inducing intersections.

November 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFaith

Jeff, upholding property rights does not require local government to fund the infrastructure expansions that dubious projects require, such as the second mall. If the developer had been required to pay all the required infrastructure improvements up front out of his own pocket, there is a good chance the first mall would be still be business and he'd have built some more suburban housing or something requiring far less capital subsidy.

November 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMichael D. Setty

Yes, Mr. Morrow, you are explaining exactly why we are referring to this sort of development as a ponzi scheme. Comments are good. Discussions are good. Your points are valid. Somebody is making progress. Mr. Morrow is now coming to some Strong Towns conclusions. Learning is fun. To think, you were being all negative about this stuff a while back. Hmmm....

You have a good day, Mr. Morrow.

November 7, 2012 | Unregistered Commenter"T"

"How do you force an existing mall to expand?"

You can't force them to expand [by the way, I forgot to mention in the article, but the new Mall got some generous TIF]. What you can do is simply not subsidize the new growth. Notice on the map how the new mall literally leap-frogged a cornfield / soy beans field. I am not advocating that anyone's property rights be infringed, but I don't think that just because someone doesn't want to sell land, that we find the next person who does and then we build millions upon million upon millions of dollars of infrastructure (at the public cost) to subsidize it. If the developer of the "new" mall would have had to pay for the infrastructure, it would have never have been build (or, it would have been very unlikely).

On part 2 (Jeff), you're right - the structure of how we fund things is insane. If you were to give Mankato $29 million from the Federal Govt' and tell them that they could spend it on anything - well, there is NO WAY they'd spend it on an intersection. The money would probably go elsewhere. Federal funds (and our structure) needs to change. You nailed it.

Thanks. -Nate

November 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel

@ T - I don't intend to be negative. I just think I have a very practical view of how things actually get implemented, and that may come off as negative from time to time. I do think Strong Towns has good points and value but it lacks balance. I think there are places where Strong Towns concepts can flourish and I think there are places where those same principles will fail (I have actually experienced this and it leaves a poor impression with the public on Strong Town concepts - which is not what we want). It's just a little too cook book at this point. Throwing all the ingredients in at every location and assuming it will turn out. Or that every example of sprawl is bad. Some sprawl is actually good. Today's sprawl is tomorrow's urban core. Similarly, do we really want industrial uses in our urban cores (e.g., steel mills, auto plants, chemical plants, etc.)? No. No one wants to live next to that. I agree we have overdone the RESIDENTIAL sprawl at the expense of our urban core, but I think a BALANCED approach to EQUALIZING that situation will ultimately work better than simply categorizing all city expansion as urban sprawl to be avoided.

@ Nathaniel & Michael - Agreed we don't have to subsidize new development. TIF has been one of the most abused taxation policies that was supposed to help revitalize blighted areas and urban cores but has turned into a green field developers incentive instead. That being said, you would be amazed how much developers would be willing to spend. It's not uncommon (in fact it's expected in residential development) for developers to build all the roads, sewers, water and other infrastructure and "give" it to the City. The alternative is for cities not to accept the new infrastructure and require neighborhood associations that maintain their own streets. This is less of a problem with public utilities (water, sewer) as they normally generate enough revenue to cover operating/maintenance costs and you probably want municipal control over the quality of the system for public health and safety reasons. One of the unintended consequences of not accepting public streets infrastructure is then developments will only (or mostly) occur along the highways leading up to town rather than spreading out along some sort of grid system If all the streets are private, there is no way those owners will allow another neighborhood to expand beyond their neighborhood, away from the existing public street right-of-way. This basically creates a situation in which all development lines the public roadway and changes the highway into an embryonic Stroad. Again, I think there needs to be a balance. Less subsidy to encourage redevelopment or expansion within existing cities, but options available for sprawl, as long as it pays for itself.

November 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJeff Morrow
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