After a long and snowy winter, it’s finally spring in Minnesota. We will hit the 60s for the first time in 2013 tomorrow (fingers crossed). Here’s the news …

  • That next big project …MinnPost

I am baffled by contemporary economic development practices.

In the Minnesota, where cities fight for a limited pot of state money, it creates situations where towns “go big” on their proposals to attract more money. It’s my understanding they know they won’t get the full amount, so they overshoot and oversell. But, if they get some of the money, they are essentially on the hook for the rest.

I recently wrote a post (Reconsidering the Nicollet Mall Redesign) that criticized a local Minneapolis economic development project requesting state money. I realized immediately after reading the comment section that I erred in framing the issue properly. This project, and many other economic development projects, isn’t an either-or situation, but more so an issue of priority.

There is a $20 million sum of state money that may be dedicated to redesign Nicollet Mall (the most success and pedestrian-friendly street in all of Minneapolis). While $20 million could bring some impressive changes to the pedestrian mall, these funds would represent an unfortunate misapplication of limited resources.

Why would you spend $20 million redoing your most successful and productive place? The answer is: you wouldn’t. But, if someone gave you $20 million, then you might re-consider. By doing this, Minneapolis is ignoring a great number priorities while improving something that probably doesn’t need improving.

I read an interesting blog post this week on the future of transportation project design competitions. It takes aim at the status quo of big design competitions, being that they are:

  • A pain in the behind …
  • Expensive to put together
  • Poor proxy for deciding if the winning consultant will do good work or work well with the agency staff or community, and
  • Those writing the proposals rarely do the actual re-design or engineering work

This goes without mentioning that proposals are unnecessarily long documents that include a lot of fluff that keeps graphic designers busy. The author proposes a different, but familiar route: that of 99 Designs.

An agency provides a rough problem statement and the consultant  identify problems, possible solutions and preliminary recommendations (consultant submissions are anonymous as to eliminate preferences). Now; the agency picks the top 2 or 3 designs and asks each firm to go back to the drawing board.

Under this method, the agency can take, for example, the top 3 firms and identify the best features of each and share those with the second round of contestants. The ideas can be refined; and this method can even add a level of more productive community engagement into the process. I think it’s an innovative idea that will do more than just save engineering firms the hassle of RFPs, but it’ll also allow for a better, more transparent method of selecting projects.

It turns out that planting a ton of trees on a building isn’t really that green. Pause for shock. In fact, it’s likely to be less green; or as Per Square Mile’s Tim De Chant writes, it’s “a way to make your building feel sustainable without necessarily being so.”

“Structures built to support trees need to be over-engineered compared with their abiotic equivalents—trees are heavy, so is dirt (multiply so when wet), and so are watering systems required to keep them alive. If those trees are to have a chance on these windy precipices, their planters had better be deep … A skyscraper that’s built to support trees will require more concrete, more steel, more of anything structural. That’s a lot of carbon, not to mention other resources, spent simply hoisting vegetation dozens of stories up, probably more than will ever be recouped in the trees’ lifetimes.”Per Square Mile

We try so hard to engineer or consume ourselves into a greener future; and I feel that the harder we try to be green, the less so we actually are.

  • Bipartisan support for I-94 Expansion between Maple Grove & St. CloudStar Tribune

You know what we need? More lanes on I-94 to St. Cloud.

“Republican U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, backed by a bipartisan cohort of about three dozen lawmakers, local elected officials and business folks, came to the Minnesota Capitol to offer support for about $400 million worth of improvements to I-94 and Minnesota Highway 10.” – Star Tribune [a slightly old article]

This is a political proposal and MnDOT has expressed interest against such an expansion. A MnDOT spokesperson recently said that the project is not a top priority because it “doesn’t meet all of the metrics at this time.” If I were the MnDOT representative, I would have removed “at this time” from the statement. Why? Because it’s not needed and spending $100 million to (slightly) improve peak hour long-distance commutes seems like a bad, misguided and expensive idea. Resources could certainly be dedicated in other directions. Again, priorities. 

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I found myself driving from Minneapolis to St. Cloud at least half a dozen times in the past year. Never has it taken more than 1 hour and 20 minutes to go the approximately 65 miles. There is no denying that traffic can be backed up around the exurbs; but should we continue to speed up exurban commutes? What good would one extra lane do? For cabin dwellers, it’d certainly make treks up north more convenient, but beyond that?

I remember hearing this innate news feature back around 2010 about a laid-off Wall Street couple who opened a cupcake shop in Manhattan and the place was doing well. It was billed as a rare economic success story at the time and stressed the usual ‘pick yourself up from the bootstraps’ storyline. The couple found a business model that worked, but I couldn’t help but feel this level of disconnect and futility about the whole thing. As if a laid-off construction worker was going to make a go of it and sell a $5 cupcake to a struggling Walgreen’s cashier.

NPR’s Planet Money asks, “Has The Cupcake Bubble Finally Popped?

The answer: probably, yes. I find two things fascinating about the gourmet cupcake business;

1) how it exploded out of almost nowhere; and
2) how they taste good, but not that good for the price

Before 2009 you would have been hard pressed to find more than a few shops outside trendy neighborhoods of major cities selling $5 cupcakes. By 2012, they were everywhere. It hit this mass appeal that never made any economic sense and did so over such a short period of time. I don’t know where I’m going with this and I had a point in here somewhere …

Maybe Brainerd would be a better place if so many people weren’t breaking the gall-darn law! Here’s one from the comment section:

I found the flyer, alright- right in my mailbox. Which was not only annoying, but completely illegal.

In 1934, Congress enacted a law known as the “ mailable restriction” that prohibits anyone from placing mailable matter without postage into any mailbox. This law, 18 U.S.C. 1725, gives the Postal Service a virtual monopoly over mailboxes …

And, in a follow up comment:

I am all for the betterment of Brainerd, and no one can say otherwise. What I’m not all for is a group blatantly ignoring laws that have been around for the last 75+ years.

I’m shaking my head right now guys. How could you do this?!