Friday News Digest


This has been a tough winter, even for a Minnesotan who generally likes the cold and snow. I must admit that January was made a lot more bearable with the knowledge that the first week of February I would be heading somewhere nice and warm: Dallas. Well, while it is substantially warmer than Minnesota, 20 degrees and snow was not what I was hoping for. How quaint – I even packed my shorts. It is rather comical to watch how they handle things down here though, one of the few times Minnesota can be a little bit smug. They even closed school tomorrow. I get it, but we don’t even bother to shovel this little amount of snow.

Enjoy the week’s news.

  • The term “stroad” is creeping beyond our small conversation. The first example from this week comes from Gainesville, Florida, and it also quotes Victor Dover and John Massengale. Those two will be podcast guests soon to discuss their new book, Street Design. I’m going to be in Florida next month – details are still being firmed up – so stay tuned and, please, keep the sun on.

University Avenue is basically a suburban road impersonating an urban street. Which is a shame, because it really ought to be this university city’s signature street. That’s what Victor Dover told the Gainesville City Commission in 1999.

“Great cities are defined more than anything else by their great streets. Great streets are the public rooms of a city. And they are almost always a result of careful planning.”

  • My favorite quote this week comes from a small township with a self-induced congestion “problem”. Hand to forehead time.

“All of the building that has gone on in all the new subdivisions has really ballooned the traffic on 10 Mile,” Adams said. “What I would like to see is widening, so at least at a minimum we have three lanes and eventually four lanes.”

The 15-year Lyon resident said the traffic problem is worse during rush hour.

“You can’t get out of these subdivisions,” said Adams. “What do you do when you have a condition like this? Do we stop building?”

  • For some time now, the Minnesota legislature has been considering a new form of slush fund for cities to use to fund stroads. While these “street improvement districts” have the potential to have a Strong Towns bend to them, that is not how they are going to be implemented. Instead of making each little road/street section an improvement district and then equitably charging the people who live on that road/street, I’ve already seen engineering firms putting together recommendations to make the entire city an “improvement district” thus allowing local governments to create a slush fund and extend this whole Ponzi scheme just a little longer.

Cities are also falling behind on the reconstruction projects necessary to help keep property values stable. In addition, cities lack viable options for building new transportation infrastructure to attract and retain the investments by businesses that keep Minnesota’s economy strong.

Existing funding mechanisms for street maintenance and reconstruction are inadequate. Property tax dollars are generally not dedicated and are sometimes diverted to more pressing needs.

  • And as Exhibit A of how cities will use their new slush fund, you have my hometown’s Last Great Old Economy Project, also known as College Drive, which just won Project of the Year by the City Engineers Association of Minnesota. There shouldn’t be any surprise here. This project meets all the top priorities of city engineers. (1) It is a really expensive project funded by someone else’s money, (2) it is overdesigned based on fictional 40-year traffic projections and (3) when completed, it looks good on an aerial photograph. Congratulations Brainerd. Enjoy having no congestion anywhere – something to be proud of.

Brainerd had significant traffic congestion on its major east-west corridors due to recent development in Brainerd and Baxter. College Drive is one of the area’s three east-west river crossings. Traffic on this congested roadway was expected to increase during the next 20 years to 25,000 to 30,000 vehicles per day. A transportation corridor was needed that would provide additional capacity, improve intersection characteristics, accommodate non-motorized modes of transportation, and increase the corridor’s aesthetic appeal.

  • The College Drive project was done to address the problem the school district caused when it closed many of their neighborhood schools and now have to bus their students through the corridor out to the remote campus in the neighboring community during the rush hour ten minutes. It also serves as an additional subsidy for the Wal-Mart in the neighboring city, which Brainerd’s residents can now access more quickly. Wal-Mart needs all the subsidy they can get these days as cuts in food stamp programs has hurt the company’s bottom line.

After previously reporting “relatively flat” sales for the quarter, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. now says that sales for its namesake store and its Sam’s Club locations would be “slightly negative” for the November-January quarter, according to Agence France-Presse.

Wal-Mart’s Chief Financial Officer, Charles Holley, blamed the revised forecast on deeper-than-expected cuts to the U.S. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the extreme cold weather occurring in the past month.

  • Unfortunately, just as we complete that College Drive project and go all in to help Wal-Mart’s business model, word is out that the world’s largest retailer is now going to close some stores. Brainerd can only pray that neighboring Baxter is not one of the cities that suffers this fate, especially after we destroyed our own downtown and diverted our wealth into building stroads so our residents can visit their Wal-Mart more quickly and easily than our own businesses. Oh Lord, let it be some other community that has to go without everyday low, low prices.

Not only does Wal-Mart need to shutter about 100 of its stores that have consistent same-store sales losses of more than 3 percent, it also needs cut the square footage of its supercenters in half, Sozzi said. In a show of good faith to Wall Street, the retailer needs to announce plans to shutter 50 stores in its February earnings announcement, to show that management finally understands the problem, he said.

"Do you need a bike section when you can go to Walmart.com? No," he said.

  • What does it mean to be a wealthy, affluent country? I think it should mean that our people are, for the most part, wealthy and affluent. It is not, as we’ve been told, about lifestyle but instead about economic security. We should be a country where the vast majority of people are financially secure in the present and the future. Sadly, we enjoy (for the present time) a high standard of living but we have very little economic security.

In other words, too many of us are living paycheck to paycheck. The CFED calls these folks “liquid asset poor,” and its report finds that 44% of Americans are living with less than $5,887 in savings for a family of four. The plight of these folks is compounded by the fact that the recession ravaged many Americans’ credit scores to the point that now 56% percent of us have subprime credit. That means that if emergencies arise, many Americans are forced to resort to high-interest debt from credit cards or payday loans.

  • My hometown of Brainerd, which is FAR from economically secure, is contemplating on one of the latest fads of the planning profession: the river walk. Our neighborhoods are crumbling and our disconnected downtown is struggling, but if we could just get a path along the river, somehow that would put us on the right path. Myopic delusion. There are generally two reasons a government creates super committees: to provide political cover for a tough decision or to kill a project/discussion. I’m now forced to ponder a third: a complete lack of ideas.

The Mississippi River Partnership Plan steering committee will give input to the development of the project, identify priorities or risks, monitor the timeline and quality of the project as it develops and provide advice throughout. The steering committee will make recommendations to the council for final approval on actions in the potential river walk or development project.

The committee could include as many as 22 members.

  • A brilliant commentary by Lloyd Alter about the International Home Builders “greenest home in history.” I swear there are green enthusiasts out there who firmly believe it is greener to drive a Prius on a 30 mile commute from their solar panel mansion in the countryside to their LEED certified parking garage where they can plug in their car and share their electricity with the grid than it would be to live in an old house in a walkable neighborhood where work, shopping and entertainment are all a few blocks away.

Sure, it's 6700 square feet, but the architect, Jeff Berkus says that the house has a plan that "graciously accommodates multiple generations." Given the downstairs master suite, the second upstairs master suite, the "carriage suite", the house has eight sleeping areas that can accommodate twelve, and that's only 580 square feet per person. We are going to be hearing that justification often from now on, it's good.

  • I’ve never been to China but I really am looking forward to going someday. The fact that they are experiencing their own growth Ponzi scheme does not surprise me in the least. It is not about growth but productivity.

Late last year, China revealed that local governments owe nearly $3 trillion – more than the gross domestic product of France, the world's fifth-largest economy.

One city with a sizable debt problem is Wuhan, an industrial hub that lies along the Yangtze River in central China's Hubei province. With a population of 10 million, Wuhan has a growth rate of 11 percent and is known for its car factories and many universities.

  • And finally, Valentine’s Day is a week from today. I’m not exactly great at relationship advice – The Final Edit and I have been together since junior high and so I don’t even have a lot dating experience – but I am confident in saying that you will strike out if you use any of these lines in pursuit of love.

Many thanks to Verdunity for arranging our trip to Texas, hosting us and getting us around to each of these chats. These guys checked out of the big consulting world and are working to carve out a spot for themselves doing principled, Strong Towns-like work. It is tough to be such a pioneer, but we need small firms of innovators like this if the Strong Towns message is going to become the default approach for local governments. If you are in the DFW are and want to chat with professionals who get it, get a hold of Verdunity. If you are in a different part of the country and are trying to start your own innovative firm, they are pioneering a great model for you to keep an eye on and draw inspiration from.

Have a great weekend. See you back here Monday morning.