At Strong Towns, our mission is to support a model for growth that allows America's towns to become financially strong and self-sufficient. Our current growth model relies on four mechanisms, none of which are viable over the long term. The City of Rogers, MN, and their request for $34 million to build a new interchange on an interstate highway, presents a convenient prism to examine the specifics of how our model needs to change.
As we wrote on Monday, Lobbyist and former Mn/DOT Commissioner Elwyn Tinklenberg indicated that a new proposed interchange in Rogers would not be sprawl-as-usual but would be built on a different pattern. He's a good lobbyist because he understands the language being spoken in Washington, where "livability" is the new buzzword. A recent announcement highlighted a policy shift in how federal transportation dollars are spent.
In a dramatic change from existing policy, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood today proposed that new funding guidelines for major transit projects be based on livability issues such as economic development opportunities and environmental benefits, in addition to cost and time saved, which are currently the primary criteria.
Here is how Tinklenberg represents the Rogers vision:
"Without the intersection...it'll just develop in large lots," he [Tinklenberg] said. "Kind of sprawled development without the kinds of concentrations and densities that connect jobs and housing, that provide the alternative and variety of housing...and that creates opportunities to support transit."
So is Rogers really prepared to do this?
As we pointed out on Monday, the plan Rogers has recently adopted calls for 470 acres of new "sprawl" (their word) and just 12-acres of high-density development (the kind that connects jobs and housing). Looking deeper at their city code further undermines their contention. For comparison, we'll look at the provisions Rogers has adopted and contrast that with a model that would create the neighborhoods they claim to seek: the Smartcode.
Rogers has three residential zones: the R2 Single-family, the R3 Mid-density and the R-4 Multi-family. The first thing to note in all of these zones is that they generally do not allow commercial uses. Those that are allowed are not neighborhood commercial-type of businesses (you can't build a corner grocery store, for example, but you can build a nursing home). If you really want to connect jobs and housing, as with the Smartcode, the first step is to stop separating them. Rogers has no mixing of uses.
Another feature of the Smartcode is the promotion of multi-family housing units by-right (no extra regulation or permitting needed). In Rogers, even duplex units are frowned upon.
- R2 - Excluded
- R3 - Special permitting needed
- R4 - Excluded
Multi-family (3 units or more)
- R2 - Excluded
- R3 - Special permitting needed
- R4 - Permitted
It is density, however, where there is the greatest difference between the Rogers code and the Smartcode. The zone with ostensibly the highest density, the R4 Multi-family zone, does not have density or lot size criteria. Just the setbacks, however, require 2,420 square feet of wasted vacant space for each building constructed. Thirty-foot front and rear setbacks create an environment that is just not walkable.
In the R3 zone, the setbacks are equally ridiculous. So is the density.
- Single family: 3.3 units per acre
- Duplex: 5.7 units per acre
- Multi-family: 8 units per acre
These are only theoretical since the required setbacks as applied would prohibit construction at these densities. In comparison, Smartcode provides for between 12 and 24 units per acre using Traditional Neighborhood Design.
It is clear that we have limited ability to afford new transportation infrastructure, particularly interchanges. As we transition to a new economic reality, when we make these types of massive public investments in the future we need to have the land use approach in place to maximize the return on investment. The Rogers growth model does not come close.
Here is a Strong Towns idea for Rogers to accommodate its growth projections in a cost-efficient way: The Rogers Comprehensive Plan indicates that they currently have 5,900 households - almost all are single-family - and they intend to add 4,700 more households over the next 20 years. Instead of building millions and millions of dollars of new infrastructure to support/induce that new development, what if they simply changed their code to allow their massive supply of single family homes to be converted to duplexes?
Not only would this simple approach cost nothing, it would allow the city to accommodate all of its growth projections, provide it with additional tax base that is desperately needed to maintain its existing infrastructure, would add no additional infrastructure maintenance liabilities and, most importantly, would give many property owners revenue options for making their mortgage payments (they could build an apartment over the garage and rent it out, for example). In a city with one of the highest foreclosure rates in the state, this seems a better (albeit less flashy) way to grow and help your residents. Certainly better than begging Washington for money or leveraging your future for shiny new stuff today.
This is so obvious, so why has it not been done already? The answer to that question is another reason why the federal government should not be wasting our money on places like Rogers.