The Micro City Beautiful: Programming Drives Investment (Part 3)

For the past three days we have featured the work of Barett Steenrod, recent graduate from the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute and College of Landscape Architecture. This year I have had the opportunity to get to know Barett and have been quite impressed with his work, particularly his research into my hometown of Brainerd, MN. For anyone looking to hire a bright young planner who has some wordly experience to go with a quality education, you can check out Barett on his website or meet him on LinkedIn.

-Chuck Marohn

When does a household decide that it is time to upgrade into a home that is newer, larger, or both

Answer one- abundance of wealth.  Answer two- abundance of credit.  Answer three- out of actual or perceived necessity.  The household that justifies its move because it has grown larger than its home can manage is the household that is most justified in its investment from a cost/benefit standpoint.

Similarly, new infrastructure investment by a city is going to be most justified when the programming that the present infrastructure supports, either limits the expansion of successful programming, or works against the success/efficiency of programming in its current size.

The transition from one phase to another in my proposal for Brainerd depends on when the community of Brainerd knows that there is enough pent-up frustration with the state of existing conditions and begins demanding that, “the time has come to do something.”  Remember, simple community demand for action to happen is not enough, the social capacity of the community must also be grown so that when people begin demanding that “it’s time for a change,” they will also be able to look around and say, “who wants to help me make this change?”

Yesterday, I touched on the assets of my study area of Brainerd.  On the existing conditions maps below, the study area that I was focused on is shown at full color, the areas adjacent are much lighter.

Take notice of the assets and potential assets on this map; stripped of the site’s landscape minutia; i.e. shadows, cars, etc. you can see that the site consists of large buildings, large expanses of parking lots and streets, and some areas of turf.  Within the entire map (not just my study area) there are around 1,200 off street parking stalls.  You’ll notice some trails and venues (indicated by icons) that are social attractions for people (restaurants, bike shops, etc.).  The challenge with Brainerd and many small cities that have a similar downtown footprint is how to expand upon the existing assets in a way that is simultaneously interesting, relevant, and economical.  

Under the leadership of City Planner Mark Ostgarden, Brainerd has begun to make great strides in reconnecting to its region by seizing the opportunity to connect to the regional trail network that has continued to develop in recent years.  Brainerd has built trails, is building more trails this year, and is demonstrating a proactive approach to make it easy for trail users to access destinations within the city.

My proposals in Phase 1 build upon the work the city has done. 

(Note- there are a number of interrelated components that you will see on the maps that I will not have time to address.  I am happy to field questions about aspects of Phases 1-3 that you remain curious about, but could not cover).

Phase 1- Marking the Change We Need

The city must communicate to residents and businesses that changes are afoot, and residents and business owners must be encouraged to do something “risky.”  The change that is needed must be initiated and marked in a way is noticed.  These changes should be inexpensive to implement, easy to do/undo, easily understood, and embody a no-to-low barrier of entry.

The practice of marking a surface, especially of a street or parking lot, has the consequence of altering people’s behavior.  The use of surface marking is easily understood and relatively inexpensive.  In phase 1, the city government partners with business/property owners to launch a campaign of marking pavement differently from what is typical of local practice.  The marking does not happen alone, but as a result of a program that is centered on increasing Brainerd’s regional relevance through the creation of easy/desirable trail connections to destinations throughout the city.

East River Road is marked to facilitate safe passage for people in cars, but also for people who are not in cars.  This 45’ road can be painted in a way that enhances access for all people.  It is important to do this as it is thee connection between the athletic fields & riverfront parkland in the south, and the historic residential neighborhood to the north.  East River Road is has moderate traffic volume, although I saw it used by a bicyclist and a longboarder in a span of 15 minutes, yet when I spoke to a mother about the idea of her children using this road to get to the Kiwanis Park, she feared for their safety as the road currently is configured.  Programming this road to support safe movement on foot or in a vehicle is an easy first step.

You will notice that on the map, there are bright green areas that are scattered among some of the parking stalls within the lots.  These are areas where alternative surface treatments may be appropriate.  In the case of two or three parking stalls, seasonal pockets of “park” can be placed.  In the course of one afternoon, a small group of people can provide some greenery, communicate that something new has happened in Brainerd, give employees and patrons a place to take a break, and placed more stock in Brainerd’s desire to be a regional trail users’ destination.  The strategic placement of field turf, a few planters with trees, mulch, a picnic table and a bike rack onto an acre of asphalt lot has the ability to triple the layers of program being actively supported.  More ever, it allows a business/property owner to call attention to itself in a positive way while reintroducing into downtown the qualities that attract people to the region in the first place- the ability to relax under the trees.

A unique blending of the methods used in the last two paragraphs can work within the long parking lot on the north side of the Crow Wing County Jail.  This lot provides an asphalt connection between West and East Front Street that is seemingly underutilized.  The lot has two 22’ two-way drive lanes and three perpendicular rows of parking stalls.  This lot is large enough to support expansive types of programming- flea market sized affairs- but sits half empty much of the time.  Therefore, in this first phase, the 22’ wide two-way drive aisle along the south side of the lot, is converted to a 15’ wide one-way drive aisle, 45 degree angle parking, and 8’ bicycle and pedestrian lane with a 2’ painted buffer.

The reorganization of this lot facilitates east-west connection for trail users coming into or departing downtown.  Programs or events can be supported alongside the bicycle-pedestrian corridor in the one-way drive aisle and angled parking stalls while still allowing for two-way access through the lot in the north drive aisle.  An additional benefit of treating this lot as a big adaptable stage is that the two-story north facing exterior of the jail, as well as the 16’ turf area between the jail and the parking lot can be treated as a backdrop by which art installations, imagery promoting local businesses, or other visually interesting locally produced media can be displayed.

In each of the Phase 1 strategies above, an existing land use is marked differently in order to maximize its benefit for as many users as possible through a diversification of programming.  Phase 2 is a consequence of successful programs outgrowing the capabilities of the Phase 1 infrastructure.

Phase 2- Embracing the Change We Need

You will notice that in the Phase 2 map above, surface treatments begin to give rise to infrastructure investment.  The city recognized that East River Road really was a parkway in disguise.  The painting of a road that lead to safer trips between the northern neighborhood and the high school athletic fields and Kiwanis Park, has matured into a Boulevard Parkway, trees, shrubs, and grade all separate the uses within the right-of-way (ROW). The transition from painted street to planted parkway would occur when the demand of citizens upon this connection reached a critical threshold.

Similarly, infrastructure changes to the northern parking lot of the Crow Wing County Jail are subtle, but important enough to facilitate large changes in the programs that can be supported in the lot.  Paint that was placed in Phase 1 gives rise to locally designed and constructed traffic bollards.  Each bollard has LEDs to provide path/aisle illumination and legibility at night.  Bollards are spaced 8’ apart with each 8th bollard being a utility bollard that provides potable water and 240 volt electrical connections.

Additionally, the bollards would be designed to serve as anchor points for securing events tents to.

Utility bollards would also be placed in the centerline of the parking row where the 45 degree angled parking heads on the 90 degree parking.  Light poles currently are placed on this line, so spacing utility bollards in between light poles is a reasonable way to extend services to the entire jail lot for events that are really large.

Within Phase 2, the demand on the seasonal pockets of park space that have been the norm within parking stalls around the Phase 1 project site will have been great enough to warrant the installation of permanent pockets of park space.  Within the parking lots of the Brainerd City Hall and the financial institution to the north, temporary parks give rise to a plaza that includes the type of infrastructure that creatively provides utility and services that enable public events to happen.  The parking on site in Phase 1 is reconfigured in Phase 2.  Interestingly, there is no loss of parking stalls by doing, a community amenity is created that can be leveraged to support infill development on the Phase 2 parking lots in Phase 3.

Phase 3- Being the Change We Seek

The last phase demonstrates one future outcome based on the initial steps detailed in the paragraphs above.  There is a logical and fairly interesting progression of thought on my part that led to the forms you see in the map below, but regardless of whether these forms or another came to be in reality, a realistic outcome depends on the ability for a community to heed the recommendations and best practices from other places- especially those which concern the ability of a community to work together.

If there is divisiveness, contempt for cooperation, distrust, apathy, or discord in any measure, steps must be taken to mend relationships and build rapport among community members before any worthwhile homegrown economic revitalization will freely grow.  Fortunately, the types of activities that people enjoy- festivals, concerts, petting zoos and the like, are programs that even the most die-hard opponents can cooperate on.  If you can get your city’s political and civil adversaries working together in support of events that your community can celebrate… and you keep doing this, you will likely end up with a city that people come to and where decision makers start to get-along.  When your successful programs begin to have this effect and continue to grow in size, then you can begin justifying a need for infrastructure while also contemplating visionary civic investment; because at that moment, you will have the capacity to do both.

The author of this series, Barett Steenrod, can be contacted from his website or on LinkedIn.