In the neighborhood: Insights on life in a small town

Before my family and I even closed on our new home in North Brainerd, MN, we were brought into a neighborhood conversation regarding the local hospital, their parking lot and the hospital's (as it turns out, non-approved) removal of some plant screening. I did a video on this and it was part of my last In the Neighborhood column, "New Neighbor." 

The issue has matured and now the hospital has applied for an after-the-fact variance that would allow them to keep things as they are. I'm unable to attend the meeting -- I'm happy to be sharing the Strong Towns message in Knoxville that day -- but I put together this letter so my thoughts would be heard. 

Dear Members of the Brainerd Planning Commission,

I am writing to you to express my thoughts on Essentia Health’s request for an after-the-fact variance from the city’s screening requirements. I’m out of town and unable to make the meeting. Please accept these comments in my absence.

While you must act on the application in front of you, I ask you to take a moment and reflect on the multiple challenges that have brought us to this. Stabilizing and improving the city’s core neighborhoods requires a broader conversation about the layout and design of our city.

Brainerd’s screening ordinance is a typical suburban code. Suburban design is based on the assumption that different types of uses are unable to mix and must be separated from each other. Think of the back side of the Target in Baxter, which is across the road from a pod of multi-family housing, homes that face Target. The back side of the building, with the loading docks and dumpsters, is very unattractive. Screening is the band aid kind of way that Baxter’s zoning officials attempt to deal with the ugliness.

Brainerd is not Baxter. North Brainerd is an urban, not a suburban, neighborhood. The underlying assumption of urban development is that, with thoughtful design and respect for one’s neighbors, all different types of uses are compatible. We should not need a screening ordinance.

The fact that we do is an indication that something else is wrong. What is the problem we are trying to apply a vegetative band aid to?

In the case of the hospital parking lot, the problem is pretty clear. Large surface parking lots, regardless of how much vegetation is provided, do not make good neighbors. Essentia Health has argued that they removed the heavy screening because they were having crime problems. That is certainly true. Without the passive surveillance of the homes with their windows and doors facing the street, the closed-off parking lot invited nefarious activity. By opening the lot up to the street, the homes and passing foot traffic now provides extra security for Essentia Health. For the hospital, it makes a lot of sense.

Here’s the neighborly rub: Where is the security for the houses across the street?

There is none. While the properties adjacent to the hospital parking lots are configured in a way that is respectful and neighborly, Essentia Health is not reciprocating. The surface parking lots, as configured, make the neighborhood less secure, not more. They are less attractive than the homes they replaced, not more. This is the underlying problem the city has tried to fix with screening. It’s a band aid that doesn’t really work.

Large-scale surface parking lots in residential neighborhoods are really destructive. It is the kind of thing a good zoning ordinance would prohibit. Here are some of the reasons:

  • Surface parking is a very low value investment. The city is providing these areas with streets, sidewalks and major utilities yet collects little to no tax or fee revenue from them. There are much higher uses for these sites.
  • Surface parking lots create a creeping blight. In North Brainerd, many assume that the hospital will continue to buy up homes, tear them down and convert that area to parking. This not only devalues the homes directly adjacent to existing surface parking lots but the next tier as well. Few are willing to pay top dollar for a home, or invest in improving their home, when it seems logical that the neighbor could soon become a surface parking lot.
  • Surface parking lots diminish feelings of security and cause a lack of confidence in the neighborhood to grow. The absence of eyes-on-the-street that would normally come with a home makes these places feel dangerous, regardless of the amount of lighting and shrubbery.
  • Surface parking lots don’t bring cookies to new neighbors, attend block parties or keep an eye on your kids. Part of the value of living in a neighborhood – part of the package Brainerd is selling – is people that are neighborly. Allowing blocks and blocks of a neighborhood to be absorbed by surface parking undermines one of the principle attractions of city life.

Obviously, the surface parking lots in question will not disappear tomorrow. The Planning Commission must deal with this after-the-fact request as it is presented, not as we wish it were. In light of that, I’d like to offer a short term request and a long term proposal.

In terms of this application, short term I would recommend the following be done:

  1. Restore the screening band aid along 4th Street as it existed in early June 2016 with a similar mix of earth and vegetation. That would be respectful to the current and future property owners directly adjacent. Some of Essentia Health’s other parking lots have conforming screening that can be used as a model.
  2. If that is not possible, retain the existing screening and augment it with periodically-spaced conifer plantings that would eventually grow to eight or ten feet tall. This configuration would be semi-transparent and be a compromise of the objectives of all parties.
  3. If neither of these proposals are acceptable and a fence or earthen berm is to be constructed, the hard sight lines should be broken up with vegetation and periodic gaps in the fence.
  4. And let me be clear: While a fence may meet the city’s code, it is a bad option. We really need to fix this ordinance.

To that end, over the long term, I volunteer to work with my neighbors – particularly those adjacent to or within a block of these parking lots – and with Essentia Health to develop an alternate vision for meeting the hospital’s parking needs. Elevated parking structures (on blocks lined with respectful homes and shops) should be on the table along with improvements to the city’s transit system and walking/biking infrastructure. To that end, I’d welcome the city to be part of the conversation as well, particularly the Planning Commission with some much needed ordinance revisions.

In closing, I’ve heard many people refer to St. Joseph’s medical center as a “campus.” We all need to stop doing that. The facility is not a suburban campus; it is an urban hospital. There are many examples from around the country of urban hospitals being successful in their mission while also being good neighbors. Those two aims are not mutually exclusive. I’m confident that, if we share the right mindset, our urban hospital can be a community asset, and a good neighbor, long into the future.

Thank you for your consideration.


Charles Marohn, Jr.

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