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Afternoon with an urbanist 1: "Joe Urban" on the bottom-line reasons we need walkable cities

One of Sam Newberg's colleagues, impressed with his passion for cities and their design, once joked, "You're just...Joe Urban!" Newberg liked the moniker enough to take it on as an alter ego and make it the title of his blog, where he regularly holds forth on urban issues.
The writer and real-estate consultant  was born in the Hale-Page-Diamond Lake neighborhood of Minneapolis, the great-grandson of a worker in the Washburn-Crosby flour mill, now the Mill City Museum. He got a degree in geography from the University of Wisconsin in Madison, then spent a few months in London. The well-designed small city and the British metropolis sparked his interest in urbanism, and he's examined many other cities since, while basing himself in his hometown.

"It's a great place," he says, "and I came back here for all the reasons everyone gives: wonderful parks, closeness to the countryside, lakes, a thriving downtown, a diverse economy, airport access to the whole world."
But Newberg's love for the Twin Cities is not uncritical; for example, he's looked at Portland—which we recently beat out as the most bike-friendly city in America, and which has become something of an official civic rival these days—and found a number of ways in which the Oregon city does urban development better.
The Line caught up with Newberg in the Dunn Brothers coffee shop in West River Commons on Lake Street near the Mississippi, a mixed-use development (restaurant, coffee shop, pizza parlor, gift shop, pocket park, plus market rate and affordable housing units) that he particularly admires as an example of sensible urbanism.

Density's Dividends

The Line: Sam, you're an advocate of pedestrian-friendliness, transit-oriented development, and a certain urban density. These values—urban as opposed to suburban values—are familiar to our readers, I think, as making for pleasant, interesting, lively neighborhoods. But you have a kind of bottom-line justification for them as well.

Newberg: We're simply unable to build enough road capacity to get people around by automobile only. First of all, many of our great neighborhoods were built before cars were completely dominant, and have to rely on a mix of ways of getting around. The car is part of that and probably always will be, but it doesn't have to be king.
Besides that, only about fifty percent of the population actually drives. The rest, because of age or infirmity or some other reason, are reliant on other kinds of transportation; and some choose not to drive.
And as a developer, when you are required to provide parking, that's an enormous cost to you. Surface parking can be several thousand dollars per space; indoor parking can be ten to twenty thousand dollars per space or more. If everybody could show up by transit, the retailer wouldn't have to provide any parking. Of course, we know that not everybody will arrive that way, but we need to strive for a balance.
When you start to build more efficiently, in a denser, more concentrated fashion, relying on walking, biking, and transit for your daily needs as well as the auto, you save immense amounts of space over time, as the region grows. You can make the argument that over the past thirty or forty years in the Twin Cities, we've consumed far more land than we needed to, and relied too much on single-use development in which people need a car to get around. Consequently, you end up with too much traffic congestion and people don't like that. So the things they moved to the suburbs for--like free space--are not what they wind up with!
 Then it's very hard to go into a suburb and retrofit it for more density and pedestrian-friendliness, because the functionality of the transit system doesn't match that. The big suburban thoroughfares are so wide and imposing that even if you build more densely alongside them, there's no way to get to anything except by car, and the roads are terrifying to cross on foot.

The Line: Are mixed-use developments like West River Commons the wave of the future?

Newberg: I think there are a lot of neighborhoods that want it. But it's hard to do. It's hard to finance. West River Commons took a lot of subsidy. The site had to be cleaned up; the zoning had to be approved; two different parcels of land, zoned differently, were combined. A lot of hoops had to be jumped through, and while I understand the reasons why, I think the city could make it easier for developers. And pretty much anything built along Lake Street will require subsidies. The same is true, of course, for the Central Corridor.

Keep the Parking, Calm the Traffic

The Line: What is your dream for the Central Corridor?

Newberg: In a perfect world, the line would be built as proposed; the street would be lined with trees. Planters, benches, trees, street lamps—for an appropriate feel. I think that will happen.     
I would like it if on-street parking could be fully reinstated instead of taken away. On-street parking gives people a place to park that's not at the expense of the retailer, as we know—but it's also a buffer between the sidewalk and the street, with its fast-moving cars.
So ideally there would be one lane of traffic in each direction, plus turn lanes, plus the light-rail right-of-way, plus parking. They're sticking with two lanes each way, which is why the parking is going, and I think that's a major mistake. But we'll see how it works at the end of the day.
We can always put parking back if our value system says: we're building this investment in transit, and it's okay to have cars move a little slower as a result. Frankly, the Corridor, University Avenue, is a big, wide right-of-way, and it needs to be tamed somewhat, visually and in actual usage. I don't think you'd bring the Cities to a standstill if you limited car traffic in each direction to one lane plus turn lanes. I'm not a transportation planner, but I've seen good examples of such configurations in the Metro and elsewhere in the country—and right now, the street's just too wide.
If we're putting all of this investment into one mode of transportation, I think it's okay to ease up on the other modes, to achieve the right balance. And I think it would make the street a much more attractive place to do development, of both business and housing. There is some housing on the street now, and there could be more; it could be more attractive if the street was a little less imposing. That's a vision to make University more like a street in Portland or Vancouver.

The Line: What about bike lanes?

Newberg: It could be perfectly appropriate to have the bike lane one block north or south. When you're riding your bike, walking a short block isn't a big deal. It's a bigger deal when you are on foot to begin with.
Economic development in the sense of getting as many jobs as possible located near these transit hubs is important, but you want to have that appropriate scale of mixed-use development as well, that doesn't feel too big-scale or imposing, but is also of sufficient density to make the investment in transit worthwhile. If we're still forecast to grow by x number of thousands of households, and we're spending our money on transit lines and very few freeways, we should be focusing our housing policy on getting as many people to live in a pleasant, diverse, walkable setting around these transit stations as possible.
We know how to do this, we have the boiler plate, as West River Commons shows.

Jon Spayde is managing editor of The Line.

Photos, top to bottom:

Sam Newberg, aka Joe Urban, in front of a favorite example of sensible urbanism, Minneapolis' West River Commons

A coffee shop helps anchor West River Commons retail.

A view of the Commons and the pocket park that was design into it, complete with sculpture.

Newberg: "When you start to build more efficiently, in a denser, more concentrated fashion...you save immense amounts of space over time."

Affordable and market-rate housing are part of West River Commons' mixed-use plan.

All photos by Bill Kelley

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