Last Harvest for the Comp Plan

SchmidtTND.jpgEarlier this year, former Planning Commissioner Jane McWilliams asked me for good books on community planning and I opened the request to the Northfield blogosphere. Several people joined in the discussion. Kiffi Summa suggested Witold Rybczynski’s “Last Harvest”.

I had read his “City Life”, a history of American cities, and “A Clearing in the Distance”, a biography of Frederick Law Olmsted, and heard him lecture on his “Home”, a collection of essays on human comfort within built spaces. The other day Kiffi loaned me “Last Harvest” and I put on top of my “To-Read” list.

It was a worthwhile move. Rybczynski is an excellent author and he does an entertaining job of illustrating the dynamics between out-of-town developers and local citizens in the planning process. He is understanding, sympathetic, and, sometimes, gently critical of both sides of the equation: developer need for profit + citizen desire for standards = project built on compromise.

His comment about the power of the phrase “small town” in our country reminded me of the discussion coming out of the Public Input Gathering during the Comp Plan Revision Process. “In the United States the small town embodies a particular ideal of neighborly democracy, self-sufficiency, and independence.” Two-dimensional Land Use Maps just don’t adequately capture the values that shape the goals of citizen-based community planning for us Americans.

Tracy, you’d really get a kick out of the book. Here’s just one little teaser…

Tim Cassidy, a Planning Commissioner in Londonderry, Pennsylvania, speaking about new subdivision proposals: “We discuss environmental issues, runoff, the percentage of impervious cover, and other technical questions, but basically, nobody likes the way these new things look. Our half-baked solution is to insist that developers build landscaped berms around their projects, so we won’t have to look at them.”

The conversation continues. Tuesday night, September 18th, 7 to 9 pm, at the Armory.


25 thoughts on “Last Harvest for the Comp Plan”

  1. I must be missing something.

    If nobody likes the look of them, why do they look that way?

    I hypothesize a set of people who do like the look of them, but are not being sampled in our evaluation; for instance, the people who seem to buy houses in these things. I cannot speculate as to their internal state, but it seems very odd to me. I’ve occasionally talked to people who liked that kind of house. They seemed very weird.

    The question is, perhaps, whether that’s a good fit for our town, or whether they should stick to suburbs and let us have blocks with irregular lots and quirky houses, all different.

    The big thing that leaps out at me, when I see housing developments, is that of their nature they never have trees. Trees, of course, take too long to grow. You can’t break soil in September, sell your first unit in March, and have a stately oak tree overshadowing the house. Young trees tend to look sort of anemic compared to modern houses.

    Nonetheless, I believe firmly that a much higher density of trees would dramatically improve the appearence of such things, even if it might be some few decades before the trees grow enough to really match the development.

    Kids these days. No patience for anything. GET OFF MY LAWN!

  2. Dave, I was a bit confused about that too; I think that it was initially set for 7-9 but was extended.

    The official “Open House” starts at 6:00 (that’s the time all the planning commissioners were requested to be there), but the only specifically scheduled thing that night is a brief presentation by Ross at 7:00. Hope that helps.

  3. No trees =s built in a former corn/soybean field.

    But wouldn’t it be nice if NF required developers to put in x-number of good sized trees, a couple of which would be fast growing varieties. Someone will probably say that isn’t business friendly.Same rationale that always cuts out the existing solar orientation ordinance. ( Q.What happens when the city council violates their own ordinances? A. Nothing, unless someone sues the city. )

    If you have a community which is considered a desirable one to move to, for quality of life issues, then you better take care to require that new development follow the quality of life standards, i.e.trees, general livability, neighborhood feeling, etc.

    There should be two check-off boxes on every resolution passed by the planning commission and the city council: 1. Does this resolution support the intent of our Comprehensive Plan? and 2. Does this resolution support the concept of a sustainable/environmentally sound community?

    No “fudging” allowed, please!

  4. Two clarifications.

    First, yes David, it is 6 to 9, I was working off old information. Thanks for catching it. (It’s so hard to slip anything by you attorneys.)

    Second, Peter, the development pictured is NOT ugly, it’s beautiful, an excellent example of local TND design, and the goal of the most enlightened developers portrayed in the book.

    However, Kiffi, if the community and/or council doesn’t support the values/goals of TND, like pedestrian-friendliness, some connection of private developments with public spaces, and the vigorous support of local businesses, what you end up with is a cute little TND development in the middle of nowhere.

  5. If they’re not ugly, then why is it that “nobody likes the way these things look”? I wasn’t responding to the picture, but to the quote. The picture doesn’t look bad, although it’s a bit light on trees for my taste.

  6. And the point you raise , Ross, about “a cute little NTD (neo traditional development) in the middle of nowhere, is exactly why the connective tissue, like Woodley Street………….a county road that is now in reality a city street………. is such an important issue for the council to consider in the context of the residents they are elected to represent, and especially the Comprehensive Plan’s intent.

    If you have no grid, cul de sacs, no sidewalks,garages in front, edge housing zoning that creates an entirely different form; as well as competing central downtown and highway business districts…….you create a visual and economic two-world system.

    To me , the point is to try to eliminate having two housing worlds, two competing economic centers, etc., in the context of a small town that says it wants to remain a small town.

  7. I just finished reading the “Northfield Housing Market Analysis” prepared for the consultant – ACP.

    Part 2 of the report states a number of conclusions about the Traditional Neighborhood Development” (TND) idea for Northfield.

    1. First, where it was tried in Northfield, it didn’t work;
    2. TND communities appeal to white-collar professionals and affluent empty-nesters;
    3. Only 29% of Northfielders hold jobs within sectors targeted by TND;
    4. There are few examples in the Twin Cities were TND has been successful;
    5. In Stillwater, where there has been a neo-urbanism development, it did not incorporate TND concepts. Yet, prices for single homes start at $375,000, and condos at $300,000;
    6. This is a bad time economically to try TND;
    7. The market for TND’s is fairly specialized; and
    8. TND’s may be a competitor to the downtown.

    Their most important conclusion – TND’s are not viable in Northfield at this time. If I have read this report wrong, I would happy to stand corrected.

    Isn’t the Crossing a good example of the problems of TND? It has received substantial assistance from the City. Yet, the condos remain expensive. Do we really want to economically support high-priced homes and condos?

    Perhaps just as importantly, how does the Comp Plan deal with the 71% who are not even in the target market for TND? Is the half-baked solution to have developers build berms around their houses, so that “we” (the 29%?) don’t have to look at them?

    I would encourage the Planning Commission to reread the Housing Report, and to carefully consider the recommendations therein.

  8. Calling people’s homes ugly seems to be an odd way to encourage community dialogue. It also is one reason why so many people in town choose not to shop in local businesses where owners remind them that they are not welcome in town.
    The houses in the photo are in my neighborhood; they represent just one of many choices in a very diverse development that has trails, parks, relatively small lots and large shared open space. In fact, when working on maps for biking and walking, we were happy to see that it will take very little to connect the extensive trails and walks with the other quirky old parts of town – many of which don’t have trails.
    I think one problem for people is that they often see the backs of homes (visible from Jefferson) and don’t see the attractive fronts that face the side streets. The homes often are designed on slopes so the “basements” are exposed lower levels. That makes the homes look larger and less attractive from the outside, but much more livable and light-filled for the owners.
    I can tell you that I could have chosen one of the homes pictured, but wouldn’t. You can see that they are so close I could serve coffee to my neighbor without leaving my kitchen. The closeness blocks sun and breezes and destroys privacy. The garages and alleys in back destroy the common back yard areas that provide safe places for kids to play and adults and pets to walk. They alleys also double the amount of paved space, limiting drainage.
    I realize that some parts of the development, including the twin homes where I live, would look better if there were more color and design variety. But many people today aren’t looking at their homes as a fashion statement or a reflection of their identity, or even a lifelong commitment. We have no interest in mowing or painting or cleaning gutters. We put our efforts into our families, our travels, our interests, jobs and volunteer work. The homes provide a home base for us, but aren’t something to which we are overly attached.
    I’m fine with the quirky homes in other parts of town. I have lived in that kind of house before and was happy. I just need a different kind of home now. As David said, we need to find a way to address the needs of all kinds of people — and be more respectful in discussing the options.

  9. David L, you wrote:

    Perhaps just as importantly, how does the Comp Plan deal with the 71% who are not even in the target market for TND? Is the half-baked solution to have developers build berms around their houses, so that “we” (the 29%?) don’t have to look at them?

    Presuming (from the numbers) that “we” meant the 29% who live inside the berms and the berms serve to let you not see the 79% “them”, those berms sound a lot like cheap castle walls! The problem we have is that too often the people with no money have (they like to think) all the vision while the people who have the (developable) property tend to be driven by the vision of the people with the money, whose motives are sometimes at odds with the no-money, self-proclaimed visionaries. The trick is to balance the whole circus act so that the predators circling the town, those lawyers who can find a loophole in time and space and law that even Stephen Hawking would not find, so that those predators are kept at bay, because they are opportunistic feeders who will consume landowners, developers and visionaries alike.

  10. David:

    We have read the housing analysis and discussed it at length with the consultants. The Planning Commission suggested that, although not without some validity, taking the broad national housing market and using that as a comparison for Northfield perhaps lost some of the distinctiveness of our local market.

    I don’t think that it’s a good use of our time to read it again. Rather, I suggest that you read “Final Harvest”. I think that you would not only enjoy it and but you would better understand the point that I was trying to make in my post.

    You know that given some shared elements of our individual political philosophies that I would either laugh at or be enraged by efforts to force developers to pursue specific design concepts. I just hope that our revised Comprehensive Plan will support the visionary and courageous developers like Steve Schmidt who test the TND waters.

    I think if our economic development efforts promote our competitive advantages of the authentic downtown, the wild and scenic river, and the intellectual and culture vitality that is fostered by the two colleges, our excellent public schools and our emerging art town, we will attract more of the creative class who might wish to purchase TND products. I believe that the long-standing strength of the products in our historic neighborhood indicates the market appeal of features offered by TND products.

    For me, TND includes a number of design elements.

    First, the most visible design feature is a front porch instead of a front garage. The theory is that this feature promotes neighborliness. In spite of the number of disappointments in the development featured in the book, the buyers all commented on how much more friendly the development was compared to the developments that they left behind.

    Second, the money for “features” is invested in the quality of materials and design details rather than just square feet. Many of the homebuyers in the book preferred to spend money to replace plastic with wood and stone instead of paying for huge vaulted entrances which they viewed as wasted space, wasted money, and wasted energy to heat and cool.

    Finally, the most visibly distinctive aspect of TND is how the individual homes relate to the public spaces. They typically are sited on smaller lots, are located closer to the sidewalk, and are connected to the rest of the community by multiple transportation options. I hope that the revised Comprehensive Plan can support TND products by providing these connections for a variety of transportation options.

    David, I am inspired by the many statements that you have made in support of affordable housing in recent months. Might I suggest that perhaps you have invested enough of your resources in making speeches criticizing the Comprehensive Plan and that perhaps now might be the time to follow up with other efforts to support affordable housing such as making a cash donation to Three Rivers Community Action, swinging a hammer for Habitat for Humanity, or lobbying Governor Pawlenty to provide more support for affordable housing in Minnesota.

    See you Tuesday night,

    Ross

  11. The twinhomes on Lake Drive have front porches and front garages with short driveways, which keep cars and asphalt and runoff from the wilderness area growing in the common space of our rear yards. I can only imagine how ugly this area would look with an alley along the bike path and garages and asphalt cutting through the land where flocks of geese rest and dog owners play with their pets and families fly kites.
    Short driveways, large porches and common mail stations, along with active homeowner associations, foster a real sense of community in this area, far more than I have felt in some older neighborhoods where I have lived over the years. The garages opening and closing and residents working in their garages also encourage conversations and provide increased security as residents can keep an eye on each other’s homes. I know that if my garage door is open more than five minutes I have people at my door asking whether everything is OK.
    I understand the concepts, I just think there are many solutions to these issues.

  12. Re: Post #11:

    Is it or should it be the goal of the Comp Plan to attract the “creative class”? What, if anything, is the Comp Plan going to do to address the consultant’s conclusion that, “The lack of affordable housing for lower wage and single workers may help explain why there has been ‘leakage’ in the housing market to more affordable towns such as Dundas”.

    Ross:

    Your post suggests that the Planning Commission is choosing to ignore the consultant’s report because it does not believe it to be true for Northfield. “The Planning Commission suggested that, although not without some validity, taking the broad national housing market, and using that for a comparision to Northfield perhaps lost some of the distinctiveness for the local market.”

    While I perhaps would enjoy reading “Final Harvest”, I sincerely doubt that the author of that book had Northfield’s “distinctiveness” in mind when he wrote the book. The author of “Northfield Housing Market Analysis” had ONLY Northfield in mind when it was written. To dismiss the report without specific rationales indicating why the consultant is incorrect is imprudent.

    The consultant did have some recommendations regarding low income housing. Are any of those recommendations going to be part of the planning process? Your post suggests that low income housing issues should be left up to individuals who want to donate cash, swing hammers, and lobby the government (other than Northfield officials).

    If you are inspired by what I have said about low-income housing, to what end does that inspiration lead you and the Planning Commission?

  13. OK Guys.enough already! We all know and accept that Northfield does NOT have enough affordable housing, if any.. There are new possibilities in the realm of manufactured housing units, (not “mobile” homes), but for the most part they are not yet affordable enough. The HRA should be looking into these options. Some years ago I gave an HRA member some pages from DWELL magazine, which featured manufactured homes that look just like a lot of the smaller frame houses around where I live, on St. Olaf Avenue. They just look like turn of the century family homes with gabled roofs and porches, etc.

    But its all about economics; the builders like D.H. Horton, who say they build their houses for $90. per sq. ft. (that’s VERY cheap) use prepackaged, manufactured unit techniques, but they haven’t picked up on the simpler “farm house” style, preferring instead a sort of 1990s no-style. Is there some chicken/egg stuff going on here? would people buy the more indigenous farmhouse style if it were available? Are what seem to be market preferences only reflection of market availability?

    Our HRA could be a lot more adventurous in their exploration of different options for affordable housing. Look to the example of the Habitat for Humanity house on Second street; from the outside it looks like a very traditional form, but inside it has a huge kitchen and very open plan for a relatively small house, so feels very expansive inside.

    And how, Anne, did you manage to slam the downtown retailers, once again, in a housing discussion! Would whoever, who was rude to Anne in a downtown shopping experience, please
    grovel, so we can keep on track!

  14. David:

    I am urging you to put your money and/or your muscles where you mouth is and do something, besides comment on the Comprehensive Plan, for affordable housing. Have you even talked with members of the HRA about their reaction to the proposed Comp Plan revisions? I have talked to a couple members of the HRA and I will note that they too are inspired by your recent conversion to Affordable Housing Advocate.

    I’m sorry if I confused you with my remarks and led you to think that I had suggested that the Planning Commission is ignoring the Consultants’ theories on the local housing market. As I tried to make clear in my comment, it was a source for extended discussion when we met with the consultants on that specific topic. In the course of that discussion, the consultants in fact said that there were indeed a number of factors in the Northfield market that might result in a stronger market for TND product than exists in the generic national market.

    Personally, I do not think that that the incremental cost of sidewalks prevents the construction of workforce housing. Instead, I think that the children of all members of our workforce should enjoy a safe walk to school.

    Ross

  15. David, just a quick point – the consultant who did the housing study (Randy Gross) made a few points when he was here and was fortunately not as controversy-averse in some of his face-to-face comments as he was in print.

    He apparently did not believe that TND (traditional neighborhood development in the late 20th-century/early 21st century sense) had actually been tried here. His point in the report is that some of the tenets of New Urbanism might not fly here due to lack of critical mass, but those are two different things.

  16. I reread the housing report and my sense was that the consultant focused on TND in the context of creating a new, wholly TND subdivision (including the comparisons to Stillwater, Excelsior on Grand, etc.).

    If we think of TND as a type of product to be plopped down on the previously bare landscape, then David’s criticisms make sense as does the discussion of the right (upscale) market sector which prefers TND. Given the oversupply of housing at the moment, I don’t think Northfield should be limiting its vision to this model.

    But the qualities of Northfield’s historic neighborhoods – Ross mentioned some in comment #11 – can become part of Northfield’s land use planning and regulations to guide future development and redevelopment. Transportation planning – making our road system well-connected, pedestrian and bicycle friendly – is a critical piece. Locating civic uses – schools, churches, city hall, library – within neighborhoods rather than at the edge of the city is another big piece. Thoughtfully developing and redeveloping downtown, especially the current C-2 zone would be another piece. Allowing/encouraging/requiring smaller lots (or a variety of lot sizes) can help make housing more affordable as well as create a more traditional looking place.

    Finally, we can get down to the level of housing styles and whether the garage is in the front but there is much Northfield can do to make the city more “traditional” (which I believe means, fundamentally, more human scale and people oriented than designed for ease of driving and parking) without a TND product on the landscape or mandating front porches.

  17. Is there critical mass for New Urbanism? Doesn’t the housing report say that most of those who prefer New Urbanism (the white-collar professionals and empty nesters) already own a house reflecting their lifestyle preference? If the consultant changed his tune in the oral presentation wouldn’t it be advisable to get him to change his report?

    I read the report to say that there is a critical mass for affordable housing. Shouldn’t the Comp Plan address this issue rather than kicking it over to the HRA?

    Regarding Tracy’s point on not trying New Urbanism – isn’t that what the Crossing was intended to be? Didn’t they receive substantial government assistance to try a mixed-use, new urban community? How successful was/is it? Those are fair questions.

    Certainly, the solution to affordable housing is not to tell everyone who raises valid concerns to put their money where their mouth is. Let’s talk about it as a community before the Comp Plan prevents us from implementing affordable housing ordinances in conflict with the Comp Plan. Let us truly let the conversation continue.

  18. What exactly would an affordable housing “ordinance” be? I understand the notion of affordable housing; it’s housing that’s sold or rented more cheaply, possibly because it is (by whatever standards the market uses) “not as nice”. But what would an ordinance do? Command people to develop things which they then sell under cost? That might not go over well.

    But really, I think I see an obvious and fundamental problem. Reading these comments, I don’t get the impression that there is a clear agreement on what the goals are. If some of us want a friendly small town, and some want rapid growth, and some want something unique, and some want something more similar to what’s found elsewhere… We’re not going to get anywhere.

    Maybe we need to spend some more time talking about our underlying goals or priorities, because if we disagree on those, no amount of talking about implementation will get anywhere. Even if we can’t reach agreement on the underlying goals, at least knowing what they are might give us a framework for proposing courses of action which address multiple goals.

    Until there’s clear agreement on the goal, everything else is frankly premature. Don’t rush into this! Right now, Northfield has not quite risen to the national news level for the local homeless problem. It might be okay to spend a while talking about goals before trying to implement a random selection of unconsidered goals.

  19. David: Your ongoing angst with the Comp Plan seems to be general, rather than specific; what is there about the entire process which annoys you so? Can you be specific? Don’t bother about trying to say it in “NFspeak”……..I think you’ve made enough waves on this issue to have gone past that position anyway.

    Before it (angst) seemed to center on not broad enough input, now it seems to be not inclusive enough range of input on housing/development models……….How would you “force” more, or broader, input than has been given? There has certainly been a lot of marketing of this comp plan process.

  20. The blog’s author represented that the final harvest is upon us for the Comp Plan, and invited conversation. To ask a public official to explain why the public body rejected the report of its own consultant seems to be a fair question. The answer to date has essentially been that the public body did not get the answer it was looking for.

    My “angst” is that the Comp Plan not become a visioning document; rather, it should be a practical, working document. It should protect the day-to-day realities of the less fortunate; it should not designed to protect the wishes of the most fortunate.

    I know that many, if not most, Northfielders feel the same way. If not, Target would not have passed.

  21. David:

    Again, we did not “reject” the consultant’s report, we asked questions, made comments and then incorporated our resulting analysis as we, as the Planning Commission, felt appropriate.

    I believe that it’s the kind of “leadership” that you earlier in this process called upon the Planning Commission to demonstrate, being open to input from all sectors, considering such input with our accumulated collective wisdom, and then making a decision that we believe to be in the best interests of the community.

    My sense is that Betsey’s comments are correct and that the consultant looked primarily at TND’s placed in cornfields, much like the development featured in Final Harvest (built in a cornfield in Pennsylvania, miles from anything else). David, you know me, I wouldn’t want to waste resources trying to force developer to build and consumers to buy a TND product, I’m just hoping that we have the legal and physical infrastructure in place so that if developers choose to try to sell to the 30 or so percent of the market interested in this type of product, it is possible in Northfield.

    But seriously, I had finished the book, was looking for a hook to plug the Comp Plan session tonight, thought it was a good fit and posted it. There was no motive beyond the promotion of the event.

    Read the book, you’ll enjoy it, then we can discuss it over a few beers and call ourselves the Books and Brews Club.

    Ross

  22. Ross: please look at this from a Comp Plan perspective:
    In looking through the consultant’s report on the “Municipal Facilities Feasibility Analysis” I was really surprised to see Scenario #8 which is a scheme to co-locate police, fire and a new city hall facility,all together on an industrial site, far south and to the west of Highway 3. I assume this is the College City Beverage site.

    I find this to be a truly bizarre idea, in the overall picture of the community. I never heard any discussion of this at the Planning Commission, or City Council; maybe discussion occurred at the EDA, but that seems highly unlikely considering their search for additional industrial land. Here’s a site just waiting for a new company that wants to relocate to NF.

    Taking this site off the industrial acreage, and putting it to a non taxpaying use, seems to be completely antithetical to oft-stated goals. And that’s saying nothing about locating single facility police and fire services to one extreme edge of the community, as well as taking a city hall out of a central location, close to the downtown.

    Having Police cars and Fire trucks enter a major highway from a visually hidden location also seems to fly in the face of usual practice.

    I doubt this was the consultant’s idea; I don’t think they usually enlarge their “scope” without some direction, and it’s such a hare-brained (sorry!) idea, it doesn’t sound like it came from a qualified planning perspective.

    Que Pasa ???

  23. Kiffi –

    I haven’t seen the consultant’s report on public facilities yet. I heard that it was presented at Monday night’s Council meeting.

    I’m not sure what to make of the idea to put the Fire and Safety Center in the old College City Beverage facility.

    Every discussion I’ve ever heard on the Fire and Safety Center has started with the importance of keeping it close to the major north-south and east-west transportation routes. That’s pretty much where it is located right now.

    Your point about converting valuable industrial land into a public use is a good question. It would seem to be counter much of what has been coming out of the Chamber and EDA for the past year or two.

    I would think that if it was included in the consultant’s report, the Council would have discussed it at a public meeting. If it caught you by surprise, I’m sure that there are many others with a similar reaction.

    – Ross

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