A Different Kind of Subsidy

April 18, 2017 at 12:47 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on A Different Kind of Subsidy

What is a Subsidy?

One thing I really get tired of is the time-worn adage from the suburb-haters. “We’re subsidizing your ‘sprawl'”. I don’t really deny this, but part of living in society is everyone subsidizes someone else. The working subsidize the retired and the disabled. The people that make the lifestyle choice not to have kids subsidize those that do. And even limiting it strictly to development, a person in a duplex the Wedge might subsidize my lifestyle in Bloomington. But the person in an apartment downtown is subsidizing the lifestyle of the person in the Wedge. And in turn I’m subsidizing the lifestyle of a person in Elko. It should also be noted that Bloomington is a huge loser with the fiscal disparities pool, a Robin Hood scheme to redistribute property tax dollars between various cities in the metro. (Minneapolis breaks even and St. Paul is a big winner thanks to tax free buildings for colleges and state government waste and bloat.) But there’s a subsidy most people don’t think of. The inner ring suburbs bear the burden of providing low value and/or subjectively undesirable retail to the cities, like big box retail, car dealerships, and gun shops.

Discount Stores, Hypermarkets, and Groceries

Although there’s (for now) plenty of Cub Foods in the cities, there’s exactly one Menards (in Midway) and Home Depot (the Quarry). For the most part if you want to fix up your house, and with the age of housing in the cities there’s a lot of it, you’re stuck paying outrageous prices at the local cute “Hipster Hardware”, or else driving. And the suburbs have more low value big box retail than they would need just for their own residents.


Home Depot in Richfield, but the de-facto store for the entirety of South Minneapolis

Here’s a map showing home improvement stores in blue and discount / hypermarkets in red.


Minneapolis area discount / hyerpmarkets (red), home improvement (blue), and large format grocery (greeen)

If we assume Cub Foods and the Lake Street K-Mart are not long for this world, the map gets even more sparse in the center. It’s not hard to see that with the coming of HyVee, Cub’s days are numbered. HyVee seems not particularly interested in taking over existing stores, and at any rate the Cub stores are much smaller than their preferred size.

Speaking of Hyvee, I’ll comment on the Terrace Theater situation. I’m a big believer in private property rights, provided you don’t do anything to impact you neighbors private property rights. Want a high pressure sodium vapor yardlight? (Banned on private property in Bloomington even thought it seems to be fine for the city to use them as streetlights) Fine. Want to build a 20 story apartment tower on three sides of my property with balconies overlooking my backyard?  Hell No!

Was I sad to see the Terrace Theater go? Yes. But we can’t save everything, and it was private property for the owner to do as he wished. I know there were offers to buy the theater, but imagine if I was trying to sell my house. The only interest in the property as a whole is someone that wants to tear it down and build something else, but it turns out George Washington slept in my garage. So I have all sorts of people screaming at me not to tear my garage down, and even offering to buy the garage, and the garage only, not the rest of the house, and without which the rest of the house is a lot less valuable.


The Terrace Theater

Cars, Guns and Gas

Suppose you need a new car (80% of Minneapolis residents own one). Sorry, can’t buy one at all in Minneapolis, go to the suburbs. Need a gun (Nationally 1/3rd of households have one)? Sorry, can’t buy one in Minneapolis, go to the suburbs. In Bloomington which is still trying to court Bass Pro Shops as a Mall of America tenant, there was a kerfuffle with the city  tightening the zoning ordinance to prevent the proliferation of smaller shops. Essentially the only place you can sell guns in Bloomington now is a few parcels in the Oxboro area and near I-494.


Minneapolis area new car dealers.

What about gasoline stations? There’s still many in the city, but they’re disappearing. The business model of a couple of pumps in front and a small store that sells hot dogs is no longer viable.  When you only make 3 cents a gallon, you need to sell a lot of it to be successful, which means a lot of pumps so people don’t see a line and decided to drive onto the next station. And in addition sell a lot of high profit items like donuts and car washes, with a store that has parking so motorists will stop to buy a donut on their way to work.


Small gasoline station, closed despite it’s prime location right next to the freeway.

Gasoline station attempts to expand to be viable have met with mixed success. Bobby and Steve’s on Washington Ave and Holiday on Central Ave were able to expand, despite opposition. SuperAmerica on 40th St and Lyndale Ave was not


SuperAmerica- Denied the oppurtunity to remain viable it’s probably not long for this world.

Unsurprisingly with few gasoline pumps per resident in the city, the place was packed when I visited, but if you have a tiny capacity you cannot be viable no matter how busy your are. For now SuperAmerica is still open, but it doesn’t offer a car wash or the food offerings that an expanded store would have, and thus probably won’t be open forever. Urbanists tend to yawn when an individual gas stations closes, figuring a hipster cafe with zero lot setback will be better, but what if there’s eventually only a couple of stations in the entire city. Maybe they figure no great loss, the suburbs can build more large stations to accommodate them, which is my point exactly.


So Why Are Things Like This?

I can think of three things.

First, the cost of land is simply high, that means that fitting a standard Home Depot in Minneapolis is difficult to impossible. An attempt to fit a K-Mart in ended in the disaster we all know.

Second, NIMBYism is much worse in the cities. It’s so hard get anything built that’s not cute and “urban”. It’s a lot easier to get your efficient prototype built in the burbs.

Third, there’s the cities anti-business ordinances like sick leave, minimum wage, and staple foods. Could Hyvee have found some cheap land in the city that they could have built on? Maybe, but better to locate just outside of the city where they can still attract city residents while being exempt from the ordinances. Obviously staple foods doesn’t impact Hyvee, but it does gasoline stations, who now have to figure out how to be fresh grocers, and deal with multiple weekly deliveries, product waste, and low profit that fresh produce involves.


So do I think the city should change things? Not necessarily. They can run things how they want, it’s none of my business; I choose not to live in the city and have little to do with it. My point is simply that it’s too simplistic to say “the city subsidizes the suburbs”, and I’m fine with this reverse subsidy since I’m part of society.


Time of a Portland Ave for all People

April 3, 2017 at 1:49 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Right now unless you’re a motorist, Portland Ave in Bloomington is a pretty dangerous and dismal place.  But now we have a chance to improve things for all people, not just those in cars. Coming up shortly is a county resurfacing project with a chance to include unprotected bicycle lanes. But they’re looking to beyond that to when the corridor is up for complete reconstruction too.


Public Meeting


The Current Portland is a Danger to Motorists

First, let’s take a look at what’s wrong with the present situation.  Imagine a typical trip down a death road like Portland Ave.  You’re driving down the right lane. Pretty soon there’s a bus stopped or a brave and fearless bicyclist in the lane, so you move into the left lane. Then a car is at a dead stop waiting to make a turn, so have to move back into the right lane. But stopping in a traffic lane to turn is a good way to get rear ended, as well as causing friction and other motorists to make abrupt lane changes, another was of inviting crashes. Plus the motorist waiting to turn is going to get antsy, fearing being rear-ended if s/he stays their to long, so at the slightest break in traffic s/he guns it, hopefully not hitting any cars or pedestrians in the process.

Engineers like to talk about “conflict points”, where two motorist might try to occupy the same place at the same time. A four lane road doubles the conflict points at an intersection…


And conflict points for turning movements. Red is through traffic and blue is turning traffic. You can see at the bottom left the red car moves out of the left lane to avoid the blue car that is stopped in the through lane to make a turn, potentially hitting a car in the right lane, then ahead could rear-end a car stopped to turn in either direction on the through lane.


The Current Portland is a Danger to Pedestrians

There’s really two issues with pedestrian safety on 4-Lane Death Roads like Portland Ave. The first is that with multiple lanes, a motorist will stop for a pedestrian. A second car coming will not see the pedestrian because s/he is crossing in front of the stopped car and try to pass the stopped car, and hit the pedestrian. There’s been several fatalities due to this in the state recently, such as on Maryland Ave in St. Paul.

A second problem is a site distance problem with turning traffic. A car in the left lane can block the view of a car in the right lane from a motorist waiting to make a left turn.


Last year there was a pretty dramatic crash a mile over another Death Road, Nicollet Ave at 86th St. A southbound Xcel Energy truck made an evasive maneuver to avoid a left turning car that failed to yield, but wound up losing control and plowing into a signal pole on the southwest corner, knocking it over. And in “Final Destination” in real life, a man that was just standing there waiting for a bus was buried under the whole mess. As typical once the scene was cleaned up and the next dramatic story came about the news media stopped reporting on the investigation, so we don’t really know what happened, but I strongly suspect it was either the sight distance issue or the northbound motorist trying to get out of the through lane.


The situation is aggravated by the lack of flashing yellow arrows along these roads. A “left turn yield on green” just doesn’t communicate the amount of caution that’s needed for permissive left turns.  One thing Hennepin County is doing now as standard practice is a 4 second delay in permissive only phases from the time the green through indication lights to the time the flashing yellow arrow lights. This prevents left turners from gunning it as soon as they get a flashing yellow arrow before oncoming traffic and pedestrians can establish themselves. I really hope these signals make it into the new Portland Ave.

Of course some Death Roads just have too much traffic for a 4-3 lane conversion. Lyndale Ave or Lake Street in Minneapolis, or Old Shakopee Road east of Penn Ave. But Portland Ave is not one of those. In fact south of 90th it has so little traffic it would even function fine without the center turn lane, so including one is more than generous to motorists.

A Multi-Modal Portland is in the Alternative Transportation Plan

It’s worth noting that an “on street facility”, ie unprotected bicycle lanes, is in the city’s Alternative Transportation Plan.  Not that they always follow it of course. They stubbornly refused to provide any accommodation to bicyclists when Lyndale Ave between 99th and 102nd was overlaid, despite it being in the plan. But the fact that it’s at least on their plan is a good start.

The I-494 Problem

One complication is connecting with the bicycle facilities to the north in Richfield across I-494. We have the following issues here:

  1.  The 1990 era long term goal for the freeway was to shift the entire mainline to the south. Right now Mn/DOT “is not pursuing that vision”.  But things could change in the future where we once again have the wherewithal and funding to meaningfully attack the congestion problem with capacity expansion. So we don’t want to spend a ton of money on something that might eventually need to be removed.
  2.  Right now it’s not likely a 4-3 conversion over the bridge will work without creating an absolute nightmare for motorists. The plan is to close the ramps at 12th Ave, and Nicollet Ave, which will only increase motorists using this portion of Portland Ave making it even less likely to work.

Perhaps the best solution is like Hennepin County is doing at Portland Ave over the Crosstown, widen the sidewalks as much as practical, build slip lanes for bicyclists to move on and off them, and do a 4-3 conversion outside the immediate area of the ramps.

The Ideal Arterial

The new Portland Ave in Richfield is perhaps the ideal for an urban arterial. Three 11-foot lanes for motorists, shoulders for the confident bicyclists and an off-road path for the less confident. Street lights, that while according to my measurement don’t quite state standards are an improvement over Bloomington’s love with the darkness. Flashing yellow arrow traffic signals provide added protection for motorists and non-motorists alike.


The Portland of tomorrow, in Richfield

With the limited scope of this project and Bloomington’s stubborn refusal to follow state street lighting standards it’s too much to hope for something this nice in the short term. According to a Portland study only 8% of the population are the “Strong and Fearless” or “Enthused and Confident”; presumably the type that would use unprotected bicycle lanes such as these. So Isabella is probably still excluded.



But one can always dream of the future while modestly improving things in the interim.

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