New Stuff Coming to Mankato

Hi all,

Because I want more traffic for this site and because everybody seems to crap their pants when they find out something new is getting built, I decided that I would make a blog post about all the new stuff getting built in Mankato in the coming months.

Every month I review various packets from both cities to see what is going to be built in Mankato. Usually only nerds check these packets but almost always everyone is interested in what’s being proposed.

I’ve decided to make this process easy for you. Scan the post, I’ll tell you what’s being and built and give you my thoughtful and incredibly biased commentary and each item.

I’m hoping to do this every month, so I hope you keep coming back!

Here we go…

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Make Mankato Great Again

I’ve been postulating a lot on the current administration and what it means for building better cities.But do you know what? I stopped thinking about it and you should too. You can’t help everyone and you will probably never change the course of the federal government. They, in my opinion, are too far gone.

Focus your effort back home, right here, Mankato. See something? Say something. Better yet: do something. Fix a pothole (technically illegal).Yarn bomb a tree. Rake an old lady’s leaves.

410 project yarn bombing

In my time of advocacy, I’ve found that the decision-making process is almost completely arbitrary. Many people think that a bunch of data is being handed to  decision makers, and  that these decision makers have newspapers articles and studies tacked up on the wall all connected by red string.

Nope.

There is no “A Beautiful Mind” scene at every council meeting where people are trying to figure out the best decision. Trust me, I’ve been to so many meetings and I have seen the stupidest logic applied to situations.

“Let’s build a wall around the new middle school to prevent kids from walking there.” Looking at you, Councilman Frost.

The way that a lot of decisions get made at local level is city council relying on city staff. I would bet that 90% of the decisions they make have minimal input from residents.  However, if you show up or write to your councilperson, things can change and decisions can be altered.

Here’s some anecdotal evidence. When the civic center addition (gross) was being added, the architect decided that it would be better to forego making it look like the other civic center and just picked some weird precast siding that didn’t match anything in the area.


Here’s where I come in, I was scanning the planning commission packet and said, “Wow, this is stupid.”

I shot an email off to the head of the Planning Commission:


I won’t be able to make the planning commission meeting on Wednesday, but if you would please log a recommendation to make the exterior, the pre-cast concrete, match the existing civic center. I don’t know why they chose a different texture, but it would be nice to see the same pattern used on the outside of the new expansion.

It seems that architects have something to prove now by using obscure, contemporary materials. It would be nice to see them look towards what exists already.“


And voilà!  Now we have a huge waste of money BUT it’s sided with the right kind of pre-cast concrete. Success…I guess.

This is how everything works. People make decisions as best they can using the information they believe to be true.

Often times, they don’t go out and seek other inputs, they simply reinforce what they already believe or just “go with the flow,” waiting for a senior member of the committee to make a recommendation.

This is where you come in. All you have to do is show up. Maybe just once or twice, but if it’s a subject you know something about and you can halfway articulate an argument, there might be a chance it influences a decision or changes a perspective. If nothing else, you get the moral superiority of lording it over your friends when they complain about a decision the city made. (I’m super good at this.)

In this spirit, I’m going to be launching several articles about how to “Make Mankato Great Again.” This also why my Facebook profile pic changed to a very real (not fake at all) shot of our current president donning a sweet Key City hat. Little known to the public, I was the inspiration for the iconic headwear. True news.

I’m not stranger to voicing my opinion on urban development issues in the Mankato area, but this series will be focused on things I see as critical to returning Mankato back to its former glory. When I say former glory, I mean it. We are still on a path of unsustainable development and financial insecurity.

I hope this somewhat inspires you to do the same. There’s an issue you care about, show up and say something about it. Don’t get fatigued by national politics, that stuff is largely out of your control, but you can make a difference right here, right now.

No Salvation in the East

It’s not hard to recall all the headlines of Mankato’s miraculous growth over the past few years.  They were everywhere. We were told we had low unemployment and that the city was growing despite a lot of fundamental problems. Today, we’re still in pretty good shape. Check out the Greater Mankato Growth Blog’s (GMG) Q4 article (keep in mind their job is to promote  Mankato commerce, not that that’s bad) and FRED data saying wages are up.  

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The River Hills Mall is Screwed

Dearest readers, I can’t tell you how long I’ve been waiting to talk about the River Hills Mall. Today that day has come.

Let’s crack out a bit of history first, shall we? The River Hills Mall was built in 1991, it was pretty much unecesarry at the time, but hey, Mankato loves to blow money, right?

OK, actually, let’s back up just a little bit further than that to the very first mall. The first shopping mall was designed by Austrian architect Victor Gruen. Basically the TL;DR version is, he built the mall as a place for people to gather and then in true Dr. Frankenstein fashion his creation just pretty much sucked and he ended up hating it even though it became ubiquitous throughout the American landscape

I mean, if you had come from the picture on the top and ended up creating the picture on the bottom, wouldn’t you spiral into a pit of self-loathing?

Vienna-mall

Back to the River Hills Mall. In the years preceding the construction of the river hills mall, many Mankato residents were hoping to see the Madison East Mall expanded.

Let me divert again for a minute, Mankato has three malls, the downtown mall (which is pretty much a mini-DC with all the government buildings in there) the east town mall (which, honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever been in there) and then our beloved “River Hills” (lol, k) mall. The first two were built in fairly close succession, the Madison East mall was built in 1968 and the downtown was an “answer” to that to get people back downtown. 

You can ask the old-timers in Mankato, even with the Madison East Mall, the downtown mall was doing pretty good. It was vibrant, there were stores and people shopped there. It was the river hills mall that was the final blow (after all the urban renewal shenanigans) for the downtown mall and ultimately downtown.

As I was saying, Mankato residents and developers were looking to expand the Madison East Mall but an agreement was never reached with the then property owners. Shortly thereafter they said “whatever, we’ll build it 1.2 miles away” resulting in a billion dollars in long term infrastructure maintenance. Holy Crap.

After the mall opened, things started to fill in along Madison avenue and that’s how we got the current incarnation of that garbage stroad. 

Ok, so nothing I’ve said as of yet has made you think of why the RHM is “screwed,” but I’m about to provide some pretty compelling evidence, much to the chagrin of the “sales tax for everything” cheerleaders.

American Eagle, Hollister, Victoria Secret, stores like that are great, people love them, but it’s not what makes a mall profitable, it’s not the thing that a mall is designed around, otherwise it would look different than it is today.

Malls are profitable because of “anchor tenants” these massive stores that are a sure-fire draw for a bunch of people and then they fill in all the spots in between with the above stores.

For the River Hills Mall our anchor tenants are Herbergers, Scheels, Barnes and Nobles, JC Penny, Sears and Target. The food court and movie theater could be considered anchor tenants as well, but not to the same degree.

If you look at those companies I just listed, there’s a problem… When was the last time you went to Herberger’s or JC Penny or Sears? If you have great, but you’re not having much of an impact.

Here’s the 5 year stock for JC Penny, Sears, Bon Ton (who owns Herbergers) and Barnes and Nobles.

Screen Shot 2016-05-12 at 11.19.24 AM

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Screen Shot 2016-05-12 at 11.19.49 AM

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Screen Shot 2016-05-12 at 11.20.13 AM

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Notice a trend? Some of them could just be leveling out and restructuring to a changing economy, or some of them might just be going the way of Blockbuster.

EDIT: If you’re reading this as of 5/13 JC Penny missed their Q1 earnings and dropped by 10%. Yeah, they’re toast.

Now, to be fair, Target has seen pretty good gains in stock and Scheels has been pretty solid because, ya know, sports.

I will also undermine myself slightly by saying that the stock market isn’t a good reflection of the economy in general, but it does a pretty good job of gauging retail consumption, which is what all of these stores are. However, Sears just closed a bunch of stores and Aeropostale just filed for Bankruptcy, a sign of things to come.

This article from AOL (yeah, I know) Finance gives a pretty good outlook on the whole mall situation in general.

To further understand how the RHM might be in the first phases of decline, we need to look a little deeper.

General Growth Properties, the company that owns the mall, filed for bankruptcy shortly after the economic recession. After liquidating a bunch of property and cutting 20% of its staff, it figured out a way to right the ship and obviously it felt that RHM was a property worth keeping and re-investing in. A company going broke certainly leaves some room for doubt.

Nationally, we’re seeing a push away from malls. No new (enclosed) mall has gone up in the U.S. since 2006 and the recent push back towards urban living, internet shopping, and lack of car ownership is undermining the very business model that holds up a mall. Not to mention that debt-laden Millenials can’t just “go to the mall” anymore. I’d say this has something to do with it. 



So is the River Hills Mall Dying?

No, it’s not and it’s not going to for years to come. Actually malls across America are doing fine. In fact General Growth Properties stock has risen pretty well since 2012.

So why are you bringing this up?

Because we both know the economy never went back to normal and we’re guaranteed another recession. That coupled with are arguably pretty weak anchor tenants could spell disaster for the RHM, or at least a complete restructuring.

Again, I’ll say that the River Hills Mall is doing fine for now and probably the next decade(ish) will be in ok shape.

But keep in mind, the bigger they are, the harder they fall. And the question we have to ask is, we will have an empty shell of a mall taking up a huge amount of resources in short order?

The other reason is to prepare for when that time (most likely) does come. What can we do to make sure the mall doesn’t die (because we might as well keep it around) or to mitigate the impacts of its decline.

So what are we supposed to do about it? 

We should be encouraging small, incremental development on unused or underused parcels in our city. Yes, I know we’ll still need big box stores and probably even malls, but the more diversified our local economy is the better shot we have at weathering an economic downturn. We can encourage our wealthy citizens like Doctors, Lawyers, Dentists, etc… to invest in these types of buildings. They make money on them, build a better city and give small businesses and entrepreneurs a place to get off the ground. A place like Salvage Sisters or Nicollet Bike Shop aren’t going to open in an empty slot in the mall.

Heck, even the average joe can get in on the action with the right people. There have been plenty of folks who have bought or built small mixed used buildings and allowed their community to prosper.

At the end of the day, arguably the most frustrating thing is how much space we waste on the mall. Look at this awesome photoshop rendering by my cohort Ben Lundsten. This is the Madison East mall, but it gives you an idea of how much space we waste on parking.

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Red is Parking, Blue is Apartments.

All the parking that is there today generates essentially nothing for the city. Time to fill it with some affordable housing, no?

Everything ends, the RHM is no different so we should start hedging our bets now. We should be developing in a tried and true method that has withstood thousands of years. Incremental mixed use buildings, that way if the RHM bites the dust, we’ll have an economy and a place to fall back on. 

 

 

Cover photo from GMG who I assume got it from someone else? Maybe not.

Video games would suck without walkable cities

I was lying in bed last night, feeling forlorn for the days of my youth (ok actually like a year ago) when I could just sit on my butt and play video games for hours on end. It was relaxing, fun and had the narrative elements of a good book. But alas, since I bought my fixer upper, it’s been just work work work.

That actually got me to thinking though, what was the correlation between video games and our built environment? Actually what would video games be like if they tried to mimic our cities?

Well, quite frankly, they would suck. I mean, like really suck.

If you go down the list and start looking at some of the most beloved video game franchises, you’ll notice that there’s a recipe. Good environments.

Assassin’s Creed, a historical fiction, is a game that would be crippled without walkable cities. You’re a parquoring assassin who jumps from rooftop to rooftop looking for your next target, As you travel the great cities of the world you climb, run and jump, using your environment to your advantage.

via GIPHY

Even Grand Theft Auto, a franchise whose concept is entirely auto-centric, has a surprising lack of empty surface parking lots. Yeah, they slammed a highway through the city, but still, there’s buildings in almost every square inch of that map. If you don’t want to pass empty parcel after empty parcel in a game, why would you in real life?

Speaking of parking… turns out that in simulation games, it’s kind of a problem. A few years back the newest installment of the Sim City franchise dropped on the market. The whole point is to build a realistic city, except that turned out to be a bad way to build a game. Here’s a quote from the game’s lead designer, Stone Librande (what a badass name):

Yes, definitely. I think the biggest one was the parking lots. When I started measuring out our local grocery store, which I don’t think of as being that big, I was blown away by how much more space was parking lot rather than actual store. That was kind of a problem, because we were originally just going to model real cities, but we quickly realized there were way too many parking lots in the real world and that our game was going to be really boring if it was proportional in terms of parking lots.

Our friend Jarret Walker already wrote an article on this, so props to him.

Go ahead and start thinking of other games, you’ll find the same thing (assuming they apply, I’m not talking about Star Wars here obviously.) All your FPS games like Call of Duty or Battlefield need density to create an interesting environment and a map worth playing. Yes, everyone loves Nuketown, but that’s the exception.

And it’s not just blanket “density” it’s interesting environments, architecture and natural landscapes mixed together, all things that normally would create vibrancy in a city.

If you look at all the detail and care that’s put into the “Gears of War” environments, you’ll notice that someone really wanted to make a beautiful urban environment to serve as the backdrop for the city. Case in point:


But it’s not just built environs either, it’s natural too. Red Dead Redemption, arguably one of the greatest games ever made, was hailed for it’s massive environment mimicking that of southwest America. It spanned from dense forests to open deserts. The sub-urban landscape that are so ubiquitous today can be a scourge on both natural surroundings and our constructed ones.


Seriously, the list goes on and on and on. Think of a few off the top of your head and if they didn’t come out of the Nintendo world, chances are their set in a cool urban environment or something akin to it.

The point is this, if we built the same bland, boring crap we build in the real world in our video games, the market would react and the game would tank. No one wants to run around in a world covered in spaced out building and desolate parking lots.

The question we need to answer is, if we don’t stand for it in the virtual world, why do we in the real world?

The Cherry St. ramp needs to die

I’ve been quiet over the past few months, working on my house, contemplating Mankato’s existence as a “regional center” and being busy trying to convince people that there is indeed no war on cars. But more so than that, I’ve been lazy. Recycling my post from my semi-regular gig over at Strong Towns and passing it off as original content for you, the readers of Key City. Today I say no more! I have a beef with something kato-centric and I’m going to air it out.



That stupid ramp that flanks the cherry street “plaza”. For the love of all that’s holy, tear that thing down and put something, anything worthwhile there. The idea that we have a “plaza” whose one wall is dedicated to sleeping cars is absolutely antithetical to the idea of anything urban, because when you see the great public spaces of the world they make sure that they have abundant parking right next to it.

The parking lot isn’t even necessary! It’s completely free (which is my first grievance) so it’s not generating any revenue, they just built a brand new one a half block over which is, from what I can tell every time i’m there, totally underutilized, and the ramp sits empty for most times outside of the weekend.

There is one, and I will make this clear, ONE saving grace to that parking lot. It was designed to have a building put on top of it. I’m not sure when that was built, but I assume it was the early 2000s. We’ve gone at least a decade now with no development on top of it, either we wait it out and subsidize something to take that spot, or we tear it down and give the market the chance to snap it up and given the development that has happened downtown and inevitably will continue, someone will jump at it.

Though the ramp may have been a type of godsend when it was built because it alleviated some perceived parking “problem” it has since outlived its usefulness and the city is missing out on valuable tax money by leaving it alone. Heck, you probably wouldn’t need to tear it down, you would just need to retrofit it to put something in there, using the existing footings and structure to build something worthwhile.

Any way you slice the cake, that ramp doesn’t need to exist, there’s plenty of parking in and around the area as proven by the THREE giant parking structures all within a stone’s throw of Front St.

This would be a good chance to show a commitment to downtown, to give us a real plaza and to generate more things to do for pedestrians and more taxes for the city.

Oh, and in case you’re curious, here’s what it replaced (the far building, but the near one was also torn down and is now, you guessed it, a parking lot.)

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Architecture without urban form: meh.

What’s the best part of Christmas eve? My childhood self leads me to believe it’s seeing all the presents under the tree. The idea that so many gifts have been lavished on us gets us all giddy. Is that one for me? For my sibling? Parents? Who’s it from? What’s inside? WHY CAN’T I OPEN IT?! All of these thoughts whizzing through your eggnog-drenched synapses make the Christmas tree itself look that much more glorious.

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