I think you should care more about car crashes than gun violence.

It’s become an uncomfortable familiarity: innocent children killed in a school shooting and subsequent political pandering shouted from both sides ad nauseam. Some call for gun control, some blame the NRA, some blame “gun free zones,” and so on and so forth.

I’m a gun owner. I own three rifles and I want to buy an AR-15 because this is America and I think I should have the freedom to do that. It looks like a cool gun and I think I would enjoy shooting it.

Does that make you angry? That I want to buy a weapon that was recently used in the slaughter of children simply because I can? If it does, I understand. It seems so arbitrary and inherently violent—almost “evil”—to own it, especially when there’s no need for it.

If I said I wanted to get a car that could top out at 150mph and did zero to 60 in 3.4 seconds, would you care? Nah, you’d probably think that was pretty cool. Or what if you were riding in the car with me and I was texting and driving? Or if I said, “I probably wasn’t that drunk when I drove home the other night”? Does it trigger the same response as me wanting that gun? I doubt it. In fact, I bet many of you have participated in some of those scenarios and forgiven yourself afterward because everything turned out fine.

The debate over gun control is fine and necessary. We should criticize easy accessibility to weapons, especially to the mentally unfit. We should absolutely throw the NRA under the bus for continually lobbying to prevent the CDC from studying gun violence; however, we need to recognize that legal gun owners generally don’t kill people willy-nilly and going after legal guns is more impulsive than anything.

If we’re going to debate an object of death, get outraged equally. Cars kill, indiscriminately, many more people than guns every year. In our society, the “background check” for a car is a joke. “16 years old? Know how to parallel park? Cry during your driver’s test to pass? Great! Here’s a 2-ton metal death machine that you can drive as fast as you want. It comes with marginal training, zero limitations, and zero safeties for speed. Be back by eleven!”

Guns, while designed to kill, are nothing without the motive attached to them (gang shootouts, domestic disputes, suicides, etc.) Very rarely is gun violence random, so we don’t treat it as “random.” We don’t accept gun deaths as a “necessary evil” or “status quo.” We get sad, angry and frustrated.

But what about car crashes? There was a family in Illinois last year: A pregnant mother, her three children (1, 4, and 6) were all killed on their way to vacation Bible school when a driver blew a stop sign. In moments, a  proud father and husband became a heartbroken survivor. The man who hit them walked away from the accident without injury and might get 10 years in jail. This was a tragic, unnecessary loss of life.

Where was the outrage? The calls for legislation? The politician photo ops? The pressure on “big car” to do something? It didn’t happen. There was just a man left to pick up the pieces of his broken life.

This, by government standards, would be considered a “mass shooting” if a gun were involved. It would be chalked up on the board next to all the others we’ve had and used as a weaponized statistic.

See why this debate frustrates me? Gun deaths are bad and they are often times preventable, but so are car deaths. The difference is that we’ve accepted car deaths as a natural order of a system that we’ve created. A system that we both maintain and perpetuate, with little ability to change it.

America, much like guns, has the highest rate of automobile accidents in the developed world. Statistically, it’s the most likely way for any child to die, but we’ve all been told that it’s  “the way of life.” If guns and cars got into a “who can kill more people” contest, guns would be crushed by the sheer loss of life caused by cars (abstaining gun suicides).

Much like the Florida shooting, kids didn’t ask for this nor do they deserve it. This death cult was forced upon them, and now we’re sacrificing them on an altar of drive-thrus and “personal space.” But, at least cars come with wifi now, so it’s probably all worth it.

I’m sure you’ll point me to an article that talks about how much progress we’ve made in car safety and how we could use that same strategy for guns, but that’s not the point. With firearms, you can at least lower your chances of being killed by a gun by not owning one yourself. Cars, however, are forced upon the majority of Americans. We get, ostensibly, no choice in whether we can own a car, whether we have to risk our lives every day just to get to work.  

Even if you had the opportunity to live without a car, you’re still at a huge risk for being hit by one, your taxes are still being gobbled up to support them, and you’re simply a drop in the bucket for promoting change (i.e. you’re not making a difference, sorry). If the amount of money that we spent on unnecessary roads was diverted to making sure the wrong people didn’t get guns, we would see a precipitous drop in gun homicides.

Americans have become addicted to outrage, but only when it’s an event that stands out. A tragedy that says, “this was too much, something has to change.” It’s sad that we’ve had to act this out over and over again for gun violence without much effect. What’s even sadder, though, is that we’ve simply allowed this creeping death by car to be part of our way of life, a dull pain stuck to us that we’ve learned to ignore.

It’s been 9 weeks since the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. On that day, 17 children had their future stolen from them by a deranged gunman. In that same time period, about 3,600 people (on average) have been killed in car crashes. Do you know any of their names? Any of their stories? Any of the people left behind?

No, you don’t—and I don’t either. That’s what makes me so mad. It could be my mom and dad, my sister or brother, my wife and child.

I’m not asking you to be less upset about gun violence. Keep that righteous anger and use it to effect change. All I’m asking is that you have enough to share with the victims of a broken, backward transportation system that attacks all of us.

 

No, snowbanks don’t make streets more dangerous

Every winter I’m plagued with the same argument on Facebook: “Those snowbanks pile up on the curbs and then that makes the street narrower and more dangerous!” I’m sure you’ve heard a similar argument at some point or even had that idea yourself, however, the fact is that it’s not true. “Fake News” if you will.

Mankato has foolishly adopted many blanket “no parking” ordinances that cater to this misconception. Along 6th street, there’s no parking on the east side of the street from November 1 to April 1, even if there’s no snow on the ground (because you know we can’t predict the weather).

Usually, I’m not one to complain about parking, but I have a friend that I frequent on sixth street and I’m always annoyed when I can’t park there because of this misguided ordinance. Its particularly annoying because most people rely on off-street parking in that neighborhood and the city is artificially restricting a public asset for no reason.

The problem with “muh snowbank” argument is that we’ve wrongly defined what “dangerous” is. Smaller streets are not more dangerous, they are more inconvenient. It’s important to note the difference because our lazy asses think they are the same when it comes to cars.

If you’re driving down a street with snow banks and cars parked on both sides, you slow down, you have no option. You can’t go fast because you know that you have less time to react to obstacles, be they cars, cats, or cyclists (say that with a hard “c” so you get the alliteration.)

What are you at a greater risk for? Maybe scratching your paint, knocking a mirror or not carelessly flying down the road. Those things are not dangerous, annoying, sure, but not dangerous.

Even if someone were to step out in front of your car and you did hit them, the chances that you will kill them is far, far less likely. I’ve posted this image before on here and I’ll reference it again. The slower the car is going, the more likely the person you hit is to survive.

The same complaint goes for intersections. “That snow piles up and then I can’t see around the corner! It’s dangerous!!” What happens when you can’t see around a corner? You slowly ease your way into the intersection, paying close attention to see if cars are coming from either direction.

I experienced this just the other day on the way up Mulberry street. I came to the below intersection and all the cars parked on the west side of the street plus the snow made it pretty hard to see around that corner. I crept out into the intersection making sure cars had ample time to see me and brake. Guess what? I didn’t die, neither did anyone else and it would have been pretty impossible for me to die because everyone was going slow.

We’ve been fed this lie that it is narrow space that is dangerous. People constantly get up at city council meetings asking for the ordinances to be passed or rules to be made about parking and snow and this and that. The fact is that we should leave it all alone, or communicate the removal of snow and/or the temporary reduction in parking that comes along with it. In Lower North, where I live, the city did this. They came by, told us to move our cars and then they came and plowed the boulevards. It was simple, effective and non-disruptive. Likewise, it didn’t require a 5 MONTH PARKING BAN.

Interestingly enough, snow is a really good way of showing that we don’t need extra space on our roads. Sneckdowns are a natural way of showing where cars don’t drive and how we could actually eliminate the for cars and use it for people or traffic calming measures.

However, the real underlying problem here is that American urban planning and city government reward meddling. We love to enact and tweak rules for our cities, every city manager and council think they are “helping” every time they come up with some convoluted ordinance instead of letting cities grow organically. Whether it’s over zoning, parking regulation or side setbacks, city councils love to make rules (see the stupid 21+ smoking ban that thankfully died) because it looks like they are doing something, when in the long run, things usually just sort themselves out.

So next time that grumpy neighbor is telling you how someone “going to die” because of some snow on the boulevard, tell him that it actually makes the street safer and they should read this article.

Dear Echo, Please Don’t.

Earlier this year, I discovered that the Echo food shelf is attempting to make their services “more available” to those in need. According to the Mankato Free Press, Echo plans on buying the two neighboring lots, both which have perfectly good structures dating back to the late 1800s, and tear them down to allow for more parking and easier delivery access—all for the low, low cost of $350,000.

While I believe their intentions are good, I think it’s sad that they believe this will help their mission (especially for such an exorbitant cost). This will do nothing to help the food shelf and will only tear down more of our city’s history.

The buildings for reference.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not attacking the food shelf or anything that they do. They provide a vital service for the community. But to spend such an absurd amount on parking lots, something that has no proven record of doing anything for any business or nonprofit organization, is a depressing commentary on how pervasive car culture has become in the US. The belief that more parking somehow equates to better access to food is sad.

The reason I’m writing this article is to ask Echo to think twice. Downtown Mankato was devastated by Urban Renewal in the middle part of the century. We have so very little of our original downtown left that it would be almost criminal to tear down any more of it. The buildings that are slated for removal have their roots in the late part of the 1800s. While maybe not architecturally significant, it’s a shame to think that they would be needlessly destroyed.  Removing these buildings to make parking lots is anti-community, which is antithetical to the mission of a food shelf.

The irony of this situation is that transportation for the average American (i.e. cars and driving) is more expensive than food costs. In a roundabout way, Echo’s plan, by inducing people to drive, will actually cost an average family more than if they were encouraged to take the bus, walk or ride a bike.

Likewise, if the average food costs for a year is, give or take about, $7,000, the amount of money they would spend building a new parking lot and tearing down these old buildings down, would equate to about 50 families having food for an entire year. Likewise, if you were to cover half a year’s worth of groceries, you would go up to 100 families and so on and so forth.

Many of you probably disagree with me, citing that more parking indicates current success and allows for future growth. While this argument may seem obvious, there’s actually no evidence to show that parking equates to success. In fact, there are a host of problems when you add parking, the least of which, increased rents.

I’m no stranger to roasting people on my blog for stupid decisions—I’ve done it to school boards, developers and the government. However, for this article, I wanted to take a lighter touch and simply ask Echo to look at the broader implications of its plans. We need to look back and see how much we’ve torn down… and how little we’ve built back in its place. Everytime we destroy an old mixed-used building, we’re taking away the space for a new shop, a new office or, I don’t know, a chiropractor.

If you want, I’ll walk you through downtown and show you what used to be there. I’ll show you why our downtown has only two nice blocks. I’ll show you why this decision is the wrong one, why it won’t solve any problems you think you have, and why it hurts our city in the long run.

I’m happy to talk. Feel free to reach out. I’m sure we can come to see eye-to-eye and preserve what little downtown we have left.

Not Worth Defending

I work in the movie “Office Space.” If you haven’t seen the movie, it’s basically the existential crisis of one man realizes that he’s another cog in a corporatist Rube Goldberg machine. He comes to work, laments the mundanity of his job, goes home. A nihilistic, albeit, realistic, interpretation of “Ground Hogs Day” if you will.

I find myself questioning my existence, day in, day out. Why am I here? What I’m supposed to do? How I can leave an impact in the world?

In my semi-descent into madness, I’ve found myself researching, browsing or simply putzing about every subject imaginable. Obviously, I’ve spent a lot of time reading about our new president, his rise to power and the populous movements that have been sweeping a lot of countries.

People are desperate to cling to something. They realize that their time on this earth is short and they want to pass on something worth defending—something that wouldn’t be a far cry from the childhood they had growing up.

What is worth defending? Or maybe we should ask what do we build to defend things? Nowadays, it’s firewalls and RFID locks, but once we built permanent structures to defend our places, like castles, fortresses and keeps.

On my journey through the internet, I stumbled across this picture:

This is Najac, France. It’s a town that never crested 3,000 souls at any point in the last two centuries. I found the picture on a subreddit called r/beamazed. It’s one of the highest upvoted posts of all time and I thought that was interesting. EDIT: Apparently its since been removed due to copyright, so the above picture is actually something close. 

If you pop out to google maps this is the aerial view of Najac:


Beautiful, right?

Except that’s not France, that’s Wisconsin, just East of La Crosse (French in name alone) in the Driftless Area. Here’s the actual aerial view:


Pretty crazy that we have arguably the same topography and same geographic beauty as Europe, yet we build such boring shit.

If you had a transplantation machine, you could easily move Najac right to Wisconsin (or Minnesota) and it would feel right at home. It would, undoubtedly, be the hottest tourist attraction in the tri-state area. Najac, Wisconsin, would literally make millions of dollars annually.

We don’t build places like Najac, though. We double down on row houses out by our new school.

Town Houses nowhere near the town!

This, I think, plays into the populist message we’re seeing in America. It isn’t, in my opinion, based on racism or idiocy or isolationism; it’s based on emptiness. People today feel so disconnected, so adrift in a sea of global information, that they are longing to attach to something. They want to feel like Americans—an elusive, but critical, part of their identity.

I think our built environment can help do this. They can help root people instead of isolate them. They can make neighbors out of enemies and help people find the common ground. They can be places worth defending. If you wanted to feel connected, truly in-tune, with your city and the history that built it, you would start with buildings. You would start with the things your ancestors left for you to take care of and left you to build on top of. 

In Jane Jacobs “A Wealth of Nations,” she writes about visiting the familial Hamlet of Higgins, North Carolina. This was the height of the great depression and, to her surprise, even a rural village tucked away in the remoteness of Appalachia was impacted, but not for the reasons you might think. She recalls how the founders of the hamlet and their families held a variety of skills:
spinning and weaving, loom construction, cabinetmaking, corn milling, house and water-mill construction, dairying, poultry and hog raising, gardening, whiskey distilling, hound breeding, molasses making from sorghum cane, basket weaving, biscuit baking, music making with violins …”

But these skills were not being put to use. An excerpt from this Atlantic article, summarizes what she found:

Candles were a vanishing luxury. After the few remaining cows died, there would be no more milk or butter. One woman still remembered how to weave baskets, but she was close to death. When Robison suggested building the church with large stones from the creek, the community elders rebuked her. Over generations the townspeople had not only forgotten how to build with stone. They had lost the knowledge that such a thing was possible.”

This remote village no longer had the ability to sustain itself. The loss of wisdom, ostensibly, the loss of the skills that had given them an identity, had doomed this tiny town.

It’s skills like this, places built by hand, that feed people their identity. No one really wants to defend their slapped-together rambler built by GOODBUILDZ, LLC. They want to secure a shelter for their family and their “irreplaceable” possessions. However, places that craft identity are places like Najac, places that people rally to save, places that make you feel connected to something deeper. Places like we destroyed in the middle of the century.

Downtown Mankato, C. 1961


I changed the title for this article maybe three or four times. I knew the general idea of it, but I didn’t know what I wanted to call it. So, I went to Google. I typed in “not worth defending” and as fate would have it, the third image that popped up was this:


Jim Kunstler is probably one of my favorite people on the planet. I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to him a few times and getting kinda drunk in his hotel room at CNU 22 in Buffalo, NY.

We have so many despondent people in the work force that would kill for someone to employ them to build Najac. People who would love to build a place that has meaning, that has character, that has something. In fact, in France, right now, there is a group of people working on restoring a medieval castle in the exact same fashion it would have been built hundreds of years ago. You can check them out here. It is purely a labor of love, no money, no fame, they just know its important to do. Here’s a picture I pulled off their Facebook page.



With all the talk of North Korea and Russia and nuclear annihilation, we have to ask ourselves if we would actually rally around America. Would we want to defend what we’ve built or do we want to defend the soft, consumerist lifestyle we’ve created for ourselves? Do we really want to make Prairie Winds and its subsequent housing the thing we pass on to our children? Or did we build it to be convenient for the parent? Is it for the here and now? Is it for the Happy Motoring culture we’ve created for ourselves? 

There’s an emptiness that’s descending on America, and if we don’t address it, we’ll soon find ourselves consumed by it. Building Najac wouldn’t be a panacea, but it’d be a step in the right direction, a part of a new identity, a place worth defending.  

 

Build Small, Not Tall.

If you haven’t noticed, there’s a prime piece of land sitting adjacent to the Veteran’s Memorial Bridge. It’s been empty for quite some time now, awaiting the construction of Bridge Plaza—a mixed-use tower with space for office, retail, and living.

There have been signs up for the better part of 2 years now, talking about Bridge Plaza without any indication of construction actually starting. I don’t blame them. It’s hard to get an anchor tenant so you can move forward on a huge project like this and I wish Brennan construction all the best in completing their building.

In the meantime, I’d like to think about something else that could go there. I’m not saying that this is a better idea, just a different one.

I’ve written before about the devastation that Urban Renewal inflicted on Mankato and I think that this building site would be a great place to make amends. This is a huge downtown lot, and, instead of building one large tower, I propose we build small mixed-use buildings with the same architecture (or at least facade) as some of the buildings that were torn down in the middle of the 20th century.

I’m going to spare you the actual calculations of how many buildings could fit there and rather am going to go with the tried-and-true “Photoshop and Google Maps” method of site planning.

Old Town will be our scale. We’ll take one mixed-use building out of Old Town and plop it on the site (at scale) to see how it looks (without getting into the nitty-gritty of how buildings are actually built.)

(I’m using Dan Dinsmore’s building as a reference, Coffee Hag is about the same size)

It looks OK. Now, what happens if we roughly duplicate Old Town on the site?

Wow. By my estimate, there are 32 historic buildings in Old Town that people would consider interesting (Hag, Mom & Pop’s, Dork Den, etc.) and you can fit about 24 of them on this one plot of land. Even on the low end, that would create close to 20 new downtown housing units. The “inside” of the lot could be used for parking. The city financed a ramp for the Tailwind project, I think they could do the same for this.

More importantly though, this would be a pedestrian friendly, efficient use of space. The economic impact of this would percolate out into the rest of the downtown neighborhoods and hopefully bring in a little redevelopment for blighted properties.

Again, this isn’t to say that Bridge Plaza would be bad, this is simply a thought experiment.

I think that this project would play in well to the Old Town redevelopment and would bridge the gap between Downtown and Old Town. It would also allow for plenty of new space for entrepreneurs and small businesses. Likewise, you could maybe even get more community buy-in as the development would not need to be owned by one company or a few wealthy investors. Anyone that could finance a building could be given a shot at developing their own property so long as it fits with the rest of them. This would be a nice way to limit fragility and create a sense of ownership.

Who knows? Maybe this would even set the stage for developing on the Veteran’s Memorial Bridge.

Likewise it was just announced that the six acre public works site will go on the market this winter. This is a huge opportunity for downtown, but should we spend it on one or two big buildings? Or should it be a collection of small, mixed-use buildings like downtown already has? Those are the buildings that give a city its character, that give it life. We need towers, but we never really built back our stock of small buildings after Urban Renewal. Now is our opportunity.

Big towers are great for certain things, but they really suck at activating the street. Popular neighborhoods across the country are never near towering buildings, they’re always in small places designed for people. It’s more fun to walk along the street and gaze through the windows of shops than it is to stare into some corporate office space while being dwarfed by 15 stories of glass.

These are the types of development that we should be promoting, not boring “townhouses” built nowhere near the town.

Now, who’s with me? Should I start a GoFundMe? If Jordan can raise $2500 bucks because he sucks at biking (kidding, buddy), I feel like there’s no way we wouldn’t reach our goal.

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.

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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?