Is Lower North Gentrifying?

It’s no secret that the Mankato housing market is doing well. Houses are on the market for sometimes hours and usually at most a few days. This article from last year does a good job of explaining the quandary that we’re in when it comes to housing. Not enough single family, not enough affordable rentals, not enough affordable single family.

Markets like this are often driven by, well, the market. The job situation in Mankato is particularly good (The U.S. as a whole is crushing it) and people are most likely moving here for said jobs. The push to live in and around Mankato is causing the most desirable neighborhoods to sell the most houses or, at the least, sell them the quickest and at a premium.

When you combine the positive economic factors along with couples having children later in life and/or just simply not having them at all, you start to realize that the “big house in the burbs” narrative is evaporating. Likewise, younger people are looking for more traditional, walkable neighborhoods  more than their parents were. The value that my generation has put on the  proximity to shops, parks, things to do are the reason the “urban millennial” trope has gained so much steam.

However, this push for old school neighborhoods has lead some to decry the plight of “Gentrification.” The definition I pulled for Gentrification is described as: the process of renovating and improving a house or district so that it conforms to middle-class taste (per my two second Google search.) I think that Lower North has probably always been “middle class.” If we were to use a more colloquial definition of gentrification, a place that’s becoming “hip,” Lower North fits the bill.

The proof is in the pudding. Anyone of you that’s been around Lower North can tell that things are notably improving. Houses are getting snatched up and ones that are in disrepair (like mine) are getting fixed. Furthermore, its no question that the central business district is improving. A quaint little barber shop, a cool new coffee place and a soon-to-be rooftop restaurant are hallmarks of a place becoming “cool.” The only thing holding back Belgrade right now are the two worst building projects in the valley, the Marigold…thing and the F-bomb inducing suburban “townhomes” built last summer right behind.

I will never, ever stop hating these


The city is now also offering low interest loans to help improve properties. The Northside Revivals program is meant to improve existing housing stock in North Mankato (specifically Lower North.) This coupled with the improvements to the Spring Lake Park aquatic facility, roads, the plans for the library, etc… are signs that the area is about to “improve.”

All this sounds good, but there’s obviously a darker side to gentrification: it pushes people out, or at the very least, sets a bar of who’s allowed in. As an area improves it demands more money and makes it more unaffordable for working class or lower income people. While I can see this happening to a degree, it seems unlikely that Lower North will command any real semblance of “high end” market rates (despite what this cringe-inducing Marigold video would have you believe), the city as a whole is just too small and the demand probably won’t be high enough to really threaten anyone. Furthermore, a lot of the people that already live in Lower North are middle class working families or retired (or close) boomers already. They’re probably not going to leave because they own their home.

This is an important point to remember, Lower North probably is “gentrifying”, in so much as its becoming a cool place to live, but the vast majority of the neighborhood is still single family, so “rent” won’t probably go up.

If I had to coin a term for what’s happening to Lower North, I’d call it psuedo-gentrifamaybecation. The reason its easy to see what’s going on in Lower North and identify that things are indeed improving is because Lower North is so easily definable, thus making any type of widespread improvement obvious and more susceptible to a label. It has very obvious borders and no real bleeding edges into other parts. I would say one of the only other neighborhood in Mankato with such rigid boundaries is West Mankato, which has been a mainstay of upper middle class homes for quite some time now.

I’d also surmise that the lack of college student rentals makes Lower North a bit more desirable than some of Mankato’s traditional neighborhoods (like Lincoln Park). We obviously have rentals, but they generally tend to be more stable or more working class than the college student scene (though, I’m open to hearing an argument against this.)

In the coming years, it honestly wouldn’t surprise me to see Southern MSP suburban commuters come down to Lower North given its proximity to 169, its distance from the southern burbs and its affordable housing (comparatively) which would only exacerbate what we have going on now. 

This whole argument begs the question of what makes a desirable neighborhood to begin with? Well, its pretty clear that Lower North is walkable, dense(ish) and has local amenities. Maybe if some of our suburban builders in town would take a hint, they could replicate it in other places and we would have great neighborhoods all across Mankato.

I’m curious to hear what other Lower North residents think. Leave some comments on the Facebook page.

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.

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.

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.)

pg 6d
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