Saturday, May 26, 2012

Campus Connector Transitway Troubles

            I love looking at the advertisements for the Jefferson @ Berry apartments up near Prospect Park behind the WCCO Radio station along Washington. The ByMe website (which became extremely popular after their BOGO Cane’s deal back in March) constantly advertises Jefferson @ Berry, offering a money check, free parking, free food, and other assorted gifts for just visiting the complex. Although many of the other luxury apartments around campus advertise such luxuries, J@B’s location to campus is what makes it so different – it really is way out there. It’s tucked between an undeveloped yard and light industrial warehouses, and it is technically in St Paul, too. For any practical student, the walk or bike ride would be something comparable to a location near Como, and with the Central Corridor construction continuing, the desirability of its proximity seems moot. It makes me wonder what the vacancy rate is for a place whose location is right along the Campus Connector…

            Oh wait, that’s right. It’s literally right along the Campus Connector. It’s in the perfect location for anybody who needs to go either the St Paul or Minneapolis campus, right?

            Not so much. The University’s Right-of-Way along the famed exclusive route doesn’t offer any midway stops along the old rail corridor, and probably for good reason. Other than the J@B complex, there isn’t much around there that would be interesting for students. But at the same time, why wouldn’t the Connector offer a stop near J@B? Is it simply due to the express feel of the line and the University’s desire to keep it as speedy as possible, due to city zoning code legal stuff, or is there another underlying reason? The fact that the surrounding area is essentially bare, it stakes claim to potential redevelopment, whether it’s for parking or for a private development high-tech medical park. The Connector Transitway would be a great artery for connecting all elements within the two campuses.

            In my mind, the University is missing a grand opportunity for a commuter expansion in the area. From my observation, any person who commuted to work by car since TCF Stadium’s inclusion has had only but complaints about the congestion and parking around the area, and I don’t blame them. The current location of the Bank Stadium was the main surface lot for many years. From a simple Google Map study, one can see that the Connector route went right through the middle of the lot, and had several stops along the paved desert. (Note: Google Maps updated the old satellite view earlier this week to an image from this year. Those jerks…)

The light rail construction has made it even worse, making it very difficult to drive to the U of M from anywhere. As a big promoter of New Urbanism, I cynically think that it’s great that automobile drivers are being driven crazy (bad pun intended). I love the pedestrian-centric feel the University has been trying to advent in recent years. However, there will always be a market for driving commuters, and not all of them necessarily want to pay for a spot in an expensive ramp.

            With the Connector route already in place, the University’s grand opportunity would be to buy that large undeveloped, create a surface parking area, and create a bus stop right at the entrance of that lot. With the lot being 6.75 acres and calculating 350 square feet per spot, the lot could sport around 660 spots (Just to give an idea, the University Avenue Ramp near the Aquatic Center holds 521 spots). 
Right along the Transitway...

     If the city removes the blockade on Territorial/4th Street near J@B, drivers could exit right off of MN-280 from both directions, drive several blocks west to the lot, and then board the Connector for a short commute to either campus. In my ideal picture of the situation, this would solve many problems, including:
1)    Reducing drivers on University/4th/Huron near campus, making it a safer and quieter environment for the mostly pedestrian-oriented student population
2)    Segregating traffic away from the Central Corridor Light Rail mess which will be at the University-Washington-Huron intersection, possibly improving the traffic light timing for the busy area
3)    Providing driving commuters with a cheaper option of parking near campus, and allowing them to have a less stressful entry from the already underused MN-280
4)    Preventing backlash when the University implements the entire East Gateway District Master Plan and removes the parking lots near the stadium (caution: large file)

     Of course, there is probably a reason why the University hasn’t jumped on that vacant lot, ranging from problems in zoning, the offering price of the land, or some stingy owner not willing to give up the gopher-holed area. There are also some great potential lots near the old industrial mill area that have been abandoned for who knows how long that the U could snatch. The U of M Office for Technological Commercialization is also nearby and holds its own parking lot, so I wonder if that lot could also be better utilized with a Transitway stop. Nonetheless, if the opportunity ever arose, I wouldn’t be surprised if the U jumped on buying that land and opening it up for car drivers (and Jefferson @ Berry tenants too – maybe ByMe could advertise free Connector rides from the apartments for terribly ignorant freshman).

Monday, May 21, 2012

What will become of The Dinky Ditch?

            The first time I came to campus when I was a Junior in High School, my cousins gave me a pretty insider-esque tour of the area. Even though the highlight of the trip for me at the time was the final stop at Ben & Jerry’s (RIP), I couldn’t help but note Dinkytown as we circled Washington by the new stadium and headed west on 4th. As we passed McDonald’s and drove though the campus social center on the way out, I initially thought that the Dinky Ditch was actually a creek of some sort, providing a long segment of open space and trails for the students and community. I was quite saddened to see it was only an old, essentially abandoned rail ditch (Which I learned later is truly historic in a way… it was one of the rail lines that once crossed the Stone Arch Bridge).
            Now after attending the U for a couple years, I’ve kept my eye and done my research about this prominent ditch that splits campus from Dinkytown, and cant help but question its present condition as a passive rail yard. With the ditch in the location that it is, there should be no reason why it can’t be changed to something more intriguing for the surrounding population, turning it into something like this.
            In fact, the University and the City have tried to facilitate that slow transformation by changing the old Northern Pacific #9 Bridge into a non-motorized trailway. Currently, the trail awkwardly ends behind the Education Sciences Building (at a delightful Dunn Bros Café which most people don’t seem to ever notice). However, the University has also persisted through many land ownership arguments to finally connect the bridge and create the U of M bike trail, which should be open by year’s end. Even though the City had to do a split-trail agreement with the U that requires the trail to be built on part of the existing road, the path is currently only used for service vehicles, so the present cars won't make a significant difference. This is great news for commuting professors or off-campus students to the West, as they now don’t have to maneuver through this as much. 
Wouldn't a bike trail look great on those rail tracks?

            However, the ditch has some other interesting proposals, including the much-discussed Granary Road Corridor, a semi-truck-ready road that could carry trucks from I-35W to the industry near MN-280 without driving down University/4th Street. This obviously wouldn’t be just for industrial traffic, as everyday commuting drivers could also use it. This also means that it could also possibly bring a substantial amount of commuters off of University/4th as well. In a long term scope, this also means commercial or residential development could move into the ditch (Which I will touch on a later date).
            This brings up a discussion, though – as the U of M bike trail is implemented, it will, at least initially, resemble the Midtown Greenway in the sense of its segregated ditch location. This brings up the question: Would a road carrying all types of traffic be destroying the purpose of the segregated trail? Wasn’t the purpose of the Midtown Greenway to separate the two types of traffic, allowing a lowering of stress for both auto/bike users and pedestrians? Or, with college students being as daring as they are anyways, would it not matter that an industrial road is juxtaposing the trail? I mean, it does work in places, including the stretch of the Diagonal Trail along Stinson Boulevard north of Como.
            Regardless of what happens to the ditch in the long run, the implementation of the U of M Trail is a great catalyst for the area north of campus which currently lacks a segregated bike trail. It could also help ease the minds of college hipsters like this.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

What this blog is about...

From my observations, it seems that most students who attend the University of Minnesota are blissfully ignorant of their surroundings. The sole location of the University and it's proximity to downtown Minneapolis seems to be overlooked, as most of the academia-focussed young population uses what its given without much critical thought. This blog is a discussion of the urban form around the University area, including the neighborhoods of Como, Marcy-Holmes, Prospect Park, and Cedar-Riverside.

When young people become aware of their surroundings, many have historically taken action to either preserve or change that surrounding. My goal is not to influence students to take action, but rather invigorate their observation of their surrounding landscape. It is with this hope that the transient, able-bodied college population can continue to improve the city landscape around the U of MN for future generations.