Rain Follows the Plow? – Population Density and Transit-Oriented Development.


“They made up theories that rain follows the plow explaining that once farmers finally come out and start turning the earth, the rain will actually then come. In the 19th Century all kinds of nonsense was accepted as scientific fact and it was almost like a conspiracy to get people out here.”
Marc Reisner, Author of Cadillac Desert.

Transit-oriented development or TOD is a term that’s getting increasing usage in the Twin Cities these days. The Victoria Transport Policy Institute defines TOD as “residential and commercial centers designed to maximize access by Transit and non-motorized transportation, and with other features to encourage transit ridership.”

The Hiawatha LRT line carried 7.9 million riders in 2005 and averaged 24,000 riders per weekday. Ridership in the line’s first full year of operation exceeded pre-construction estimates by 58 percent. The successful debut of the Hiawatha LRT has spurred a building boom alongside its tracks. Development along the corridor is projected to build 7,150 new housing units and more than 19 million square feet of new commercial space by 2020. Developers and government officials are eager to see if the TOD formula will work in other parts of the city, in particular the Uptown area.

Neighborhood residents in the Uptown are concerned that TOD is is being used by developers as an excuse to build outsized, residential buildings in an area zoned for smaller buildings. Another complaint is that the real goal of developers is to build tall, residential buildings inside Lake Calhoun’s shoreline overlay district. Residents are also concerned that the new development will adversely affect the livability and character as well as the unique ambience of Uptown and the surrounding neighborhoods.

At least three developments have been proposed within the shoreline overlay district in recent years. Perhaps the most controversial is the 83 foot tall Edgewater condominium development being built on Lake Calhoun’s eastern shore.

Developer Clark Gassen, the builder of the Edgewater project, was recently quoted in the New York Times saying “I want to be involved in the transition of the Uptown neighborhood… We want to make it a little Manhattan.”

But neighborhood residents say that Uptown does not have the same high-capacity rail transit that serves Manhattan. Manhattan’s transit riders have access to subways, commuter trains, ferries, and buses representing billions of dollars of public investment. No similar scale of transit investment has been allocated for the South and Western Metro areas for which Uptown’s Lake Street is a gateway to Minneapolis. The Southwest LRT remains only in the planning stages and a proposed trolley line along the Greenway also awaits funding and a green light from public officials. Without high-capacity rail service, an Uptown with a greater population density will likely be more congested with cars. Increased auto traffic will degrade the physical environment and the relaxed pedestrian ambiance that people expect on the sidewalks of Uptown.

Public officials have claimed that it is essential to encourage developers to build for more population density because they feel that population density is a prerequisite for building high-capacity transit infrastructure such as light rail. The Met Council has made it clear to Minneapolis officials that the region’s core needs to build additional housing to absorb a projected increase in population that would otherwise undermine the Met Council’s efforts to restrict suburban sprawl.

Vukan Vuchic, Professor of Professor of Transportation, City and Regional Planning at the University of Pennsylvania, describes the notion that low-density cities ar are not suited for transit as a common misconception. “It is true that the efficiency of transit decreases with density. The ability to provide good transit, however, depends not only on density but on the overall transportation network and organization of activities as well… There are many suburban areas with low densities, such as Calgary, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Washington D.C., in which not only bus but also rail systems operate efficiently because they have extensive suburban feeder systems (bicycles, cars and buses) and convenient distribution in the central city via walking, buses and other modes.”

There is already a network of pedestrian, bicycle and bus feeding into the Hennepin/Lake area. The Midtown Greenway and the Uptown Transit Hub already act as a feeder to a future LRT line.

If density were essential to the success of future rail transit in Uptown, another way to increase population density without building tall buildings would be to convert surface parking to residential and commercial structures. One obvious difference between the Uptown neighborhood and a neighborhood like Greenwich Village in Manhattan is the many parking lots and drive-through businesses along Hennepin and Lake Street. Population density could be improved significantly if surface parking was converted to housing and shops. Converting parking space to residential and retail space would also improve the pedestrian environment that is essential for transit-oriented development.

Another less obvious difference is that the buildings developers are proposing in Uptown provide ample, underground parking. Critics say that generous parking facilities are incompatible with TOD. Certainly, the large bays leading to the underground parking are a blight and a hazard to pedestrians and bicyclists. The developers would have a better case for the claiming their developments are transit-oriented if they restricted parking and offered incentives to attract a clientele not dependent on automobiles for transportation.

Another improvement that could enhance Uptown’s status as a transit-oriented development would be adding bike-lanes along Hennepin Avenue and Lake Street. A further enhancement of Uptown’s TOD would be to build trollies along Lake Street, Hennepin Avenue and Lyndale Avenues as feeders to the light or commuter rail along the Midtown Greenway.

Unless public officials and transit advocates insist on a comprehensive “transit first” policy in any discussion about transit-oriented development, neighborhood residents will continue to suspect that TOD is a wedge to undermine zoning and neighborhood concerns about excessive building height and increased automobile traffic. In the long run, that could undermine public support for transit in the Twin Cities.


Learn More about transit and Transit Oriented Development:

Victoria Transport Policy Institute

Transit for Livable Communities

Project for Public Spaces (PPS)