Narrow streets and congestion have gotten a bad rap, says Chuck Marohn, president of Strong Towns, a nonprofit organization that challenges the standard notions many people have about growth and development patterns.
The Brainerd area native said associates have jokingly termed him an evangelist for ideas that run contrary to traditional attitudes on land use development.
Chuck Marohn, president of Strong Towns, a nonprofit organization, explained how Brainerd's older-style narrow streets, such as Chippewa Street in north Brainerd (background) are more conducive to pedestrians because they force traffic to slow down.
Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls
Marohn, a civil engineer with a master's degree in planning, compared parts of northeast Brainerd with north Brainerd's Chippewa and Kingwood streets, just north of the Dairy Queen.
The wide streets found in northeast Brainerd encourage fast-moving traffic that's not conducive to pedestrians, he said. Many of the Mill Avenue area streets measure 44 feet wide, compared to the 24-feet wide streets of north Brainerd, he said. Traffic whizzes by at about 40 mph in northeast Brainerd.
The narrower Chippewa Street, with parking on both sides of the street, forces traffic to slow down and makes the densely populated city block more walkable.
"Congestion in an urban setting is not a bad thing," Marohn said.
By not permitting mixed use development in our neighborhoods - as was the case when substantial numbers of people worked in the railroad shops and shopped in small, neighborhood grocery stores - the city of Brainerd is fighting against its own DNA, Marohn said. He recalled the concerns that were raised about mixed use when the Franklin Arts Center was interested in establishing a coffee shop in that largely residential area.
He also noted that narrower streets are cheaper to maintain than the wider streets. In other words, bigger is not always better.
"We thought growth and prosperity was the Baxter model," he said.
The downside of the popular trend of building more infrastructure in the expectation of growth, Marohn said is that the new infrastructure must be maintained at public expense.
The established mindset is that communities can grow their way out of their economic problems by investing in streets and curb and gutter and waiting for growth to follow, Marohn said. In today's economy, he said, communities can't count on growth to sustain them.
Marohn cited a report that stated that between 1990 and 2005, consumer spending rose 14 percent, adjusted for inflation, yet retail space per capita in the U.S. doubled. The value of commercial real estate has been cut nearly in half since 2008, he said.
Vacant commercial space is a common sight, Marohn said, and the old pattern of development no longer generates prosperity for cities. Growth has stopped, Marohn said.
"We're trying to will it back," Marohn said. "We've just ridden that horse as far as it will go."
Pointing to the city of Brainerd's proposed College Drive project, Marohn questioned what return the city would receive for its investment of about $8 million. By widening the road - which is the standard solution - Brainerd will see to it that its drivers will get to Baxter slightly faster than they used to.
"We have to have a broad conversation about growth and about financial stability," Marohn said.
That discussion should include the likely possibility that the cities that rely heavily on local government aid money from Minnesota may have to untether themselves from that revenue source.
"That's a very volatile funding source right now," he said. "You're in a very vulnerable position. That's a pretty risky gamble right now."
He expects funding for LGA to compete with education and public safety money as state budgets get tighter.
"The idea that we (cities that are LGA recipients) would be a priority ... I think we're dreaming a bit. We're all feeding at the same trough. It's hard to imagine that being there five or 10 years from now."
Strong Towns is an education and advocacy organization that is committed to creating fiscally sustainable and desirable communities. The new model it supports calls for communities to seek a higher return on existing infrastructure investments rather than creating new infrastructure to serve or induce new development.
The nonprofit's roots started with blogs on various planning issues written by Marohn and his associate, Jon Commers of Donjek Reinvestment Strategies of St. Paul consultant. Commers is executive director of Strong Towns. Those online discussions evolved to the point where they decided to form a nonprofit organization. The organization is applying for a 501(c)(3) designation.
Strong Towns recently issued a report on "Minnesota's Most Vulnerable Cities," those considered to have a risky dependence on state and federal funding. Most Brainerd area cities were not ranked very high. Baxter ranked 755th. Brainerd ranked 337th.
Marohn said Brainerd ranked pretty well because of its broad and diverse tax base.
While cities continue to receive state and federal aid they should be looking for a road map that could make them more productive and less reliant on that aid, Marohn said.
"The exercise of envisioning life without it (state and federal aid) is a valuable exercise," Marohn said.
Marohn, who is also president of the Baxter-based Community Growth Institute, a planning firm that works with small towns and rural areas, has roots that run deep in the Brainerd area. In the early 1900s, his ancestors homesteaded a farm in Baxter near the present site of Forestview Middle School. The son of two longtime teachers, he met his future wife at Franklin Junior High School and has vivid memories when Brainerd's downtown area housed two movie theaters and an armory. After studying at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, Marohn chose to move home, settling in East Gull Lake.
"This is my home," he said. "How do you explain your ties to our hometown?"
MIKE O'ROURKE may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5860.
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