Add streetcars? Demolish decrepit buildings? Not too fast …

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Minneapolis streetcar circa 1945.

All of us have an inclination to get into ruts, especially in our thinking. Things we’ve experienced and heard become etched on our brains and eventually turn into something we call “truth.” Never mind the evidence.

Given that natural human tendency, I thought it might be edifying to take a look at two recent studies about our urban environment that might open our minds to ideas that contradict conventional wisdom.  

The streetcar trend

If you are old enough, as I am, you fondly remember riding the trolleys that chugged up and down Twin Cities thoroughfares as far out as Anoka and Stillwater. Of course, they’ve been gone since the 1950s, but nostalgia and a desire to boost mass mobility — without spending as much as a subway or light rail would require — have recently returned streetcars to popularity. In Portland, Seattle, Cleveland, Tampa, St. Louis, Atlanta and Arlington, Virginia, systems are either up and running or under construction, and both Mayors Betsy Hodges (of Minneapolis) and Chris Coleman (of St. Paul) are hoping to get them rolling again here; Minneapolis has already approved a value capture tax, a complex mechanism to finance the first line, which would cost $241 million. Supposedly, the permanence of the tracks will attract developers, and the charm of trolley riding would lure passengers from their cars, reducing traffic and sprawl.


Alas and alack, streetcar systems seem to be experiencing some bumps. Under a grant from the Mineta Transportation Institute of San Jose State College, Florida State University professor of urban and regional planning Jeff Brown and his grad students have been looking at five cities that built streetcar systems — Portland (that paragon of city planning), Seattle, Memphis, Little Rock and Tampa. The study is not yet published, but already Brown says that he and his cohorts can see a “very big difference in performance between Portland and the others.”

Tampa, for example, is in financial difficulties. “It’s been hemmorhaging riders,” says Brown. One reason: The streetcars are slo-o-o-o-w. To keep the cost down, the city built a single-track system — which has cars operating in either direction sharing the same track. Ridership has been spotty. Even in Portland, only 16,000 passengers use the trams each day, and half of them are tourists, not commuters. The city in the study with the next highest number of riders is Memphis, Brown says, with only 4,000. The streetcars do not seem to have reduced car usage to any great degree.

Before building a system, says Brown, city planners should think hard about what they hope to achieve. If their purpose is to draw riders, they may do so more efficiently and cost-effectively simply by ramping up bus service. And, if they’re simply considering adding a tram as a historic attraction for visitors and recreational riders, they should probably use an updated version of vintage cars rather than the originals. Says Bown, “It’s hard to get parts and maintain them.”

Old, decrepit buildings: Save or demolish?

When the Minneapolis City Council voted to save an old, single-story building in Dinkytown, blocking a bid by developer Kelly Doran to build a boutique hotel, I was bummed. Proponents of keeping the old structure, a rather unimposing 1920s structure that houses a Vietnamese restaurant, a tattoo parlor and a pizzeria, claimed it might have historic value, and a study is under way to see if it really does.

This move, like many recent efforts to preserve buildings without any obvious architectural distinction or historic value (nobody famous did anything notable in at 1319 4th St. SE, to my knowledge), which are the usual criteria for preservation, seems to defy common sense. After all, the building is worth a mere $295,000, while the new hotel would weigh in on the city’s tax rolls at $25 million — not counting the value of the land ($544,000). And, presumably, hotel guests — most likely folks doing business at the University of Minnesota — would drop into the streets and chow down at area restaurants and bars, further enlivening an already pretty busy area.


It turns out that the bright, new shiny thing versus the old care-worn thing controversy is not that clearcut. A study out this month from the National Trust for Historic Preservation looked at neighborhoods in San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, D.C. The findings: “Blocks of older, smaller buildings are quietly contributing to robust local economies and distinctive livable communities.”

Now, one has to take this information with a dash of salt because the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s entire shtick is preserving buildings. Still, the group did a prodigious amount of work in coming up with its conclusions. They looked at all existing structures in each city, documented the age, diversity of age and size of the buildings, and then assessed the relationship between all of that data and 40 economic, social, cultural and environmental performance metrics. They divided each city into grids of one to two blocks and analyzed squares composed of commercial and mixed-use areas.

The study found that the older neighborhoods were more walkable, drew younger people and had hotter nightlife than blocks with big, new buildings.

What’s more, the older spaces offered affordable space for entrepreneurs and minority-owned businesses and drew industries offering more creative jobs. That seems pretty obvious since rents would be more modest at ordinary older buildings than at some new “iconic” architectural masterpiece.  

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Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Harris Goldstein on 05/20/2014 - 10:22 am.

    Streetcar 2.0

    Envision a streetcar system that a) had configurable routing and b) required a minimum of up front infrastructure.

    I think it would look like a bus. So what are the benefits of streetcars (other than nostalgia)?

    First, they overcome the perceived “stigma” of riding a bus. But I suspect that’s going if not gone.

    Second, I assume they provide a faster and more predictable ride. But how? I don’t think they travel any faster than a bus can. And couldn’t any benefits achieved by dedicated lanes or traffic light controls be also available to buses?

    Third, they eliminate combustion emissions. But couldn’t we achieve the same with conversion of buses to natural gas? And, in the foreseeable future, electricity?

    So that leaves the “permanence” and “charm” factors. But aren’t the street cars intended to move out of commercial areas and closer the residential? As to charm, maybe a short line along Nicollet downtown and reaching North Loop and NE on the east, and a bit past Loring Park to the west might make sense.

    Light rail on high volume routes makes sense. Not sure streetcars do.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 05/20/2014 - 12:36 pm.


      Converting buses to natural gas would reduce, but not eliminate, emissions. Converting to electricity has the potential to eliminate emissions, although not necessarily so depending on where the electricity is generated.

      One advantage of streetcars over buses is they hold more people. A big cost of operating any transportation service is the cost of the operator, so it’s an advantage if you can spread the salary of the driver out over more riders.

      Streetcars are intended to move along major corridors, regardless of whether they’re commercial or residential. The permanence of a rail in the road is what drives additional development in the area. Buses can be quickly moved, which is an advantage as well as a detriment. Rail lines can’t be quickly moved, which is also a detriment if you’re looking strictly at flexibility. But it also has an advantage in that developers can count on the line being there next year. That spurs development as they can rely on that amenity as they plan denser housing and commercial projects because they know the rail line isn’t going to disappear tomorrow. The denser projects in turn help to drive more people to the streetcar line and create a positive feedback loop.

      It seems people are looking at buses or streetcars or lightrail, so perhaps a little education is in order. Each has their own pluses and minuses in turn.

      -Buses are quick and nimble, so they’re good if your routes change frequently or ridership is low.
      -Streetcars are better for higher volume routes local routes. They stop every couple of blocks to service local commercial and housing areas. Good for getting people around town.
      -LRT is a longer haul vehicle, stopping every couple of miles rather than every couple of blocks. You wouldn’t want to use one of these in a streetcar capacity because it would take forever to get across town. It’s good for getting people from the ‘burbs into downtown.
      -Heavy rail or commuter rail is best for getting people to and from far flung suburbs or regional centers like Rochester and St. Cloud. It makes infrequent and far-flung stops and runs less frequently than the above options.

      Each one is good in its own place and no option is going to fill all our transportation needs. We need all of the above as well as cars, biking & walking paths, planes, and ships in order to make our society work.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/20/2014 - 10:37 am.

    Icons have limitations

    For what little it’s worth…

    I’m ambivalent about streetcars, and even light rail to some degree, though I’d be happy to use one or both if they were convenient.

    And there’s the rub. It seems to me unlikely that the sort of public transit that now seems so popular among planners will ever succeed to the degree that is sometimes supposed, or hoped, for at least a couple of reasons (others may have more and/or better ones). First, public transit as an alternative to the automobile seems unlikely to me as long as the society continues to promote and subsidize the automobile via zoning and construction that continues to emphasize “sprawl,” including, but not limited to, continued construction of new roads, adding more lanes to existing highways, etc. All that money used for more roads, highway bridges, traffic “calming,” etc., is money that won’t or can’t be used for other modes of transit, be they walking, biking, or riding some other kind of vehicle.

    Second, what the automobile provides that public transit seems unlikely to be able to replace without a genuine transformation of the society is convenience. Convenience saves time, and time saved is worth money – a theory upon which the construction of a host of “convenience” stores has been based. You can get much better values at other stores, but they’re farther away, less convenient, and take more time to get to in most circumstances, so many people rarely go any farther than the local QVC or Walgreen’s, or the “store” at the nearest gas station unless they’re making a special, specific trip to buy school clothes for the kids or address some other specific material desire that can’t be fulfilled at the corner store. Unless/until we reach a point – perhaps not that far away – when fuel costs make automobiles, once again, toys for the 1%, I think most Americans are going to opt for convenience over the public good in terms of environmental damage, waste of resources, etc., unless there’s a genuine sea change in the national economy.

    As for buildings, the greenest building of all is the one that’s already standing. Those resources have already been consumed, and the most environmentally-friendly treatment of their use would be to continue to use them. The vast majority of the debris from tearing down a structure is never reused. It’s simply piled on a truck and taken to the county landfill, or to some “construction debris” site that amounts to pretty much the same thing. The new structure taking the place of the one torn down is not making use of the existing bricks, or metals, or lumber. It almost always uses “new” materials, so those old materials are tossed aside more often than not. New materials typically cost more, or are not as durable, or both, so “affordable” use of the new structure is more difficult, and often economically impossible. Higher costs mean higher rents for residents, higher prices for businesses, and in both cases, less “discretionary” income available for other uses. It makes sense, in many instances, to use and reuse what we already have rather than throw it away to get the newer, shinier version.

  3. Submitted by Alex Cecchini on 05/20/2014 - 10:39 am.

    The goal shouldn’t

    (only) be to preserve old structures because they have those characteristics. The bigger goal should be figuring out how to allow new construction to embody those same characteristics as well. In desirable (and therefore growing) cities, churn of structures is a good thing as it allows the addition of net quare footage (residential, retail, office, other – basically “supply”), helping keep price pressures down. Today’s new is tomorrow’s old (and therefore cheap/affordable/adaptable for up and coming uses). We know what policy changes need to be made to allow new development today to mirror the form of these successful places from the past. Let’s do it.

  4. Submitted by David Markle on 05/20/2014 - 11:21 am.

    Streetcars, Dinkytown

    Modern streetcars are approximately equivalent to ordinary local bus service, rather slow, but easier to board, and bright and shiny. These are also characteristics of the Green Line LRT, except that it does not provide good local service.
    Regarding Dinkytown: certainly the traditional small town business character was worth saving (note use of past tense) and I think the large new buildings should have been kept at least one block away from that little business center. Long standing good example: The Chateau

  5. Submitted by John DeWitt on 05/20/2014 - 02:13 pm.

    Affordable space

    Providing affordable space for entrepreneurs and minority-owned businesses is a worthy goal. Jane Jacobs has written that “New ideas need old buildings.” But is it the old building or the low rent that really matters? How about dedicating a small percentage of the significant property tax increase with new development to subsidizing rent for those kinds of uses. It doesn’t make much sense to keep old buildings around forever just because the rent is cheap.

    • Submitted by Eric Saathoff on 05/20/2014 - 03:00 pm.

      Jane Jacobs

      I just finished this chapter. It was absolutely about the low rent / low overhead costs of the businesses but also about the freedom that a mass developer does not allow. She wrote about the need for there to be a constantly changing mix of old and new, but the balance needed to be maintained between the old and the new.
      I’m very skeptical about the developer subsidizing rent for specific kinds of uses. I think that would lead the developer into choosing winners and losers and deciding who gets to compete with who. The beauty of the Jane Jacobs chapter was in the freedom of people to do what the neighborhood needed at different times. Nobody tells the businesses what they can do or have to be in a specific space and they are often turning over to what the neighborhood needs next.

  6. Submitted by David Greene on 05/21/2014 - 12:02 am.

    Old Buildings

    There’s a proposed project on W. Broadway that’s a perfect example of why old buildings should sometimes be preserved. The developer wants to tear everything down from about Bryant to Emerson. This would take out some of the last remaining vintage commercial buildings on W. Broadway. Not only do they have inexpensive rent, allowing small local businesses to work there, they have the kind of street frontage charm you just can’t get with new big buildings.

    There’s another project whereby Kemps wants to tear down old buildings at 4th St. and W. Broadway to build a giant parking lot. That’s a much worse use of the land than what’s already there. The buildings themselves have been deemed historic resources by city staff, so at least it will be slightly more difficult to demolish them though a simple vote by the city council could still allow it.

    No developer is going to build single-lot commercial buildings or apartments anymore, so there is certainly a place for preserving some of that when it makes sense. Low rent and great street frontage are fine reasons for preservation.

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 05/21/2014 - 04:26 pm.

      The plans for West Broadway are a perfect example of

      how the perceived social class of a neighborhood drives development.

      Look at development in Linden Hills or the 50th and France area or St. Anthony Main compared to development along West Broadway, central Lake Street, or University and Snelling.

      Development in the affluent areas tends to preserve the urban character of the neighborhood. Yes, there are teardowns of old houses with condos and trophy houses going up in their place, but the areas retain an urban vibe, with buildings close together and cars hidden away in carefully placed rear or side lots, ramps, or underground garages.

      Development in poor areas wipes everything clean and then puts up shlocky suburban-style big box stores with vast, poorly maintained parking lots separating them from the sidewalk.

      Don’t less affluent neighborhoods deserve good design?

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/21/2014 - 09:07 am.

    Street cars

    Again, ONE LINE is not a system and you don’t build transit for the people who aren’t going to use it. The fact that Boston and New York have massive traffic jams every day doesn’t mean their transit systems are a bust. And I don’t know why people are expecting entrenched transportation behavior to change in a few years, obviously it will take time.

    Clearly street cars can make more sense is some urban environments than others so comparisons at this point may be of limited value. Listen, the Portland street line is only 3 or so miles long, (roughly the distance around Lake Calhoun). 16,000 riders a day on that line sounds like a lot of people to me. By comparison the Hiawatha line is almost 4 times longer and boards around 27,000 people a day. So you have a street car in Portland that’s one third the length and moving more than half as many people as the Hiawatha light rail. And this is “evidence” that street cars are over-hyped as transit options?

    It’s just weird. We build these transit systems as part of long range planning and then after five years we complain that they haven’t transformed our urban environment.

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 05/21/2014 - 04:18 pm.

      It’s worth noting that even Tokyo has horrible traffic jams

      despite having probably the best and most comprehensive urban transit system in the world, consisting of surface trains, subways, one streetcar line (most were replaced by subways in the years after World War II), and buses.

      But that is not an argument against transit. Far from it.

      Look at the packed commuter trains running every three minutes at rush hour and imagine what the city would be like if all those people were driving.

      • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 05/22/2014 - 06:35 am.


        That’s an important distinction to make: the traffic jams aren’t bad because of the trains, but in spite of the trains.

        On a different tact, some people like to complain that we still have traffic jams despite building out train systems as if the train will somehow magically alleviate all traffic. That’s not the case, and not just for trains and traffic, but for any other problem in the world you can point at. Rarely does just one solution completely eliminate eliminate a problem we’ve got.

        As Karen correctly pointed out, just think how much worse the roads would be if all those people who rode a train suddenly had to drive. Highways would go from deplorable to unusable in no time flat.

  8. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/21/2014 - 09:15 am.

    Old buildings

    Thanks for looking into this Marlys.

    I think one thing to keep in mind is the fact that old buildings aren’t just about “historical” significance. There’s an aesthetic quality that contemporary architects find hard to duplicate or create. When you replace older buildings with larger new ones you can create a disrupted streetscape that people react to negatively. I mean, what part of “dinky” Town are we not understanding here when someone wants to build a giant hotel on the block?

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