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Add streetcars? Demolish decrepit buildings? Not too fast …

Two recent studies about our urban environment might open our minds to ideas that contradict conventional wisdom.

Minneapolis streetcar circa 1945.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

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.

Evidence:

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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.

Evidence:

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.

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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.