Flipping Houses, Zoning Codes, and Building Codes

DC row houses - the first CC image hit for "dc house flips" on Flickr. Photo from Elvert Barnes.
DC row houses – the first CC image hit for “dc house flips” on Flickr. Photo from Elvert Barnes.

Earlier in May, local public radio station WAMU aired a lengthy three-part report on the collateral damage involved in house flipping in DC. Martin Austermuhle’s series offers a window into the nightmare for buyers of newly renovated homes – often converted from single family rowhomes into multi-unit buildings – who soon learn that their dream home is actually a nightmare of shoddy work and potentially illegal construction.

The three-part series focuses on buyers, developers, and the city’s regulatory response.

As horrifying as these stories are, Austermuhle correctly focuses on the challenges of enforcing the building code as the root cause of these problems, rather than the zoning code.

Small-scale development is an important tool in strong markets (like DC) to respond to demand for new housing. So many opportunities for small-scale urban development have already been regulated out of existence in American cities. The people buying these flips aren’t suckers taken by con men; they represent the market for additional housing in a city like DC.

Shoddy flips shouldn’t put those remaining opportunities for small-scale development in DC at risk, because the problem here is with building code enforcement and inspection, not with zoning. But whenever there is outrage, there is a strong urge for the city to do something, even if it doesn’t address the stated problem.

The zoning code is not the building code

Tales of illegal construction in flipped houses might stoke the fears of development opponents, but the problems described in the series involve errors in construction.

Too often, cities attempt to use the zoning code as a catch-all regulatory structure, encompassing economic development goals, social policy, etc. Part of this is out of convenience (I did have at least one proponent express support to me for DC’s recent zoning code changes in rowhouse neighborhoods due to the challenges in enforcing the building code – both for approvals and for construction inspections). I suspect part is also a confusion of the issues, thinking that because zoning deals with the city therefore zoning is an appropriate place for regulations about the city.

This series helps clarify the differences; Austermuhle correctly gives zoning only a cameo appearance.

Pop up limits

Even with the focus on building code enforcement, that doesn’t stop public calls to address development issues via zoning restrictions. However, it’s not clear that zoning would stop the flips. House flips are hardly limited to structures with the opportunity to increase the total number of units.

Enforcement matters:  One example of shoddy construction also includes blatant violations of the zoning code. What good will modestly tighter zoning regulations do without basic enforcement? Perhaps zoning isn’t the root problem; enforcement is.

Building codes matter

While zoning codes often get the attention, this doesn’t mean building codes aren’t important factors in determining the shape of the city. Houston famously (or infamously) lacks standard, use-based zoning codes. However, Houston’s building code and other regulations still mandate many of the aspects commonly found in zoning codes: minimum on-site parking requirements, minimum lot sizes, etc. It’s not a regulation-free environment.

Even when the building code sticks to more traditional subject matter, there can still be a tremendous impact on the financial feasibility of certain types of construction. In February, Let’s Go LA featured a guest post from LA Architect Tom Steidl about local differences in LA’s high rise building codes that make Vancouver-style towers less financially feasible:

Towers in Los Angeles tend to have significantly larger floor plates than those in Vancouver and US cities that have embraced high-rise design. The primary reason for this isn’t differences in land use or zoning codes. It’s mainly building code and fire department regulations that require additional floor area be added to the core of the tower. In addition to making our towers more bulky, this added floor area increases construction cost and reduces affordability.

One of LA’s quirks (now removed from the code) was a fire department mandate for rooftop helipads. But, as Steidl notes, each requirement that reduces the efficiency of the floor plate adds to the total cost. High rises are already expensive to build and will only pencil out under certain circumstances. Adding costs on the margins only makes the developer’s pro forma more challenging.

The building codes matter. But, LA’s quirky code provides a cautionary tale on policy relying on high rises alone to absorb housing growth. As Payton Chung has written, achieving mass market affordable housing via expensive construction types is a challenge – particularly in DC.

A comprehensive approach to affordable housing in strong markets like DC and LA can’t ignore the key role of small-scale, low-rise development in providing affordably built housing. This means projects of the type taken on by house flippers; smaller scale projects that increase a single lot into 2-4 units.

Poor construction risks eroding confidence in small-scale construction that is vital to meeting housing demand. Likewise, a strong, predictable, and nimble team of inspectors needs to effectively enforce DC’s building codes to manage this period of change.

Lawsuits: the American Way.

Maybe they will help. Writing about some of the same flippers as Austermuhle (and working in parallel), Ian Shapira at the Washington Post notes that some of the same flippers have been sued by DC’s newly elected Attorney General. A more robust consumer protection watchdog can’t hurt, and could even help jump-start a more robust system of code inspections.

Decreasing opportunities for incremental development in American neighborhoods

Several months ago, Charlie Gardner had an excellent, thought-provoking post asking why have American cities seen the demise of the duplex? In a time when growing cities are bursting at the seams and facing severe affordability challenges, an incremental kind of development might be welcome in many cities, offering new housing while allowing an evolutionary pace of change to a neighborhood’s physical fabric, instead of the abrupt transition of large-scale redevelopment. So why don’t we see more of it?

Consider international comparisons of small-scale incremental development: Charlie Gardner compares the built form on both sides of the US-Mexico border, noting how on the Mexican side houses grow incrementally over time, often adding new uses along the street. The net result is a slow transformation of the entire neighborhood, evolving towards denser development patterns. Gardner speculates on reasons for the difference with standard American development patterns (including finance and regulation), noting that the small-scale development open the door to homeownership at a much lower price threshold.

Conversely, there are examples of American neighborhoods adding units on a relatively small scale. Let’s Go LA has been tweeting highlights from Wallace Frances Smith’s “The Low-Rise Speculative Apartment,” published in 1964. The book documents the replacement of single-family homes with low-rise speculative apartments (often in the form of dingbats), concluding that this small-scale, relatively low-cost form of construction plays an important role in adding housing supply to the market. Without requiring challenging lot consolidation or more-expensive construction methods, this kind of incremental, small-scale development allowed neighborhoods of single-family homes to evolve into denser places – even without large incomes in the neighborhoods to afford expensive new construction.

Despite the small scale of each individual building, the net result was a substantial increase in housing production overall.

So, why don’t we see more of this today? While various New Urbanists might not like the specific dingbat product, the idea of small-scale urban density is still appealing. The so-called ‘missing middle’ forms, such as townhouses, flats, and small apartment buildings are all lauded as contextually-friendly ways to add housing and increase density in already developed areas. So, why are these housing types missing?

As Let’s Go LA points out, much of this kind of development has been regulated out of existence. In LA, large portions of the city have been downzoned; the newer zoning no longer allows for by-right development of dingbats and other small-scale apartment buildings. In aggregate, the result is a huge decrease in the potential development allowed in LA.

Much of that LA zoning potential would’ve been in the hands of small-scale landowners rather than large real estate development firms. One consequence of removing that development potential is to erode the ‘franchise’ for incremental development. Let’s Go LA notes thatby zoning small developments out of existence, we’ve made land development a much less democratic process, in the sense that far fewer individuals in the community are able to participate economically.” Instead, 20% of LA’s recent growth has been absorbed in the relatively small confines of downtown. While this is good for downtown (thanks to regulatory changes such as LA’s adaptive re-use ordinance and relaxation of off-street parking requirements – discussed previously here), limiting growth to such a small area of the city has consequences: “when growth is restricted across so much of the rest of the city, there will still be pressure on regional housing prices, and gentrification will continue.”

The phenomenon isn’t limited to LA or to dingbats. Stephen Smith, writing at New York YIMBY, looks at the demise of small-scale development (buildings smaller than five units) in New York: “Put simply: New York City’s small builders have been nearly eradicated. The segment of the market that normally produces about half the city’s new building stock has all but vanished.”

New York City building permits, by number of units. Chart from New York YIMBY, data from the US Census Bureau.
New York City building permits, by number of units. Chart from New York YIMBY, data from the US Census Bureau.

Smith considers several hypotheses for this decline in small-scale development, including the end of some tax abatement programs and weak markets in some parts of the city. Smith also hypothesizes that New York’s recent ‘contextual rezonings’ removed development potential from areas ripe for small-scale development:

The result is that many neighborhoods that were once full of redevelopment opportunities are now closed off to anything but the smallest of one- or two-family projects on vacant lots. This sort of redevelopment was largely banned after the implementation of the 1961 zoning code, but throughout her tenure Amanda Burden closed off the last few areas where it was still allowed.

DC is seeing similar conversations. Demand for additional housing often leads to ‘pop-up’ development, often in the form of vertical additions to existing rowhouses. The term even gets used as a catch-all for any kind of smaller scale infill development. Many existing residents are concerned about the changes (though others are supportive).

Responding to political pressure and resident requests, the Office of Planning proposed their own version of a contextual rezoning.However, during a hearing on the measure, one of the zoning commissioners expressed deep concern about the overall impact of reducing this development potential in a city with a growing population and decreasing housing affordability. Greater Greater Washington’s summary of the exchange captures the concern: “I just don’t think we have a comprehensive housing policy in this city and I’m worried about all the unintended consequences of [this proposal].”

While Charlie Gardner contrasted American urbanism to Mexico, there are other options as well. This paper from Sonia Hirt looks at German land use regulations. German zoning is guided by federal standards, localities have some flexibility within those standards but cannot add restrictions to the basic zoning classifications. One end result is that there is no such thing as a residential zone devoted solely to single-family homes. Likewise, even residential zones must accommodate commerce to meet the “daily needs” of the neighborhood.

In outlining potential routes for zoning reform in the United States building off of lessons learned from Germany, Hirt suggests that instead of relatively small areas of mixed-use zoning, planners could focus on a wider area of limited flexibility for residential development – something that might not look that different from the small, speculative apartment developments of the 50s and 60s; or of duplex development.

What would happen without parking requirements?

Downtown Los Angeles. CC image from Nadia Kovacs.

The paper of the day, from Michael Manville: “Parking requirements as a barrier to housing development: regulation and reform in Los Angeles

Abstract: Using a partial deregulation of residential parking in downtown Los Angeles, I examine the impact of minimum parking requirements on housing development. I find that when parking requirements are removed, developers provide more housing and less parking, and also that developers provide different types of housing: housing in older buildings, in previously disinvested areas, and housing marketed toward non-drivers. This latter category of housing tends to sell for less than housing with parking spaces. The research also highlights the importance of removing not just quantity mandates but locational mandates as well. Developers in dense inner cities are often willing to provide parking, but ordinances that require parking to be on the same site as housing can be prohibitively expensive.

Background: Los Angeles had a lot of underutilized office buildings that were not competitive in the office market any longer. The city passed an adaptive reuse ordinance to encourage the re-use of these buildings by offering flexibility on zoning requirements, including use and parking.

The paper shows how developers for these conversions, given flexibility from the code by right, to build less parking than would otherwise be required (new construction in the area is still subject to the parking requirements of the code).  But, unlike the cases in Portland, all of the developers still provided some parking – this is Los Angeles after all (and yet another case for letting the market prevail based on local and regional conditions).

The second key area of flexibility is in parking location – developers wishing to re-use properties downtown could provide parking for tenants off-site, often allowing for shared use parking in under-utilized office garages nearby. Traditional requirements not only arbitrarily set the level of parking to be built, but also demand it be provided on site, even if off-site options may be more feasible and cost-effective.

In terms of the housing stock, this code flexibility allowed developers more flexibility in their target market. Those targeting the higher end provided more parking, but the lack of a hard requirement allows devleopers flexibility in which markets they target.  Parking has a great market value, of course, so the units built with fewer or no parking spaces would rent for a lower price, allowing the market to create a wider range of products.

The end result is more housing, a wider range of housing price points, a smaller supply of off-street parking spaces, and re-use of under-utilized buildings.

While this paper focuses on LA’s adaptive re-use ordinance, the same pricinples apply to zoning and parking requirements in general.

The most segregated cities in America

Salon.com has an interesting slideshow of the 10 most segregated cities in America.  The data comes from the 2010 Census, and the methodology to determine the level of segregation is based on differences between census tracts:

We may think of segregation as a matter of ancient Southern history: lunch counter sit-ins, bus boycotts and Ku Klux Klan terrorism. But as the census numbers remind us, Northern cities have long had higher rates of segregation than in the South, where strict Jim Crow laws kept blacks closer to whites, but separate from them. Where you live has a big impact on the education you receive, the safety on your streets, and the social networks you can leverage.

The following is a list of the nation’s most segregated metropolitan areas of over 500,000 people. The rankings are based on a dissimilarity index, a measure used by social scientists to gauge residential segregation. It reflects the number of people from one race — in this case black or white — who would have to move for races to be evenly distributed across a certain area. A score of 1 indicates perfect integration while 100 signals complete segregation. The rankings were compiled by John Paul DeWitt of CensusScope.org and the University of Michigan’s Social Science Data Analysis Network.

Each of the 10 most segregated cities includes a narrative for the city.  Several include observations on transportation and the linkages between land use and infrastructure.

# 10. Los Angeles

LA 10

The L.A. riots of 1992, like the 1965 Watts riot, were sparked by police brutality, a steady concern in besieged neighborhoods like South Central. Nearly 20 years later, the jobless ghettos of black and Latino Los Angeles remain. Greater Los Angeles has been so big for so long — legion nodes connected by extensive highways — that it’s hard to say exactly what its borders are. Safe in their cars and behind their gates, most white people have gone back to not paying attention.

In short, transportation matters. Diversity without intermingling can be isolating.

# 2. New York
NY 02

Ingrid Gould Ellen, an urban planning and public policy professor at New York University, says that New York City is somewhat more integrated than the data would suggest, because it is far denser than most cities. Since census tracts are made up by population, tracts in New York tend to be very small.

“What happens is that we’re not making apples to apples comparisons. The neighborhoods in Atlanta and Houston are 10 times the size of neighborhoods in New York City physically,” she says. “The census tracts are so much smaller, so you’re likely to cross over a number of census tracts every day.”

The daily commute of the average New Yorker also lessens racial isolation. Thanks to the dominance of public transit, intra-city travel tends to be a diverse experience.

New York, despite segregation, benefits from both density and transit.

# 1. Milwaukee

Milwaukee 01_2

Nationwide, blacks have been concentrated in the inner city, far away from where new jobs are created. Yet the case of Milwaukee is extreme: 90 percent of the metro area’s black population lives in the city. Making matters worse, suburban whites are notably hostile to building any form of public transit to connect city people to suburban jobs, further exacerbating segregation’s ill effects.

If you’re wondering if this can somehow, some way, be blamed on union-busting Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, the answer is yes. Walker took the lead in a campaign against public transit to connect the suburbs to the city during his time as county executive. He thought the funds would be better spent on highways.

“There is virulent opposition in these exurban counties to any kind of regional transit system, particularly a regional rail system. There have been proposals over the years, but they’re always DOA,” says Levine. “Governor Walker’s big issue as state representative and county executive was ‘Over my dead body light rail,’ and he fought with Milwaukee’s mayor over funds for regional rail. He very much represents that suburban and exurban base.”

That map graphic says it all.

Skylines and Helipads

LA Helipads

One thing that always struck me about LA – whether from browsing Google Maps or from Die Hard – is that there seemed to be a lot of helicopter landing pads on top of high rise buildings.   Was this for movie filming opportunities, or perhaps thinking of helicopters as a means to bypass LA’s traffic?  Curbed LA (via planetizen) has the answer – codes:

Remember “LA Law”’s opening shot, the close-up of an ’80s-era downtown? If the city looks a lot better today, one thing that hasn’t changed about downtown is its flat skyline. The boxy look of the city’s buildings isn’t due to lack of architectural creativity, but the result of a Los Angeles Fire Department code requiring helicopter landing pads on all tall buildings.

Architects and other interested parties are in favor of stripping the requirement in order to give designers more freedom in crafting a dramatic skyline for the city.

The helipad rule, mandated on all buildings 75 feet or higher, was born out of statewide fire codes that emerged in the 1970s, according to Stormes. Long Beach has the same rule, as do parts of Orange County. Los Angeles County also has a similar code. San Diego used to have the helipad rule, but dropped it, to the delight of architects in that city. (“Architecturally, it’s definitely enhanced the skyline,” says San Diego-based architect Joseph Martinez, of having the rule changed. His firm Martinez + Cutri Corporation Architects has put up five high-rises since the requirement was dropped.)

Fire safety experts believes LAFD’s history with the helipad is tied to its long-standing Air Operation division. Since 1962, the LAFD has maintained an aerial division; today, it has six helicopters, a far bigger fleet than most other cities. If the division is constantly busy—rescuing hikers from canyons, or fighting wildfires–the helicopters are rarely used to fight high-rise fires.

But the instances have been dramatic: In 1988, a fire tore through the 62-story First Interstate Bank Building (now the AON Building) downtown. Pilots in LAFD helicopters could see “a man waving frantically from a 50th-floor window,” according to a Los Angeles Times report, and were able to direct firefighters inside the tower to him (the man later died). Helicopters also delivered firefighters to the roof, and evacuated wounded people.

Laments about architectural creativity sound similar to complaints about DC’s height limit.

Part 2 continues here.

Parking, lots and lots of parking!

Parking Meter

There’s been a horde of great parking posts in the last few days:

First, Jarrett Walker documents San Francisco’s new adventure in market pricing for on-street spaces:

The goal is to ensure that there’s always a space available, so that people stop endlessly driving in circles looking for parking.  People will be able to check online to find out the current parking cost in the place they intend to visit.  Parking garages will have a better chance of undercutting on-street rates, so that those garages can fill.  If you’ve ever driven in San Francisco, you know that it’s hard to decide to use a garage because, well, if you just drive around the block once more, you might get lucky.  Under SF Park, if you just drive around the block once more, you’ll probably find a space, but it will cost more than a garage, especially if you’ll be there for a while.  So drivers are more likely to fill up the garages.

Jarrett illuminates some of the problems with truly dynamic pricing – ideally, you’d want to have a price set for a given location and time so that a driver knows what they’ll likely have to pay prior to beginning their trip.  This is similar to all sorts of other goods, where the prices are fixed for consumers, even if the actual prices fluctuate more often.

Jarrett also notes the potential for San Francisco to predict and target prices based on the data these meters will collect.  The city has collected lots of useful parking data, the question is now about using that data and infrastructure effectively.  Walker notes:

In a recent post on congestion, I observed that current road-pricing policy requires us to save money, a renewable resource, by expending time, the least renewable resource of all.  If you’ve ever circled a block looking for parking, while missing or being late for something that’s important to you, you know that the same absurdity is true of our on-street parking policy.  SF Park deserves close watching.  And if it doesn’t work well, ask yourself:  “Is it because it doesn’t make sense to charging for parking based on demand, or is it because they were too timid to do it completely?”  The answer will almost certainly be the latter.   The policy itself relies only on free-market principles that already govern many parts of our economies, because they work.

Indeed, market forces do work.  Similarly, Tyler Cowen raised the subject in this weekend’s New York Times. Cowen focused on all aspects of Donald Shoup’s excellent book The High Cost of Free Parking. In addition to market pricing for parking spaces in order to ensure efficient use, Cowen also addresses parking development requirements:

If developers were allowed to face directly the high land costs of providing so much parking, the number of spaces would be a result of a careful economic calculation rather than a matter of satisfying a legal requirement. Parking would be scarcer, and more likely to have a price — or a higher one than it does now — and people would be more careful about when and where they drove.

The subsidies are largely invisible to drivers who park their cars — and thus free or cheap parking spaces feel like natural outcomes of the market, or perhaps even an entitlement. Yet the law is allocating this land rather than letting market prices adjudicate whether we need more parking, and whether that parking should be free. We end up overusing land for cars — and overusing cars too. You don’t have to hate sprawl, or automobiles, to want to stop subsidizing that way of life.

Market Urbanism chimes in specifically about  minimum parking requirements, taking note of New York City’s efforts to change their laws (including references to Streetsblog’s coverage of the issue earlier this year). Many more also chime in, including Cowen’s personal blog – with posts expounding on his NYT article, Arnold Kling’s response, and Cowen’s response to the response – all worth reading.  As usual, Ryan Avent also responds.

In a similar vein to the parking discussion, Ryan Avent also offered this paper up for review, drawing the conclusion that congestion pricing works best in places that have good transit networks – i.e. where there is an effective alternative to driving.  The abstract notes that the two congestion pricing successes had solid transit systems to rely on.  Ryan notes that congestion pricing can be used for improving transit, but it might be politically necessary to front the costs of those transit improvements prior to implementing the congestion charge.

The limited polling prior to the death of New York’s congestion pricing plan also suggested this – dedication of revenues to transit improvements was crucial for garnering public support.  New York, of course, has the advantage of a transit system as an alternative means of transport.  If a city without such infrastructure were to implement such a plan, might some borrowing against future revenues (similar to Los Angeles’ 30/10 plan) be in order?

Infrastructural and industrial spaces

CC image from nathansnider
CC image from nathansnider

The Infrastructural City – Something I’m eagerly anticipating is a sort of on-line book club discussion of the infrastructural city, spearheaded by mammoth.

Over the course of the next several months, mammoth will be coordinating an online discussion of The Infrastructural City: Networked Ecologies in Los Angeles (edited by Kazys Varnelis and published last year by Actar), as an experiment in the cooperative reading and discussion of a text.

As Varnelis explains in the introduction to The Infrastructural City, Los Angeles is perhaps the American city most fully indebted to infrastructure for its existence and survival:

“If the West was dominated by the theology of infrastructure, Los Angeles was its Rome. Cobbled together out of swamp, floodplain, desert, and mountains, short of water and painfully dependent on far-away resources to survive, Los Angeles is sited on inhospitable terrain, located where the continent runs out of land. No city should be here. Its ecological footprint greater than the expansive state it resides in, Los Angeles exists by the grace of infrastructure, a life-support system that has transformed this wasteland into the second largest metropolis in the country. Nor was this lost on Angelenos. They understood that their city’s growth depended on infrastructure and celebrated that fact. After all, what other city would name its most romantic road after a water-services engineer?”

Yet despite that history and the continued role of infrastructures such as the Alameda Trench and the Pacific Intertie in shaping the physical, social, and economic form of Los Angeles, the city has also developed an extraordinary resistance to the planning of new infrastructures.  A myriad of factors, including ferocious NIMBYism and empty state coffers, make it increasingly difficult to implement new infrastructures or expand existing systems.  Furthermore, the city’s infrastructures are increasingly inter-related and co-dependent, interwoven into what Varnelis terms networked ecologies — “hypercomplex systems produced by technology, laws, political pressures, disciplinary desires, environmental constraints and a myriad other pressures, tied together with feedback mechanisms.”

Free Association Design will also be participating, as will the Center for Land Use Interpretation.

Speaking of CLUI – mammoth also points out CLUI’s spring newsletter, with some fascinating pieces on everything from ghost fleets and shipbreaking to urban oil extraction in Los Angeles.

Agglomerations – Paul Krugman has to give a talk in a couple weeks, and he found inspiration in northern New Jersey’s claim to be the embroidery capital of the world.

It’s an interesting history of individual initiative and cumulative causation — the same kind of story now being played out all across the world, especially in China. I still love economic geography.

Never Stop the Line last weekend’s edition of This American Life featured the fascinating tale of NUMMI – a join GM-Toyota auto plant in Fremont, CA.  Toyota showed GM all their secrets to making high quality cars – lessons that GM couldn’t easily translate to other plants.

A car plant in Fremont California that might have saved the U.S. car industry. In 1984, General Motors and Toyota opened NUMMI as a joint venture. Toyota showed GM the secrets of its production system: how it made cars of much higher quality and much lower cost than GM achieved. Frank Langfitt explains why GM didn’t learn the lessons – until it was too late.

Given GM’s current status and Toyota’s recent recall issues (many of which are attributed to growing too fast to control quality), it’s a fascinating tale for anyone interested in American industry and manufacturing.

Around the horn


Back in my hometown, yesterday marked the first day of revenue service for the Northstar commuter rail line between Big Lake and downtown Minneapolis.  This is Minneapolis’ first heavy rail commuter line, which will look for a quick expansion to the originally planned terminus of St. Cloud, MN.

Yonah Freemark offers his assessment at The Transport Politic.

The $320 million would have been better spent on promoting transit that can be used round-the-clock by people who have a choice not to use cars — something that’s made virtually impossible by the design of Northstar’s schedule and stations. With several other peak-period-only commuter lines under consideration, however, Metro Transit will likely spend more on projects such as this before it decides to pull back.

One note – that capital cost number also includes the money to extend the Hiawatha Light Rail line from the previous downtown terminus at the Warehouse District to the new terminus at the new Target Field.  When all is said and done, that will be a great transit hub for the city, and considering that the project’s cost includes this LRT extension, the numbers look more favorable.

Service can always be increased at later dates.  Given the line’s terminus at the Minnesota Twins’ new stadium, I’m sure we’ll see ballgame service in the relatively near future.  Commenters also note that Minneapolis has a much stronger downtown employment core than other cities with new, struggling commuter lines.

MinnPost‘s excellent article (as per usual) from Steve Berg also notes the history of rail in the area:

“As far as I can tell, the Twin Cities probably had the largest commuter rail network in the U.S. to totally disappear,” said Aaron Isaacs, Minnesota’s foremost railroad historian. During the peak of local railroading in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as many as 15 commuter lines spread outward from the two downtowns, most of them from St. Paul’s Union Depot or Minneapolis’ Great Northern and Milwaukee Road stations. By the mid 1880s, three competing railroads offered trains over three different routes every hour between the two downtowns, Isaacs said, 74 trains in all.

Commuter trains also ran on a dozen suburban routes:

• From downtown St. Paul to White Bear Lake, Lake Elmo, Stillwater, St. Paul Park, South St. Paul, Inver Grove, North St. Paul, St. Anthony Park, New Brighton, Inver Grove and Taylors Falls.

• From downtown Minneapolis to Mendota, Wayzata, Hutchinson, St. Louis Park, Hopkins, Excelsior, Edina, Savage, Lakeville and Northfield.

At one point, four companies competed for passengers between both downtowns and Lake Minnetonka. Special trains to the State Fair and Fourth of July celebrations were also offered.

By the 1890s, electrified interurban streetcars began displacing the steam-powered commuter trains. Still the trains lasted through World War I and into the late 1920s before the Great Depression spelled their demise. A few stragglers lingered into the 1940s, Isaacs said, notably the gas-electric powered Dan Patch trains between Minneapolis and Northfield and the Luce Line trains between Minneapolis, Wayzata and Hutchinson. But by 1948, commuter trains were all gone.

Welcome back to the fold, Minneapolis. With all that old right of way sitting around, there should be more commuter lines in your future.


The crown jewel of Denver’s ambitious FasTracks project will be a revitalized and repurposed Union Station.

Denver Union Station
Denver Union Station - Photo by Author

Recently, they’ve released the 60% design for the transit hub and redevelopment project.  A PDF of the presentation is available here.  The project will link LRT platforms and Commuter Rail platforms via a 2 block long underground tunnel that will also serve as the regional bus concourse.

General Development Plan
Transit Infrastructure
Transit Infrastructure
Transit Architecture
Transit Architecture

It’s a cool document, well worth a look to see what a city with a developing transit system (not just line-by-line on a piecemeal basis) is thinking of for a hub.

Los Angeles

Out in LA, they’ve opened up the Gold Line extension into East LA.  Jarrett Walker notes many of the line’s shortcomings, and how they’ll inevitably be blamed on the “planners.”  Why is this line not a subway?

Ah, those nasty cruel “transportation planners”!  Sorry, but the answer to “why” is not “the planners decided …” unless your main goal as a journalist is to instill feelings of ignorant helplessness in your readers. Planners and political leaders made these decisions for a reason, and that reason is the real answer to the question.

Us planners can never seem to do anything right in the minds of some, however, and Jarret put out another post talking about the nexus of planning ideals and political realities:

In the end, I completely understand the frustrations surrounding this project, and agree that it probably will not really begin to show results until it’s flows through downtown as part of the Regional Connector plan.  It may be that the political pressure to put some kind of rail transit into East Los Angeles led to a project that will turn out to be premature and inadequate.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see a rapid transit subway extension proposed into this same area, perhaps under Chavez, in the next few decades.

Still, understanding how difficult rail transit development is in Los Angeles, I do think MTA and their partners in city and county government deserve a few days of good feeling for having gotten something done.

Nothing’s ever easy. It’s worth remembering that. The warts of the two newly opened projects show that here.  Even Denver’s Union Station has had to scale things back, with FasTracks facing some financial problems and the Station’s plans scrapping underground Light Rail and Commuter Rail platforms in favor of cheaper alignments.