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Posted: April 4th, 2013, 8:26 am
by helsinki
I didn't see a thread specifically about the sprawl of our fair Metropolis. [Collapse this one with that one if there is]

This article elicited a weary sigh:

"The metro is creeping into Le Sueur County" ... 66b88.html

Smart Growth America says (in an evidently somewhat dated document) that we are the 38th most sprawling metro in the country: ... sprawl.pdf This strikes me as odd since, according to their methodology we have above-average sprawl, yet as the 16th most populous metro in the country, one would think that ranking 38th most-sprawling would indicate below average sprawl. Obviously this is not science.

Another forum briefly debated whether MSP was indeed sprawled or not (general consensus: yes) - ... awled.html

New Prague (the town mentioned in the article about the metro creeping in to Le Sueur county) is, according to google maps, a 45 mile drive from downtown Minneapolis (the center). 45 miles!

Let's put that in perspective. Take, for example, the largest city in Europe: Paris (hey, Le Sueur sounds French). According to the French statistics agency INSEE, metro Paris in 2008 had 12,089,098 people (by way of comparison, greater MSP had 3,422,264 in 2012). That's a lot. So you'd expect endless development as far as the eye can see. Drive 45 miles from the center of Paris, however, to ... Montreuil-aux-Lions for instance, and it looks like this: Development at this distance from the core (the same distance as New Prague from dwtn Minneapolis) is clustered in nodes, surrounded by farmland and woodland.

Now, admittedly, most of Le Seuer looks pastoral too. The difference is the plan for the future. The plan for Le Sueur looks like this: ... RTplat.jpg. Take that same kind of farmland and woodland, cut huge streets through it, and plop down ticky-tacky FHA-financed particle-board castles.

This is the plan of people who don't care about land, or how it functions as a place. Instead, this plan only cares about the exchange value of the land - how to milk it quickly and then move onto someplace else (Henry George really is right). It is an intellectually exhausted model that makes us poorer (quite literally: ... y-kneebone).

Given the recent housing-market-induced economic collapse, demographics indicating delayed household formation / smaller families / a preference for urban living, and the refreshing thinking in our very own state (ie, Strong Towns, for instance) concerning the ponzi-scheme nature of this development model (, why is it that land at the periphery continues to be consumed like plastic doodads compulsively purchased at Shopko?

My theory is that decades of misguided policies designed to strengthen homeownership and protect property values have made housing really, really expensive. A house costs a quarter million dollars. That's crazy. And it's not like there are many rental options: ... t-paul-mn/. Everyone is always talking about rising home prices as though this is super-cool; they seem oblivious to the fact that they're celebrating making housing more expensive (Of course, it's rational when society anchors household wealth in the illiquid property market). This fringe development is the result: people can't afford to live anywhere else. When you coddle one class of people - homeowners - the rent gets too damn high:

Re: Sprawl

Posted: April 4th, 2013, 10:38 am
by RailBaronYarr
I think, in a nutshell, this is my problem with gentrification or upzoning. I will not argue that increasing supply of a good (even if they're not commodities - houses/condos/apartments all have differences that make one not necessarily comparable to another) will lower the overall, "aggregate," price. I think my issue has been that displacing existing housing stock in urban areas forces those who were there to an entirely different area. In "aggregate" area of MSP, prices will go down, yes. But because of how we've developed our areas for so long, the distance a displaced person must travel is not simply 0.5 miles away to a slightly less desirable location but possible slight upgrade in unit amenities (through filtering) yet still with access to walkable locations and transit, it will be 10-20 miles away to places where they'll have to drive (meaning owning 1-2 cars). This will cost them, in aggregate, more money and certainly more time to get to the things they need to do. The other downside I see is that people displaced don't typically receive the financial benefits of being displaced due to the increased value of their location. If one is renting in a small, under-utilized apartment and the landlord ultimately can't pass up the monetary gains of selling, the renter receives no benefit (payout) and all the downsides (being forced to spend time finding a new place that meets their criteria, paying large sums of money to up and move, and then being likely further away from their job/school/etc than they previously were).

Were it not for the sprawling nature of our places in the US, this impact would not be so great. As it stands, it's pretty bad, and it's likely the poor will continue to be concentrated in far-out suburbs that don't have a good transit network, can't afford cars, and spending more time commuting than the people who can afford to build/buy in closer.

Re: Sprawl

Posted: April 4th, 2013, 12:56 pm
That strikes me as kind of a defeatist attitude. People will get displaced to the suburbs, so let's just never build anything (while property values climb and things gentrify anyway).

Filtering can work there just needs to be stock to filter into. I live in kind of a dump in Seward, but it's great because of the location, and I pay about the metro average for my 2 bedroom. I'd really like to live downtown, but I can't afford that. Even something like the Churchill is $1700 a month, nearly double what I pay now ($950). But the Churchill is pretty old, and I'm sure whatever cost was put into building the building has long been recouped. It's kept updated to stay in that luxury price point, but it doesn't need to to stay financially viable, it just makes it more financially viable.

Now if someone built another tower and everybody moved out of the Churchill into that new tower for similar rents for similar but newer amenities, the Churchill would find that it can't compete in that luxury market anymore, so it stops putting in granite counter tops or whatever, they could lower rents, and still make money, and I could afford to move there.

Then my landlord would find he couldn't charge $950 for a 2 bedroom apartment with terrible HVAC and other problems. So maybe now he'll charge $800 for that unit. Now we've created some affordable housing. My building is over 40 years old, construction costs have been recouped.

The reason everything built right now is "luxury" is two fold. One, there's demand for it. People are willing to pay nearly double the metro average for an apartment downtown with all the amenities. And two, you have to charge that much to recoup construction costs in whatever amount of time finance companies deem as reasonable. So we should keep building these projects, because they'll keep getting filled, and they could pull people out of older properties that should really move downmarket. And then these newer buildings will pay themselves off and they can afford to go downmarket, because something even better has opened up down the street. My apartment used to market itself as "Luxury Apartments" but they took that off the sign a few years ago. I'm sure this place was pretty awesome when it was built in 1970.

Filtering isn't about pushing people out, it's about bring people in. The supply is increased, allowing more segments of the market to be accommodated.

Right now we don't have enough of that downmarket stuff to count as "affordable" housing, and that's where the government should step in with progams like Section 8. But as time goes on and rents fall, fewer people will be needing section 8, and the ones that still do will cost the government less because the rents will be lower.

There isn't really much evidence of this happening because nowhere really allows enough construction. I think Chicago is the best example, their housing costs seem to be somewhat lower than places like NYC and San Francisco because they allow more to be built. You can see the other end of it though. In Austin right now landlords are renovating units to move them upmarket, to attract a more affluent tenant, because the demand is there. That gentrifying will displace existing residents. If upzoning and new construction was allowed, these affluent residents would live in the new construction and leave the old residents in place. As is, without upzoning, they're kicked out.

Re: Sprawl

Posted: April 4th, 2013, 2:05 pm
by RailBaronYarr
I see what you're saying. My question is, does the data support it? I bought and read Gated City and The Rent it Too Damn High, and both speak in generalities about housing supply vs demand. Does anyone have proof that this works to actually lower prices in a reasonable area? If not, here's how I'd do a study (let me know if this would get the desired outcome):

- Limit the area of the study to city level, not the metro, maybe even drill down to a region of a city (ex "South" Minneapolis including SW and S but not downtown). Minneapolis is big enough to include a vast array of housing options and prices so it should work but then throw in a bunch of other similar cities (Milwaukee, Cincy, Columbus, Cleveland, Detroit, etc etc). We're going to be looking for a a trend.
- Pick a relevant time period. 2000-2010, 1990-2010 or something. Relevant, long enough to draw conclusions.
- For each city, find the ratio of new housing units created over the relevant time period vs the existing. This can be housing units or try to go deeper to number of bedrooms, whichever is easiest to find across municipalities. This gives an idea of housing supply increase
- Again, for each city, map housing price index for the time period. Use real $ (inflation adjusted) and pick median price. This is where the study could go a little deeper and segregate by housing type and # of bedrooms, perhaps even choose $/sqft (although that's not very helpful if the number of units goes down or maintains while the unit size goes up)
- Now plot them. If filtering works, we would see areas with a higher ratio of supply increase see lower price increases (or, desired, price decrease). There would be a trend with a reasonable correlation coefficient.

Right? I'm just struggling with realities of what happens vs the theoretical economics of it all.

Re: Sprawl

Posted: April 4th, 2013, 2:22 pm
by ECtransplant
That would give an idea of what's happening with supply, but it's not just supply; it's supply relative to demand that's the issue, and that analysis wouldn't be factoring in what's going on with demand. For example, a big jump in demand will likely cause developers to build some increase in the supply, but if NIMBYs or other forces prevent supply from increasing as much as the demand, you'll still see rising prices despite supply increases.

Re: Sprawl

Posted: April 4th, 2013, 2:46 pm
by RailBaronYarr
I realized that supply wasn't enough as I hit submit... How can one quantify demand of the place? Median wage vs cohort cities? Population increase in the city vs metro population increase? It seems like there would need to be a supply : demand ratio to understand how well the market is keeping up with supplying housing units relative to who wants to live in the area.

Maybe someone can point to a study already out there that does this? I ask not to be a nuisance here challenging ideas but more to arm myself with good data for engaging civic leaders, other people who argue against increasing density, etc.

To tie it all back to sprawl, the financial reasons (outlined by StrongTowns) are solid arguments. As are the environmental ones. Even personal health has been shown to decrease with driving distance (sprawl). I'm trying to solidify the argument for affordability (helping the equity argument).

Re: Sprawl

Posted: April 4th, 2013, 8:40 pm
by Minneboy
You can point to one study or this or that factoid but ultimately where is it said that this is what someone might want? For instance I had a nice single house in Uptown. No garage, no off street parking and my property line on 3 sides extended out a foot from the house. Didn't even need a lawnmower. I sold my house at the cusp of the housing market in 2005 and moved 45 miles out. I made $380,000 from my city home that I bought 15 years earlier for $85,000 and bout a house with 2 acres, a 3 car garage with 1,100sf and the main attached house has 3,200sf (an upgrade on the house by 50% from my Minneapolis house. My new house cost $250,000. My nearest neighbor is nearly a standard block away. I know my neighbors as much if not more then I did in the city as we all get out and walk (safely) in our streets. I sometimes hear the train go by - 6 miles away. It's peaceful and cheaper. Yea the drive can be a drag so I quit my city job for a job much closer and though I get paid a 1/3 less my life is much more enjoyable.

So you can point out what ever you need to make your point about sustainable cities but ultimately doesn't it come down to ones pursuit of happiness. Isn't that America in a nutshell? When I was younger I saw the world in rose colored glasses and would do a beat down on those who thought differently but as I've gotten older and wiser and more tolerant there are more valuable things to put my time and energy. Like the peaceful feeling of maintaining my yard. :)

Re: Sprawl

Posted: April 4th, 2013, 10:37 pm
The problem is that there are more people that want an urban lifestyle than there are housing units to provide that life style. The reason your house appreciated so much is because demand went up so much in that period of time without a corresponding increase in supply.

Making it easier to build housing in urban areas doesn't do anything to prevent people living in the suburbs, it just makes it easier for those that don't.

Re: Sprawl

Posted: April 4th, 2013, 10:55 pm
by Le Sueur
helsinki wrote:Now, admittedly, most of Le Seuer looks pastoral too. The difference is the plan for the future. The plan for Le Sueur looks like this: ... RTplat.jpg. Take that same kind of farmland and woodland, cut huge streets through it, and plop down ticky-tacky FHA-financed particle-board castles.
:lol: What? :lol:

You sir/ma'am need to learn what a scale is on a map. The parcel you referenced in the above link is approx. 30 acres, at least 15 of which is being reclaimed from an old gravel pit? It has been slowly being filled and probably will serve as the city's sole development for the next 10 years. While more than 60% of the workforce commutes less than 25 minutes.
There are at most 3-4 homes built a year by the two construction companies in town and I can assure you they are not the "ticky-tacky FHA-financed particle-board castles" that went into default in 2008 because banks sold mortgages to poor ppl that did not know what a balloon payment was.

Sheeesh. :| Get better references.

Re: Sprawl

Posted: April 5th, 2013, 12:31 am
by beykite
But just look at all that sprawl!!

A county becomes part of an MSA when at least 25 percent of its workforce commutes to one of the MSA's core counties.
So if anything it could mean that more people in LeSuer are instead just working in Hennepin or Ramsey counties as opposed to working locally. (approximately 4,000 out of the 16,000 residents of Le Sueurs workforce leave) I'm sure Le Sueur country grew, but growth has nothing to do with whether you're in an MSA. The article mentions it could be because of younger people taking jobs in Minneapolis/St Paul because there are more opportunities there.

Re: Sprawl

Posted: April 5th, 2013, 8:58 am
by RailBaronYarr
Le Sueur wrote:You sir/ma'am need to learn what a scale is on a map. The parcel you referenced in the above link is approx. 30 acres, at least 15 of which is being reclaimed from an old gravel pit? It has been slowly being filled and probably will serve as the city's sole development for the next 10 years. While more than 60% of the workforce commutes less than 25 minutes.
So, 40% of people commute more than 25 minutes, and of the 60% that commute 25 minutes or less, how many are walking, biking or otherwise not driving and utilizing *free parking or overly large roads?

Will the tax receipts created by the houses being built (on a gravel pit or not) pay for the infrastructure's initial capital cost, maintenance costs over the next 25-40 years, and then replacement costs when they come due? If not, this is a bad example of sprawl. If they do, then 1) I would be surprised to hear it (in a good way) and 2) the roads must be very narrow and no water/sewage out to them would be my guess.

Again, I've said it before on here. I live in Credit River Twp in a big house. My wife and I made a mistake buying it on multiple accords (personal - we don't like being so far from things including the cities, civic - our neighborhood is definitely not financially sustainable, - more personal - I'm driving a LOT and don't like it). I'm not saying that we should limit people's ability to live in a place like this, just that we shouldn't subsidize it in all the ways we do and then wonder why our cities/states struggle to keep up (while also simultaneously complaining about increasing taxes).

Re: Sprawl

Posted: April 5th, 2013, 9:31 am
by mattaudio
I'd like to see the numbers crunched on the Gravel Pit Estates in Le Sueur... I bet the property taxes cover less than 20% of total lifecycle replacement costs. Anything less than 100% is a subsidy. Not to pick on Le Sueur... the growth ponzi scheme is in full swing everywhere in the state, including Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Re: Sprawl

Posted: April 5th, 2013, 10:08 am
by MNdible
mattaudio wrote:... the growth ponzi scheme is in full swing everywhere in the state, including Minneapolis and St. Paul.
I'd be curious to hear you expand on this a bit more. It feels like it's been torn straight from the Strong Towns playbook, and he hasn't convinced me that his "big" argument, built up from rural and exurban experience, translates very well to the urban environment.

Re: Sprawl

Posted: April 5th, 2013, 10:50 am
by mattaudio
True, there's not really greenfield development taking place in the core cities, so the issue isn't infrastructure entrenchment. The issue in Minneapolis, and moreso in St. Paul, is that we've pushed projects for growth's sake without ever considering if the increase in direct government revenue will ever pay for the obligation. Vikings, Twins, Saints stadiums. Convention centers. Proposed hotels. Corporate headquarters. Downtown housing. Etc.

Re: Sprawl

Posted: April 5th, 2013, 10:56 am
by RailBaronYarr
Take a look at all the projects we have listed on this site for Minneapolis. How many are receiving grants, loans, subsidies, etc just for apartment buildings? I understand somewhat the need for site clean-up assistance (although who were the responsible parties in the first place, why can't we charge them, and if not this somewhat proves the financial problem of irresponsible capitalism). But many other things are races to the bottom between metro area municipalities for business/residences or fighting to keep ourselves attractive compares to other cities.

Minneapolis is one of the few cities that gets revenue from consumption, so there is a second revenue stream at play (the ST message usually looks at property tax receipt only as most cities don't have a sales tax adder). But even with that said, I've seen enough studies showing the property taxes (0) and sales taxes brought in by a stadium (Vikings games, potential Final Four/Superbowl, all the other events) still doesn't pay the long-term bonding for Minneapolis' contribution. Other things like municipally-subsidized garages, free street parking at times of day, etc all go in to keeping the status quo of land use and development in the city.

Re: Sprawl

Posted: April 5th, 2013, 1:05 pm
by MNdible
I certainly won't argue with either of you regarding the Vikings stadium -- it's problematic on many levels. That said, I do think that there are certain projects which fall into the category of "public amenities" that will never be money makers, but that we as a society decide are worth losing money over. The Vikings stadium is definitely an unusual case, and probably shouldn't be an example for all development that happens in the city.

Aside from that, I think that Minneapolis in recent years has done an unusually good job of focusing its limited resources and maximizing the benefit. In theory, apartment projects and the like don't receive grants unless there's some sort of "extra" public benefit, for example cleaning up polluted land, providing affordable housing, putting housing in a TOD location, or restoring a historic building. I know that in practice that developers have gotten very good at milking these grants, but I still believe that most of these projects would easily pass a cost/benefit test for the city.

At a very parochial level, it's also worth noting that most of these grants are coming from funding sources beyond the city coffers.

Re: Sprawl

Posted: April 5th, 2013, 1:12 pm
by beykite
Since we're talking about sprawl... How about instead of picking on poor little Le Sueur who's building what? One little subdivision out of an old gravel pit. Why don't we focus more on cities like Farmington, Victoria or Anoka. Their whole growth strategy revolves around people driving to work in places like Minneapolis, Bloomington or St Paul. Or why do we constantly push the MUSA boundaries out when there is still plenty of developable land in places like Chanhassen, Chaska, Plymouth, ect.

These are the types of sprawl we should be focusing on first.

Re: Sprawl

Posted: April 6th, 2013, 1:36 am
by helsinki
While I agree that the land in the places you describe (Chanhassen, Chaska, Plymouth) should be developed before land in fringe exurbia such as Le Sueur, I think this is a false choice. We should simply stop building this way. The housing industry is just acting out of inertia; they don't have an alternative business model.

I have difficulty sympathizing with the desire to subdivide farmland as far out as Le Sueur and build balloon-frame bedroom communities, even if the land is a former gravel pit. Le Sueur is not in a different economic solar system; it orbits Minneapolis. New residents will likely work in the Twin Cities. If we want to avoid becoming Atlanta (half the state of Georgia!) our focus should be on the rural belt just beyond exurbia. That was Eden Prairie in the 1980's.

I agree with much of the Strong Towns argument against sprawl. It's hard to argue against the premise that the government infrastructure subsidy for horizontal development in pursuit of a growing tax base has a negative rate of return. It's funny because in a disjointed fashion the argument has been made for decades in the context of Detroit. Detroit is sprawling and has lots of infrastructure that the city can't maintain. For decades, city leaders thought that mega-projects were the ticket to success. The obvious point staring everyone in the face was that Detroit already had too much sh*t. There were too many housing units, too many offices. It didn't need more, it needed better.

This seems to be the issue with suburbia, and why it is imaginable that many sprawling areas will become slums. Many suburbs already have more stuff (housing units, office parks, parking spaces, shopping plazas) than they can sustain. Vacant office parks, dead malls, shuttered big box stores, not to mention the foreclosure issue, are a testament to this. Many of the homes in suburbia (like those in Detroit) are inexpensively built and will not survive long in this climate without a degree of maintenance that is difficult to justify given the quality of construction. The problem is that they are not worth caring about. Many who grew up as kids in these places escape as soon as they can and never come back. For anyone who can't imagine currently prosperous neighborhoods going to the dogs, stroll past the mansions on Park Avenue by Peavey field in Minneapolis. "This is beautiful" you may exclaim, before you realize that you're in one of the poorer parts of town.

I don't pass any judgment on people's choices; if the suburban life appeals to anyone, they should go for it. I offer the standard caveat that I would prefer not to subsidize those choices and that I would prefer the government not place onerous restrictions on more sustainable land use. Beyond that, I would hope that someone can effectively make the case for keeping our fringe land open, rather than having the urban growth machine chew it up and spit it out.

Re: Sprawl

Posted: April 20th, 2013, 1:58 pm
by woofner
This year's environment & natural resources omnibus bill could have an impact on sprawl, as an amendment to it was passed that would allow the DNR to require permits for any well in groundwater management areas: ... oryid=3679

My understanding is that the majority of the Anoka sand plain area - the part of the metro that has seen the worst large lot sprawl - has an aquifer recharge deficit. This has contributed to the low lake levels on White Bear, for example. If the DNR set a high permit fee (not too likely, but there's a chance), that could be a big barrier to further sprawl in this area. Granted, a lot of ifs here, but this is a welcome legal framework for action in a few years.

Re: Sprawl

Posted: April 23rd, 2013, 4:46 am
by helsinki
This would be a welcome change indeed. Depleting the aquifer is serious business. One would hope that we aren't short-sighted enough to sacrifice sustainable water management just because it might "greatly curtail the building process" (Jerry Hertaus, R-Greenfield).

Incidentally, what struck me about Mr. Hertaus' statement was how oddly out-in-the-open many leaders are about how sprawl, in some places, is the economy.

On the subject of sprawl, I heard an arresting point in an interview with Jeremy Grantham (check out a different interview of his on Charlie Rose it is an amazing hour: about how truly preposterous our ideology of growth is ['ideology' meaning that everyone says that the panacea for our problems, primarily those of unemployment and fiscal deficits, is growth].

Essentially, the beginning premise is that if a civilization requires quantitative growth to sustain itself, it will eventually self-destruct. At some point, resources prove inadequate. The image is: take the longest-lasting continuous civilization in History, Ancient Egypt (3,000 years). Say the ancient Egyptians started with one cubic meter of physical wealth. If they grew at a rate of 4 percent for the duration of their civilization, ultimately the volume of their physical possessions would exceed the size of the entire solar system. Compound quantitative growth is, in short, ridiculous.

By contrast, a civilization should be able to grow qualitatively indefinitely. An iPhone costs more than a cheap Nokia, even though it uses the same amount of resources. What this means for housing, and by extension sprawl, is that we need to stop defining 'quality' by size. We already do this in the US to a certain extent; an Upper East Side apartment is usually more expensive and socially prestigious than a McMansion in Minnetonka. People are increasingly realizing that quality of life doesn't require the immense consumption of resources. But although recent building practices are encouraging, it doesn't seem like we're quite there yet . . .