Planners play tourist to get new perspective

Wednesday evening we made like tourists, complete with cameras, sandals, and shorts, and took a bus tour. The Planning Commission, along with city staff members Brian O’Connell and Dan Olson as tour guides, spent almost two hours driving all around Northfield.

The purpose of our adventure was to be better able to visualize our “sense of place” as a group by sharing the common experience. I thought that it was very worthwhile. Pictured here is our tour group, wearier but wiser for our efforts.

This journal of our journey represents my own thoughts. It does not necessarily represent the opinion of the entire Planning Commission and has nothing to do with my role as part-time executive director of the Northfield Downtown Development Corporation. I have done my best to capture the comments made by the participants on the tour.

I take my role on the Planning Commission very seriously. I visit the site of every agenda item before each meeting, even if I am already familiar with the site, in order to consider the site in the context of the discussion. (Yes, in addition to the approximately six hours a month I spend in Commission meetings, I probably spend about four hours a month visiting sites.) I’m pretty familiar with all points on the compass of Northfield. However, when looking at these sites within the context of the entire community, different details emerge.

We started out by driving south on Division, commenting on the effect of different street widths on the look and feel of a place. The conventional width of recent years, 32 feet, has a much different feel from the traditional width of earlier times, 26 feet.

Our first stop was the southern border of Northfield. We drove through the Bridgewater development in Dundas and speculated about the impact that the 1,000 units of housing being created in this project will have on our infrastructure of water and sewer and roads and highways in Northfield. Next we noted the 20+ acres zoned Mixed-Use behind Target as we turned north. We wondered why the movie theater couldn’t be located there. We were told by city staff that the developer didn’t want to put it on that site.

As we moved further north along Highway 3, we discussed "gateways" to the community. Brian O’Connell noted that they aren't not just intentional clues like signs or monuments that announce entry into the community but the land uses and the site designs of those uses.

We continued to the relatively new site of the Northfield Hospital. We looked at the surrounding agricultural land and noted that many of our leaders our envisioning a business park located in the area. Dan Olson noted that the infrastructure costs would be substantial. Brian suggested that if such economic development is believed to be important to the community, we should be supportive of the investment in infrastructure.

As we circled back south, we drove through the Liberty Park development. Reaching the dead end of Thye Parkway, several participants commented on the many studies that have stressed the importance of extending this vital east-west route to Highway 3. Turning west onto St. Olaf Avenue, we were struck by the different sense of place that the reduced setbacks give this neighborhood. We also noted that the garages were located on the side or in back, instead of the common practice in recent years, where the house sometimes seems like an afterthought to the three-car garage.

We continued on to Armstrong Road and observed the light industrial land use in that area. Brian reminded us that the recent Economic Development Plan calls for changing the future land use planned for the area from residential to more light industry.

Over on the east side of town, we noted the reduced setbacks on Fifth Street, which are common in traditional design. We also noted the smaller lot sizes and the fact that quite substantial homes seem to fit just fine on these lots. The tour group seemed to like the look and feel of that neighborhood.

Maple Street was a truly rewarding experience. You could see the history of housing in Northfield simply by riding north to south. In Northfield’s rapidly developing southeast, we were really struck by the Spring Creek Forest development. It's neo-traditional design, with reduced setbacks and smaller lots, has produced what seemed, in a loose consensus of the bus tourists, to be the group’s favorite development.

Climbing Mayflower Hill, we commented that there were some very nice homes in the area. However, we did note that there was nothing that was distinctively Northfield in the design; you could have been any place in Minnesota, or the upper Midwest for that matter.

We began to consider common elements that although not changing the unique characteristics of any neighborhood, would somehow unify all of Northfield. We thought that it would be good idea to begin to give all of our neighborhoods names, much like the practice in larger or older communities. This would recognize the distinctiveness of each part of our community, celebrate the diversity of design in our town, and help us to identify which elements were important to link them all together.

Finally, we passed through the Presidential Courts. We recognized the golden age of cul de sacs in Northfield. It was a powerful reminder about the effect that zoning can have on the look and feel of a community.

We arrived back at City Hall, energized by our bonding experience and enlighted by our touring adventure. We’re now ready to take on the rewriting of our zoning ordinances.

Ross Currier is a member of the Northfield Planning Commission and executive director of the Northfield Downtown Development Corporation.


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Good idea.

Nice article, Ross. I think the "field trip" idea (esp. outside of downtown!) is a novel approach.

Spring Creek Forest development. It's neo-traditional design, with reduced setbacks and smaller lots, has produced what seemed, in a loose consensus of the bus tourists, to be the group’s favorite development.

The Hills of Spring Creek is a nice area indeed.  How about Fargaze Meadows a bit south of it?  Thoughts on that development? I recall one planner commending this development in the early planning days.  Isn't a park slated in there (south end, toward CR 1) for phase 2/3?  I can't find the docs anywhere on the city web site.

Climbing Mayflower Hill, we commented that there were some very nice homes in the area. However, we did note that there was nothing that was distinctively Northfield in the design; you could have been any place in Minnesota, or the upper Midwest for that matter.

Hehe.  AKA: "Snob Hill?"  It's a golf community, and it looks like every other golf community I've seen across the US.  I think they look like that intentionally, and they rarely  reflect the encompassing town.

Full disclosure: I live in that neck of the woods, and we're in the process of building elsewhere in Northfield.  I don't golf, and I don't find the area to be kid-centric/friendly.  But that's just me

Touring Zoning

Chip:

Actually, I was being quite sincere when I said that the PC found many nice homes in the area.  There are some truly interesting designs and much use of very fine materials.  It's just that we'd like some elements that say "Northfield"...and I'm not thinking Jesse James lawn jockeys...but some kind of common design elements, perhaps in the shared infrastructure, that contribute to our sense of place.

Ross

Question remains...

Ross, 

How about Fargaze Meadows a bit south of Spring Creek?  Thoughts on that development? I recall one planner commending this development in the early planning days.  Isn't a park slated in there (south end, toward CR 1) for phase 2/3?  I can't find the docs anywhere on the city web site.

Jesse James lawn jockeys!

I know you were joking, but I WANT ONE! I could see Mary Rossing stocking these at Present Perfect....

All kidding aside, I totally agree with you about the desire for a stronger "sense of place" in the newer developments, and I really enjoyed the article.