In Defense of ‘Unlustrous’ Bloomington

Recently the StarTribune ran an article about how “Bloomington Has Lost its Luster.” The article makes the following points:  The housing stock is aging, the schools aren’t that great and young people prefer the city. As a longtime resident of Bloomington, I feel it’s my duty to respond.  Some of my points I’ve made before in other articles, but it’s time to summarize and consolidate them in defense of the city.

First of All, Remember the Source

The original source for this story was the real estate agents, and they have an agenda to push, consciously or not. Since they get paid as a percentage of the sales price, it’s in their financial interest to push people into as much house as they can possibly afford (and sometimes more than that). So having existing affordable houses available as an alternative to $350,000 exurban McMansions is not in their best interest and it’s not surprising that they’re trying to push Bloomington to do whatever it takes to gentrify and inflate property values while trying to scare buyers away from the area toward more expensive houses in the city and exurbs until that takes place.

In my opinion, the three biggest problems in the region are traffic congestion, crime, and the lack of affordable detached houses, since we’re not building new affordable houses like we did in the past. Having detached houses available at the ~$150,000 price point is a feature, not a bug. And my observation is those in my neighborhood are sold within a week or two of being on the market. This tells me there’s no lack of demand.  It’s not like there’s any shortage of newly built $350,000 houses that are “move-in ready” for those who want and can afford one, but we still need something for those with more modest budgets.

Typical Shakopee house
Typical Shakopee McMansion. The excessive gables and stone veneer in my opinion cross from architectural tribute into parody, but the point is not many people can afford it at >$350,000…
…Or if you can “rough it” and share a bathroom with your kids (we managed when I was growing up and whoever lived in this house for the past 50 years did), you can have this one for $134,800 plus a few bucks to replace the flooring.

The perception of “Ticky-Tack” construction of 1950s-1970s vintage suburban houses is just that, a perception (and the article does note that houses of this era are solidly built). The bones of 1950s house are as good as they need to be, and if you don’t like the Formica counter-tops you can upgrade later on as budgets allow. Bloomington (and many other first-ring suburbs) offers low-interest loans for home improvements ($15 million to 1100 homeowners over the past 33 years). Also, mid-century modern is becoming fashionable again now that we’ve ripped out and torn down most of it.

But for another take on things, why not ask actual residents what they think about the quality of life and city services? The city does an annual survey, and the while the results of the 2015 haven’t been published, in an article in the community newspaper the mayor summarizes it as “they liked and they appreciated the quality of life in the community.” The same article notes that property taxes are low relative to other large cities in the state, unemployment is low, fixing the I-35w and I-494 interchange is a top priority, more and more hotels are opening to help the city tax base,  and, supporting my observation,  that houses are “selling and selling fast.”

The Lack of Bicycle Infrastructure Is Getting Fixed

When I was growing up the only bicycle infrastructure in the entire city was the trails at Hyland Park. All the collector streets were 4-lanes, and we’d get yelled at by our parents if we tried to ride our bicycles on them (not that we were about to anyway.) So we’d stay on the bumpy sidewalks, which our skinny tire 10-speeds were not well suited for. Today many of these of these streets have been restriped as 3-lanes with shoulders. Of course, some people like myself will not use unprotected bicycle lanes. I want more than paint between myself and cars. But a lot of people will, and this is a great accommodation.

Here’s 102nd Street near my house. When I used it to walk (or in nice weather ride my bicycle) to school, it was a “4-lane death road.” Here it is today:

E. 102nd St. at two lanes.

Here’s a map I made a while ago showing the status of collector-street road diets in Bloomington:

Green: 4-Lanes to 2/3 Lane, Red: Kept 4 Lanes. Black: Arterial, Grey: Not yet resurfaced, Orange: Under study
Status of Bloomington’s “4-Lane Death Roads” at the time of my article. Green: 4-Lanes to 2/3 Lane, Red: Kept 4 Lanes. Black: Arterial; not eligible, Grey: Not yet resurfaced, Orange: Under Construction (as of Nov 2014)

The old “cars only” mantra of transportation departments are now mostly gone, and new leadership is much more open to making improvements for other modes.  Slowly we’re seeing some of the results. Here’s the brand-new off-road trail between Lake Nokomis and the Minnesota River.

Nokomis to Minnesota River Regional Trail
Nokomis – Minnesota River Regional Trail

Alternatives to Stereotypical Suburbia Are There for Those Who Want Them

There are still plenty of people like me who want to live in a single-family house and like to drive everywhere. Bloomington, with its wide streets and excellent freeway access, is a great place for that. But I acknowledge not everyone does.  Bloomington is looking to accommodate those, too, with new multi-family housing and developments like Penn-American, by a future Orange Line station.

Penn American
Penn American

“Why build luxury multi-family housing in the suburbs?”, some may wonder.  Some people like the freedom of getting around by car, but don’t want the maintenance, expense, and immobility of a house. Or they have family and/or a job in the area. Or are afraid of crime in the city. When my sister and father were living in apartments, they didn’t care about not having a private yard, not having any kids or time to enjoy it. But they did complain about parking, common walls and the laundry situation. These newer apartments tend to have covered parking and in-suite laundry, eliminating two of the three issues, and with shopping and the Orange Line stop right there, living without a car or with fewer cars would be easier.

Personally I hate the exterior finishes (didn’t “slap a half dozen random finishes on random elevations” go out with Block “E”?). I also wish they could have sunk American Blvd. down, or rerouted it, or built a skyway over it. It would vastly improve the pedestrian experience in the area.  But even though I’d never consider living there, I’m happy this option is available now for those who want to.

A nice form even if it’s an aesthetic mess. Due to the traffic volumes on Penn Ave and American, this is the back, with most buildings opening onto internal slow, narrow streets. How about a few trees and a multi-use trail?
Too exensive for my tastes, but people like it. There's aslo a lot of neighborhood service type shops here, like phone stores and beauty salons.
Too expensive for my tastes, but people like it. There’s also a lot of neighborhood service type shops here, like phone stores and beauty salons.

Are the Schools That Bad? Do Young People Prefer the City?

I’m probably not the one to talk about this, because I do not have kids and my parents gave up on Bloomington schools after I was in 5th grade and I spent the rest of my education on a long bus ride to a private Minneapolis school. But on the other hand I know quite a few kids in my neighborhood that did well for themselves. I read the almost weekly reports on inner-city dysfunction, so it puzzles me that if Bloomington schools have an image problem that’s more than a real estate myth. Wouldn’t city schools have an even bigger image problem? And if so, why are young people, many of whom will have kids, moving to the city?

As for young people preferring the city, I deny the trend, but at the same time the pendulum swings back and forth. The same issues that caused people to leave the city before — crime, racial tension, the general lack of space are still there (and racial tension is increasingly in the news). Self-driving electric cars may make longer commutes more affordable and palatable. The same reasons to live in the city — proximity to parks, restaurants, nightlife, your job downtown, beautiful old houses, walkable neighborhoods — existed even in the height of the trend to the suburbs. So I’m not convinced the trend won’t eventually reverse itself, just as the political winds shift back and forth between conservatism and liberalism.

Inexpensive Strip Malls Are a Feature, Not a Bug

These aren’t as upscale as Penn American, but they serve important functions for the community. They’re extremely convenient to get into and out of by car, and a lot of locally owned stores simply can’t afford the kind of rent that other, newer locations charge. There’s a locally owned game shop in Clover Center, where I’d probably be hanging out playing Friday Night Magic if I were 20 years younger. The strip mall across is where I get pizza; across from that is where I get Chinese. Dollar Stores and thrift shops too tend to like these locations.  These are important for the increasingly diversifying population, and I’ve seen plenty of white middle-class people in them looking for bargains, too.

Eventually, tired strip malls tend to get redeveloped. Here’s Village Square. It’s now being remodeled for a Harbor Freight.

Although I’m told they mainly sell cheap, Chinese-made tools, it will be a great option for local residents. Furthermore, the sidewalk will be widened and pulled back from the street in order to create a boulevard. There’s still plenty of inexpensive space in the strip mall across the street.

Village Square Mall
Village Square Mall

The Issues Bloomington Should Work On

Of course, I would like to see a few improvements. I already wrote an article on the lack of street lighting.

There are all kinds of codes. Just try to open a restaurant, it’s an absolute nightmare relative to other cities. The proprietor of a new locally owned Italian restaurant on Lyndale Ave. just about gave up before opening  after sinking their savings into the place. I don’t know specifically all his issues, but he had to build an addition to meet some minimum floor area code, and in Bloomington you’re not allowed to buy used kitchen equipment. Forget about backyard chickens in most of the city. Forget about practicing archery.  There’s even a code telling you what kind of light bulbs you may use outdoors.

And the sidewalks leave much to be desired.

Sidewalk Jog
Some Bloomington sidewalks. Enough said.

All in all though, I’m proud of my city and expect nothing but the best for its future.

About Monte Castleman

Monte is a long time "roadgeek" who lives in Bloomington. He's interested in all aspects of roads and design, but particularly traffic signals, major bridges, and lighting. He works as an insurance adjuster, and likes to collect maps and traffic signals, travel, recreational bicycling, and visiting amusement parks.