Good vs Bad Density

Aster04

Peter Stalland / Tyr Development has proposed building a 140 unit apartment complex in the midst of low density residential in Vadnais Heights. I believe it will have 140 parking spaces below ground and 140 parking spaces above ground so two per unit.

aster meadows, peter stalled, tyr development, vadnais heights

The development is planned to be located at the bright blue blob in the middle of the page. Distances to eating, shopping and other amenities: Vadnais Town Center (Panera Bread)= 1.7 miles, Vadnais Elementary School = 1.2 miles, Hiway 96 & Centerville Rd businesses = 1.1 miles. Google Maps Link: https://www.google.com/maps/@45.0649026,-93.0541335,1618m/data=!3m1!1e3

This is the second plan submitted by the developer. This 3-story plan is scaled down from the original 5-story plan. This 3-story proposal still requires the city to grant a variance from the 36’ building height allowed in zone R3 to allow this building height of 41’.

According to Stalland in the Vadnais Heights Press: “We believe this roofline and height is compatible with the other pitched roofs in the immediate neighborhood reflecting a more residential look as opposed to a flat, commercial-type roof,”

If built, this property would be isolated high density. It is surrounded by low density on all sides; Interstate 35E (wall) to the east, 1.5 story townhomes to the north, a small park, wetland and single family homes to the west and single story duplex to the south. It is a considerable distance from eating, shopping and other amenities.

Density Is Good

Housing density can be a significant benefit to communities. It increases the numbers of people patronizing local merchants which helps them to stay in business. Density done right can do this with few if any negatives. Without density businesses go out of business resulting in empty storefronts. Density is critical to a livable and vibrant community.

Density In The Wrong Place Is Bad

Density that brings more auto traffic and encourages increased local driving is bad density.

The issue with this development in Vadnais Heights, this density, is its location. This is the wrong place for density.

This development is far, over 1 mile, from everything. How many people who live here will walk or bicycle to the grocery or to dinner or the bus? Everywhere that these new residents want to go they will likely drive. That’s a lot of extra cars on Vadnais Heights’ roads – about a 10% increase according to a traffic analysis conducted by Spack Consulting.

This traffic analysis looked only at road congestion and determined that while this project would increase congestion, it would not increase congestion beyond standards for these types of roads.

This traffic analysis neglected to consider other impacts such as the impact this increased local traffic would have on walking and bicycling in this area, the impact of this traffic on nearby Vadnais Heights Elementary School, or the impact it would have on current residents in the form of increased noise, pollution and safety.

This project will significantly increase motor traffic, noise, pollution and the risk of crashes directly in front of Vadnais Heights Elementary School as much of the traffic from this development will be along Centerville Rd and County E – directly in front of the school. Good idea?

Children who walk or bicycle to school do better socially and academically than those who come by car or bus. Vadnais Heights should be doing what it can to make walking and bicycling to school safer and more appealing, not discouraging it by making it less appealing and more dangerous.

It goes beyond just children walking or riding to school but also to anyone in the community who might want to walk or ride to the grocery or to dinner. Increased motor traffic makes the already poor and dangerous roads in Vadnais Heights even more dangerous and less appealing.

This is bad for current residents but then layered on top is that people looking to purchase a house, particularly young couples and families, who do not want to have a lot of local traffic and who want to live where walking and bicycling for local transportation are safe and comfortable will not want to live here which will have an impact on home values and on the level of upkeep of existing homes.

Where Should Density Be?

Outside of the U.S. you will not see high density like this placed where it is effectively in the middle of nowhere. High density will be in or directly adjacent to local retail and transportation centers so residents will be encouraged to walk or bicycle to local destinations rather than add to traffic congestion and to reduce disparities between levels of density.

CNUtransect

Rather than generating a lot of extra car traffic that makes surrounding areas increasingly unpleasant, an apartment building located in or directly adjacent to a retail center will not generate as much undesirable local car traffic but the people who live there will still add to the vibrancy and economy of the village. Rather than more cars and congestion, there will be more people walking or riding bicycles to Fresh Thyme grocery or Panera. These people walking and bicycling add to vibrancy and make places feel more human. Just as people don’t want to build their houses on on major high traffic roads, they don’t want to walk or spend time along high traffic roads.

vadnais heights, tyr development, aster meadows

Here are a number of places that would be good density, particularly if they included first floor retail/restaurant. Residential on top of any existing buildings, creating mixed use buildings, would be good as well.

People will also be more likely to regularly patronize local businesses like Mad Jacks. Once in a car it’s easy to drive farther away but if you live close enough and the walking route is safe and enjoyable then walking is preferable. This is doubly good for local businesses as these will also be more stable customers than people who drive.

All together this makes a place that is more enjoyable and more appealing to live. It creates a more vibrant city center. It creates a lower stress environment and one that allows an active lifestyle that is critical to good health.

Vadnais Heights Town Center

Vadnais Heights Town Center is today a giant empty parking lot surrounded by some big-box stores and intersected by unappealing and dangerous to cross multi-lane roads.

It can be better though and properly placed density would help. These giant parking lots are never at capacity. And rarely more than 1/4 used. They are not needed. Residential density in or directly adjacent to the town center that encourages people to walk or bicycle instead of drive their cars can allow some additional retail buildings in some of these areas. With integrated or adjacent density a couple or three additional restaurant options can easily be absorbed with no negative consequences to existing eateries and provide more options for residents.

Zoning

VH LU

This single property (Red circle above) was changed from R2 (single family / townhome) like surrounding properties to R3 (high density) in 2011 at the request of the property owner Gerald Urban who was at the time also the Vadnais Heights city manager.

The zoning here is backwards. Residential should be the most dense in the city center and get progressively less dense as it gets farther away. Little pockets of density like this create more motor traffic than city or village center focused density and create more density disparities where lower density meets higher density. Neither of these are good.

Proper predictable zoning with center focused density also protects homeowner’s investments. Those who prefer to live closer to the city center can choose to do so while knowing that they will be nearer to high density while others who value lower density can live farther away and know that they will have lower density and be protected from higher density and changes like this.

Approval of this project sends a message to potential home buyers that Vadnais Heights will allow large projects like this anywhere in the city and that no neighborhood or home buyer can expect to be free from a development such as this.

Vadnais Heights Comprehensive Plan

In its comprehensive plan Vadnais Heights states:

VHCompPlan12b

This development goes directly against Vadnais Heights own Comprehensive Plan.

It is not near transit. Few of the people living here will walk or bicycle to transit. They will drive instead.

It does not decrease reliance on single-occupancy vehicles. It does the exact opposite and increases this reliance and the traffic that this reliance creates.

It does not improve the user experience, circulation and access for bicyclists and pedestrians. It does the opposite and makes the user experience and safety worse, decreases circulation for these modes by increasing the motor traffic that people walking and bicycling must deal with.

Conclusion

Allowing this development in this location in Vadnais Heights would be a bad move for Vadnais Heights. It would be bad for the city’s future and bad for current residents who will have to deal with increased motor traffic, inability to rely on their local government to protect their housing investments and follow their own comprehensive plan, and lower property values.

By encouraging higher density within or directly adjacent to the town center Vadnais Heights can gain the benefits of density with few or any of the negatives.

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26 Responses to Good vs Bad Density

  1. Sean Hayford Oleary
    Sean Hayford Oleary September 19, 2018 at 9:54 am #

    Although I prefer the idea of focusing density toward mixed-use “town center” nodes — I do not agree that multi-family developments should be kept out of less intense areas. This is infill in a fully developed area, on a site that is likely to be undesirable for less intense forms of housing (being right next to the freeway).

    What homeowners are being harmed by this? The townhome owners? There are really no single-family homes to speak of within a stone’s throw of the site. It is mostly park and freeway. Nor do I think a modest, 3-story apartment building is likely to affect property values adversely.

    The reality is that not all apartment residents (particularly in the outer suburbs) prioritize being able to walk to a Panera or get on a bus. Like single-family home residents in the same community, they may simply want a home with access to green space and a convenient place to park.

    I 100% agree that should not be their only choice — people should have access to walkable, downtown-style mixed-use development in all communities. But that should not be a reason to deny new homes in a less-walkable location.

    • Monte Castleman September 19, 2018 at 5:08 pm #

      I agree with this. I’ll be the first person to say that people that bought a single family detached home in a neighborhood zoned for that should be protected from having their light blocked and privacy invaded by hulking apartments towers. But I don’t see any single family detached homes anywhere near this, just some multi-family duplexes a decent distance away.

      There’s quite a few people that either can’t afford to or choose not to live in a single family detached home, but otherwise choose to live like stereotypical suburbanites- driving to work and for a weeks worth of groceries from Walmart rather than walking tiny cute hyper-expensive local store in their mixed use development. My father was like that for a while when he got booted from the house when my parents separated . If I had to live in an apartment I’d pick an out-of-the way place like this rather than someplace in a strip mall parking lot with an urbanesque cacophony of people around going to the coffee shops and brew-pubs until all hours of the night.

    • Mike September 20, 2018 at 9:40 am #

      Totally agree. There will be people who work in the suburbs who would like a maint free lifestyle- and isn’t it better they can live closer to their job then have to drive long distances because someone decreed the townhomes and condos had to be limitied to other locations?

    • Walker Angell
      Walker Angell September 20, 2018 at 10:53 am #

      The harm to homeowners is primarily the increased motor traffic. The study indicates about a 10% increase in motor traffic which can make crossing roads for people walking/bicycling more difficult and dangerous. This will come primarily along Centerville Rd south of the development and County E between Centerville & 35E. So even people who live a considerable distance from this development will be impacted by the greater traffic, particularly in front of the school and in the city center.

  2. Adam Miller
    Adam Miller September 19, 2018 at 9:59 am #

    I’m deeply skeptical that housing density is a major driver of traffic, despite that being the first thing out of everyone’s mouth when they want to oppose housing. And lo and behold, the study says there will be only minor increases in traffic.

    I definitely agree that this density would be better closer to stuff, and it would help a lot if there was a sidewalk or path along the County Road so kids could walk or bike to school, but there is at least a MUP along Centerville that can take at least some of those mile-long trips to stuff.

    This is not the best density, but I don’t really see the case for it being actually bad.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke September 19, 2018 at 2:04 pm #

      Focusing on street design should be the #1 priority of folks here concerned about biking and walking safety. The amount of traffic should take a back seat to basic safety features.

      • Walker Angell
        Walker Angell September 20, 2018 at 11:15 am #

        I agree that focusing on street design s/b a top priority. However, even in The Netherlands, with arguably the best and safest bicycling and walking infrastructure in the world, they shy away from any density that will increase motor traffic more than walking/bicycle traffic. I believe most other European countries except Belgium and UK do the same.

        The traffic from this development will likely be 100% motor traffic. Even with good walking/bicycling infrastructure I think this would be a negative and decrease walking and bicycling. However, residents have been trying to get a safer path along the short stretch of Koehler Road between Centerville and Edgerton for 4 decades and the city and county have refused. This development simply layers bad on top of bad.

    • Walker Angell
      Walker Angell September 20, 2018 at 11:08 am #

      An estimated 10% increase in motor traffic seems significant.

      We use to ride our bicycles in to Vadnais Center but stopped because it became too dangerous with too many close calls due to increased traffic.

      • Eric Anondson
        Eric Anondson September 21, 2018 at 11:30 am #

        I argue a human being cannot possibly perceive a 10% increase in motor vehicle traffic.
        3,000 to 3,300 or 8,000 to 8,800 or 10,000 to 11,000 or 20,000 to 22,000 … would anyone notice a drop of 20%?
        In fact on MNDOT’s 2008 traffic data Centerville Rd here had a traffic count of 10,500, and Cty Rd F was 4050.
        On MNDOT’s 2017 traffic data Centerville Rd now has a traffic count of 8,400, and Cty Rd F is now 3,700.
        It looks like in about 10 years these roads have had a vehicle count drop of more than 20%. A 10% increase doesn’t even return to the levels of the recent past.

        • Walker Angell
          Walker Angell September 21, 2018 at 12:15 pm #

          I agree that we’d not notice it in absolute numbers for this one project.

          But even for only this project a 10% increase in cars will increase risk for people walking and bicycling – in an area that is already so risky that fewer and fewer people walk or bicycle each year because of fear of being killed. Each additional car increases risk. Marginally, but an increase. In the most simplistic terms then a 10% increase in traffic is a 10% increase in risk of serious injury of death for people walking or riding bicycles?

          But is it more than that? Increased discomfort resulting in fewer people walking and riding bicycles results in less safety in numbers? Increased congestion results in increased frustration for drivers accustomed to high levels-of-service and so increased risk taking when making a left turn across a crossing with someone in it?

          20 years ago it was not unusual to see 20 bicycles at Vadnais Elementary. 10 years ago that was down to maybe 5. Today it’s mostly zero.

          But then in the vacant land next to this owned by the same person a 200 unit complex is built. After all, it’s now just high density next to other high density. Now we’ve a 20% increase in traffic. And then another 200 to 300 unit complex on the remaining bit of land.

          Each project or step may not seem so bad individually, though it may be, but incrementally the end result is.

          This project comes with a lot of negatives and I can’t come up with enough positives to offset that.

  3. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke September 19, 2018 at 2:06 pm #

    Thanks for writing this up Walker. No project is perfect, so you take each one as it comes. Is it better or worse than what was there before?

  4. Scott September 19, 2018 at 7:05 pm #

    The MSP metro is one of the least densely-populated, large metros in the US. Some density within the 1st & 2nd ring suburbs is definitely better than more low-density sprawl on the fringes. This project isn’t an urbanist’s dream, but I wouldn’t call it “bad”.

  5. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell September 20, 2018 at 11:25 am #

    Thanks all for the comments. I can’t get there. The negatives far outweigh the positives for me.

    One more issue. This density will certainly increase the number of people driving to local places like Fresh Thyme Market, Panera, etc. Today these parking lots are under-used and building new residential density within them as I outlined above is very feasible. Increased driving from spread out density like this development and others that will certainly follow will make that much less feasible. We need density, but we need density that does not significantly increase motor traffic and parking needs and that does not decrease the likelihood of getting better healthier density.

    • Mike September 20, 2018 at 4:49 pm #

      Dont’ forget that even if you built these residential units on currently underused surface lots by some of these destinations, those residents still need their cars – they have to go somewhere! They may be able to walk to Panera but they’ll need to drive everywhere else – you are double counting the savings of using that parking space for residences forgetting that others willl need the space when they drive to those locations, and now you have reduced the space and added more cars to compete for what is left. No one in this location or adjacent to Panera would be able to just jettison their car the way you could in the core cities.

      • Adam Miller
        Adam Miller September 20, 2018 at 6:11 pm #

        I don’t know this area very well, but most of the legacy shopping areas have vastly more parking than they need, so I doubt building housing there crowds out any parking.

        And being able to cut out some local trips really does make a difference.

      • Walker Angell
        Walker Angell September 21, 2018 at 10:25 am #

        Mike, a few thoughts.

        “those residents still need their cars – they have to go somewhere!”

        If someone lives in Vadnais Town Center then why do they absolutely need cars? They can easily walk to a grocery (or two including Walmart), pharmacies several places to eat and other amenities. There is a transit hub located to the east of Walmart from where they can take transit to a number of places.

        I’m not at all anti-car and I do drive a car many days. If I lived in a flat in the middle of Vadnais Town Center I would very likely own a car. But it would be far from a necessity and since many of my trips could be walking, bicycling or transit then my car would be used much less often.

        OTOH, the proposed development creates car dependency. A car is very likely required for anyone living there and by American standards would be required for every trip, not just longer trips.

        • Monte Castleman September 21, 2018 at 11:17 am #

          Possible reasons:
          |
          * Carry IKEA furniture home

          * Drive to their job that’s not on a transit line, or impractically inconvenient.

          * Go to someplace other than Panera to eat.

          * Take a weeks worth of groceries home from Walmart so you only have to shop once a week instead of every day or every other day if you’re limited to what you can carry.

          * Visit a friend in Prior Lake

          * Take a road trip to Chicago on the weekend.

          * Have transportation that’s air conditioned, heated, and sheltered for the 90% of the time when it’s not sunny an pleasant outside.

          • Walker Angell
            Walker Angell September 21, 2018 at 11:48 am #

            All valid. As I said, if I lived there I’d likely have a car. Even in The Netherlands many people living in apartments in city center areas will have cars.

            However, if a high density apartment building is located within comfortable walking distance of many daily amenities and transit then a car can become optional or completely unneeded for some or many people.

            Chris’s great article (https://streets.mn/2018/09/20/how-you-and-all-of-us-can-escape-car-dependency/) is but one example. My son and his wife haven’t had a car for their 4 years in the UK and 8 in NYC. They use carshare for the few occasions when they need one like driving up to CT to visit their friends.

            We each have different needs. High density built where this project is planned would create car dependence for all residents while built in Vadnais Center would allow some to choose car free and all to use a car much less.

  6. Karl September 20, 2018 at 1:38 pm #

    I’m not sure three stories of apartments comprising of 140 units with easy access to 35E, 694, and Hwy 96 is “bad”, and isn’t terribly different from multiple developments that can be found along any of those roads. It provides more rental options for people who want to live in a largely car-dependent bedroom community, and isn’t mutually exclusive from Vadnais Heights creating a density-focused downtown/town center project. If this were a Houston-style six-story development shadowing single story homes it would be different but the current plans are a natural (and relatively unambitious) fit for the area.

  7. Rosa September 20, 2018 at 6:00 pm #

    I agree with all your arguments about why this should be elsewhere – but does the developer own property elsewhere? We need more housing so bad, anything that’s not greenfield seems like it’s automatically better than nothing.

    And for transit – one of the benefits of our transit system being so bus-heavy is that bus lines are malleable. If this spurs enough dense development, a bus line could be rerouted there. You always hear that we can’t have better transit because we don’t have the density for it – if we don’t put in density where we don’t have transit, we won’t ever get it. It would be better for everyone if development was around existing transit lines but the lack doesn’t have to be permanent.

    • Walker Angell
      Walker Angell September 21, 2018 at 10:16 am #

      Rosa, good point. If this corridor was being designated as a high density corridor and being properly designed and built to support the benefits of high density including transit and safe comfortable walking and bicycling then I would not be as negative about this project.

      But that is not the case. This is isolated density that will only encourage increased motor traffic, further entrench car dependency, and make walking and bicycling less safe and comfortable in this suburb. These are not good, especially considering how difficult it has been for current Vadnais Heights residents to get anything done for safer streets.

      • Rosa September 23, 2018 at 9:31 am #

        I just think it’s a chicken and egg question. You don’t get the transit (or the driver behavior that makes everyone safer) when there’s no density and no walking or biking. And you don’t get the walking and biking without the people being there, which you can’t have unless you build density.

        I actually think the difficulty to get anything done for safer streets is an argument for even not great development – we just don’t seem to be people who will make smart changes based on future rewards, we have to let a terrible situation develop and then make changes to ameliorate it.

        Also you didn’t bring it up, but isn’t this the kind of development (as opposed to big box retail or large lot single family) where the infrastructure costs are actually going to be paid back in higher tax base? Or did the developer manage to cut himself a deal on that, too?

  8. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell September 21, 2018 at 10:18 am #

    All, what is the purpose of density? What are the benefits? Negatives? How does this project rate on these points?

    • Walker Angell
      Walker Angell September 21, 2018 at 10:53 am #

      1 – Density can provide affordable housing but this development is being billed as much higher priced than affordable.

      2 – Density can make more efficient use of land. This project does to some extent. But since every trip from here requires a car it creates car dependency for all trips and thus greater need of roads and parking at destinations.

      3 – Density can increase active transportation and reduce car dependency. It can place large numbers of people within comfortable walking and bicycle distance of many daily amenities.

      What are the benefits of this? Less motor traffic, less road congestion, safer streets, streets and roads that are more amenable for other residents to walk or bicycle on. Improved health and lower healthcare expenses for residents who are now able to walk or bicycle more and sit in cars less. Less noise, air, water and light pollution.

      4 – Density can increase vibrancy and attractiveness of retail areas (like Vadnais Town Center) since it increases the number of people out walking and bicycling around the retail area and decreases the amount of sprawling surface parking needed.

      5 – Density can provide for a more affordable lifestyle by allowing residents to forego the costs of owning and maintaining a car.

      This project does none of these and in the case of 3, 4 and 5 does the opposite.

      Interestingly, Vadnais Heights Comprehensive Plan sounds pretty good and kind of aligns with the above but this project is the exact opposite of that.

      What am I missing?

  9. Brian September 27, 2018 at 4:34 pm #

    The developer can’t just magically move this project over to the shopping center land. For starters, it is unlikely the developer owns the shopping center.

    How many renters really want to live next to a 24 hour Walmart with vehicles coming and going at all hours?

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