What to do with Whittier School?

Nobody seems to know what to do with one of the more important pieces of property in the city of Brainerd, the Whittier School site. The confusion comes from an attempt to align the priorities of the school district with the priorities of the neighborhood and the city. While a laudable goal, these priorities don’t align. Despite the political discomfort, the city needs to stop trying to make them.

School District 181 has closed Washington Middle School, Franklin Junior High School, Lincoln Elementary and Whittier Elementary – all neighborhood schools in the city of Brainerd – while building the new 5th to 8th grade Forestview campus in neighboring Baxter. While I would dispute the logic behind these moves[i], they made sense to the school board, the administration and, ultimately, the voters who approved the Forestview bond.

What cannot be disputed is that these moves have financially impacted the city of Brainerd, and not in a good way. While Baxter and the other communities around Brainerd can offer more raw space at a cheaper price, Brainerd’s selling point is the amenity of great neighborhoods. That means nice parks, great restaurants, good retail and quality schools all embedded in neighborhoods that are pleasant and walkable.

For Brainerd to be successful, living in the city must essentially be a quality over quantity proposition. There is no more important factor for a family’s quality of life than the quality and convenience of the schools they send their kids to. A generation ago, families living in Brainerd could wake their kids after 7:00 AM, feed them a good breakfast and see them off for a short walk to school. Now 5th through 8th grade students living in Brainerd must get up unreasonably early and then spend the equivalent of an entire work day each week commuting to and from school. Few adults in this area would tolerate so much time wasted in transit, quick commutes being a key reason many locate here in the first place.

To improve the financial health of North Brainerd, Whittier School needs to be reopened as a charter school for 5th through 8th grade students.

This undertaking need not cost the city anything but some time and effort. The city should establish a committee – but please, not the same old suspects – to make an application for a charter and work on establishing the school. There are development opportunities on the east side of the site that, along with future lease payments, is enough to entice the right investor (or non-profit holding company) to acquire the property from the school district. With its zoning authority, the city ultimately holds all the cards needed to make this happen.

The school board is not likely to appreciate this effort. I was there when the Montessori Charter School approached the school board with a request to utilize space in the Washington building, a proposition that would have brought hundreds of thousands of dollars to the school district for space that is tragically underutilized. Board members denied the request indicating they didn’t want to support “the competition.” Today Discovery Woods Montessori successfully operates out of a private building near the Arboretum, their taxpayer-funded lease payment going to a private party rather than School District 181. Its presence has added to the Brainerd Lakes Area’s reputation for quality education, a benefit to everyone.

The city of Brainerd is not a competitor of the school district, but neither are their interests universally aligned. This is one instance where the city needs to act independently to realize a strategic investment in one of its core neighborhoods. Let’s not let this opportunity pass for lack of vision or leadership.


We need small homes

If you can’t be with the one you love, then love the one you’re with.

- Stephen Stills

Once again, Brainerd is making statewide news. The city recently is in the headlines of the state’s paper of record, the Star Tribune, over a proposed ordinance to allow what they are calling “tiny homes,” houses as small as 400 square feet.

I think this is a great move, but apparently not everyone here does. From the article:

“Who’s going to want a 400-square-foot house next to a 2,000-square-foot house?” [City Planner Mark] Ostgarden said. “That’s going to look like a storage building, or a dollhouse.”

I’ve been fortunate enough to spend a lot of time with Joe Minicozzi. When he presents to audiences he often talks about a redevelopment project he worked on where the homes were 400 square feet. He’ll ask the audience the same question the city planner puts forward – how many of you would live in a 400 square foot home – and nobody raises their hand. He then changes the question to:

How many of you have lived in a 400 square foot home?

…and almost every hand goes up. Most of us lived in modest quarters at one point or another. It is a natural transition that most everyone goes through to reach greater prosperity. So if we ask a different question – a more sophisticated question -- we get a different answer. When we only examine our own lives as they are today and assume that our desires are representative of the whole, we miss out on opportunities that may be available to the community now, options that could actually benefit someone who has not been as the same path as we have.

Hundreds of small homes already exist in the city. Hundreds more began that way and were added on to by property owners. This is how you build a strong tax base over time.This is not a minor issue. Brainerd’s land use code is one of the most destructive obstacles to growth in the city. It makes hundreds of properties non-conforming, which means there isn’t a clear path for them to be substantively improved, a regulation that unnecessarily stifles private investment. The code also prohibits development of hundreds of platted lots, parcels that are currently served with expensive sewer, water, storm sewer and streets. Thankfully there are some who see the problem – and the opportunity – in changing it.

Planning Commission member Sarah Hayden said the group took the issue on a year ago to promote building on vacant lots.

There are 465 vacant lots in the city, she said, many of which had previously held houses or are odd-shaped and “can’t be built on while meeting current city codes, or would leave a small yard” if houses were built.

Hayden said adding flexibility into the city code was important and it will be more accommodating for some people in the community. Smaller houses are low maintenance but affordable, she said.

So for a city with the highest unemployment in the state, a city starved for investment, this seems like a logical step. Let’s get something going, right? From the Star Tribune article:

“The planning commission’s job is to maintain or raise the value of this city, not to lower it. And in this case, they’re lowering it,” said [City Council member Gary] Scheeler, who believes the city will get more value out of those small odd-sized lots if they stay vacant, giving neighborhoods some green space.

While Councilman Sheeler is totally wrong on how value is created within the city, I believe I understand what he is reacting to. Brainerd’s land use code is heavy on things like setbacks, coverage limits and use regulations but contains absolutely no provisions to ensure that buildings fit within the neighborhood. There is no build to line. No minimum architectural standards. Nothing that deals with the bulk, form or disposition of a structure. In short, the ordinance piles on the red tape and bureaucracy for a bunch of things that repel investment yet it is completely silent on matters that would address Sheeler’s (and the neighborhood's) concerns about maintaining property values.

When it comes to maintaining and improving property values, I am concerned too. That doesn’t mean changing the code to allow small homes is the wrong move. It is an absolutely essential move, but it needs to be one of many. We need to repeal most of our code and replace it with language that is more modern, flexible and provides better outcomes. I detailed what this would look like previously in the From the Mayor’s Office series on the Strong Towns blog.

For Brainerd, the question isn’t: how do we get big, expensive homes built in our neighborhoods? That clearly isn’t happening with current policy and there is no realistic expectation that will change soon, even with a change in the code. The real question we need to be asking is this:

How do we leverage the investments we can get to improve our community and drive demand for additional investment?

Investments in small, starter homes used to be the catalyst for neighborhood growth throughout Brainerd. A family would build a small, starter house. When they had a kid, they built an addition. A second kid and they would add a second story. A third kid and they would sell that house and move up to something bigger. This was not only affordable, but practical. Our historic neighborhoods are filled with examples of this.

They key here is not the size but in ensuring that (a) all of these incremental investments fit within the context and flavor of the neighborhood and (b) that small houses are only the first increment of growth, that they continue to attract investment so they mature over time. To make this happen requires an understanding of urban design, a talent completely absent at city hall. How do the buildings line up? How do they address the street? What is the interaction between the public realm and the private realm? How is the street designed to improve the value of the home?

Despite being an historic city built on an historic grid, we have a suburban code, suburban street standards and a suburban approach to development. This is the main philosophical shortcoming of the city's planning and engineering departments. Their approach is to force radically different, and destructive, DNA into an otherwise healthy body. Instead, this city should be embracing the strengths of Brainerd’s current grid pattern. I explained these strengths, and how we capitalize on them, in a video we released last year.

Embracing the strengths of Brainerd’s historical development pattern means allowing smaller homes -- the next level of investment for a vacant property -- as a way to kick start the incremental pattern of growth that will make Brainerd a strong town once more. The ordinance should not only be approved, small houses should be allowed in most neighborhoods by right. We shouldn't be requiring the red tape, expense and uncertainty of a conditional use permit, as is currently proposed. 

Let's get this done.


Elements of Downtown Character


More thoughts on the airport

After the Brainerd Daily Dispatch ran Chuck Marohn's commentary on the airport project, their editorial board followed it up with an opinion endorsing the project

Here is Chuck's response.


I read the Dispatch editorial this weekend. Thank you for taking my thoughts seriously. This community needs a higher level of dialog on these kind of projects.

To that point, I felt you mischaracterized the project and, by extension, my opinion on it. You presented a false choice when you asserted the following:

The choices before our government officials are a stop-gap project such as a water tank and pump system or the extension of city water and sewer from Brainerd.

There are many ways the airport can go about providing adequate water pressure for fire protection. A water tank and pump is one option. This would be a permanent solution, not a stop gap as you represent. It would last longer than the roof on the terminal, the paved parking lot and even the runway. Nobody involved describes any of those improvements as “stop gap”.

There is a subtle and insidious reason for that label and it goes to the core of my argument: the reason the water tank and pump are derided as “stop gap” is because they don’t provide capacity for additional growth. They address the fire marshal’s concerns and that is it.

So where an expenditure of “well into six figures” would solve the pressing problem, we are prepared to spend over seven million to provide opportunities for additional growth. That’s one strategy. The conversation I think this community should be having is about the value of that strategy.

Some questions that are not being asked, let alone answered:

  • Is spending $6+ million on new growth at the airport a good return-on-investment? What are the long term liabilities to the city and what revenue is going to offset them? How secure is that revenue and how much risk is the city assuming in this transaction?
  • Are there other things the city can do that would provide a better return on our time and resources?
  • How will the residents of Brainerd benefit from all the time, energy and resources we are spending to induce new growth on the east side of town?

We agree that Brainerd is “very much tied to the economic health of the surrounding region,” but the region is also tied to the health of Brainerd. Brainerd can meet their regional obligation long-term with a modest investment. For the good of the region, Brainerd also needs to be making investments that improve the city’s financial health. It should not be making low return investments on the far reaches of town in the hopes growth will happen. That’s an outdated idea, a strategy that clearly hasn’t created growth and prosperity for Brainerd, despite the tens of millions already spent on it.

I don’t “skirt around the very real problem facing the Brainerd airport.” I clearly understand that the problem isn’t a lack of growth but the need to address the water pressure mandate. Let’s prudently address that problem and then focus our growth energies on strategies that have a higher likelihood of being successful in actually benefitting the city’s residents and business owners.


Say no to the airport project

This opinion piece was recently submitted to the Brainerd Daily dispatch for publication in response to a recent article that appeared in that publication.


Time is running out for the Brainerd City Council to stop – or even substantively influence – the proposed sewer and water expansion to the Brainerd Lakes Airport. They need to act now.

This project has been driven entirely from the top down. It wasn’t the result of a pressing public need – although Brainerd has lots of those – and there has been no substantive public input or feedback along the way. The project is not in the city’s comprehensive plan or capital improvements plan. It is listed nowhere on the city’s website. It has immaculately emerged as a multi-million dollar collateral obligation from a prior top down project: the expansion of the regional airport.

This is a pattern Brainerd’s residents and business owners are only too familiar with. While we can’t afford to paint a crosswalk, we put off critical street maintenance, we let our parks become overgrown with weeds and we make recurring cuts to public safety, we are continuously presented big ticket projects that we simply can’t say no to. How does this happen?

The answer is fairly simple. Some staff member, committee or unelected commission identifies a need or big ticket desire. Working outside of any real scrutiny, the project is developed over time to the point where a funding stream emerges. We then have all the local power brokers – such as the Chamber of Commerce and BLAEDC – step forth to endorse the project. Then, only when “most” of the funding has been secured, the elected City Council, and by extension the public, is asked to weigh in.

Is the City Council going to say no to $6.5 million dollars in state funding? They are not, especially when the airport manager says “we’re not going to make that deadline,” a Fire Marshal mandate the airport has known about for years, without the one plan currently on the table.

Is the City Council going to turn their backs on millions of dollars of state funding secured by our legislators? Unless they want to lose their credibility for the next bonding bill request, they will take the money (after some superficial grandstanding), provide the required matching funds and issue a press release thanking Representatives Ward and Radinovich as well as Senator Ruud for their service to the area.

Is the City Council going to resist a project that BLAEDC has called “critical…to the economic growth of our community”? Will the Council reject the calls of the Chamber to create a “two-mile stretch that now becomes prime real estate for commercial development”? For a city desperately needing economic growth, are we going to say no to the potential – realistic or not – of 20 new jobs by 2017. Even at the price of $380,000 per potential job, as the airport manager said, they are “jobs our community needs.”

So the City Council will be handed this neatly wrapped project with every short term incentive to say yes. When the public is finally asked to weigh in, it will be at a tightly scripted and superficial public hearing. We’ve all been here before.

This is a bad project and the City Council should stop it before the point of no return. It runs counter to the primary focus of their strategic plan: neighborhood investments and stable financial planning. More growth on the outskirts of town may be good for “chamber members” in the short term but it has not benefitted Brainerd’s downtown or its neighborhood businesses. These gambles on growth create enormous long term obligations, unproductive investments that divert money from our core neighborhoods. After decades of no population growth following just this approach, when are we going to learn our lesson?

So what is an alternative? This City Council should act on its stated priorities and direct its staff to focus its efforts on neighborhood investments. We shouldn’t be doing one top down project but instead dozens of small projects along with a comprehensive realigning of codes and policies to be friendlier to small, incremental investments from the private sector.

If we did this, we would not be gambling with our future in the hopes of attracting elusive growth. Instead we would be investing in making Brainerd a better place to live right now. This will not only improve the lives of our friends and neighbors today, it is also the financially savvy thing to do. Small, incremental neighborhood projects are low risk, high return investments. They are how modern cities are building real wealth and prosperity in an age of austerity.

I’m still waiting for the jobs from College Drive and the tens of millions of dollars of new private sector investment needed to keep that “investment” from being a future financial millstone around this community’s neck. Let’s prevent another mistake by stopping the airport utility project before it is too late.


Charles Marohn, PE AICP

Licensed Engineer, American Institute of Certified Planners

President of Strong Towns, a national non-profit based out of Brainerd

Brainerd High School, Class of 1991