Thursday, June 28, 2007

The bloody details of local government: The Minneapolis Planning Commission

One of my duties as a member of the Minneapolis Library Board of Trustees is to serve on the Minneapolis Planning Commission--zoning stuff, city comprehensive plan, approval of variances (e.g. non-conforming uses, etc). It gives me a chance to actually use the city planning parts of my old Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs degree.

The Commission is made up of representatives of the Park, Library, and School Board, a representative of County government, a City Council member, a representative of the Mayor, and four citizens appointed by the Mayor and City Council. Minneapolis has a system that results in a lot of decisions being made by the board and less decisions made administratively by staff.

The meetings start at 4:30 and go until we're done with the business in front of us. Sometimes an hour and a half. Sometimes four hours. The way these meetings go is:

  1. We figure out the projects that have total agreement and pass those with no public meeting and no discussion (consent items).
  2. For each "controversial" project, the staff makes their recommendations and answers questions from the Commission. Then there is the public hearing (where the applicant also responds). Then the Commission further discusses it and votes on an action (which may or may not be the staff recommendation).

This looks like it will be a long meeting--four somewhat controversial projects.

The first project is for a small hotel, condo and commercial rehab of some historic building in the historic Minneapolis Warehouse District. When the project was first proposed it was turned down by the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC). The developer re-did the whole plan and got HPC approval. Now it is before the Planning Commission for a number of variances, and a vacation of an alley. The issues are number of curb-cuts (staff wants less, hotel wants more), alley vacation (staff doesn't want to vacate the easement, hotel want it vacated but say they would keep it open space) and grass on the boulevard (staff wants it, some commissioners think it doesn't make sense here). The commission discussion gets bogged down in some detailed site planning (that I think is none of our business). Sometimes we get into the business of picking nits.I guess that is what you get for having a lot of chance for public involvement.

The next project was an apartment complex where the only issue is that the applicant wants to have a larger footprint than zoning allows for the lot. Staff recommends that we don't grant that variance (but recommends approving all their other requests). We grant everything since it means the developer would only build a 4 story building that fits in with the neighborhood better than the 5 story building that would be allowed.

The next project is a medical office and parking ramp development in a very urban neighborhood of Minneapolis. This would be a great suburban development but paid no attention to its urban location. It puts a parking ramp next to the midtown greenway, it doesn't have an entrance on the street--its entrance is 75 feet back on a driveway to the parking lot. It proposed a sign high on the building that no one would see since there is a building across the street of equal height (the proposed sign would be great in a suburban office "park"). The developer came to an earlier meeting for comments but has only made modest modifications. The Commission approved a bunch (technical term) of variances that were not controversial. We did approve the project with a lot of conditions that the developer did not like (but in my opinion, we didn't go far enough).

The last project is an expansion of supported housing in a Minneapolis neighborhood that already has a lot more than it's fair share of supportive housing. But on the other side, this is a really good provider with a long history of very good service to the community. Added to that is the complication that the Americans with Disabilities Act may or may not apply to this project. It seems to all boil down to a couple of technicalities that determine how many of the units can be considered "supportive housing." There is no community opposition to the project. We find that it only has a limited number of units that are "supportive housing" and approve the project.

We have really good planning staff but I tended to vote against their recommendations today. They're professionals and don't appear to take it personally.

We finally adjourn after a four hour meeting.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Consolidatng library systems-Mpls Library Board Meeting

The Minneapolis Library Board is meeting at a smallish community library that is very busy--Nokomis--on the south side of town. (Note that the pictures in this post are of the new Central library, not of the small Nokomis Community Library )

Most of the meeting--all of the committees--tended to focus on issues around the pending consolidation of the Minneapolis system into the Hennepin County Library System.

The consolidation is now on a fast track with a long tail. Depending on how we resolve the money issue created by the Governor's veto of consolidation funding (a Republican Governor who talks about making government more efficient and effective but refuses to pay the up-front costs of doing it.) we may have the legal consolidation by January 1, 2008. This would include:

  • Transfer all staff
  • Transfer of physical property
  • Transfer of personal property

Working to consolidate the operating systems, cultures, collections, websites, computer systems and other systems will start after the official consolidation when all the staff can work together. One very good sign--There seems to be an understanding that merging the cultures of the two organizations will take around five years.

One issue for the consolidation is the Minneapolis system's "Blueprint for Service." This is a new approach to providing library service. The staff has spent over two years implementing this major change in service. Three of the most visible parts are:

  • Instead of librarians sitting behind reference desks, they are expected to be out greeting and helping patrons--the reference desks are shrunk in size and changed to standing height counters with no back--help is expected to be provided on a "shoulder-to-shoulder" basis.
  • Many books and other items (Cd's, DVDs) are displayed like you would see in a book store--on display shelves.
  • Staff gets much of the back office work done before the doors open so they can devote their time to the patrons.

This system has been fully implemented in two community libraries that were just re-opened after extensive remodeling and in the new central library. According to staff, we have seen a huge increase (75% in some cases) increase in circulation with the same level of staffing. Board members expressed a concern that this improvement could be lost in the consolidation.

Keeping the gains we have made in improved service will be a challenge.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

New Libraries..Minneapolis and Seattle

(Note: All pictures in this post is of the Seattle Central Library. Pictures of the Minneapolis Central Library are in the next post)

Last day of vacation was a one-day lay-over in Seattle. Wife, mother-in-law and daughter wanted to spend time at Pike Place Market. After walking through ALL of it, we walked over to the new Seattle Central Library and caught up to a tour.

A little background--there seems to be some competition between the library communities in Minneapolis and Seattle over their new libraries (at least on the Minneapolis end--probably because of the typical Midwestern feeling of inadequacy--)

  • Both are brand new--Seattle opened less than three years ago, Minneapolis opened last year.
  • The two libraries are about the same size--around 360,000 square feet.
  • Minneapolis has more items in their collection--Mpls has about 3,000,000, Seattle has about 2,000,000.
  • Minneapolis's new central library cost about $130,000, Seattle's cost about $170,000.
  • Both were designed by "name" architects--Seattle by by Rem Klaus--one of the currently "hot" architects; Minneapolis was designed by Cesar Pelli--an architect of international standing.

I'll give you my bottom line first (it is probably biased since I'm on the Minneapolis Library Board --but I was not involved in the design of or building the library, I joined the board 3 months before it opened) Minneapolis won.

The Seattle library is beautiful. It is a sculpture. It is creative. It is a beautiful example of the "industrial" look. That is one of it's problems. It is very cold. It is very sterile. It is not welcoming. It doesn't feel like home. The space called the "Living Room" doesn't feel like a place to curl up in a chair with a good book. A few more problems:

  • The structure has walls and ceiling/roof of small, diamond shaped windows. This could let a lot of light in but the deep structural elements seem to block most of the light and most of the views.
  • It is hard to find your way around. Staff has added nicely lettered foam-core signs propped up on walls to help people find their way.
  • There is no front door. There are four different doors on four corners that don't give you a feeling of entering an important building.
  • The building looks like it will be expensive to maintain--that is just a guess.
  • Many areas where librarians have to work are concrete floors--hard on the feet.
  • All the library staff seem to be behind desks--the new model for service delivery is to have library staff out with the patrons.
  • The Children's Library looks like it is just another room with a few added sculptures. It doesn't have comfortable kid-friendly spaces. It also has two entries that are not controlled by any library staff--one very near an outside door(a security issue).
  • It appears that the floor plan is can not be easily modified as library use changes in the future.

The new Minneapolis Central Library is a little boring. Two boxes connected with a central atrium. This is the same basic plan of the old library. The two boxes are primarily glass walls. It looks very open-it reinforces open access to information.

  • The glass walls let in more light since there is little structure in the way (or maybe it was because Seattle was very cloudy and dark when we were there.) It looks very open.
  • You enter from either one of two sides to a five story glass atrium. You feel like you are entering a very important building.
  • It is easy to find your way around--the layout of each floor is basically the same and the floor plan is very open.
  • There are few structural walls. It should be easy to change the layout as library functions change.
  • The Children's library inspires imagination and has lots of little places to sit down and read. It is secure--one entrance at the librarian's desk.
  • The Teen Center is a separate space designed with the help of teens. It has great outside views and seems to draw teens.
  • It has fire places and comfortable chairs.
  • It's lighting is bright but not harsh
  • I think the Minneapolis system did a much better job using it's arts budget.

A few problems with the new Minneapolis library:

  • It is set between two parking lots and a parking ramp. Hopefully one of those parking lots will become a park.
  • It is not connected to the Minneapolis skyway system. It is designed to be but there is now money to do it and the building owner to the south doesn't want a skyway connection.
  • The special collections room is only open very limited hours.
  • As far as I can tell, the fireplaces have never been turned on.
  • The library is only open five days a week and only two nights a week. It is closed totally on Sunday and Monday.
  • Minneapolis recently had to close three community libraries because of budget problems (this wasn't because of the New Central Library but just shows the lack of funding)

The bottom line--while I like the Minneapolis Central Library more than Seattle's, Seattle can keep their libraries open reasonable hours.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Juneau, Seattle and Home

Got into Juneau early morning. Have breakfast on the ship than off on a tour until our plane .leaves. Visit the Mendenhall glacier--the glacier is about a mile away. Closest point is the Forest Service Visitor Center It is kind of anti-climatic.

My theory is that they get us relatively close to 8 glaciers with the hope that we'll be able to see at least a couple of them without fog. We saw all eight. Three of them within 1/4 mile (as close as it is "safe" to get).We visit a great (small) Alaska historic museum. End up going to their store downtown (a short walk away) and buying a great Aleut mask.

We walk over to the Alaska state capital. No dome (which is great) but it kind of looks like a 1940s bank building. Nothing special. This seems to fit the nature of Alaskans.

We fly out of Juneau and get to Seattle about 7 PM. We spend the night in Seattle at a great downtown hotel--Hotel Max. It is a 1930s hotel that was "modernized sometime in the 50s or 60s (destroyed all the historic character on the inside). The remodeled it two years ago to ultra hip modern (photographs covering all the room doors, a lobby in black and red.....).

Next morning we do some quick site seeing--Pike Place Market and the new downtown library. Pike Place Market is one of those few "festive marketing" developments that has worked economically. Probably because it grew organically from the historic farmers' market instead of being started from scratch by a city or developer. The library deserves a separate blog.

Get home Monday night at midnight and crash. Get up at 7 to get to a dentist appointment.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Endicott Arm

We go up Ford's Terror. It is an arm of Endicott Arm that has a huge tidal surge. Big blue iceberg. The ship is maneuvered right next to a waterfall off the rocks.

Back in Endicott Arm. I'm in our cabin writing the blog and a large iceberg goes by our window. The cabin really lights up from the reflected light.

Geek Note: According to the Captain, Endicott Arm is a communications dead zone. The only communications in here is the GPS satellites.

Killer whales--Orcas (actually in the porpoise family) --are spotted so we turn around. At one point they are along side of the ship. The naturalists are debating whether these are resident (fish eating) or transient (marine mammal eating) killer whales. The main difference is behavior. (e.g. size of the group, vocalization behavior). They finally decide that they are transient-- by dropping a hydrophone and listening. Transient killer whales are quiet. resident killer whales "talk" a lot.

We leave the group of females and younger males and head over to see the male. It has a six foot dorsal fin. While it's about 1/2 mile away, it is still part of the group and is in communication with them.

We are now headed further up Endicott Arm. More and more ice. See a new- born seals on the ice with the moms.

Need to make a decision--do I kayak among the icebergs (actually, most are classified as "bergie bits"--yes that is the official term for small icebergs--or growlers--even smaller pieces of ice) or do I take the zodiac ride up to within a quarter mile of the glacier face. We all take the zodiac ride. We see lots of seal pups, some fantastic icebergs and watch the glacier calf from within 1/4 mile.

Back to the cabin to pack--we leave the ship about 8:30 AM tomorrow.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Cascade Creek and Petersburg

We take the zodiacs to a rock beach. We decide to go on the hike with Lee--a naturalist we haven't been with. yet. We're off on a search for the Oregon Rough-Skinned Newt.

We start by hiking up to a waterfall than has more than it's normal amount of water going over it--they had much more than their average snowfall here last year. Up about 90 rough forest service steps (these steps definitely do not meet code--some are around 20 inches high). After a short hike, we cross a bridge to a very small muskeg area. In about 2 minutes, Lee finds a newt.

It is dark brown on top, very orange on it's underside. It rears up on its hind legs and tail when threatened.A warning sign. Their skin is very poisonous. People have died from having them land in their drinking water. Lee uses latex gloves to pick it up.

After spending some time with the newt, we head back. We take a side trip along a very rough trail that goes to an area. It is a very rough trail, all of our group turns back and joins a group that is going back to the beach--all except our family, the staff vidiographer and Lee. Over branches, around logs, around mud. We see moose, bear, dear and otter tracks in the mud. We get to the area that was clear-cut but it has rapidly overgrown with Sitka Spruce, cottonwood and alder. We don't have a clear view to look for moose so it's back to the beach.

After lunch we stop in Petersburg. It takes about half an hour to maneuver the ship into a very small space on the municipal dock. This gives new meaning to parallel parking.

Petersburg is a small coastal town settled by Norwegian anglers. It reminders me of Grand Marais Minnesota but with an industry in addition to tourism. In fact, tourism is not a huge part of the economy--there are two canneries/fish processing plants and a smaller coop processing plant. There is a large fishing fleet--purse netters, gill netters, crabbers, long line fishers. When we first get off the ship, we spend some time with a naturalist wandering through the fishing fleet. We then take a float plane up to see a glacier from the top.

Flying low over a glacier in a small plane you really get an idea of the size. Huge. Flew over ice-falls (the solid water equivalent of rapids)--large chunks of ice and huge (I may be over-using that word) fissures in the ice. It is a tidal glacier--one that terminates in the ocean. Lots of icebergs at its face and all the way out to the mouth of the fjord. There are an unbelievable number of seals with new-born pups on the icebergs. It is a safe place away from all predators (including killer whales).

Back to Petersburg. I take a bike and ride around town. Go out to see muskeg--large number of different small plants--a whole different scale than the glacier.Petersburg has a large number of small apartment buildings for a town its size--probably for the seasonal workers in the fish processing plants. The Alaskan Public Housing Authority even has a fairly large office here. The quality of the houses varies greatly--some new large homes, some older (probably 1930's homes very well maintained, some not maintained at all--all next to each other. Not unusual for a small town. End my bike ride at the Java Hus--read the local paper--they have a labor shortage in the fish processing plants.

Back on the ship for a presentation by the Alaska Whale Foundation--a nonprofit research organization. The Lindblad expedition leader makes a fundraising pitch at the end of the presentation. Great scheme for getting people to donate. Every one who donates at least $250 receives a travel voucher from Lindblad for a discount on a future booking.

Spend some time talking to one of the naturalists who is building a house using traditional Japanese style timber framing.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Alaska on the MV Sea Lion

Our ship carries 62 passengers, Cabins small but nice. The toilet area in each room doubles as a shower like in many RVs.

Two new features for the techie have been added--

  1. Large LCD screens in the lounge showing a GPS based map of where we are--on a topo map showing water depth and land elevations
  2. Satellite Internet and a wireless system in the lounge.

Interesting--I can upload to my blog but I can not access my email. Will have to play around with that.

Crew is divided into three groups

  • Expedition Staff--the people who organize where we go, what we do--the expedition leader, the 4 naturalists and the video guy.
  • The "Hotel" staff--the kitchen, purser (the accountant--anything that needs counting--including when we leave the ship for a hike) dining room, bar, and stewards.
  • The ship crew--the people who run the ship, the zodiacs and the kayaks.

Food is fantastic. I'm going to have to skip some meals to avoid gaining too much weight. Lots of North pacific fish--Alaskan salmon, black cod. One night get some real Minnesota wild rice. The head chef for the company is on-board. He says it's from Bemidji, MN Ojibwa. For dinner there are three new options each night. They ask you to guess what you're going to order by noon so they have a better idea how much to prepare.

The exercise room is a stationary bike, a elliptical trainer and a treadmill up on the "sun deck" with a canvas tarp that can be drawn around it to cut down on the wind. Used it--had a great view of the mountains we were sailing by.

The bartender is on duty from before lunch to after dinner. If you want a beer at some other time, just take one and note your room number. They turn the lounge/bar area into a gift shop twice--hall the stuff out of storage and put it on the tables.

They use zodiacs--large inflatable rubber boats--think Jacques Cousteau--to get us to the hikes. They run them up on the beach and you jump out into about 1 foot of water. (We tie up to a dock in Steak, Juneau and Glacier Bay Park Lodge).

Thursday, hikes and zodiac rides.

This is a lazy day.

We take the Zodiacs to an island and again get the option of long, medium and short hikes. We take the long hike. Bev's mom takes the short hike. We walk up to a small falls with a concrete fish ladder for for salmon. Providing the fish ladder allows more salmon to successfully spawn so there are more fish to harvest. The walk is mainly about the views--think northern Minnesota but with large mountains.

Afternoon is a ride in a zodiac to explore the shoreline and go under a marble arch. We have to time it for high tide.

Took an afternoon nap.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Glacier Bay National Park

We're spending all day in Glacier Bay National Park. Picked up a Park Ranger at 6 AM. His name is Richard--goes by Ranger Rick.

Puffins, sea lions, seals, eagles, gulls on an island we pass SLOWLY. The sound of the sea lions and gulls is amazing. the smell of the sea lions will wake you up if you missed your morning coffee. The Glacier left this island about 180 years ago.

Glacier Bay was not here in 1776--It was all Glacier and no bay. The Glacier advanced in the little ice age and filled the bay. The local native (Tilngit) oral tradition is that the glacier advanced "faster that a lame dog could run." It flattened a native village. At one point Muir glacier was 5000 feet deep (4000 above sea level). In the late 1700's it started to retreat. Once it started retreating, it retreated very fast (the ice started floating and broke up quickly. With the weight of the glacier gone, the land here is rebounding (rising) about one inch per year.

Most of the time we think of geologic processes of taking millions of years. In Glacier Bay you see a bay, islands, cliffs, moraines and mountains that were covered with glaciers less than 200 years ago. As you go up the bay, you see land scape that has been exposed for less and less time.

Checked out a bay called Sandy Cove for wildlife--saw one humming bird.

A little further up the bay five mountain goats on the hillside--one at sea level with a kid laying in a crevice.

The weather is fantastic--partly cloudy, temperature in the 60s (very warm and sunny for Glacier Bay).

Got to Madeline Glacier--over 20 miles long, 250 feet above the sea and 50 feet below, over a mile wide. White and blue ice. Next to it is the Great Pacific Glacier--two miles wide and over 30 miles long. It caries a lot of rocks and gravel and is covered with it at it's end looks like the ugly black crud the collects under your car's wheel-well.

Madeline calves (drops big chunks into the sea) every day. Great Pacific calves very infrequently. Ranger Rick is out here every day and hasn't seen Great Pacific calve this year. Both glaciers calved while we were there. The sound of cracking is is like a large canon going off--even though we are 1/4 mile away. I think we sat in front of Madeline and Great Pacific Glacier for an hour (I make a point of not wearing a watch on vacation).

Going into John Hopkins Bay, saw a sow bear and three cubs galloping down the snow to the ocean.

Dock at park headquarters at the mouth of Glacier Bay. This is the only time we get off the ship today. Take a one mile hike--very civilized, typical National Park nature trail--no boot-sucking mud.

Sunset is at about 10:30 but it still doesn't get dark.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Tuesday AM Brown Bears, Porpoises, Seals, Sea Otters, Humpbacks

Early wake-up call at 6:10 AM, Brown Bear (what Grizzly Bears are called in SE Alaska) on shore--just walking around, we're about 500 feet away on the ship. Lots of Bald Eagles.

Three Humpbacks just ahead, they all come straight up at once, mouths open. There are now a few less herring here.

Turn west into Icy Straight and pick up speed to go to George Island. I go back and add a 4th layer of clothes--it is cold in the wind.

Back out to see two Sea Otters resting on their backs in the water. One with a kit. Porpoises jumping on one side. Moving very fast.

We're in an area where the Pacific tidal current mixes with the inland passage water--very productive, lots of fish. No wonder is seems to be marine mammal city. (Plus a number of fishing boats--both commercial and charter.)

Three choices for hikes this morning on George Island. The fast one was mainly exercise, the middle one concentrated on botany, the short one concentrated on beach geology with a retired U of Cal professor.On Lindblad cruses you tend to learn things whether you're trying or not.

This afternoon was sea kayaking. Saw some fantastic sunflower star fish--about 15 arms, over a foot across- one purple, one orange.Also yellow and red star fish that were smaller--about 9-12 inches across. Tried my new Olympus pocket camera that can be used under water. Forgot to set it for underwater so pictures are not great. Two crows dive bombing an eagle nest. The Eagle's call is a piercing sound.

Back on ship--detoured to watch sea otters and sea lions. More humpbacks feeding. In a bay of Glacier Bay National Park saw more humpbacks, seals porpoise a black bear and sea otters just paddling along doing the back stroke. One with its kit.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Fjirogs, Humbacks, Very wet hike

A quarter to 7 AM a siting of a Humpback Whale with her calf--about 200 to 400 feet away from the ship.

Had four options for a morning activity. Short walk, medium walk, long walk, kayaking. We decided on the longer hike of about 3 miles in a drizzle along a salmon spawning river to a lake. This really is a rain forest. Second growth forest. Was clear-cut in early 20th Century. Sitka Spruce and Hemlock. Hike was very muddy, trail was USFS primitive trail.

Bev had a experience with the infamous SE Alaska "Boot-sucking mud." Walking on the trail, stepped in some mud, sank to above her ankle, took another step and her boot stayed where it was but her foot came out. In her honor, the specialty drink at the bar was the "Mud-Sucking Mudslide. Bev got a free one.

We're traveling with Bev's mom--in her 70s with arthritis. She decided to go on the hike with us. Up and over roots, through the mud, up and down hills.amazing--I hope I'm as active at that age.

Afternoon cruising east and north--watching for wildlife. Saw one humpback in distance.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

SE Alaska--Getting there and Sitka

Uneventful, sleepy flight from Minneapolis to Seattle (up at 4:30 AM to finish packing and get to the airport). Even though we booked our flight from MSP to Seattle and Lidblad Expedtions booked our flight from Seattle to Sitka, NWA allowed us to check our luggage through to Sitka--saved the hassle of picking up and re-checking baggage in Seattle.

In Seattle--after a 2 hour layover--after everyone was on the Alaska Air plane, they told us "this plane will not be able to fly"--they had another plane for us--one concourse away. Delayed us a little over an hour.

Flying into Sitka--Amazing, Mountains all around--sea spotted with forested Islands, plane take a sharp turn to the left and drops to a runway that looks like it's built on fill. Fast stop. Terminal is tiny. Luggage for two families (including one the flew with us from Mpls) doesn't show up.

See our first Bald Eagles--three flying above the airport parking lot.

Tour bus is an old school bus--not a problem since there is only 14 miles of roads you can get to from Sitka--we go about 4 miles to the Alaska Raptor Center--a great (and BIG) free-flight training area for recovering Bald Eagles.

Sitka historic national park is mainly about the local Native American culture: totems, great carving, A native women doing some amazing beading with the smallest beads I've every seen. (They are not made any more--some are her grandmother's, some she gets from antique shops.)

See more Bald eagles--flying above the totems and on the tidal plain eating a fish they caught.

Drive by a Bald eagle nest--right in the middle if Sitka.

The ship stays in Sitka until midnight (waiting for the last flight from Seattle to see if the missing luggage shows up). Get a chance to walk around Sitka.