From Dave Van Hattum, Policy & Advocacy Program Manager

The City of Apple Valley recently received an American Institute of Architects (AIA) award that brought a Sustainable Design Assessment Team to town to gather ideas for regenerating this bedroom community. The team consisted of experts in land use, architecture, transportation and sustainability.

With the Cedar Avenue Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line scheduled to open by 2014, Apple Valley has undertaken a bold effort to leverage expanded transit service to create new neighborhoods that are walkable, bikeable, and include attractive destinations. The Met Council defines BRT as a hybrid solution that combines express buses on dedicated lanes with frequent, all-day service, high-quality transit stations, signal-light priority, and the real-time information and ease of boarding that people typically associate with light-rail transit (LRT), such as the Hiawatha Line.

I had the opportunity to participate in an Apple Valley charette and left inspired by the level and quality of community participation. More than 60 people attended the event. While a single new BRT line won’t, by itself, transform an auto-oriented community, the vision and energy in the room suggested broad possibilities. Civic leaders, business representatives and residents all recognized that the status quo of big box stores, disconnected subdivisions, and a heavy reliance on driving is not a smart 21-century, city-building strategy. Many spoke for the need to implement circulator connections to the BRT line, to create more walkable and bikeable destinations, and to build new transit-oriented development. Doing so with an emphasis on green infrastructure was also widely supported.

Based on the group conversations, the consultant team recommended the following key initiatives.

  • Identify four areas for growth and key transportation connections (i.e. Municipal Center Hub, Central Village, Cedar Village East, and Cedar Village West).
  • Create more walkable and bikeable destinations and connections to the BRT line.
  • Create a lifecycle of housing options.
  • Update the city code to promote transit and pedestrian friendly development.

When the Cedar Avenue BRT is fully operational in 2014 (an extension to Lakeville is planned by 2019), it will be part of a rapidly maturing regional system of transitways (i.e. Hiawatha LRT, Central Corridor LRT, Northstar Commuter rail, and the I-35W South BRT).  As the region’s first Bus Rapid Transit line, the Cedar Avenue BRT will provide a powerful case study of the pros and cons of BRT. LRT is the mode of choice for high-density corridors.  BRT, on the other hand, may be our region’s best investment for serving large suburban communities in both the West and East metro. It should be noted that a successful BRT line does not preclude LRT at some point in the future. 

Like many visioning exercises, the success of the Apple Valley BRT development plans will depend on the extent and type of future public investments and the dogged follow-thru necessary to implement good ideas. To be successful, Apple Valley, like scores of other suburban communities, needs to establish consensus and clarity on a vision and then set clear priorities for implementation. Most of the ideas advanced by the design team will require new investments, but doing nothing is likely to have even greater costs. There’s a new generation of home buyers out there looking for walkable neighborhoods, attractive places to gather, and convenient transit. Many in this generation will no doubt choose the region’s older neighborhoods for these inherent qualities, but suburbs that can establish and market similar features will better position themselves for continued success in future generations.