If Ray Harris passed his days sitting in a comfy chair watching TV, no one would blame him.
The longtime real estate developer spent his career rethinking city life and designing projects to make it better. He developed Minneapolis’ Calhoun Square, the Greenway Gables downtown townhome community, the Chiron charter school, and the Loring Park dog park, among other projects.
Now in his 80s, Harris continues to be a spirited part of city planning discussions, and he is passionate about making the kind of changes that invigorate neighborhoods and create community. His book, “Welcome to Wynott,” describes his vision for a richer urban experience.
In the book, Harris challenges us to do things differently and better, for the sake of our health and happiness, and to create sustainable cities in the face of inevitable changes. He offers ideas surrounding transportation, education, architecture and community planning, and even the way children and seniors are integrated into the community. Harris challenges us to make changes — because the way things are done today isn’t going to work in the future.
He’ll talk about his book at 2 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 19, at the Minneapolis Central Library.
Here’s an edited version of our conversation:
MinnPost: Changing the world is usually a young person’s game. Why are you getting into it in your 80s — aren’t you supposed to be playing shuffleboard in a retirement complex somewhere?
Ray Harris: That’s the problem. That’s the American way. When a person like me gets to be 65, they get put out to pasture. But in the history of the world, elders have been given honored positions because of their knowledge and experience. In America, seniors have experience, money, contacts and time. But they shut you down when you are 65, and that’s ridiculous. Isn’t it a shame? We still have a lot to offer.
MP: You’ve been instrumental in shaping numerous elements of our urban landscape. What projects are you most proud of?
RH: I have done a lot to make downtown living more desirable, starting at a point when no one wanted to live downtown. I built the first owner-occupied housing in [modern] downtown Minneapolis, and now there are 35,000 people living down there, and it’s projected that soon there will be 70,000. Young people are moving downtown, and older people are moving back to the city from the suburbs. I also think Calhoun Square made a huge difference. It increased the tax base, created community, and revitalized South Minneapolis at a point when it was poised to seriously decline.
MP: What one change would you most like to see implemented in the Twin Cities?
RH: I am working on it right now, but I can’t get into it with you just now. But I will say, there’s a different lifestyle coming up in the future. There is phenomenal opportunity for this city, a billion-dollar transformation that could take an area that is nothing to brag about and turn it into something quite remarkable.
MP: Many of our city and suburban neighborhoods are fighting plans for increased density. Yet you explain a multitude of benefits to increasing density. How do you convince residents that density will be good for them?
RH: In a few years, 50 percent of our population will be self-employed. That’s 50 percent who don’t have to commute, who work virtually. But people are social animals. So they go to Starbucks or the library and do their own thing all by themselves. We need density to create opportunities to bring people together. People want to be where the action is.
MP: Is the Twin Cities more open to change than other places?
RH: No. We tend to be much more conservative and resistant to change. The resistance to height in buildings is one example. Other cities have embraced height as a necessity with population growth, but here, anything higher than 60 feet is evil! I can show you spectacular buildings that are higher than 60 feet, and horrible things that are lower. There’s no relation between height and quality. Our population is growing, and there will be no choice but to go up. And we will have to reduce our dependence on cars, or we will spend our days stuck in traffic. But that is changing. The Twin Cities has seen a lot of progress in terms of bicycling and mass transit. People have realized there is a huge loss of quality of life with all the time spent sitting in an automobile.
MP: In your book, you talk about the ways quality education is essential to creating a healthy, safe community. How do we improve education?
RH: A big part of the problem is the democratic system. The way people are elected, they are responsible to their constituents, and constituents are focused on small problems, like garbage collection, rather than larger systemic problems. The person who has been elected cannot act in any long-term visionary way. The only thing they can do is respond to the small needs of today, or they won’t get re-elected. It is just the way the system works. The revision of the tax system, the school system, and political system is stuck. The only people who run for office are martyrs and billionaires and sociopaths, because they know they will constantly have people screaming and ranting and raving at them about little things.
MP: Why did you decide to write a book?
RH: My four children said, “You should write down all the crazy things you’ve been involved in.” And I thought I’d make 100 copies and give it to friends and relatives and be done with it. But as I was working on it, in the final chapter I wanted to wrap up by talking about how things aren’t being done the way they out to be done. And a couple people said, “That’s not a final chapter, that’s a book all by itself.” I met [his co-writer] Lily Coyle, and she helped me. The book was written in her style, the ideas are mine. And now this book is getting me out all over the community. People want to talk about these things.