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Growth planning: Minneapolis leading by example

Learning to play well with others is, perhaps, the most compelling reason to require every metro city to write a comprehensive plan every 10 years. It’s only reasonable to let your neighbors know your intentions so that roads, sewers, schools and other regional assets can be built where and when they’re needed most. Acting together saves money and, in theory, produces a more orderly, higher-quality metropolitan community. If all 186 municipalities acted as free agents, well, you get the picture.

What’s notable this time, as the Metropolitan Council prepares to review this decade’s plans, is how cities will respond to two big global challenges: climate change and high energy costs. Never has it been more important for metro communities to limit their ecological footprints. Never has it been clearer that sprawl is expensive, wasteful and unsustainable. The central challenge is do more in the space that the Twin Cities region already has; to learn how to grow from within.

That’s why Minneapolis’ plan is drawing extra attention this time. For decades, the city’s relative regional importance has been declining. Although its downtown remains a center of commerce and culture, the city’s share of metro population has dropped from 49 percent to 13 percent since 1960. Now, however, with pressure to “remodel” the region from within, Minneapolis takes on a bigger role.

Its “Plan for Sustainable Growth,” already available for comment, should set the tone for the larger region. Planning Director Barbara Sporlein and her staff have produced a document that is uncommonly readable and prescient. It’s out of the box early and it’s drawing interest from St. Paul and other jurisdictions. Indeed, Minneapolis consulted with all of its neighboring communities before writing its draft, an unprecedented step. “This is a regional process after all,” said Sporlein.

Indeed, if the city’s document becomes reality, the metropolitan area will benefit. If, on the other hand, Minneapolis and St. Paul (its plan scheduled for release in April) are allowed to drift toward the fate that besets most large Midwestern central cities, then the Twin Cities region will lose ground to national competitors. A metropolitan community is only as healthy as its core.

‘Dynamic urban living”
Minneapolis’ plan declares that the city, which lost a quarter of its population over the last five decades, will grow again — from 390,000 now to more than 430,000 by 2030. It aims to grow in a manner that enhances the quality of life metrowide. It intends to remain a “premier destination for dynamic urban living” and to remain the heart of the Upper Midwest’s commercial and cultural activity. It wants to enhance its reputation as a place for creative endeavor and environmental sensibility. These are among the ambitions spelled out in a dozen chapters.

But the key points include: retrofitting the city for less dependence on cars; expanding transit (including a streetcar system) as well as biking and walking; offering housing at all price points; expanding economic vitality, both downtown and in neighborhood commercial zones; providing safe, livable neighborhoods, a sound environment and an active arts scene, and running an effective government that cooperates with regional partners, both public and private.

Reaction has been generally positive, with many close-in neighborhoods wanting more housing than the plan anticipates. The Met Council staff, for example, forecasts 15,000 additional housing units in the city by 2030, but planners suggest that the city could accommodate an additional 38,000 units or more.

Challenges are many, however. Some of them are financial; taxes must keep taxes low enough to keep middle- and upper-income residents, but ways must be found to expand the urban amenities that keep the city livable. Some challenges are social and cultural; ways must be found to improve the life chances for impoverished immigrants and African-Americans who, if trends continue, will constitute a larger share of the population. Some challenges involve leadership; talented political, business and civic leaders must emerge to accomplish those things.

The plan invites public comment at three community meetings this week and next, or on the web. For professional designers, the American Society of Landscape Architects is testing a Wiki, also available to members of the American Institute of Architects, the American Planning Association and the Urban Land Institute. The landscape association has posted the Minneapolis plan’s urban design chapter for Wiki editing in real time. David Motzenbecker, chair of the city’s Planning Commission, said the pilot effort offers “a fresh new way to gather public input.”

Some suggestions
Since I admire Minneapolis’ plan, my own half-dozen comments are meant only to add emphasis:

1. Government cannot solve the root causes of crime and poverty, but it must create the conditions (public safety, education, training, a good job environment) that inspire people to succeed. “Minding the gap” between rich and poor must be the city’s top priority.

2. That task will go undone, however, if Minneapolis fails to attract a substantial share of affluent baby boomers, creative young people and upscale businesses to pay the freight. Downtown offers the greatest potential for that. But unless the city makes its core greener and more attractive, Minneapolis will “miss the market” on the next wave of residential and commercial investment. The city must apply the lesson it learned a century ago around the Chain of Lakes: Great public spaces draw people and investment.

3. Better transportation is also vital. Cities that figure out how to thrive with less dependence on driving will have a leg up. The city’s future rides on adding to the LRT system and rebuilding part of its old streetcar network. Encouraging the private sector to locate jobs along those transit lines is important. So far, the city has done almost nothing to attract jobs to LRT stations on Nicollet Mall and Hennepin Avenue. That must change.

4. Another environmental requisite is protecting and managing water. Sun Belt cities are likely to run short in the years ahead. An abundance of clean water is an advantage that all Minnesota should hang on to.

5. The city must do more to push its arts advantage. It’s extremely unfortunate that museums and theaters are widely scattered, making it difficult to image an adjacent walkable district of galleries and small playhouses. It’s unfortunate, too, that its visual arts energy is concentrated in what amounts to “malls” — like the old Northrup-King structure in Northeast Minneapolis — instead of along public streets. Finding ways to “transport” the city’s considerable arts energy into public places, where art can become part of the street life and commercial life of the city, is a formidable challenge but one worth tackling.

6. The University of Minnesota is huge potential growth engine for jobs and prosperity in both central cities. A visiting design team from the Urban Land Institute was recently amazed that a 30-block area (near the Metrodome and parts of the West Bank) sits fallow while adjoining so many “meds and eds.” That’s developer jargon for the university-generated life-sciences jobs that often materialize at the edge of major research campuses, resulting in housing, retail and other development opportunities. Minneapolis should organize its job creation and land-use efforts to take fuller advantage of its best asset, the university.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Tom Poe on 01/16/2008 - 09:47 am.

    The city has a core wireless infrastructure in place, and rapidly (within months) becoming mature enough to be reliable. An amazing opportunity to coordinate a citywide arts environment. With the switch to digital transmission in February, 2009, we will see the traditional television network shift to a community network. Events will become series of events, and visitors as well as residents will tune in to see what’s happening. Today, we have Tomorrow, we will have live community networks broadcasting across the community and online across the world.

    The city planners that take into consideration a community that strives to become a giant collection of permanent booths in an ongoing convention of arts related curricula, will quickly realize the economic potential their city’s wireless infrastructure offers.

  2. Submitted by Susan Lesch on 01/17/2008 - 09:23 pm.

    Encouraging thoughts. Hope we don’t get fooled again. Some experts thought community TV would take place in the 1970s, when handheld videocams were invented and cable TV expanded what were I think five stations in Minneapolis.

    Mr. Berg, I am happy to see your interest in, “the city must apply the lesson it learned a century ago around the Chain of Lakes: Great public spaces draw people and investment” but wonder why. We have no more lakes, waterfalls or rivers to build around. I worry when Mayor Rybak sees parks as the answer, too, and think some of these ideas are coming from what I call “out of work architects”.

    Sorry to be so blunt but if you want to live on the riverfront downtown, between the Mississippi and the new library there are for about ten square blocks a total of zero restaurants. I would like to encourage small retail and a source of food over copying the work of Mssrs. Cleveland (1814-1900), Loring (1833-1922) and Wirth (1863–1949) and their colleagues. They already did the job.

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