Will new rules along the Mississippi choke off the redevelopment that Twin Cities are counting on?

A view of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, circa 2004.
Photo by William Wesen
A view of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, circa 2004.

To remain viable in the years ahead, Minneapolis and St. Paul must win a larger share of the metropolitan area’s population growth and tax base than they have in recent decades. Steep declines in state aid and persistent concentrations of poverty within their borders magnify the importance for these core cities to attract middle-class households and job-producing employers, not just for their sakes but for the competitive benefit of the region and state.

And so, it’s troubling that a new layer of state regulation aimed at further protecting the Mississippi River may prevent St. Paul and especially Minneapolis from redeveloping their riverfronts in ways that attract new residents and jobs.

 Indeed, the proposed regulations being considered by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) could have the unintended effect of inducing sprawl — shifting potential urban riverfront development outward to the metro edge, creating other environmental headaches.

The proposed rules are intended to strengthen the Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area established in 1976 to preserve the river’s natural features. The area, also part of the National Park system, covers a 72-mile stretch of the riverfront from Dayton, just downstream from Elk River, to the confluence of the St. Croix River near Hastings. Worries that new housing on the Upper Landing and West Side Flats in St. Paul (among other projects) might unduly “urbanize” the river prompted the Legislature in 2009 to ask for stricter rules on aesthetics and water quality.

Minneapolis and St. Paul officials acknowledge that a clean and scenic river greatly enhances the urban quality of life. But they also say that the new rules, in current draft form, may overreach by preventing the kind of responsible, eco-friendly riverfront development they intend to pursue. The Mississippi has been a working river for more than a century, they note. It’s unreasonable to expect that a river altered by locks, dams and the remnants of industry could easily revert to pre-development wilderness.

“It’s kind of hard not to pretend there’s a city here,” said Karin Berkholtz, a city planner who grew up near the river.

What Minneapolis couldn’t build
According to Minneapolis officials, the new draft rules restricting setback and height would make the city’s riverside parkways essentially illegal (nonconforming). The Danish medical device company Coloplast could not have built its U.S. headquarters overlooking the river. A number of abandoned industrial sites, including Sherer Brothers Lumber Co. and the Pillsbury A Mill, could not be converted to new homes and businesses.

Indeed, the city’s aspirations of transforming its industrial upper river into clusters of homes, parks and new businesses could be prevented.

Minneapolis has not yet calculated the potential tax revenue loss that the new DNR rules might impose. But in a detailed memo to the mayor, council and department head, Planning Director Barbara Sporlein listed a number of conflicts between the proposed rules and the city’s comprehensive plan. “The outcome of this rulemaking could have major impacts to our city,” she wrote.

Source: Minnesota Dept. of Natural Resources

St. Paul is also concerned, although less about height and setback restrictions than about slopes. New rules could restrict many riverfront residents and businesses located on inclines from modifying their property even in small ways, said Allan Torstenson, a city planner working on the city’s response. “It’s a matter of balance,” he said, in protecting the river while still allowing the city to maximize the impact of redeveloping the Ford plant site, among other projects. “The rules need to be more clear than they are now,” he said.

Louis Jambois, president of the St. Paul Port Authority, asked that the new rules not stigmatize industries as “non-conforming” uses. He wrote: “Business have unlimited location options, and while certain regulation is necessary and prudent, layering restrictions simply provides incentive for those businesses to leave — a circumstance that St. Paul can ill afford.”

Environmentalists push minimal development
Whitney Clark, director of the influential environmental group Friends of the Mississippi River, said he thinks that the pending rules will acknowledge the varying character of the urban river and that certain developments will be allowed as long as they have no significant impact on ecology or scenic value. Few restrictions, he said, would fall on the existing downtown areas of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

He acknowledged also that agriculture does far greater damage to the river than urban development. Some 83 percent of pollution in Minnesota’s waters results from to agricultural runoff, mainly silt, fertilizer and pesticides. No “critical areas” have been designated along rural portions of the Mississippi River. Nor have they been imposed on some the fastest-growing suburban areas in Sherburne and Anoka counties, just northwest of the Twin Cities. “That’s a political problem the Legislature wanted to avoid,” he said.

State Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, said the rulemaking has a better chance of making all parties reasonably happy rather than tossing the issue to the Legislature to pick political winners and losers. Environmentalists, property rights advocates, small towns and big cities all have objections, he said. “I hope all sides can take it down a notch and sit at the table with one another.”

Perhaps the most intriguing division is between classic environmentalists and a new generation of environmental urbanists. The classic view is that cities are an intrusion on the natural form of the river. Minimizing runoff and hiding buildings from view are imperatives. The urbanist view is that city riverfronts are in transition. Once dominated by industry, they are now being converted to neighborhoods that mix housing, jobs and parks.

Both sides agree that urban runoff must be minimized, and, indeed, much progress has been made (rain gardens, pervious pavements, etc.). The scenic values of a river are up for debate, however.

The classic environmentalist would prefer to see no buildings at all. The urbanist enjoys the sight of tall buildings protruding over treetops and other botanical buffers. The classic view is that riverfronts are for occasional recreation, preferably non-motorized. The urbanist view is that riverfronts are for “healthy living,” that is, for incorporating parks and trails into the routines of ordinary daily living — walking from your riverfront condo across a park to get to your job or supermarket, for example.

How it all works out along the Mississippi River will be the subject of upcoming public hearings, probably in April. The schedule has not yet been announced. It’s the DNR’s intent to finish rulemaking in January. In the end, the DNR commissioner may choose to accept or reject the rules. These websites offer a detailed look at the proposed seven zones and other features and timetables for the new rules:
Friends of the Mississippi River
The Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area rulemaking process (DNR)

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Mohammed Ali Bin Shah on 09/22/2010 - 09:49 am.

    “prompted the Legislature in 2009 to ask for stricter rules on aesthetics and water quality.”

    You mean he DFL controlled legislature at the behest of the enviro lobby, don’t you? Don’t you just love that the DFL legislature is screwing over DFL bastions Minneapolis and St. Paul?

  2. Submitted by chuck holtman on 09/22/2010 - 11:25 am.

    Gee, Mr. Shah, not all of us look at civic life as an ideological struggle in which we hope for some folks to win and others to get screwed. Some of us look at this as a complicated issue with competing public interests that we would like to see addressed thoughtfully with the best public outcome. This of course means overcoming the typical hazards of public policymaking including weak legislatures, bureaucratic stubbornness and stakeholder imbalances. It’s notable how consistently comments from the Right reveal an interest in civic society that goes no further than wanting to see some win and others lose on some ideological battlefield that constitutes your sole cognitive frame for viewing the world, and that there is no interest whatsoever in the actual kind of society that we can manage to create or how it affects the actual lives that folks can manage to live.

  3. Submitted by Bob Spaulding on 09/22/2010 - 12:16 pm.

    I take valuable insight in both what Steve refers to as urban environmentalism and classical environmentalism. With that in mind, I’d offer these thoughts.

    I think the guiding principle of planning in the City of St. Paul and St. Paul Riverfront Corporation is a helpful frame here. Their goal is for the riverfront to become: More NATURAL, more URBAN, more MORE CONNECTED.

    When thinking of the development of our central cities, I think we can look at the first two – more natural and more urban – as either in outright conflict on the one hand, or in healthy (and creative) tension on the other.

    That creativity takes place in discussions around development. We don’t always meet the standards proposed – cities have the opportunity for variances to address special circumstances (which the legislature will no doubt ensure is broadly available next session). But having standards gives Planning Commissions and City Councils some expectations and a benchmark by which to judge proposals and have a thoughtful discussion of impacts on the riverfront and all aspects of civic life.

    In my mind, livable cities offer places to “get away” and connect to nature within a short walk of highly urbanized areas. Some parts of the Riverfront in essence become our natural Central Park, while others are more extensions to developed areas. There’s a spectrum of how we use the riverfront, and thus a spectrum of appropriate standards tied to geography

    Perhaps the nature of a rulemaking process is such that the values are brought into conflict, and not just tension. And no doubut, Minneapolis raises real issues that deserve honest consideration.

    But in the end, my hope is that what seems to be a conflict at this point in the rulemaking process can – as we work forward – become a healthy tension and discussion about how to thoughtfully develop an urban riverfront.

    Beyond that, I’ll just leave the discussion of details to others…

  4. Submitted by John Bailey on 09/27/2010 - 12:55 pm.

    Thanks for the article Steve. This exact issue has come up with colleagues of mine around the country, most recently in Baltimore. To use a broad brush stroke, it has a created a divide between smart growthers/city officials/developers and more traditional environmentalists. I think the decade long conversation about how a well-functioning city is key to environmental progress has made this conversation a bit less divisive, but differences still exist for sure. The Feds are considering new stormwater rules that will make this issues more prominent as the regs make their way through the system. The challenge will be how to take advantage of the most effective new stormwater strategies while not adding yet more barriers to developing in places where infrastructure already exists. Just like with greenhouse gasses, if you compare the per capita runoff from traditional suburban and traditional urban development…it ain’t close.

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