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.
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)