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Met Council: More focus on growing in place

The question prompted by Myron Orfield’s metro research remains as troubling as before: Has the council looked after the best interests of the whole region?

If the Twin Cities metro continues to decentralize (as the evidence suggests), and if the ongoing shift of wealth and vitality to the edge has left behind concentrations of racial and socio-economic poverty (as the data clearly show), and if those concentrations harm the whole region’s competitiveness (as almost everyone agrees), then what good has metrowide planning done all these years? Hasn’t the Metropolitan Council fallen short on its mission of guiding orderly and sustainable growth for the whole region?

On Monday we posted excerpts from an interview with University of Minnesota professors Myron Orfield and Thomas Luce based on their new book, “Region: Planning the Future of the Twin Cities.”
Orfield offered this answer to the question: “I think the Met Council is not the cause of decentralization; it just didn’t do its job to make things better.” In Orfield’s view, the council, over the past two decades especially, has chosen not to use its authority to forge a more prudent and equitable growth pattern, perhaps for fear of rocking the political boat.

On Wednesday, we posted a rebuttal from Met Council Chair Peter Bell and two former chairs, Ted Mondale and Curt Johnson. The three appeared on a panel sponsored by the Urban Land Institute-Minnesota to appraise the council’s past and future. All three said that the Twin Cities’ problems of sprawl and disparity would have been worse if not for the council’s work. They argued further that university professors — even those who, like Orfield, have gathered impressive data — cannot know the political realities under which the council operates.

Today, I offer my own analysis and commentary. I think the answers from Bell and the others were good, but perhaps not good enough. The question prompted by Orfield’s research remains as troubling as before: Has the council looked after the best interests of the whole region? Or has it mainly given a green light to edge communities at the expense of older places?

Myron Orfield
Myron Orfield

I suspect the second answer comes closer to the truth, but I also appreciate the political reality. The outer suburbs, with their hefty growth aspirations, have become the tail that wags the dog. Imagine what would happen if Bell chose to disapprove suburban capacity to build, say, a large office complex in Maple Grove, a shopping mall in Woodbury and a housing development in Lakeville because more efficient and socially equitable sites were available in older, poorer areas. There would be an uproar. Bell suggests that political support for the whole metro enterprise might collapse, and he could be right about that.

Council should offset suburban advantage
On the equity question, Bell says he doubts the power of land-use planning to address the socio-economic ills and racial disparities of the metro’s inner districts, citing instead marriage, personal responsibility, lawful behavior and other social structures — especially education — as better remedies. Suburbanites shouldn’t be blamed for choosing to live far away from urban pathologies, he says.

He’s right about that, too, I think, but not completely. Take as an example the impending closure of North High School in Minneapolis, a school built for 1,800 students with fewer than 270 remaining. A breakdown in the neighborhood’s social structure and educational values are surely to blame. But the Met Council’s decisions over the years to accommodate the movement of jobs and vitality to the outer edge have served to isolate and further segregate many left-behind communities. The council cannot fully escape culpability. Real estate is, in most instances, a zero sum game.

The council ought to have served as an offset to the built-in advantages that edge development enjoys, mainly though hidden subsidies in the economy and tax code that keep the price of gasoline and undeveloped land artificially low. It has tried to rebalance the equation with grants for affordable housing and livable communities. But they are small potatoes in the bigger scheme of things.

Even now, as the market begins to recognize the need for living and working on a smaller footprint, the Met Council anticipates 70 percent of development to occur on fresh ground and only 30 percent in older areas. Those numbers should be reversed — and would be if not for the council’s inability to refuse the expansion-minded outer suburbs. As an ally against sprawl, the Met Council is a little like Pakistan. It says all the right things to America, but ends up helping the enemy because without the enemy’s approval it cannot exist.

The council’s failure to achieve its own benchmarks [PDF] on job location and freeway construction bolsters that case. Between 2000 and 2009 the council expected more new jobs in older areas, nearly 10,000 of them. Instead the inner metro lost 10,500. On the suburban edge, however, employment continued to grow, with nearly 5,000 jobs added on fresh ground. On freeways, the Council expected to hold expansion to 10 lane miles per year, but missed the target on the low side by 67 percent.

Job-scatter remains a problem
Happily, the market is changing in ways that may favor older areas. When building resumes it’s expected that people will want smaller homes on smaller lots, and shorter trips to work. It’s possible also that business may rediscover the efficiencies of clustering jobs, especially as foundations across the country chip in to help fund transit-oriented developments and other sustainable projects. Further evidence of changes ahead are empty “McMansions” in the deep ‘burbs and MnDOT’s intention to cut road building on the metro edge.

Still, the scattering of jobs remains a troubling trend, seeming almost to mock the big investments in transit intended to pull jobs back into serviceable clusters. The Hiawatha line, for example, did nothing to stem the bleeding of jobs from downtown Minneapolis in the five years leading to 2008. Not a shovel of dirt was turned to add new office space at three prime stations (Metrodome, Nicollet and Hennepin). That should deeply embarrass the Met Council. The fact that it doesn’t shows that the council hasn’t yet forged the essential connection between transportation and land use. Bankers tell me privately that when building resumes the job-scatter trend is likely to continue as long as incentives allow employers to pass external costs (driving, parking, etc.) to employees and taxpayers. The council, in my view, should try to fix that by backing new incentives for transit-oriented development.

It should also sharpen its benchmarks by asking questions like these:

• Have metro residents driven fewer miles per capita this year over last?

• Has the population grown at a faster rate this year than the expansion of urbanized land?

• How many jobs and housing units have been added along transit lines this year compared to those added in auto-dependent areas?

• How much development has occurred this year on fresh ground versus on infill sites, and how does that ratio compare with outcomes in peer cities like Denver, Portland and Seattle?

• What was the population and median household income in the central cities and inner suburbs this year compared to the metro as a whole, and how does that compare to results in peer cities?

• How much carbon has the metro released into the atmosphere this year compared to last year, and how does that compare to peer cities’ performances?

Publishing those tighter measurements and outcomes regularly would give metro citizens a better picture for how to judge the council’s performance. I use the word citizens intentionally. The newspaper business lost its way when it began to view its readers less as citizens than customers. I hope the council isn’t falling into the same trap. Customers always get what they want. Citizens, when the system works, get what they need. What Minneapolis-St. Paul needs in order to compete and prosper is more focus on rebuilding older areas and less on tearing up new ground.