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Met Council: More focus on growing in place

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.

Comments (19)

  1. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 10/15/2010 - 10:15 am.

    Really interesting and thoughtful coverage of an important topic that doesn’t get very much attention – thanks.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/15/2010 - 10:32 am.

    Good piece, Steve, and for the most part, I agree. Newbies are always viewed with suspicion, so my agreement may be more hindrance than help, and in any case, my influence in the metro area is less than zero, but I think it’s a well-done series.

    My experience as a planning commissioner, and an outside observer of DRCOG (Denver Regional Council of Governments) in Colorado, pretty closely follows your observations here in the Twin Cities metro. My own view is that regional governance should be far more effective than it is, but few things are more jealously guarded by municipal officials of every political stripe and persuasion than the concept and reality of “local control,” so I’d have put more emphasis on the paragraphs surrounding Myron Orfield’s photo on your article’s web page.

    It doesn’t appear, at least on the surface, that the Met Council “looked after” the best interests of the region, and instead has pretty much bowed to the wishes of edge communities at the expense of older settlement(s). That said, however, and to go back to something I mentioned in an earlier post on the earlier piece, biting the hand that feeds you is not often good for careers. Because of the parochial nature of most towns and cities, whether they’re real or only a real estate developer’s fantasy, your example is a good one. There would, indeed, be an uproar – from the communities in question – if the Met Council had the wherewithal to nix the fictional developments you named in the places you named – Maple Grove, Woodbury and Lakeville. Insisting that they be built in more efficient and socially-equitable locations in older, poorer areas would almost certainly be more beneficial for the region, but many political subdivisions give little more than lip service to the notion of actual regional well-being, and I agree that Mr. Bell’s suggestion that political support for the whole metro enterprise might well collapse is probably accurate. That, in itself, says a great deal about the depth of commitment of various suburban “partners” to the idea of regional cooperation.

    I know nothing of the details of how the Met Council was established, or is currently financed, or what sort of authority it has in detail, but if it’s at all like DRCOG, the financing for everything from office paper to Mr. Bell’s salary comes from the member political subdivisions. If I were in Bell’s position – laughably unlikely – I’d be acutely aware of the constraints placed on both my own pronouncements as well as the actions of the organization by that financial dependence, as well as the possibility of genuine collapse if push came to shove in the example you provided.

    So, to point out the obvious, to “suggest” a particular development pattern is vastly different from “requiring” a particular development pattern. I very much agree that a sizable part of the Met Council’s job ought to be to offset the “suburban advantage,” but based on the comments from him that I’ve seen, Mr. Bell’s commitment to that concept seems minuscule, at best, and I think you’re dead on-target, Steve, in saying that, while local culture and social structure bear most of the blame for the closing of North High school, “…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…” the communities left behind.

    The council cannot escape a significant share of culpability for the deterioration of sections of both Twin Cities, it would appear. My own experience reinforces your statement that “…Real estate is, in most instances, a zero sum game…” and zoning decisions, crucial to that zero-sum game, have immense and far-reaching effects. What I observed elsewhere was that few groups in the population were as thoughtlessly reactionary in that context as suburban homeowners. The devotion of some of them to “property values” approached mindless religious zealotry.

    I’d agree wholeheartedly with both your suggestion that the 70/30 numbers for anticipated development ought to be reversed, and also with the rest of that paragraph. Given the financial and political realities, it seems unlikely that the Met Council will be able to act very effectively in the best interests of the region because, without the approval of the edge subdivisions, it can’t exist at all. Suburban dwellers (and their various representatives) likely regard that reality as a good thing, but it keeps the Met Council from being an effective voice of reason among the conflicting interests of… well… the region.

    Meanwhile, for what little it’s worth, I’d endorse your entire final paragraph, including and especially your distinction between customers and citizens. Toddlers actually believe that they’re entitled to everything they want. We’re supposed to be adults who know better.

  3. Submitted by David Greene on 10/15/2010 - 11:09 am.

    I don’t buy Bell’s argument that the entire metro governance structure would collapse if the council actually used its authority. We had very effect met councils in the 60’s, 70’s and even some in the 80’s and things did not collapse. Some of the most effective councils were put in place by Republican administrations.

    That, I think, demonstrates the real problem. The council must bend to the wishes of the governor. If the governor doesn’t want something to happen, it won’t. Because the governor appoints all of the members, we have had very rapid shifts in council policy. Like our political climate, things have gone from cooperative compromise to strict ideology. There’s no sense of the common good on the council anymore. It’s simply about what will further the governor’s agenda and save the councilmembers’ jobs.

    This council in particular should be ashamed of the institutional racism it has actively promoted. The decisions made over these last eight years are going to harm us for many years.

  4. Submitted by dan buechler on 10/15/2010 - 12:11 pm.

    I worked in downtown Minneapolis during the last decade and one reason I heard for job flight quite often was that companies didn’t want to cluster because of 911 security concerns.

  5. Submitted by Mohammed Ali Bin Shah on 10/15/2010 - 12:27 pm.

    So, it is OK to treat one set of landowners/taxpayers/citizens (rural/suburban) differently than another (urban)? This is a very bigoted view, discriminating against people based upon where they live or wish to live.

    Once again, why do we need a set of annointed Overlords to tell us how and where to live and what we can do with our land and what type of transportation is best for us?

  6. Submitted by Virginia Martin on 10/15/2010 - 12:31 pm.

    This is a good story and one that most of us don’t pay enough attention to. I know that you, Steve, are well-versed in these urban issues, and the addition by Ray excellent.
    This whole thing sounds very familiar, and it’s been going on since the late 1940s (at least, and probably during the 1930s) with FHA and VA and others who approved loans mostly for “new homogenous” areas and helped create the crisis in the cities, the rise of the ghettos, and the failure of anyone to invest money into the cities. The several Housing Acts, instead of remedying this, added to it.
    We are experiencing thee huge gap between white and minority students that results, and people like Peter Bell, who is black and grew up in Summit-U and experienced urban renewal should know that better than anyone.
    It is disheartening to see how little we learn from what we’ve done before.

  7. Submitted by Mohammed Ali Bin Shah on 10/15/2010 - 12:32 pm.

    Excellent point (#4), Dan. Is the Met Council now going to tell us that our security concerns are trumped by their desire for something as badly misnamed as “social justice”? When will my choices be as respected as those of the annointed Overlords?

  8. Submitted by James Warden on 10/15/2010 - 12:45 pm.

    I’m not sure where this fits in, but it appears to clash with both Orfield’s view and the Met Council’s:

    That’s a case where Lake Elmo sued the Met Council after the council ordered Lake Elmo to adjust a municipal growth plan that aimed for preserving a rural character, not accommodate suburban growth as the Met Council wished.

    Clearly the Met Council used its authority in that case — Lake Elmo would argue it overused its authority, in fact. But it used its authority to smooth suburban development. This doesn’t fit in either the framework that Orfield, the Met Council – or even the author – suggest in the article.

    I wonder if all sides aren’t trying to shoehorn a neat narrative onto public policy decisions that are much messier in real life.

  9. Submitted by Jennifer McNertney on 10/15/2010 - 12:55 pm.

    A thoughtful and enjoyable piece. Thanks,Steve!

    One comment: your distinction between “consumer” and “citizen” didn’t ring quite true to me. I disagree that the difference is consumers get what they want and citizens get what they need (when the system works). When the system works, citizens are not passive recipients but actively engaged in the system itself. That to me is very important: whereas consumers purchase, citizens participate.

    And if citizens actively participate, they will get what they need AND what they want. (eventually. when the system works.)

  10. Submitted by Charles Holtman on 10/15/2010 - 03:47 pm.

    Contrary to Mr Shah’s comments (#5/#7), the critique of sprawl is not that of an Overlord wanting to make choices for others, but that sprawl involves subsidies and externalized social costs, and that correcting for these would produce a wholly different development pattern (i.e., it is a critique based wholly on orthodox welfare and market economics). The only capacity the Met Council has to correct the existing market failures is in the way it charges for wastewater treatment and authorizes road expansion (its authority over local land use is solely to preserve regional investments in these systems once made). The Council’s charge structure for wastewater system availability does subsidize sprawl; nothing is more subsidized (or carries more externalized social cost) than the burning of gasoline and the Council could make road infrastructure decisions in a way that corrects for this somewhat. But otherwise, the Council is really only a planning/coordinating body and has no capacity to correct any of the other many forms of market failure that cause sprawl. One substantial social cost of sprawl is that moving away from the urban core makes a person likelier to believe that what he has achieved is wholly by his own effort without the intervention of good fortune or the context of a functioning society, that his choices have no social externalities, and that he has no further responsibility for or stake in the greater community. I certainly don’t know how to quantify or internalize that cost, but it sure causes alot of damage.

  11. Submitted by dan buechler on 10/15/2010 - 03:52 pm.

    #7 On the other hand our addiction to oil which is somewhat planned or encouraged by the oil companies/automobile/government industrial complex strengthens the hands of terrorists. Or what do you think of freedom loving coutries like Saudia Arabia being one of the largest purchasers of U.S. military goods?

  12. Submitted by David Greene on 10/15/2010 - 04:05 pm.

    “So, it is OK to treat one set of landowners/taxpayers/citizens (rural/suburban) differently than another (urban)?”

    When the status quo preserves and in many cases exacerbates inequities and systemic racism, then yes, it is not only OK, it is morally necessary.

  13. Submitted by dan buechler on 10/15/2010 - 06:19 pm.

    Mr. Shah, I’ll agree not to engage in lazy thinking and I’ll hope you do the same. By the way did you know that one of the board members on the Met Coucil owns a large lumber company. I do not think that makes him an “overlord” but I do sense a conflict of interest.

  14. Submitted by Ray Marshall on 10/15/2010 - 07:10 pm.

    The Metropolitan Council was successful in the 70s and 80s because it controlled the location and timing of the metropolitan sewer system and highways in the suburban areas.

    To my knowledge that plan still controls development.

    But basically, individuals have made the choice as to where to live and businesses where to locate.

    As close as Woodbury, a prime location, is to downtown St. Paul, nobody wanted to live there until after the close-in sites in Dakota and Hennepin Counties began to fill up. That’s when the developers began to look at Woodbury.

    The New Town of “Jonathan” out in Chaska was begun to much fanfare in the early 70s. Nobody wanted to live there and it failed.

  15. Submitted by dan buechler on 10/16/2010 - 10:24 am.

    For another conflict of interest until recently a representative from Michigan was in charge of C.A.F.E. standards until recently until someone from California stepped in.

  16. Submitted by Victoria Wilson on 10/16/2010 - 06:59 pm.

    @ #10. Market failure does not cause sprawl, consumer demand does. I agree with you that the consumer is not adequately aware of the total cost incurred by the metro with the development of one new residential lot. Maybe they should be told? Consumers make decisions everyday that favor a collective benefit over self interest, e.g. organic foods, fair trade products, recycling. Perhaps with the proper information more consumers would choose not to expand our infrastructure. Citizens do not need to be told what they need; they are savvy enough to make decisions in favor of the whole as well as the self. But they do need to be well informed.

  17. Submitted by Charles Holtman on 10/17/2010 - 10:20 am.

    Ms Wilson – The canonical forms of market failure – primarily externalities and information asymmetries – operate profoundly here, in my view. This means, from the standpoint of social welfare economics, that sprawl is substantially underpriced for those who choose to “consume” it and therefore alot more of it is “sold” than is socially optimal. I agree that with more information about impacts choices would shift somewhat, but as always, the pocketbook is where the action is. If those “consuming” sprawl were required to pay a price reflecting internalization of its social costs (e.g., if gas were $12 a gallon, for starters), we then could talk about simply respecting peoples’ “market” choices.

  18. Submitted by Matt Lewis on 10/17/2010 - 05:48 pm.

    This was touched on in the article, but a big part of making dense, inner-city development more likely, desirable, and profitable is making the externalized costs of sprawling development explicit. That means putting a proper price on carbon, so that the high cost of driving alone is realized. That means expanding the congestion pricing that’s already in place on some twin cities interstates. That means eliminating minimum parking requirements, and having employers make the costs of providing parking more explicit. Studies have shown that when employees are given the choice of parking or a refund of the cost of that space, use of transit goes up.

    The problem is that many things, like highways and carbon, are underpriced. Others have their costs hidden, like parking. It will take time and effort to change these policies, but just saying that people like the suburbs is ignoring the many policy choices that hide the true cost of sprawling development.

  19. Submitted by Victoria Wilson on 10/17/2010 - 08:14 pm.

    Mr. Holtman~ (I respectively reciprocate the title even though I find a bit stuffy) Other than an assumed increase in consumption of gasoline, what are the externalities or social costs of sprawl? I don’t believe you can show that an individual who moves to a new development is driving more miles. They very well could be moving to get closer to work. I am confident that an informal poll amongst your friends will reveal that lowering commute time placed in the top five priorities of their latest move (if not the top three).
    The cost I was referring to is the accounted for cost of maintaining our miles or pavement, freeways, curbs, sewer lines, water towers, treatment plants and so on. If 25% of our buildings within this infrastructure are boarded and not paying taxes, I believe that the metro community would place pressure on curbing new development. If only 5% of the serviced buildings are presently influx, I believe most would say we are building at an appropriate rate. Perhaps the Metropolitan Council has those figures. Minnesotans are frugal and I don’t feel they would support a wasteful structure.

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