Has the Metropolitan Council fulfilled its mission of advancing “orderly and efficient” growth for Minneapolis, St. Paul and their suburbs? Or has it acquiesced to a gradual and destructive decentralization of the metro region? Has it earned its national reputation for good planning? Or has it caved in to suburban sprawl at the expense of redirecting growth and vitality back toward the center? If the council has failed in these pursuits, how might it be improved?
Myron Orfield has thought a lot about these questions since the mid-1990s when he first took on “metro politics” with a startling series of books and maps that chronicled the growing concentrations of poverty and disorder in the core cities and blue-collar suburbs, and the simultaneous expansion of prosperity and stability on the metro edge.
For Orfield, director of the Institute of Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota Law School, the Metropolitan Council has been complicit in these disparate trends, especially over the past 20 years. Those trends, with their overtones of race, class and economic disparity, are not easily confronted by Minnesotans. That the Met Council has aided and abetted those disparities is a notion that continues to cause tension between Orfield and the local planning and building community.
“I think the Met Council is not the cause of decentralization; it just didn’t do its job to make things better,” Orfield said last week.
Keeping in mind today’s Urban Land Institute Minnesota discussion about the Met Council’s past and future, I sat down with Orfield and his U colleague, Thomas Luce, to discuss their new book: “Region: Planning the Future of the Twin Cities.” Here are edited excerpts from our conversation:
MinnPost: Your work over the years has documented expanding concentrations of minorities and poverty in the inner metro and growing affluence at the edge. Why are you worried about that? Isn’t that just the way cities are?
Myron Orfield: We’re worried because racial and socio-economic segregation is bad for poor kids and poor neighborhoods. Those places get disinvested and red-lined. The private sector doesn’t operate there. The foreclosure crisis hit those areas hard. And the hollowing out of parts of the region isn’t good for the health of the region as a whole. It’s not just a problem in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Richfield, East Bloomington, Osseo, Hopkins, St. Louis Park [and] almost all of the inner suburbs are now experiencing what we first noticed in the ’90s.
MP: But why should affluent suburbanites care?
Thomas Luce: Because concentrating almost all of your problems in just a few places creates bigger problems for the public sector and higher taxes for everyone. More important, perhaps, the whole region doesn’t compete as well.
MP: We’re talking here about disinvestment and weakening at the core while the larger metro is decentralizing. This has happened despite the fact that we have a Met Council that was, as I read it, supposed to counteract those trends.
MO: Yes, and we did a good job in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Ironically, in the ’90s, we started moving away from that. One of the key indicators is job location. Because of the early work of the Met Council we were able to cluster jobs in a relatively few places, mostly toward the center. That allowed transit to operate. It made for greater efficiency in infrastructure. And it gave poor people better access to jobs. Beginning about 1994, we dropped the idea of enforcing these clusters and began allowing jobs to scatter. That, in turn, encouraged the residential market to relocate another 20 or 40 miles farther out. That made it harder for low-income people to get to work, and it created a lot of traffic problems on the edge.
MP: How did it happen? Was it part of the Reagan-Bush-Clinton era notion that government regulation should be more of a cozy partnership?
MO: Well, I don’t know. It was sad. The council, first under Curt Johnson and then continuing under Ted Mondale and Peter Bell, decided for whatever reason not to consider job clusters when reviewing cities’ comprehensive plans. Before, under the older councils, the plans were disapproved if new jobs weren’t clustered in areas where jobs already existed. But starting in about 1994, they began to see the rules less as regulation than as a kind of public relations. They took regulatory structure and made it just happy talk. They wanted everyone to be happy together. The local comprehensive plans had always been negotiated between local governments and the Met Council. But starting in the ’90s, they were just rubber-stamped.
Another important thing that happened came in about 2001 under Mondale when they decided to open up a huge area near the edge for two-acre residential lots. They basically got rid of the MUSA line [the Metropolitan Urban Services Area, a kind of growth boundary] and discontinued the principle that development had to be orderly and contiguous. That was a big mistake.
TL: One result was that the council undercut one of its main functions; to act as an offset against the built-in subsidies that suburban development enjoys. There’s a 25 or 30 percent cost advantage on land and transportation that favors them that’s built into the system. After about 2001, they could just keep that subsidy and build what they wanted while charging everyone else for the cost.
MO: The council said basically that the remedy for getting too fat is to loosen your belt.
MP: As I recall, one of the reasons they gave was that without accommodating the outer suburbs, development would simply leapfrog to the collar counties. But that brings up a basic issue. How can the Met Council be legitimate when it includes only seven of the 13 metro area counties? (The Census Bureau defines 11 Minnesota and 2 Wisconsin counties as constituting the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro.)
MO: Well, rather than ignoring the regulatory structure, they should have brokered an arrangement with the collar counties or found a way to bring them in. Those counties would benefit from the tax-sharing that the metro counties have. I think there’s a real question about whether the state should allow metro-scale highways and other developments (Northstar rail, I-94 expansions) in the collar counties unless they become part of the regional governance.
MP: So, you think the Met Council has been too timid in extending its influence.
MO: I’m convinced that we have the strongest structure in the nation to shape growth. But we choose not to use it. It’s ironic. Portland has a less muscular structure and does more with it. We have a stronger structure but do less and less. And Portland, by the way, is doing much better than we are. Its growth is surging in the central areas. Its jobs have been concentrating there. And its schools are becoming less segregated and less impoverished as the middle class stays or moves in. Why is that? Because Portland has used its planning authority.
MP: Peter Bell tells me that the reason the council’s powers aren’t used is because the suburbs would revolt and the whole enterprise would fall apart.
MO: I think they would just rather not do anything. Just to say it’s hopeless and the collar counties don’t want to join is a lack of leadership.
MP: You mention Portland. Are we more like the cities we prefer to compare ourselves to — Portland, Seattle, Denver? Or do we now have more in common with the Rust Belt cities that have big concentrations of poverty, places like Milwaukee, Cleveland and St. Louis?
TL: Our economic profile is more like Portland and Seattle; our social profile has begun to resemble those other cities.
MO: I think we’re more like Chicago. It has a pretty strong central city with lots of vitality and gentrification. But it’s also very polarized with deep pockets of poverty. We’re not like Detroit; we’re not hollowed out.
MP: It’s increasingly apparent that cities — even states — are artifacts of a past era, and that metro areas are the socio-economic units in which we live and work. Yet there is no authentic metro government elected by voters and operating in a way that reflects reality.
MO: That’s true. Our region is especially fragmented. We have 187 cities. We have 76 school districts, most of which are not contiguous to their cities. We have countless watershed districts and other assorted districts — about 1,700 taxing districts in all. That’s incredible complexity. I think we should have an elected Met Council that fairly represents central cities, developed suburbs and developing suburbs. And I think under that there’s room for a lot of consolidation that would make government more efficient. I’d like to see 20 to 40 cities and 20 to 40 contiguous school districts.
NOTE: Monday’s Urban Land Institute meeting includes a members-only discussion with former Met Council chairmen Curt Johnson and Ted Mondale, and current chair Peter Bell. Minnpost hopes to include their reactions to Orfield’s comments in Wednesday’s Cityscape column.