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Minneapolis Census data uncover a bipolar city

A troubled North Side rapidly empties out as an up-and-coming belt of land stretching across the city’s midsection ascends.

Since December I’ve been harping on the 2010 Census results, namely the failure of this metropolitan region to grow in a balanced way. Unlike its top competitors, Minneapolis-St. Paul over the last decade grew solely on its suburban edge while the central cities and inner suburbs continued to lose population and comparative wealth. In an era of lively and revitalized city centers, I’ve wondered aloud: What is it that growing cities like Denver, Seattle and Portland know about infill development that we haven’t yet discovered?

Now comes Minneapolis City Hall (with a trace of irritation in its voice) to set me straight on a few things. My description of the central cities as declining in population and wealth was not wrong in the aggregate. But the story is more complicated than that — and a lot more interesting.

In the case of Minneapolis, a deeper dig into the Census data reveals a city headed simultaneously in opposite directions:

• A troubled and declining North Side that’s rapidly emptying out.

• An up-and-coming belt of land stretching across the city’s midsection that’s growing and ascending.

The problem is that the magnitude of the North Side’s decline offsets the positive trend elsewhere. As it turns out, Minneapolis is not at all like Seattle, Denver or Portland, where most neighborhoods are moving up together; it’s more like a miniature Chicago, where poor areas on the south and west sides are in steep decline while neighborhoods closer to the core are flourishing.

Minneapolis’ core neighborhoods don’t yet show the strength and vitality of central Chicago. But on maps you can see a broad band of population and housing growth in four distinct swaths: along the downtown riverfront, in districts near the University of Minnesota, along the Hiawatha light-rail corridor, and along the Midtown Greenway.

This broad midsection generated an impressive increase in housing units over the past decade. But here’s the telling statistic: While Minneapolis produced nearly 10,000 new homes it still failed to gain population.

Two directions at once
“How can that happen?” asked a disappointed Mike Christenson, Minneapolis’ director of planning and economic development.

The answer probably lies in the rapid exodus from the North Side and in the nature of the city’s settlement pattern: lots of single people living alone. Indeed, preliminary Census data show that average household size in Minneapolis ranks among the lowest in the nation, right up there with the small households of Seattle and San Francisco.

Change in city and township population 2000-2010


Click on chart to enlarge

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

The reason probably goes back to Minneapolis’ split personality: On the plus side, young people consider the city a cool place to live, and housing in relatively affordable by big-city standards; on the minus side, the school system has a terrible reputation and, although crime is way down, the North Side is still thought to be a risky place for families. Household size has been declining for decades in Minneapolis.

The Census results left Christenson frustrated. The city and its private partners have poured enormous energy, creativity and quite a lot of money into programs aimed at stabilizing housing and boosting education opportunities on the North Side. Still, people departed in droves, suffering the effects of a devastating wave of foreclosures and job losses. The biggest population losses came in the Jordan and Hawthorne neighborhoods.

Population change by neighborhood 2000-2010


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Click on chart to enlarge

Prepared by CPED Research/Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Altogether, the number of vacant homes in the city more than doubled between 2000 and 2010, from just over 6,000 to nearly 15,000. Nearly all of the new vacancies were on the North Side. Hawthorne alone lost nearly 300 homes. The losses were more than enough to offset impressive gains elsewhere.

Minneapolis housing units, 2000-2010





Total housing units



+9,681 (+5.7%)

Total vacant housing units



+8,493 (+136%)

The up-and-coming areas are easy to trace, and they pinpoint the opportunities that lie ahead if the housing market revives. Downtown neighborhoods boomed over the last decade, especially in the North Loop, along the riverfront, and near the University. The Midtown Greenway and the Hiawatha line were also big draws for new housing.

“I used to think that tying housing to employment was the most important formula for growth,” Christenson said. “But I’m starting to see transit as a big driver.”

The city recently hired developer David Frank to promote more development along transit corridors. In an interview last week, Frank and Christenson said that the Census results show clearly the bipolar task ahead: Figure out how to repopulate the North Side while pushing as hard as possible to build new homes and vitality along the transit corridors.

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Neighborhood housing unit change 2000-2010


Click on chart to enlarge

Prepared by CPED Research/Source: U.S. Census Bureau

The city will know more about changes in its economic profile when the Census Bureau releases household income data later this year. But Mayor R.T. Rybak — along with St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman — have already laid out the challenge: These central cities must grow again, both in population and tax base. With less and less money coming back from the state and federal governments, and with political power shifting rapidly to the far suburbs, Minneapolis and St. Paul must somehow find the magic that has propelled their competitors to higher populations, greater wealth and more balance within their metropolitan areas.

And so the question hangs in the air: What do Seattle, Portland and Denver know about urban infill that this market has yet to discover?

(For the complete Minneapolis census report, click here, then go to “Reports & Presentations.”)