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7 best planning moves in Twin Cities history

We’ve made blunders, but in this season, we should be aware of our blessings and how we engineered them.

North Mississippi Regional Park
MinnPost photo by Steve Date

When I first mentioned to a local urban expert that I wanted to write two year-end columns — one each about the best and worst planning moves Minneapolis and St. Paul have made — he said: “Finding the bad things will be a snap. It’s going to be a lot harder to assemble a list of the positives.” His point was that we’ve made a ton of blunders.

While that’s true, our Twin Cities have some smart moves to point to. But we don’t think much about the pluses because: a) we take them for granted; and b) they’re not as interesting as the screw-ups. Seriously, if we did everything perfectly, we’d be as boring as cows. (No disrespect to the dairy industry intended.)

But in this season, we should be aware of our blessings and how we engineered them. For outside of climate and scenic beauty, we human beings produce the cities we live in. To paraphrase President Obama, we did make these:

No. 1: Minneapolis’ lavish park system

OK, this is a no-brainer, but it’s worth remembering that 6,400 acres of the city are devoted to parklands. They include playgrounds, golf courses, gardens, lakes, nature preserves, walking and biking paths as well as places to sled, ski, skate and swim. And we really use them. On any day when the temperature rises above, say, 25 below zero (OK, that’s hyperbolic — 35 degrees maybe), you find hordes of lakeside walkers, joggers and bench potatoes synching their brain waves to the waters lapping on shore.

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For these gifts, we have to thank a batch of leading citizens who, over the objections of the City Council, petitioned the state Legislature in 1883 for permission to create a parks board independent of politics. We can add to those prime movers early superintendents who aggressively acquired land and FDR’s Works Progress Administration which built many of the paths and facilities.

The next evolution of the system is the implementation of RiverFirst, a 20-year plan for the Mississippi that would create bike and walking trails, floating islands for the protection of wildlife and four more parks, including an alluvial wetland. Here’s hoping we’re all around to enjoy it.

The takeaway: The Twin Cities didn’t have San Francisco’s mild climate or Rio de Janeiro’s spectacular mountains. But we had the will to create something special, and we did. Says Kelley Lindquist of Artspace: “A Siberian community took an inhospitable place and made it lovely.” 

No. 2: Metropolitan Council, our multi-county government

Back in the early ‘70s, I worked for a quarterly academic journal called New York Affairs. Its purpose was to chronicle the problems of the megalopolis — and there were plenty, including New York’s near bankruptcy. Eager to show my readers that some cities (mine) knew how to do things right, I came home and spent weeks researching and writing a paean to the Met Council, which Harper’s called “The Minnesota Experiment.”

The very existence of the Metropolitan Council was a wonder to wonks everywhere: a body whose purpose was to guide regional growth, coordinate services that couldn’t be efficiently delivered by local governments and prevent despoliation of nature preserves by uninhibited suburban development. I remember being most impressed with the council’s forward thinking. One concern back then was how urban sprawl’s gobbling of farmland would affect the food supply; nobody else in the entire nation was thinking that broadly back then.

The council in its early years required suburbs to accept affordable housing and pushed the clustering of jobs into central locations which made commuting more efficient. In recent years, critics like Jim Erkel of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, feel the council has become a bit wimpy, allowing the extension of sewer and water systems to inefficient new developments on the fringe of the metro. And, it’s true that the council is far from perfect. Still, it can trot out a respectable record for improving the wastewater system and expanding regional parks.

The takeway: Sometimes the Met Council seems like another large bureaucracy stacked on top of a jillion local governments, cities, towns, counties, school boards, water districts and so on. But without the council, those entities would constantly be at each other’s throats vying for resources. With it, we know that there’s a group with an eye on the big picture.

Mears Park
MinnPost photo by Steve BergMears Park

No. 3: Downtown St. Paul, walkable and historic

When you stroll in St. Paul’s core, you feel like you’re really in a city. Yes, there are the requisite tall buildings, but the area is compact, with many fewer of the ugly surface parking lots encountered in Minneapolis. And the place has character, and by that I mean, buildings of many ages and styles.

The beautiful Renaissance style library, vintage 1917, may not hold as many books as Hennepin County’s main library with its flying buttress (or whatever that thing up there is) and it may not be as light and bright to work in, but it lends much more charm to the streetscape. It makes me long for Minneapolis’ old public library, a turreted behemoth that was torn down years ago. Adding to St. Paul’s historic flavor, there’s the Hamm Building, the Endicott, the St. Paul Hotel, Rice Park and Landmark Center.

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The takeaway: How did St. Paul manage to maintain its character? I’m sure that historic preservation folks played a role, but, as former Mayor George Latimer joked, “Maybe laziness is a benefit.” I don’t think its laziness so much as simple restraint. Rushing to tear down everything old and replace it with something new doesn’t always pay off. Fortunately, most city planners by now have realized that fixing is preferable to nixing.

Peavey Plaza
MinnPost photo by Karen BorosPeavey Plaza on Nicollet Mall

No. 4: Nicollet Mall

When I went to college out East a thousand years ago and told people I was from Minneapolis, they would ask me, “Where do you get your clothes?” They seemed to picture my home as something like little house on the prairie where my mom crafted dresses out of seed bags. So, to make them comfortable, I usually answered, “the general store,” instead of Dayton’s.

All that changed in 1967 when Nicollet Avenue, our main downtown shopping street, was transformed into a curvy, tree-lined boulevard that was closed to cars. All of a sudden, snooty Easterners started saying things like, “Oh, you’re from that cool city with the pedestrian mall.”

Nicollet Avenue, in fact, was the very first so-called “transit mall” or car-free street in the nation, and within a few years, practically every city in the country was trying to create one of its own.

These days, you can find transit malls in places as diverse as Brooklyn, Long Beach, Denver and Iowa City. Our own mall may have become a little run down — the last sprucing up was 20 years ago — but it’s still a fun place to walk and shop, especially on summer days when the farmer’s market is open.

The takeaway: Doing something completely different from what every other city was doing put us on the map. We can and should be thinking up crazier stuff for our towns. And, in the meantime, we need to freshen up the mall we’ve got. It needs $60 million for new lighting, pavers, street furniture and trees. (For some reason, the original honey locusts, chosen to withstand traffic fumes, were replaced with maples and firs, which almost immediately croaked.)

Fourth Street LRT
Photo by Jeff SymeRail beds and platforms on Fourth Street in front of Union Depot in St. Paul.

No. 5: LRT, better late than never

It’s stunning to think that Metro Transit was contemplating construction of a commuter rail line along the lines of a conventional subway, way back in the 1970s. But the Metropolitan Council, in one of its less brilliant moves, blocked the plan and pushed for bus service. (I said they weren’t perfect.) The two outfits battled each other in the Legislature through the decade, with neither winning — so we saw no improvement in mass transportation. In the ‘80s, the council finally came up with the light rail idea, but it took nearly 15 years for the Legislature to cough up the dough.

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The Hiawatha line, which began running in 2004, has been an astounding success, with people taking 10.5 million rides in 2010, about 30 percent more than projected. Riding it from downtown to the airport, as I’ve done several times, is a joy — a fast 20-minute trip and no need to pay parking fees. Presumably, the Central Corridor LRT, coming on line in 2014, will be even more popular since it connects the two cities and the University. More important than the travel will be the development that (usually) comes with train lines. More development means more people, more businesses, greater tax revenues for both cities and a higher quality of public service.

The takeaway: Doing it sooner is better. The trains should have been running decades ago. If they had been, the two central cities might have been spared their steep population declines and workers their long commutes. For the LRT system to work well, however, it needs to be fleshed out so it can take people to all quadrants of the metro. So far, however, the Legislature has allotted only a stingy $7 million to the development of the Southwest LRT, and Golden Valley has voted down the Bottineau LRT. With ever increasing construction costs, the longer the LRTs take to get rolling, the more we’ll wind up paying.

Stone Arch Bridge
MinnPost photo by Corey AndersonStone Arch Bridge

No 6: Stone Arch Bridge, a neighborhood transformer

Completed in 1883 by James J. Hill’s Union Railway Company, it swings across the Mississippi from Mill Ruins Park to Father Hennepin Bluffs. The bridge fell into disuse in the late ‘70s after the milling business left the city, but a grant from the federal government’s Transportation Enhancements program financed its renovation in 1994.

Viewed at night from the Guthrie’s Endless Bridge, the lighted span looks like a magical road that Cinderella and her coach would ride down to get to the ball. On a warm day, it hosts joggers, dog-walkers and sightseers, and it’s become the first best place to bring visitors to behold the towers of downtown Minneapolis and the rushing waters of St. Anthony Falls.

The takeaway: A little federal money can make a big difference — not just aesthetically but financially. According to former Minnesota Congressman and transportation expert James Oberstar, who helped win the dough for the bridge, almost immediately after it reopened, property values soared in the once decrepit Mill City neighborhood. Now the area is home to up-market condos, offices and restaurants, the Mill City Museum, the Guthrie Theater and the MacPhail Music School. Under MAP-21, the latest transportation bill, however, the enhancements program has been combined with several others and allocated less money. 

Victoria and Grand Avenues in St. Paul
MinnPost photo by Corey AndersonThe shops near the intersection of Victoria and Grand Avenues in St. Paul

No. 7: Grand Avenue in St. Paul

I live in Minneapolis, so I don’t get over there much. But when I do, my first thought is: Why don’t I come here more often? The street’s got texture — chain stores and unique stores, chain restaurants and unique restaurants, old buildings and new buildings. It’s pleasant to walk on — but not impossible to find parking if you come by car.

Don’t think, however, that Grand Avenue was always a place where the Chamber of Commerce wanted to send visitors. It went into a decline after World War II when its electric streetcar disappeared and families moved to newer housing in the suburbs. By the 1970s, crime had become a problem. At one point, planners proposed tearing down the stores and rezoning the street for housing.

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Two forces pulled the area out of the dumps. First, the City of St. Paul (under Latimer’s leadership — not so lazy after all) provided below-market rate loans to moderate-income families to purchase and rehabilitate homes in the area. The infusion of population created a demand for commercial services. Second, business owners got together and prodded police to patrol more aggressively. Since then, the city has adopted criteria for Grand Avenue that preserve its character as a pedestrian-friendly commercial street with an emphasis on supporting local business.

The takeaway: Concerted action by both government and private enterprise can rescue a neighborhood from the pit of hell. Let’s hope, however, that Grand Avenue doesn’t get carried away with itself. Last year, its Summit Hill neighborhood association opposed allowing Cupcake, a combo bakery-coffee shop-drinks outfit, to add seven parking spaces because doing so would set some kind of horrible, adverse precedent.

Now, just because I listed only seven positives, readers should not conclude that that’s all there are. Seven is simply the number I had the energy to write about. But these seven are by no means insignificant, and they give us plenty of cause for celebration.