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7 best planning moves in Twin Cities history

MinnPost photo by Steve Date
North Mississippi Regional Park

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Comments (22)

  1. Submitted by James Hamilton on 12/21/2012 - 11:13 am.

    Every silver cloud has a dreary lining.

    With all due respect to Mayor Latimer and his crew, Grand Ave.’s come back may have more to do with the free market than the City’s attempts to preserve it.

    When I graduated from high school at the end of the ’60s, Grand Ave. was a disaster. Many of my low-income friends lived along Summit and Grand Aves, in cheap apartments and cut-up mansions. It was they and the college students in the western reaches who kept Grand Ave. afloat and whose patronage allowed many of the now-vanished saloons and eateries to survive long enough to anchor the resurgence of the avenue, places like O’Connells (now The Onion), the Green Mill (now with multiple locations, albeit less interesting pizza), etc.

    When the people came back, the businesses followed, lured by customers, cheap space and plenty of parking.

    We tend to forget that the market can work on its own, if we have the patience to let it do so. We’ve come to the point that entrepeneurs expect and often receive government assistance, playing one municipality off against another.

    • Submitted by David Wintheiser on 12/21/2012 - 12:57 pm.

      Every ‘free market solution’ has a government angle

      Kudos to the college kids for helping keep the existing businesses on Grand Avenue open.

      Without the government-sponsored loans that helped families move back into the neighborhood, though, it’s much more likely Grand Avenue would look like Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis today — a few bright spots, surrounded by much urban blight and neglect.

      Saying “when the people came back” ignores entirely the government’s role in rehabilitating the neighborhood; without the government, there’s no population resurgence and thus no incentive for business to re-invest in the area.

  2. Submitted by Amy Bergquist on 12/21/2012 - 11:32 am.

    I’m surprised

    No energy to write about the Midtown Greenway? Maybe more outdoor exercise is in order!

  3. Submitted by Nathan Roisen on 12/21/2012 - 12:48 pm.

    I’m sure this article will attract far fewer comments than Tuesday’s — disasters can be more fun to talk about — but I appreciate the selections, as well as the article. I grew up in the Southwest, and I can attest that for all the things the Twin Cities have done wrong in the past, I believe that more has been done right. The quality of life in Minneapolis and St Paul is very, very high compared to many of its peer cities.

  4. Submitted by David Broden on 12/21/2012 - 12:50 pm.

    Best Planing Decisions from a Minnesota Statewide View

    The two part series of good and bad plans for the Twin Cities was quality reading regardless of whether we all agree with the goods and bads– the articles put many private and public policy decision in perspective. The recent Mn TPT presentation regarding St Paul and the impact of I94 and central corrider was also outstanding. To really get the view of how we look forward and have had a vision to get here now lets have two similar articles on Good and Bad Planning or evolution of activty or events across Minnesota. For example how did the Taconite Amendment shape the current Iron Range and related area? How has farming evolution in types of crops for example the growth of sugar beet farming change the Red River Valley? Power Plants? Transportion? Hope that Mn post will have the vision to ask these questions!!

    Dave Broden

  5. Submitted by Sheldon Mains on 12/21/2012 - 01:16 pm.

    Other best planning decisions

    Midtown Greenway and all the other trails created from old railroad right-of-way.
    Midtown Exchange rehab–converting the old Sears building into an asset
    Converting industry to parks along the river by downtown–both sides
    Putting the U of M in what would become the Twin Cities (maybe not planning, just luck)
    Starting to put streets on a “road diet” to make room for safe pedestrian and bike space

  6. Submitted by Mike Schumann on 12/21/2012 - 01:20 pm.

    Grand Ave. & St. Paul

    What saved Grand Ave and the historic areas of St. Paul was not so much government intervention and financing, but the fact that the city ran out of money to finance “Urban Renewal” projects before they could destroy the historic neighborhoods around Grand and Summit. Many other cities bulldozed their historic neighborhoods and replaced them with suburban track housing.

    You can see the 1960s city planning vision in the area just north of I94 and West of Western Ave. If it wasn’t for the lack of money, that would have been the fate of the rest of Ramsey and Crocus Hill.

  7. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 12/21/2012 - 01:53 pm.

    While Grand is grand…

    …nearby Selby Avenue has made an even bigger turnaround. A decade or so ago, the street was best known for drug dealing. Now it has bistros, boutiques, bars, and Bars (the bakery). I work near Selby and Dale, and the transformation has been nothing short of amazing.

  8. Submitted by Bill Lindeke on 12/21/2012 - 02:28 pm.

    its funny…

    But I’ll bet this positive article gets about 10% of the internet traffic as the previous negative one. Why is that? Human nature?

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 12/21/2012 - 04:23 pm.


      At least it hit more than 10% of the comments. 😉

      I enjoyed reading this one quite a lot. As much as I really hate the cold, crummy winter in the Northern Plains (even though I grew up in the Northern Plains, arguably in a colder climate), one of the reasons I stay here is the Twin Cities and all it has to offer. The parks are fantastic–you don’t have to go very far to find a city park, and often not much further to find a larger, wilder park. Even if sometimes those parks exist due to laziness (or not wanting to spend money), like the Coon Rapids Dam Regional Park (yeah, not Minneapolis or St. Paul, but still…). And, while not necessarily a direct result of good urban planning, but probably as a byproduct, the thriving arts culture is a big, BIG plus.

  9. Submitted by Peter Doughty on 12/21/2012 - 06:02 pm.

    Why is that? I think it’s because the pain and dysfunction caused by planning disasters and stupidities stay with us just as much as the smart and lucky moves. So much of our shared environment has been so degraded, and the ugliness of those parts of it keep on giving—or I should say, taking?

    But I think there are a lot of people who not only care about the quality of the built environment, and how it fits or doesn’t fit into the natural environment, but also are organizing with others with similar sensibilities and actively seeking ways to improve it. These folks are helping make good things happen. I bet the traffic on these two pieces pretty much evens out.

    I really appreciate all the comments above Mr. Lindeke’s.

  10. Submitted by Alex Cecchini on 12/21/2012 - 07:57 pm.

    #2 – Would hardly say the Met Council has prevented unmitigated suburban sprawl… As your negatives list pointed out we’ve seen the hollowing of the downtowns, torn up transit (that we will spend millions to re-do in the coming years), and growth 25+ miles out in almost all directions. The Met Council is set on building a LRT out to one of these suburbs to appease commuters who found their long drives distatsteful. But, as you say, it has done a good job of ensuring regional parks, curbing in-fighting between cities for tax incentives to companies (the devil’s tool), and a few other positives. I think we’re definitely better WITH it than without.

    #4 – one of the few pedestrian/bus malls that have worked in this country, as many have been big failures and turned back in to auto corridors. I do think it needs sprucing up and am glad the downtown business council put out their plan that specifically addresses it.

  11. Submitted by Alex Cecchini on 12/21/2012 - 08:07 pm.


    I think #1 absolutely deserves to be #1. There are probably many more that can be added to this list, but I think the parks present in Minneapolis (and St Paul to a slightly less extent) set our city apart.

    I know this is from 2010 but the numbers for 2012 are very similar. It’s obvious that MSP both rank among the top in mid-sized cities for % of land devoted to parks, and would rank toward the top (behind great cities like DC, NYC, SF) in the larger ranking. In addition, acres per 100,000 residents blow nearly every other city out of the water for both M&SP.

    Furthermore, I think the parks were laid out pretty well, overall. They have focused on keeping the entirety of our beautiful lake shores and rivers public space, added plenty of space around them, and spaced smaller square parks throughout the city for those not close to either. I think downtown could use some more small parks (the Gateway might be a bit ambitious and unused if too large IMO), but we’re doing pretty good. Love them.

  12. Submitted by Evan Roberts on 12/22/2012 - 12:10 pm.

    This is a good list (definitely agree with #1!), and I’d second the view that the Midtown Greenway should be on the list. It’s had a big impact in just a decade.

    You’re a little generous with Saint Paul and its lack of parking lots. Walk a few blocks and you’ll find them.

  13. Submitted by Keith Morris on 12/23/2012 - 10:55 am.

    Instead of Grand Ave I’d say neighborhood revitalization in general, especially for Mpls. If it were like any other midsized Midwestern city it would have only about a third of the healthy neighborhoods and districts. The city’s neighborhood revitalization plan back in the 80s kept several areas from bottoming out and instead reversed a good deal of decline citywide and thankfully didn’t raze all the walkable districts for stripmalls. St Paul still has room for improvement on the near west, south, and east sides, so it hasn’t been quite as successful in getting so much done in comparison. Downtown and most of the west side is the best side of the city, although the North End has its charm too.

  14. Submitted by jody rooney on 12/24/2012 - 10:16 am.

    Peter is correct but Alex has no new tune

    Peter is right the disasters stay with us longer. We look at them and say “what were they thinking” and they become a constant irritant.

    While I am not a fan of the Met Council when it sticks to it’s coordination role it does fine. My only beef is the lack of rail transit but again until recently there was not political will for rail anywhere. When it does try to disperse poor people to other suburbs is should take into consideration where there are services. If people are with out cars an area not served by bus is not a good idea, an area not next to shopping is not a good idea.

    Alex why is urban sprawl a problem? You are making a lot of assumptions if you think it is. While you may think that the urban core is the center of the universe it is not and not everyone commutes there. You can be connected economically to the Urban Core without visiting it. I don’t think you will find a lot of evidence that supports this as an issue.

  15. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/26/2012 - 01:10 pm.

    Only 7?

    I don’t think downtown St. Paul is really any more walkable than MPLS, although it does have some nice parks instead of Mall. I’ve walked around a lot of cities, St. Paul is pretty dead most of the time.

    Although they can be considered part of the larger parks system I’m surprised the bikeways are not on the list. They are only thing that the cities are currently ranked #1 for, and if you’ve been to our rival Portland OR. you know why.

    Sprawl is a problem because by definition it is an unplanned deployment of resources and building that it is inherently inefficient. Sprawl wastes a variety of resources and mucks up transportation. You can have suburbs without having sprawl.

  16. Submitted by Patrick M on 12/26/2012 - 03:07 pm.

    Central Corridor a Disaster & Lowertown Losses

    One will not argue about the benefits of a well planned LRT but when one is planned badly, as the Central Corridor was, it will negatively impact the neighborhoods it operates in for generations. The loss of current businesses and pedestrain and parking access has destroyed the vibrancy of one of the great Metro Avenues forever. The tragedy is that it was easily preventable as less destructive, less expensive right-of-ways were available if only we had had planners and politicians with the wisdom to use them.

    The loss of historically significant buildings in downtown St. Paul was substantial in the post WWII years through the urban renewal spasms of the mid 1960’s. We can take some comfort in what was saved but much, much more was lost and we might begin with just the Ryan and Fredrick Hotels.

  17. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/26/2012 - 08:14 pm.

    Vibrant University?

    Vibrant is not the adjective that comes to mind when thinking about University Ave. I think the light rail, while disruptive during construction, will restore University to it’s former vitality, the likes of which my generation has never seen. Do something about those box stores and it will be glorious.

    • Submitted by Monica Millsap on 12/28/2012 - 10:45 am.

      When I purchased my house near Snelling/University several years before light rail planning, I would have called University Ave vibrant. I could walk to any business that served any need I may have and I could conveniently bus to work. I would go for weeks without using my car, mostly just using it to go out of town.

      With the light rail, some of my favorite businesses have left. The buses have had trouble staying on schedule due to construction. And even after the light rail is complete, some buses that I use will be eliminated or service will be reduced.

      Living here, it has always felt like a healthy mix of residential, small, and big business. Of course, now with some local businesses leaving, chains are moving in, like Noodles & Co, Culver’s, another Subway. True, things are disruptive now on Univ because of construction. In fact, when I walk down the Ave in the evening after eating out, I can almost see the tumbleweeds – a far cry from the Ave that was even a few years ago.

      • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 12/31/2012 - 01:36 pm.


        You definitely have a different perspective than most people who visit that area. We don’t live there. But as we visited the area or drove through it before the light rail construction, I have to concur with Paul. That area felt more blighted than lively. Giant ugly Applebee’s. Target. Other chains and big, unkempt (or simply unkempt) parking lots. It felt too wide and busy to be a place where a person would simply want to get out and explore. So…we didn’t. And we continue not to during the construction. That’s what’s hurting businesses there right now–there isn’t a customer base outside of the immediate area and until the construction is over and there’s a better way to get there, we’re simply not going to bother. That’s not so much an issue with the construction but rather the lack of diverse consumer base.

  18. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/28/2012 - 11:05 am.

    Nicollette Mall

    By the way, some idiot consultant recommended re-opening the mall to traffic a few years ago. Maybe the 8th best decision was to ignore that idiotic advices.

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