The seven Minneapolis mayoral candidates who gathered Thursday night for a forum on urban design agreed on the big issues: adding transit and population density is essential; more housing options are needed; sustainable development is optimal.
Things got interesting and opinions diverged when the candidates detailed some of their ideas for reaching those goals.
Support for a plan to install a 3.4-mile streetcar line along Nicollet Avenue at a cost of as much as $200 million was far from unanimous. A couple of the candidates proposed building a school downtown. And city planners took a rhetorical hit for lacking vision.
The 90-minute session was sponsored by the Minneapolis chapter of the American Institute of Architects and the Urban Land Institute Minnesota. The setting, appropriately, was International Market Square, a former knitting factory build in 1905 and transformed in 1985 into a design center.
The underpinning of the discussion — it was not a back-and-forth debate — was that the city must attract new residents. The U.S. Census Bureau says its population is 392,880, down from a peak of 521,718 in 1950.
None of the seven candidates objected to the city’s investment in light rail, but the streetcar proposal, or at least its funding mechanism, would clearly be in jeopardy if Cam Winton, Jackie Cherryhomes, Bob Fine or Stephanie Woodruff is elected.
Winton, a lawyer and energy company executive, called the economic benefits of streetcars “unproven at best” and endorsed less-costly enhanced bus service with heated enclosures instead.
“I like streetcars but I’m not a fan” of the current proposal, which would redirect some property taxes to the project, said Woodruff, an executive recruiter and appointed member of the city’s Audit Committee. Cherryhomes, a former City Council president, shares that view.
Fine, a Park and Recreation Board commissioner and real estate lawyer and developer, said the plan is “way too costly.”
Mark Andrew, a former Hennepin County commissioner and founder of a company that helps make structures more sustainable, upped the ante. He said he’s not yet sold on the financing plan, but he proposed a second streetcar line.
The other two candidates, both current City Council members, were unequivocal in their support. “As mayor, I’m going to champion streetcars and light rail,” said Don Samuels.
Betsy Hodges is on board with light rail, streetcars — “the whole nine yards,” she said. “Transit,” she said, “builds a city that people choose to live in.”
The quality of city planning might be an esoteric topic for discussion in some places, but Fine and Cherryhomes both broached it. Fine said that, as mayor, he would “take a close look at revising our entire plan.” Cherryhomes was more directly critical. The city doesn’t “have a vision of where we’re going,” she said, calling for a new “visionary leader” for the department who would “think big.”
The city’s interactions with developers also came under scrutiny. Fine said business regulations should be eased to encourage development.
Winton said the daunting permitting process is a disincentive to development. He would “cut those barriers that make it harder for people to build something” by putting most application functions online or making them accessible by phone.
In response to a question about ways to provide a variety of housing options for people of all ages and incomes, Woodruff described being “absolutely shocked” when seeking a rental after the foreclosure of her home a few years ago.
The average household income is about $45,000, she said, putting monthly rents of $900 to $1,000 out of reach for many people. Woodruff said there are “huge opportunities along the riverfront” for housing development.
Andrew and Samuels said building a school downtown would prevent some young families from leaving the city to move to suburbs.
Hodges said the city can encourage more diverse options through its affordable housing trust fund and other programs. “Everybody is happier living in a mixed-income neighborhood,” she said.
Andrew had an optimistic take on the city’s residential housing prospects. “We are truly on the verge of an explosion” in development, he said.
A question about what policy and regulatory reforms to encourage sustainable development they would enact as mayor elicited contrasting responses.
“None. Zero. Absolutely none,” said Winton, who said he would use the mayoral bully pulpit instead.
Hodges said larger buildings should be required to disclose their energy usage and the city should craft policies to help reduce it. One dilemma, she said, is how to prompt owners to implement energy-saving measures if savings won’t accrue until after they plan to sell their buildings.
Woodruff noted that there are hundreds of abandoned properties and empty lots in the city. She asked: “How come we’re not just giving those properties away,” selling them for $1, or building solar gardens in vacant lots?
The candidates were asked how they would make tough choices when historic preservation conflicts with development proposals. Cherryhomes said there’s usually “no conflict at all” and both goals can usually be met. If not, she said, “I err on the side of the historic.” Andrew agreed.
Fine, though, said empty buildings that are only 15 or 20 years old shouldn’t get historic status that prevents redevelopment. “What is historic, what’s not and what really makes sense” should be the guiding principle, he said.
Hodges promised to fight to keep the state tax credit for rehabilitation of historic buildings from expiring in 2021.
Samuels said federal dollars are essential to preserving the city’s historic structures, but spontaneous development sometimes helps.
In the North Loop, he said, “artists came in an pretty much preserved those buildings by not having the resources to change them too much.”