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In defense of the Met Council’s plan for future development

Thrive MSP 2040 is being picked apart, but having a plan for water, parks and so on is way better than not having one.

The council calls for building out the transit system to reduce congestion and help people commute to the metro's 42 designated job centers.

Our regional government, the Metropolitan Council, adopted Wednesday the final draft of its Thrive MSP 2040 plan. As you no doubt know, this document — or set of documents, issued every decade at the behest of the Legislature — aims to guide development in the seven-county metro for transportation, water resources, land use, parks and, this time around, housing. And, of course, it’s being picked apart by all and sundry.

But before I get to that, I have an important breaking urban-news bulletin. To wit: the Lake Harriet elf tree is again open for business. It is, in case you haven’t noticed, a rather slender ash tree (located on the walking path around Harriet, just past South Oliver) with a tiny wood and metal door at its base. Children and adults leave notes and wishes for the elf to answer — and, miracle of miracles, he does, enclosing typed messages in waterproof baggies.

In my recent strolls around the lake, however, I noticed that while the tree’s garden was in bloom, the elf’s door was locked, and some crestfallen children told me that the elf had retired to his Castle in the East and wasn’t returning. I had some wishes of my own to be addressed (example: could he make my columns write themselves?); so I made inquiries, and it turns out that the elf has returned to his tree. In an email, he announced, “my retirement is grossly over exaggerated. i just moved back in on saturday and have already answered close to 100 letters.” I hope that in case Mr. Elf ever contemplates a permanent move to his Castle in the East, he has a succession plan. For such a community asset — our very own elf! — to disappear would be heartbreaking.

Meanwhile, back to Thrive 2040. The plan lays out a future that is not particularly revolutionary. Given the prospect of global warming and depletion of resources, it advocates growth in already urbanized areas. It proclaims that we have enough highways and emphasizes maintaining what we’ve got instead of building more. The council also calls for building out the transit system to reduce congestion and help people commute to the metro’s 42 designated job centers. (You can see a map of them on page 50 of the Thrive plan.)

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And, it wants dense development around stations and along transit corridors to make travel more efficient. The plan makes a stab at, or says it will make a stab at, reducing so-called RCAPs or Racially Concentrated Areas of Poverty by placing affordable housing in higher-income areas. In water management, it calls for more cooperation among jurisdictions to somehow stop draining aquifers. A lot of the plan, of course, is pretty vague, endorsing mother-love and apple-pie goals like prosperity, equity and livability.

I don’t love every word. (I did skim the whole thing.) If anything, it seems overly cautious — though the Met Council will be spelling out more specifics in the coming months — and maybe bolder measures. (Surely, we need more than “partnerships” in the realm of water usage when White Bear Lake seems headed for puddle-dom.) But having a plan for the future of water, parks and so on is way better than not having one. If you like cities with no planning whatsoever, then you should move to Houston. It doesn’t even have zoning regulations; so you can build a $2 million mansion, or a nice little $200,000 house, only to have a strip club open up next door.

Anyhow, here are some of the major complaints about Thrive 2040 and my rejoinders:

Who made these Met Council folks bosses of us?

The governor — he appoints them. One comes from each of 16 districts, and one member serves at large. True, they are not elected officials, but taking regional planning issues out of the hands of politicians was one of the motivating ideas behind the enabling legislation. After all, if Betsy Hodges, the Minneapolis mayor, and Jeff Jacobs, the mayor of St. Louis Park, were free to decide on the alignment of the Southwest LRT, the two tracks would probably meet somewhere in Indiana.

We don’t need the Met Council.

Maybe not, but if it didn’t exist, state agencies (also full of unelected bureaucrats) would be making regional decisions about transit, water and so on. And their portfolio would not include looking out for the seven-county metro.

The Met Council is crazy to say we don’t need more highways. Look at the congestion during rush hour!

Minnesota needs $20 billion merely to repair the roads that are already built. And, since there seems to be no appetite either in St. Paul or Washington, D.C., for raising the gas tax, the major financing source for roads, we’ll be looking at more potholes and more crumbling bridges, not smooth new freeways.

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In any case, study after study has shown that building more highways in and around cities only increases congestion. Historically, adding more roads invites more drivers. According to Anthony Downs, a Brookings Institution economist who has studied the effect, building enough road capacity to accommodate rush hour traffic into the furthest suburb would require us “to turn much of every metropolitan region into a giant concrete slab, and the resulting huge roads would be grossly underutilized in noncommuting hours.”  

And this stupid mass transit system — who’s going to use it?

The Met Council has ambitious plans to build out a system of light rail and express bus lines. Unfortunately, Downs also makes the point that light rail is unlikely to ease congestion by much. “Even if the nation’s existing transit capacity were increased fourfold and fully utilized, morning peak-hour transit travel would rise only to 11 percent of all morning trips. That would reduce private vehicle trips by only 8.8 percent — hardly enough to end congestion,” he’s written.

That would be true if the majority of the population continues to live in single-family houses in far-flung suburbs, but public opinion surveys have shown an increased bent toward renting and toward living in cities. If denser living becomes the norm, more people will use mass transit. Even so, don’t expect congestion to ease. The Met Council is projecting a population increase of 550,000. More people equals more crowded roads, transit lines and everything else.

The plan is too city-oriented. This complaint comes from suburban mayors. Minneapolis and St. Paul, of course, claim they are the ones being short-changed.

They are both right and both wrong. Because the two cities are the end-points of the new train lines, development is naturally gravitating there. Banks and housing developers are calculating — maybe correctly, maybe not; they’re not infallible — that more people will want to live close to the new transit lines. But development is also occurring near transit stops in the suburbs. For their part, the two cities are distressed that Thrive still anticipates more growth on the suburban edge than in the cities.

The plan will force everybody to live in high-density apartment stacks, which is un-American.

Given the Met Council’s expectations of growth on the metro’s margins, the single-family house probably won’t disappear — at least not by 2040. But demographic changes suggest that such housing might not suit growing swaths of the population. An increasing number of households are made up of single people, some divorced, some never married, some widowed; few of them would seem eager to clean and maintain a three-bedroom ranch, miles from the nearest grocery store or movie theater. For them, developers have been experimenting with micro-apartments — 300-square-foot-units that are almost like dorm rooms. Geared to people who are short on cash but want to live in pricey areas, they offer shared amenities, like kitchens, cafeterias and so on.

Every time a town wants to extend a sewer line, it will have to meet sustainability criteria. Ridiculous!

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Extending sewer lines to ever-more sparsely inhabited areas of the metro can be wasteful. Not only does such development unnecessarily cost taxpayers a ton of money — after all, there’s plenty of vacant land that already can hook up to available sewer lines — but sucking all the water out of aquifers endangers our water supply. Maintaining the generous water resources that nature granted our region gives us a competitive advantage over water-deprived areas like California in luring new residents and businesses. If we overuse it, we’ll lose it.

And what about this equity thing? It sounds like the council wants to make sure that there’s a racial and income mix in every municipality. They are trying to make people live with people they don’t want to be with.

I won’t lay out the evidence of racial and ethnic inequality in the Twin Cities. The gap is the widest among all large metros in the nation. Anyway, you can find the statistics on page 19 of Thrive. Doing something to close the gap would obviously boost the region’s economic power, productivity and prosperity.

Katherine Kersten, senior fellow of the Center for the American Experiment, a conservative Minnesota think tank, writes in the Wall Street Journal that the Council says that any action by the Met Council to integrate is unnecessary because, “minority residents have been streaming into the suburbs for the past 15 years.” But according to Myron Orfield, director of the University of Minnesota Law School’s Center for Metropolitan Opportunity, 29 percent of Twin Cities suburbanites live in diverse communities, as compared to 44 percent in other large metros.

The council doesn’t plan to issue its housing plan until later; so we don’t know what’s in store. I would like to see the council return to its pre-1985 policy of allocating a fair share of affordable housing to every municipality. But it instead seems to be pledging to pour investment into already poor areas, which would suggest that RCAPs will continue to exist. The council is also hoping to prod developers to put up affordable housing on or near transit corridors, on the theory that poor people will then be able to get to the jobs and educational institutions that lie along them. Given the rising cost of land near train and express bus lines, however, that may not be economically feasible. Still, I would argue that the fact that the Met Council is concerned about boosting opportunity can’t be a bad thing.