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The Twin Cities’ biggest issues to watch in 2020

From the future of Minneapolis’ city elections to Arden Hills’ massive TCAAP project, a look at the metro-focused issues, ideas and stories to keep an eye out for in the new year. 

From elections for county and city offices to massive redevelopment projects along the Mississippi River, here are the metro-focused issues, ideas and stories to keep an eye out for in the new year:

1. The future of Minneapolis city elections

To reflect Minneapolis’ demographic changes coming out of the 2020 Census, local and state leaders across Minnesota are preparing to redesign political boundaries. 

But the conversation over redistricting in Minneapolis faces an unusual twist: Should city leaders quicken the ward-drawing process to maintain the current schedule of city elections?

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The Minneapolis Charter Commission has the authority to decide how fast the city establishes new wards post-census, as well as parks and school board districts. Under the commission’s current plan, the process will finish in March 2022 roughly one year after the federal government releases results of the population count.

But Council members want a faster timeline so that the new wards are in place before council seats are on the ballot in fall 2021. That expedited process would allow the city to sidestep a provision in a state law dubbed the Kahn Rule after its author, former DFL state Rep. Phyllis Kahn that aims to honor population changes in elected offices by requiring Minneapolis to hold elections soon after census-driven redistricting, even if that disrupts the city’s regular schedule of electing council members every four years.

MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee
Minneapolis City Council members want a faster timeline so that the new wards are in place before council seats are on the ballot in fall 2021.
What could it mean for voters? Without an accelerated timeline for redistricting — or a change to state law — voters will elect 13 council members from the city’s current ward map for two-year terms in 2021. In the same election, voters will elect a mayor (who represents residents citywide and, therefore, isn’t affected by redistricting) for a four-year term. Then, in 2023, the city will hold another election for council seats from the new wards based on the 2020 census-driven line-drawing — either for two or four-year terms. 

Earlier this month, when the charter commission first considered the accelerated timeline for redistricting, some commissioners said they worry that a faster timeline would not provide enough time for public feedback and cause logistical issues. The commission will continue the redistricting discussion at its January meeting before deciding on a definitive schedule in February.

2. Elections … that have nothing to do with Washington. Or the Legislature.

Four of seven seats on the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners will be up for election in fall 2020. The board positions represent the Brooklyn Park area (District 1); the Bloomington-Eden Prairie area (District 5); southwestern suburbs (District 6) and the northern and western suburbs (District 7). 

Only District 6 incumbent Jan Callison, who voters first elected in 2008, has publicly declared that she will not seek re-election in 2020. Former state Rep. Dario Anselmo — a Republican who represented southwestern suburbs for one term — has already launched a campaign for the open District 6 seat.

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Hennepin County commissioners divide up the county’s $2.5 billion budget. The board also manages regional growth by deciding when and how to fund certain services, including those that target some of the metro’s biggest social issues: a lack of affordable housing, the mental-health system and rising rates of opioid abuse.

In Ramsey County, where the Board of Commissioners plays an equally influential role in the space between city and state policies, districts 1, 2 and 7 will have elections for commissioners in fall 2020. 

That makes for back-to-back annual elections for the District 1 seat which represents northern townships and outer-ring suburbs — and to which voters elected political newcomer Nicole Frethem in a special election fall 2019. Shortly after her victory, she indicated that she’s likely to run again for a full term in 2020. Other current commissioners Mary Jo McGuire, who serves the Roseville and New Brighton area (District 2), and Victoria Reinhardt, who represents Maplewood, North St. Paul and White Bear Lake (District 7), have not said whether they will seek re-election.

Additionally, Minneapolis voters will consider candidates for four positions on the Minneapolis school board, including one at-large seat and three that represent the west side of the city (District 2, 4 and 6). Numerous suburbs across Ramsey and Hennepin counties will also have school board elections, as well as mayoral and City Council elections, in 2020. 

3. Massive redevelopment projects move ahead

Dubbed the largest redevelopment project in St. Paul’s history, the 122-acre Ford site along the Mississippi River will remain a hot topic in 2020. In mid-December, the Minneapolis-based developer, Ryan Cos., announced that it had purchased the land for $61 million, a move that comes after the city announced in November that it is committing $53 million in public financing for the first phases of the project.

Now, city leaders are mapping out specifics of the architecture and street designs, with construction to potentially begin as early as spring 2020.

The plan calls for 3,800 housing units, 20 percent of which must be affordable. The plan also calls for the building of almost three dozen single-family homes with views of the waterfront.

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Leaders of Ryan Cos. have said that construction crews are likely to complete the single-family homes before other housing, and that some of those homes may be move-in ready by 2023. Construction crews could finish half of the site’s parks, utility systems and street paving over the next five years. 

St. Paul city leaders will take on another big redevelopment project in 2020: the 112-acre former home of the Hillcrest Golf Club at Larpenteur Avenue and McKnight Road. In early 2019, the St. Paul Port Authority took the lead in buying the property from a local union, which took over the club after it closed to golfers in 2017. In July, the St. Paul City Council set aside $10 million of taxpayer money for the purchase and began making serious plans for new housing and businesses on the site.

In St. Paul’s 2019 city council elections, voters elected community activist Nelsie Yang in Ward 6, which covers the Hillcrest site. That means the council newcomer will have a big say in what to do with the property over the course of her term. For starters, Yang will help lead the master planning process to learn what, exactly, residents want on the site.

Meanwhile, in North Minneapolis, city leaders and developers in 2020 will accelerate discussions about a vacant piece of land between the Mississippi River and Interstate 94, the 48-acre Upper Harbor Terminal. In February 2019, city leaders marked a major milestone in the redevelopment project by approving a “general land-use concept plan which sets aside 300 to 500 units of housing, 40,000 to 85,000 square feet for businesses along Dowling Avenue, parks space, land for office buildings, possibly a hotel and an outdoor performance venue on the site.

Courtesy of the The Ryan Companies
A design rendering for part of the plan for the former Ford Twin Cities auto plant in Highland Park.
In early 2020, a 15-member community group will make “hard-choice work about trade offs, about implications” for the site’s design and how it operates, said City Council member Phillipe Cunningham, who represents the Upper Harbor Terminal on the council. For example, the group will weigh if or to what extent the city should function as a property manager and lease out certain buildings under a “community ownership” model that doesn’t exist elsewhere in the city.

In May or June 2020, Cunningham said the group will seek public feedback on its ideas and then present its recommendations for the project to the City Council for final approval.

But those redevelopment projects in the Twin Cities pale in comparison to the 427-acre plot of land in Arden Hills — the former Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant (TCAAP). Currently, the planning is at a standstill, pending the outcome of a lawsuit between Ramsey County and Arden Hills.

4. More efforts to address the affordable housing crisis

The housing disparities in Minneapolis, St. Paul and the suburbs are sure to be driving forces of policy discussions at the local and county levels in 2020. At this point, most new apartments in the Twin Cities are unaffordable for almost half of the population, according to Census data and the Family Housing Fund, a Minneapolis-based housing nonprofit, and the pace of housing development for all income levels is moving too slowly to keep up with population growth.

Effects of that gap are taking shape in many ways; For one, an increasing number of single adults are sleeping outside in the Twin Cities metro, prompting government agencies and nonprofits to call attention to chronic homelessness unlike we’ve seen in recent years. In addition, Minneapolis and St. Paul’s renter populations are on the rise, now making up the majority population in both cities, and elected leaders are scrambling for ways whether via zoning changes or new renter protections to help low- and middle-class households find ways to pay less than one-third of their monthly income on housing.

An increasing number of single adults are sleeping outside in the Twin Cities metro.
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee
An increasing number of single adults are sleeping outside in the Twin Cities metro.
In Minneapolis, for example, a group of City Council members are working on a proposal that would require landlords who want to sell rental homes to give tenants an opportunity to buy the property first. Through that initiative, the group is exploring the idea of helping interested renters with bonafide offers and city financing to make the deals. The council members are planning to gather public feedback and write the policy in the first half of 2020.

Also in the coming year, the city’s budget sets aside $125,000 to study whether it’s possible or worth it for Minneapolis leaders to establish a cap on what landlords can charge tenants for rent.

5. Public safety and the role of police

During 2020 budget discussions in Minneapolis and St. Paul, community members and some elected officials brought a lot of attention to the cities’ spending on police officers.

In Minneapolis, city leaders agreed to grow the Minneapolis Police Department’s budget by about 5 percent in 2020, including money to expand the number of officers in training. Yet the department’s number of sworn officer positions will remain the same 888 despite pleas from department leaders to grow the force due to Minneapolis’ growing population and volume of 911 calls.

At the same time, the Minneapolis council agreed to boost funding for non-MPD programs that aim to stop people from committing crimes in the first place. That money includes funding to grow an intervention program for gang members and establish the technical side of a new initiative that aims to stop offenders of low-level domestic crimes from acting out again. Council members also increased funding for non-police efforts that target crime and homelessness downtown, which came specifically at the request of the area’s business leaders.

Many of those efforts are run by the Office of Violence Prevention, a one-stop shop for safety initiatives that uses civilian staff via the city’s health department and that the council established in December 2018. The office is set to release its first-year results in early 2020.

As in Minneapolis, St. Paul’s spending on police was a core focus of 2020 budget discussions, especially considering the city’s spate of gun violence in 2019. In the end, the mayor and council denied funding requests by police leadership for more officers and a program that detects gunshots, called ShotSpotter, while simultaneously agreeing to shrink the police force by five sworn positions in 2020. Despite those staffing reductions, the police department’s budget will grow by more than $4.5 million in 2020, more than any other city department. 

In addition, city leaders approved a $1.5 million budget addendum by Mayor Melvin Carter for programs that aim to address the root causes of violence a lack of employment, affordable housing and security without giving more money to the police department for 911 responses and criminal investigations.