Millions of dollars in regional funding are at stake in a battle that boils down to where people will live and work in the next 30 years.
Minneapolis officials and homebuilders are at odds over a draft Metropolitan Council plan that predicts a ring of land-rich outer suburbs like Prior Lake and Chanhassen will see more population growth than other parts of the seven-county region. Minneapolis and St. Paul would also see significant gains but simultaneously make up a smaller share of a metro area forecast to grow by 824,000 residents.
The forecast — which will be fine- tuned over the next year — shows just how tricky and contentious population projections can be. But they are crucial, shaping how the council guides transportation, sewer and regional park resources in the seven-county metro region for years to come, as well as local comprehensive plans in communities across the area.
The report riled Minneapolis City Council President Barb Johnson, who said the city pays for sprawl by having to subsidize underused sewers and losing valuable transportation dollars.
“They’re building all these fancy schmancy park-and-rides on the edge at $20 million a crack,” she said. “And we’re still sitting here in Minneapolis, where the bulk of the transit riders are, having our people wait for buses sitting on recycling boxes.”
The projections run counter to census data showing an urban population boom driving regional growth in the past several years, as well as widely reported national trends toward city living. They are based on a complicated model with a 200-plus-page methodology that takes into account a range of factors from the value of development in the region to where people are moving.
Opting for suburban life
Council representatives said public comments have been taken into consideration as well, which has modified forecasts. For example, after seeing early population forecasts for the report, the Builders Association of the Twin Cities fought for increased population at the “emerging suburban edge.”
The group’s president, Shawn Nelson, said while there is an uptick in urban development, millennials will eventually opt for the suburban life.
“It’s a fun place to live, obviously,” he said of Minneapolis “But we still think what’s going to drive a lot of decisions as they get older, as they get married, have kids, things like that, will be much more of those traditional issues of schools and yards and locations like that … It certainly will be much less in the urban core at that point.”
Minneapolis’ long-range planner, Kjersti Monson, noted in draft comments that the city alone issued 30 percent of the region’s residential unit permits in 2012 and 2013 — just over its annual average dating back to 2009. Rather than a “blip,” she described it as possibly the new normal.
“We see the projections as basically a grow-in-place model,” she said of the Met Council report. “It’s kind of taking what has happened for 30 years and just projecting that it will continue to happen.”
The council’s report predicts the urban center, which includes Minneapolis, St. Paul and inner-ring suburbs like Richfield and Hopkins, will add about 161,000 new residents. By comparison, “suburban edge” communities like Blaine, Chaska and Woodbury would add 166,000 new residents, and the “emerging suburban edge” would add 228,000 new residents. Job gains are estimated to be most heavily peppered in suburban and suburban edge communities — particularly along highways.
The steepest increases would be seen in towns like Carver, projected to more than triple in population to 14,200, and Lake Elmo, which would grow from about 8,000 people to 21,000 people, according to the Thrive MSP 2040 report.
“We’re forecasting growth because that’s where the land is,” Libby Starling, the Metropolitan Council’s manager of regional policy and research, said of emerging suburban edge communities.
Public comment is being accepted through Monday on the 130-page report, which will eventually influence separate guiding documents regarding transportation, housing, parks and water resources. Local communities will then be required to develop comprehensive plans that are consistent with its findings.
More accessible development
Despite its predictions about growth in the outer edge of the metro, the report says development in the next 30 years will increasingly be infill in the older, more accessible parts of the region. Highly mobile young professionals want to live where there’s a diverse population, strong arts and entertainment, recreation and even transit systems that allow them to get around without a car, the report said.
Significantly, the report does not anticipate extending the farthest reaches of the sewer system — which enables development in new territories — beyond an earlier 2030 plan, and says that highways must largely be maintained after more than 50 years of expansion. “While some gaps remain, the region’s highway network is essentially complete and must now be rebuilt,” the report says.
The new focus is on fixed-route transitways like light rail, the report says, which it recommends enhancing with development of local bicycle and pedestrian systems.
The city of St. Paul’s comments on the report urge the Met Council to take a more proactive economic development approach and push for higher density goals outside the city. “There is little guidance or direction to these communities to prevent continuation of the same pattern of single-family residential subdivisions where residents must use a car to get to virtually any destination for work, shopping, recreational or cultural activities,” the city said in draft comments, which must still be approved by the mayor.
Minneapolis leaders are largely supportive of the plan’s policy themes but believe the city can accommodate much more growth than projected. Johnson pointed out that the city, particularly the North Side, is awash with vacant land ripe for development. But she is also skeptical of Mayor Betsy Hodges’ goal of adding 100,000 new people — a bar she believes is unrealistic. While the city once housed more than 500,000 people, she said, many of them were packed tighter into single-family homes.
Starling said an earlier forecast projected more growth in the urban core. But homebuilders pushed back, as did both outer suburbs and those in the inner ring.
Starling noted that they are forecasting significant growth in Minneapolis — more than the city has seen over several decades — but available land and market demands limit those numbers. While there has been a lot of recent demand to live in Minneapolis, she added that several years of growth do not necessarily translate into a 30-year spurt.
The homebuilders, meanwhile, are applying opposite pressure. “We’ve had a lot of conversations with them where they said, ‘But we’re building so many homes in … Lakeville, we’re building so many homes in Shakopee, Chanhassen, Victoria.’ If you take the number of homes that we’ve built over the last year, multiply that out by 30, you get much higher growth than what these forecasts are indicating,” Starling said.
Myron Orfield, a regional planning expert at the University of Minnesota, said Thrive MSP 2040 was a “do-nothing” plan that envisions more of the same rather than trying to guide the area’s growth. “This document is unimportant because there’s nothing to it,” he said. “But potentially … more than any governmental document it could shape our future in a positive way.”