Twin Cities development: A history

  • Article by: JOHN S. ADAMS
  • Updated: September 7, 2013 - 11:06 PM

The economic and demographic energy that’s needed to keep Minneapolis healthy depends on a competitive metropolitan economy, an increasing city population and a healthy mix of household types.

When a metro economy languishes, the central city begins to die. Metro Detroit’s population dropped 3.5 percent between 2000 and 2010, but the city’s population plummeted 25 percent.

When metro Cleveland’s population dropped 3.3 percent during the same period, the city sank 17.1 percent. As metro Pittsburgh lost 3.1 percent of its population, the city lost 8.6 percent.

Minneapolis fared better because as metro population expanded by more than 8 percent, the city held steady after 2000, its numbers creeping upward in recent years.

So far, so good. But how can Minneapolis government and civic leaders improve odds for a healthy future? Can zoning and regulatory policy facilitate constructive adaptations of land use needed in the years ahead? I hope so.

Consider what we inherited: Minneapolis’s early Yankee leadership shaped civic legacies we now enjoy — schools, libraries, art, music, the university, participatory politics, and a park system that reserved waterfront for use by all instead of a privileged few, bestowing on us outstanding neighborhoods that attract and retain classes of residents long gone from other central cities.

Early business leaders worked with city officials on infrastructure to support industry and commerce at a time when people moved to jobs and found housing close to work. Today an increasing share of households decides first where to live, then travels to jobs, shopping and entertainment.

If the city’s challenge is attracting and retaining healthy and secure households able and willing to exercise stewardship over the city they’ve inherited, while maintaining and improving it for later generations, an effective way is by carefully managing the city’s housing inventory.


Transportation and land use

Since early days, the city has been a work in progress, continually retrofitting the old to accommodate the new. Before 1890, Minneapolis was oriented toward pedestrians.

Worker homes huddled near jobs; modest incomes supported only limited shopping and entertainment. Meanwhile, elite households settled upwind in pleasant settings, a carriage ride away from the riverside commercial-industrial core.

Then came electric streetcars in 1891, which meant rail lines and streetcar traffic crowded onto narrow streets designed for an earlier era. Tom Lowry’s streetcar lines radiated outward from the city center on 7th Street between Hennepin and Marquette, opening up nearby farmland for residential development.

Between World War I and the 1950s, streetcar traffic along major streetcar lines to and from downtown jobs, shopping and entertainment shaped seven residential sectors defined by the main lines serving them: Minnehaha; South Central (Nicollet, Chicago, Bloomington); Southwest (Hennepin, Lake District, W. Lake Street); Near North (Glenwood, Plymouth); North (Washington, Emerson, Penn, Broadway); Northeast (2nd Street, Central, Johnson) and Southeast (Como, Washington, University). Except for Lake Street, major crosstown traffic was limited and difficult.

Next came private cars, which were easily accommodated in new, outlying residential developments of bigger lots, larger houses, alleys, garages and wider streets, but cars heading downtown competed with streetcar traffic, and once entering downtown (designed for pedestrian movement), they found congestion and scarce parking.

After the war came interstate highways, initially envisioned as connecting U.S. metropolitan areas with high-speed limited-access freeways, but inevitably plowing through city neighborhoods and facilitating sprawling development in outlying areas.

But city remodeling continued: Lower Loop redevelopment, parking ramps at downtown edges, a skyway system for all-season pedestrian circulation.


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