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• Expand transit. Density doesn’t work without it. There should be zones in Minneapolis where walking, biking and transit-riding are clear choices over driving. Here’s the upshot: Minneapolis cannot and will not grow without a sustained build-out of the transit system. That means a half-cent sales tax increase to support the Southwest and Bottineau light-rail lines, expanded bus rapid transit, and regular bus service that’s so frequent that schedules aren’t needed. That’s the kind of system that rival cities have. It also means modern streetcars of the kind that drew $3.5 billion in private real estate development (including 10,000 new housing units) to Portland between 2001 and 2009. (More on transit in Part 4 of this series.)
• Solve the school problem. A huge deterrent to middle-class population growth is distrust of the city’s public schools — or, more accurately, a perception that impoverished, low-performing children diminish the chances for all children to learn. Finding ways to involve parents, improve the learning atmosphere and boost student performance has been elusive. Closing the city’s notorious race/class achievement gap is essential if Minneapolis is to prosper. Building a middle class “of color” should be the city’s top priority. That starts with better school performance and a Herculean effort on job training. (More on disparities in Part 3 of the series.)
• Control crime and the perception of crime. Violent crime has steadily declined since the “Murderapolis” days of the 1990s, and that has greatly improved the city’s growth potential. While crime rates cannot be fully explained by police and court strategies, it’s likely that proactive policing — anticipating who commits crimes and where they occur — played a big role. The problem comes when proactive policing turns into racial profiling and the harassment of innocent people. A delicate balance must be struck. Just as difficult is the task of fighting the “perception” of crime: policing streets dominated by loiterers and panhandlers who aren’t committing crimes but who nonetheless diminish the confidence in public spaces that successful cities require.
• Keep property taxes in check. It’s a kind of Catch 22. Minneapolis can’t grow if property taxes continue to rise, but neither can it grow if it fails to invest in its quality of life. The Legislature has made matters worse by cutting state aid to the city by $455 million over the past decade. Growth is the only solution, even though density is a difficult concept for many residents to embrace. City Council President Barbara Johnson rightly suggests a generational split. Older residents grew up in a city of declining density. (Minneapolis went from nearly 9,700 people per square mile in 1950 to 6,800 in 1990.) But younger people’s appetite for compact living is causing a political shift in density’s favor, she said, plus “the realization that we can’t keep raising property taxes.”
• Beautify public spaces. Cities hoping to attract population growth must have appealing public spaces. Minneapolis’ park system is impressive. But the city’s downtown area, despite recent improvements, badly needs an extensive streetscape and greening makeover. To that end, the Downtown Improvement District should be expanded; a stricter surface parking lot ordinance should be adopted and enforced; freeway entrance points should be landscaped; and Nicollet Mall should be recast. It’s not helpful that many of the prime areas for growth — most of them on downtown’s periphery — have the shabbiest public spaces.
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For the first time in six decades, Minneapolis is showing the potential and the appetite for growth. It must take advantage of the moment.
“Other cities have already made the choice to grow,” said Frank, the city’s transit/development specialist. “They are pulling away from us. We can see their taillights getting smaller in the distance.”