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Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

No love for the heart of the city

  • Article by: STEVE BERG
  • April 28, 2012 - 7:04 PM

Nothing riles up the neighbors like the prospect of more neighbors.

In the Linden Hills neighborhood of Minneapolis, a warning marked "Urgent!" went out over the Internet when a developer tried to fill a sparse corner with four stories of housing atop a row of retail shops. Obviously, he had to be stopped.

When light-rail construction approached St. Paul's Frogtown, panicky neighbors convinced the city to put limits on new development -- for fear of higher property values.

Yet, more people and higher values are precisely what Minneapolis and St. Paul need as they struggle against another disappointing census report.

The 2000-2010 results show the Twin Cities metro area continuing to grow (up 12 percent to 3.3 million) while its central cities tread water (down 0.3 percent to 668,000).

The numbers left both mayors talking with a hint of desperation about the need to add substantial population, something neither city has been able to do for six decades. Without growth and the tax base it brings, they said, neither city will be able to afford the services and amenities that successful places enjoy.

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak told the City Council last year: "If we want to live in the kind of neighborhoods we want, if we want Minneapolis to be the kind of city that we know it can be, there is one more thing we have to do: We have to grow."

To be blunt, both mayors are talking about -- neighbors, please cover your ears -- density. Only density can bring the efficiency and vitality that the central cities need.

"We're not talking about overwhelming density, we're talking about acceptable density," said St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, listing the Central Corridor, Lowertown and the vacant Ford plant in Highland Park as opportunities to refill the city.

The combined population of Minneapolis and St. Paul peaked at just over 833,000, in 1950. Over the following six decades it fell below 668,000 as old neighborhoods thinned out, households got smaller and families with children migrated outward.

While the suburban Twin Cities population tripled over those six decades, the central cities, hemmed in on all sides, lost a fifth of their people and much of their comparative wealth.

City household incomes are now, on average, 33 percent lower than suburban incomes -- a huge gap by national standards. So, it's not just infill growth that Minneapolis and St. Paul need; it's upscale growth.

That's an enormous challenge, given this metro region's strong preference for suburban living and many urban neighborhoods' stiff resistance to greater density.

Especially in the most attractive areas, city residents cling to their relatively tranquil lifestyles and their almost phobic disdain for additional height and mass, even though those are essential elements for any landlocked city hoping to add population and ease tax burdens.

It's a paradox that frustrates local leaders, especially when they see what's happening in rival markets of similar size.

Denver and Seattle each added 45,000 people within their boundaries over the past decade, and Portland, Ore., added 55,000. Moreover, these cities retained and attracted middle-class taxpayers, avoiding the large city-suburb income gap that besets the Twin Cities.

What is it about Denver, Seattle and Portland that makes them more competitive within their own metro markets? What do they know about infill development that we don't know?

All three cities found themselves staring into an abyss at one point during the 1970s or '80s, suffering painful economic transitions and sudden population dips. Perhaps because of those hardships, they saw more clearly the shape of a new economy.

Talented people could live and create wealth wherever they wanted; growth and prosperity would follow along. Blessed with mild climates and lovely natural settings, those cities decided to leverage their advantages by creating attractive urban centers.

Portland was especially aggressive.

To preserve nearby farms and woodlands, the metro government drew a boundary around the city and redirected development inward. Buses and light rail were added to reduce auto dependence and enhance the quality of places.

Later, streetcars were reintroduced. Zoning laws were changed to make infill the default option. Neighbors could influence the design of new buildings, but couldn't stop their construction.

In addition, the city borrowed against future tax revenues in selected districts to pay for parks, leafy streetscapes and other amenities. As if producing a play, Portland built an elaborate set, then waited for people to show up.

If anything, the city overachieved, attracting more young people than the economy could support. "Portland is where young people come to retire," is a popular observation.

"When the market arrived, Portland was ready," said Ethan Seltzer, professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University. "The city followed a simple rule; make the things you want easy and the things you don't want hard."

Denver followed a similar path, but with a stronger emphasis on culture, arts, sports and a wider variety of new housing.

Singles were attracted to a revived warehouse district and riverfront, while families filled in huge open parcels on the former airport and a former air force base.

Seattle's resurgence owes less to urban planning than to aggressive corporate leadership.

Microsoft founder Paul Allen set the tone by launching South Lake Union, once a neglected district on the edge of downtown that became a bustling combination of biomedical labs and condo buildings that stretch toward the University of Washington.

Still, most of Seattle's growth was scattered. Apartment towers went up on parking lots; mixed-use buildings replaced detached houses along busy streets to create linear urban villages.

"We didn't aggressively reinvent anything," said Ray Gastil, Seattle's former planning director and now professor of design innovation at Penn State University. "We did take advantage of a changing market," he said, noting that terrain and traffic problems created high demand for compact urban lifestyles.

Downtown redefined itself as Central Seattle, adding peripheral neighborhoods connected by frequent bus service.

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All three cities, meanwhile, managed to avoid population losses that might otherwise have offset their gains. Minneapolis added nearly 10,000 housing units but suffered deep losses on the struggling North Side, where foreclosures drove the population down by 11 percent. St. Paul followed a similar pattern.

Indeed, large and persistent concentrations of poverty may be what most separates Minneapolis and St. Paul from Seattle, Portland and Denver. Poverty rates are lower in those cities, and low-income pockets are widely dispersed.

There's little disagreement among planners and developers that concentrated poverty and its associated social problems (failing schools, crime, etc.) discourages infill growth and investment and makes suburban choices more attractive.

Experts offer a list of other hurdles that Minneapolis and St. Paul must overcome to attract growth: an overly cautious banker/developer community; layers of bureaucracy (especially in Minneapolis) that make infill development harder than it should be; substantially higher property taxes; a Midwestern culture that favors a small-town atmosphere in cities; an alluring suburban landscape, especially in the west metro and St. Croix Valley; a split central city (two downtowns, two city halls) less able to achieve political clout, and a metro government unwilling or unable to curb sprawl.

"We scratch our heads when we see a Democratic governor and two senators pushing to build a big new bridge over the St. Croix River to encourage more sprawl into Wisconsin," said Seltzer of Portland State. "That wouldn't happen here."

It's part of an array of hidden subsidies that work against urban infill, said John Adams, professor of geography at the University of Minnesota. Bridges, roads, tax breaks for oil companies and tax deductions for home mortgages all contribute to the suburban advantage, he said.

Here are six suggested strategies for growing the population and tax base St. Paul and Minneapolis need:

Establish population goals and explain why density is important. Take an inventory of potential infill sites.

Adopt form-based zoning codes that give developers clear options on height and mass. The larger the building, the more amenities a developer must supply to the neighborhood. Neighbors can influence design but cannot prevent minimal infill.

Simplify bureaucracy. At every step, make it cheaper, easier and faster to develop the city that you want, and costlier, harder and slower to develop the city you don't want.

Expand transit. Aside from the regional bus/light rail network, explore streetcars as a way to stimulate density in central districts.

Stabilize poor neighborhoods not only for ethical and economic reasons but to stem population loss.

Find a meaningful brand that will attract young professionals. Denver, Portland and Seattle, for example, emphasize nature and the outdoors mixed with cool urban lifestyles.

Minneapolis and St. Paul are doing some of those things. Meanwhile, some local officials think patience is all that's required -- that we're lagging Portland, Seattle and Denver by a decade or two but that we'll catch the next wave of infill growth, thanks to a market the favors smaller footprints and urban lifestyles.

David Frank, transit development director for Minneapolis, isn't so sure. "We Minnesotans are very good at naming our problems," he said, "but we're less good at solving them. I'd say that if we haven't grown substantially by the 2020 census, it's a sign that we've failed -- and we can't let that happen."

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Steve Berg is a writer and urban-design consultant. Researcher Geoff Maas contributed to this commentary.

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