Austin Neese from Duluth recently moved into a new apartment at Excelsior and Grand in St. Louis Park, an urban development

Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

TO LEARN MORE Regional numbers: National comparisons:

Minneapolis, St. Paul gain as growth shifts from burbs

  • Article by: DAVID PETERSON
  • Star Tribune
  • July 17, 2012 - 9:24 AM


Minneapolis and St. Paul are adding new residents by the thousands, reversing a decades-long trend of population losses to the suburbs and possibly reordering priorities for things like spending on highways and transit.

At the same time, the portion of the metro's growth taking place in developing suburbs like Belle Plaine plunged from roughly 90 percent last decade to less than 40 percent, as big multi-family projects in inner-ring suburbs rose in importance.

The sudden shift in urban fortunes was outlined Monday in the Metropolitan Council's yearly population estimates, and immediately hailed by opponents of urban sprawl as a key moment.

The shift is national in scope: Based on the latest Census Bureau estimates, released last month, a Brookings Institution analyst calculated that cities across the country are outgrowing suburbs for the first time in 100 years, pointing to Minneapolis as a case in point.

"This is a tipping point, a watershed moment," declared Jim Erkel of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, who tracks population numbers.

Suburban leaders, however, cautioned that the U-turn could just be a phase.

Council analysts, too, warned against making too much of a single year's numbers. But some council members talked of a clear societal change in the making.

"There is going to be a huge shift," in terms of the aging of the population alone, Council Member Gary Cunningham, who heads a key committee, told colleagues Monday, "and I'm not clear on what we're thinking or doing or what does this mean for us."

Whether or not it portends a permanent shift, from 2010 to 2011 Minneapolis grew by 5,295, to 387,873, the Met Council reckons, while St. Paul rose by 1,299, to 286,367. Woodbury and Blaine were the top growth suburbs, adding 1,182 and 1,145, respectively. But in a telling stroke, the once-soaring exurb of Belle Plaine actually saw a decline.

Behind the shift lie familiar trends: empty nesters heading for smaller quarters as the number of young, city-loving adults rises.

"We grew, as people, tired of cities rife with crime, drugs and gangs," said Scott County Administrator Gary Shelton, "and moving out to the country, or to that nice house in suburbia, became the ideal. I do think the pendulum is shifting back some. Do I want to keep paying that $3,000 mortgage and payments on two cars, or would it maybe be nicer in that condo or loft in the cities as crime has come down substantially?"

But he and others caution against pushing too many chips into the cities' corner just yet.

"Minneapolis decades back built a great trolley system," Shelton said, "and then got rid of it because who would want that? Now we're spending billions to build them back," and the metro area risks a similar mistake if it neglects to keep up with the needs of suburbanites.

Met Council analyst Todd Graham, in an analysis accompanying the numbers, speculated that "limited financial resources" may be encouraging a spurt in rentals that is fueling the core-city numbers, adding: "We need to be cautious about inferring trends from one year."

In one sense, it's a sudden shift.

As recently as March 2011, based on results from the 2010 census, Met Council analysts said:

"Nearly all of the region's population growth is occurring in the second- and third-ring suburbs ... Led by Shakopee's addition of 16,508 people over the decade, [the five suburbs with the greatest growth collectively] added 68,206 people, or nearly one-third of the decade's net growth."

Minneapolis, by contrast, actually lost 169 residents from 2000 to 2010, while St. Paul declined by nearly 1,800.

These days, thousands of new central-city living units are thought to be in the development pipeline, meaning homebuilders are betting that something more permanent is going on.

Conversely, there's also an uptick this year in single-family building permits in some outer-ring suburbs. Savage, for instance, saw a leap in attached housing, year to date, from just a handful last year at this time to nearly 70.

"I talked to someone the other day who'd just bought in Savage," said that city's mayor, Janet Williams, "and they said 'Location: It's close to downtown," especially in an era when MnPass can guarantee quick escapes from rush-hour messes, "and close to the airport and close to everything we need.' I think those of us closer in [than rural exurbs] have that going for us, though I'm happy to see progress in the core areas as well. We're all in this together."

David Peterson • 952-746-3285

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