The next Minneapolis Public Works Director will have the power to shape public spaces and services, from trash collection to street design.
And a coalition of about 60 people with experience in urban design, development and transportation activism is pressuring Mayor Betsy Hodges to nominate someone who recognizes walking, biking and transit as a priority — not an afterthought — and brings new ideas to the city. The group signed a letter to the mayor calling for a “transformational” public works chief instead of a traditional traffic-focused engineer.
“Public Works must approach every project, no matter how small, with the understanding that the department’s decisions and actions shape the very fabric of our city,” the group said.
The new director will be in charge of two recently approved changes in transportation for the city. One infuses at least $22 million more annually into street paving, bringing an opportunity to reshape how the right of way is shared. The other, a complete streets policy, mandates that pedestrians, cyclists and transit riders get priority over motorists, although it requires acceptable service for all. About 60 percent of Minneapolis residents drive to work alone each day.
“It takes somebody who is going to advance those ideas because there’s always controversy,” Bob Close, an urban designer, said.
The mayor’s office said she is nearing the end of a round of interviews with candidates for the job vacated last week by Steve Kotke, who retired.
“Steve Kotke obviously leaves big shoes to fill, and so the mayor is especially invested in getting it right,” spokesman David Prestwood said.
Seeking original ideas
Those who met with Hodges described her as receptive to their letter. They said they’d like to see someone in the position like Janette Sadik-Khan, the former New York City transportation commissioner who aggressively reshaped that city’s streetscape with dozens of pedestrian plazas and barrier-protected bike lanes that were carved from traffic lanes.
The group credited Kotke for starting to move the department that way. And it praised the city’s emergence as an internationally recognized city friendly to biking, despite gaps in areas of highest need. But the group said the new public works director needs to lead on progressive ideas for defining the city’s physical fabric.
“I hope personally that the director is somebody who brings forward original ideas without being prodded by community groups and advocacy groups,” said Sam Rockwell, a city planning commissioner who signed the letter to Hodges.
They’re hoping to avoid a repeat of the recent dispute over redesigning 3rd Avenue S. when Hennepin Avenue is reconstructed in 2020. On 3rd Avenue S., Kotke started with a design that met the mutual desire of cyclists for bike lanes and businesses for a greener street downtown, but later recommended keeping four traffic lanes after business owners pressured the City Council.
Big job, critical services
Under the city charter, any nominee by Hodges must face a public hearing and win a council majority to serve. But transportation is only one part of the job for a department with 1,004, employees and a $335 million annual budget. It also treats and distributes water, maintains a stormwater drainage network and sewer mains, runs trash and recycling collection, operates city buildings and keeps city vehicles running.
Kevin Reich, chairman of the council’s Transportation and Public Works Committee, said the first priority is the nominee’s capacity to keep those vital services running. That’s why Council President Barbara Johnson thinks it’s important for the public works chief to be an engineer, even if that’s no longer required.
“Just to have somebody that’s only interested in improving multimodal transportation is not enough for me,” she said.
But moving people is the focal point of the pitch made by Hodges when the city sought candidates to replace Kotke. Her letter to prospective applicants sought a director who will bring new ideas, seek best practices elsewhere and test them.
“They really have to have the courage to try new things,” said Russ Adams, executive director of the Alliance for Metropolitan Stability, a group that advocates for community reinvestment and regional equity, among other things. “I think the region looks forward to Minneapolis for leadership on this.”