Occasionally, I listen to Minnesota Public Radio. So, occasionally, I share with you what I have heard in a segment I call MPR Decoder.
For example, the other day, Tom Cranz (sp?) interviewed someone named Karen Berkholtz, who runs the planning office for the city of Minneapolis. They're preparing a new "strategic plan," part of the MetCouncil's attempt to control the market forces at work in the regional development economy by having each city share some of the housing and infrastructural burdens, and attempting to balance out where growth will occur in the metro area.
Here's the interview, followed by a few comments. Listen for yourself, or read it here:
MPR: Specifically, what are some of the goals… to make Minneapolis what kind of city?
Karen Berkholz, planning director of city of Minneapolis (KB): We’re looking at a number of things, one is housing to be able to provide a variety of housing types for a variety of incomes all throughout our city… Another is to make sure that our city is sustainable in a number of ways. Sustainable means that you’re using incentives for green building that you’re providing options for people to get out of their car, in a number of ways that are not only good for the environment but are healthy too… Also showing that we value our business community and through our planning and zoning that we want them there, that we want to provide the jobs that will fuel our economy. [Meaning, we're going to try to get poor people, yuppies, and businesses to all live together in harmony. We're not going to put the interests of one group ahead of the other! We're going to be incredibly neutral. Watch as we put affordable housing in Kenwood, and force the Lake Street Target to get a green roof!]
MPR: What do you do when those interests or imperitives that the business community has versus green space... When they collide?
KB: When they collide we can incentivize. [Meaning: Good God! Did she just say "incentivize"? What the hell does that mean? I think it means that we're going to screw you.]
MPR: How do you… what does that mean?
KB: Say for example that a business comes into our development services counter that they want to do a development on a block in town. They want to be able to put in a large structure. That structure they want to see it abut the sidewalk and get it as close to the street as they can so that it will maximize the footprint. Through the planning process we will try to influence that, saying, lets push it back, let’s put some windows along the sidewalk so that people can feel like it isn’t one big blank wall. Let’s put some trees or greening there. Not only to help with the environment but to provide an aesthetic and shade. […] Lets incorporate public art, and you know if you did that maybe we’d let you go up one story higher. And if you stepped it back from the curb so that it feels open and lets in some sunshine, we’ll let you do that too. [Meaning: Our only lever over developers, as long as the city stays broke, is to say 'no' to projects and delay ones we don't like. I guess that's OK.]
MPR: You went through this process in 2000, and you looked ahead to 2010. What has, if you will, "come true" as you come closer to 2010 that have become a reality?
KB: One of those things is the Midtown Exchange with the Midtown Greenway. [Even though its under severe financial stress...] You see lighting, streetscape, you see revitalized economic areas. The Sears Building now is something totally different than it used to be.
Imagine the Hiawatha Corridor. We have light rail now. We’re entering the third generation of planning along the Hiawatha corridor, we have projects proposals coming in… Real life projects that have mixed use development, where you have retail along the street level, sidewalk seating, and dwelling units on top… So that people don’t have to have a car, they can hop on the train downtown and come to work. [This is all great! If only more interstate bridges would fall down...]
MPR: Why is this process going on now when you had a process in 2000 that looked ahead. In 2008 why are we looking ahead to 2030?
KB: A couple of reasons why. First metro council offered its systems statements. That’s a trigger not only to our city but all the cities in the 7 county metro area that they should update their long term comprehensive plans. Plus they updated new population growth projections for us.
MPR: And what does the population look like in 2030?
KB: In 2030 we’re about a hundred thousand higher than we are now.
MPR: So that’s close to half a million..
KB: Correct, which is actually what we had back in 1954. [Ahh the 50's. The good ol' days.]
MPR: What kinds of comments do you look forward to hearing that might come to fruition from a process like this?
KB: A number of things. [Well, Tom, you realize we don't actually pay any attention to the comments we receive from the public... the only public comment session worth attending is Lisa Goodman's annual fundraiser.] One is when we did our forums in the Spring. One of our favorite questions was "Tell us about your favorite place in the city". [We like this far more than the questions, "Tell us about your least favorite place in the city" and "What do you hate about Minneapolis?"] And it gave us some food for though. Why do people like the way that Peavy Plaza feels? Why do they like Crystal Court? [Notice how I mentioned two old remnants of the 60's and 70's Nicollet Mall planning... I'm playing it safe here.] Why do they want places that are green and comfortable and people oriented? And how do we promote this kind of living in our cities? [I'm not actually sure that Peavy Plaza or Crystal Court are very 'green'. They seem rather to be made of metal and concrete, and you'd be hard pressed to find anything growing in either location...]
That kind of input helps us craft policies and implementation strategies to help realize that vision and make this a city that people really want to live in.
MPR: Is it possible to identify one big challenge to the vision in this plan, that might stand in the way of achieving something?
KB: Sprawl. Urban sprawl is one of our biggest challenges. Many jurisdictions around the metro area want the same things that we have. They want to be able to have the housing, the jobs, the economic base because that helps them pay for the essential services that their citizenry expects. [I mean, its the damn people out in Maple Grove, Chanhassen, Blaine, Woodbury, Apple Valley, Minnetonka, Buffalo, New Hope, Lino Lakes, Rosemount, Lakeville... If only more interstates would fall into the river...] However, greenfield development costs money. New infrastructure costs money. We have existing infrastructure with capacity in the city of Minneapolis. Lets use it as a region because it helps us make our region more sustainable and the state more sustainable.
MPR: So you see the sprawl outside of the city of Minneapolis into the suburbs and the outer ring suburbs as actual, a challenge for the city and its competition for the city of Minneapolis.
KB: Yes, I believe so, and I think that we aren’t alone in this. I think our first tier suburbs that are outlining their plans right now feel the same thing that we are. Because they’re maturing into, not suburbs, but actual urban cities like we are.
MPR: It its possible to summarize, paint us a couple of pictures of what Minneapolis, in 2030 will look like according ot this planif all goes according to what you want.
KB: Imagine West Broadway today, an area of the city where we have some challenges. We have some planning underway on West Broadway too, where we are looking to conditions that will promote investment by the private sector. There’ll be a new YMCA, there'll be arts, there will be more vibrancy right along the core. We’re going to intensify with more density along that area so that people have a walkable, liveable, workable environment. [Meaning: See North Side? We care about you too, even though the vast majority of new construction is taking place elsewhere. If only we had a budget...]
MPR: You have to do this neighborhood by neighborhood because people envision different things for each neighborhood, right?
KB: That’s a really neat thing about the cities, is that you have people with a very very strong sense of identity at the neighborhood level. We actually, have five of these open house events scheduled throughout the month of January, one in each sector of the city, to try to get at what those different sectors needs, priorities may be.
MPR: At the same time you have to innovate and make sure there is room for the new central library and the new Guthrie and other architectural things of tomorrow.
KB: Oh yes, I mean the McPhail center is a wonderful example of how you can incorporate new next to old. the whole riverfront area is an amazing success. You look at photos from the 1960s and the 1970s where you had vacant houses, vacant streets, the rail bed was just abandoned, and now you have a vibrant area with high rises, shopping, people using that waterfront on a daily basis.
I think Karen makes a lot of sense, but I think her anti-sprawl argument is a bit limited. She essentially makes the case that building in the city is a more efficient use of resources, i.e. its cheaper use of governmental dollars.
This is true, most of the time, as long as the building iste isn't horribly polluted, but unless you're a bureaucrat, its hardly the kind of argument that can get you excited.
I'd rather see people talking far more about environmentalism and community, two things which infill and city development can offer in spades.