How to be good, if you’re the mayor

A little while ago I accused RT Rybak of being a not-good mayor.  This was done mainly as a way to show how the hundreds of millions Rybak wants to give to the Vikings Corp as locational subsidies could be better spent, but it also stems from noticing that there has basically been no improvement in urban quality-of-life in Minneapolis that did not have a national origin (i.e. crime, biking).

But having recently realized that my blog is exclusively negative, I decided to throw out a few ideas about what Rybak could do if he wanted to be a good mayor.  For the most part, they are not easy.  Rybak would have to show the dogged persistence and willingness to sail against public opinion that has been so evident in his fight to subsidize the Vikings Corp.  Here’s how the Mayor can earn the label of “good,” in order of likelihood that he’ll actually do it:

1.  Support cycling.  Minneapolis brags a lot (at least once a month, it seems) about what a great biking town it is.  But faced with a choice between parking and biking it almost always goes for parking.  Out of the 23 most recent bike projects, only five of them involved significant parking removal, and one of those five was cancelled because of that fact.  This may be due to the fact that it’s relatively easy to add cycle facilities without removing parking, and that explanation is supported by the fact that 10 of the 23 projects involved removing a through lane; for example in a road diet.  But it also suggests that only the low-hanging fruit is being picked at this point, and where the fruit turns out to be higher than expected, like on the stalled* Glenwood project, the City backs off.  A mayor as charismatic and persuasive as Rybak has the potential to change that.

Bill is a talented dioramist

He wouldn’t have to threaten to fire the Director of Public Works or pull veto shenanigans.  If he were to just show up to neighborhood meetings such as those held recently for the Penn Ave S reconstruction in the Mayor’s neighborhood, he could use his political talents to convince neighbors of the advantages of providing basic bike accommodations.  Since as Mayor he has repeatedly stressed that he wants Minneapolis to be a “world-class bicycle city”, I don’t see any conflict of interest in going to neighborhood meetings to work towards that goal.  The fact that he so far has never done so is the only thing that makes me think this item is unlikely; with all the talking Rybak has done about bicycling, you’d think that some day he’ll eventually work towards it.

2.  Green Downtown.  Sure, another small park or two would be nice in what is from 9 to 5 on weekdays by far the densest neighborhood in the city.  But an easier way to green Downtown that would have an even bigger effect would be to simply remove a through lane from all the overbuilt streets.  One lane provides enough room for a row of trees on each side of the street, and you’d be surprised at how many unnecessary lanes are scattered throughout Downtown.  I made a map based on the city’s 2005 Downtown Traffic Flow map, coding in green all 3-lane one-ways with a traffic count of 12,000 or less.  I cut out blocks that according to my experience have high turning volumes, but I may have missed a few due to not knowing by heart the average conditions on every street.  In addition I depicted on the map in yellow the handful of 2-lane two-ways that could be narrowed.  To some degree that’s my subjective judgement, but the narrowing of Chicago Ave in its recent reconstruction indicates it could be done in other places.  Finally, red indicates 4-lane two-ways that could be reduced to three lanes (all are less than 15k AADT and some are far less).

Let me explain what I meant when I said it would be easy to replace lanes with trees.  I know all too well that any reduction in car capacity is controversial, but I also believe that a tree has a bigger constituency than a traffic lane, especially if you can get a traffic engineer to say that the lane isn’t needed.  I feel like even the literally auto-driven Downtown Council would be in favor of a lane-tree swap outside of the Core, because they’re going to have to find some place to fit those 35,000 residents they want to add.  But replacing a lane with trees requires the curbs to be moved, which costs a lot of money.  So step one would just be identifying where the roads are overbuilt enough to lose a lane without disrupting sacred traffic.  I would think that Rybak would be eager to champion a Downtown Green Streets plan, since that would make it look like he’s doing something without actually changing anything and risking angering someone.  Once complete, it would be both backup and a time saver whenever a downtown street came due for reconstruction.

3.  Legalize space utilization.  I was surprised and pleased to read that Rybak in his state of the city speech fessed up to the population stagnancy uncovered by the decennial census.  Hopefully that means he’ll be receptive to the easiest and least disruptive way to add residents to the city: accessory dwelling units (ADUs).  The average household in Minneapolis is just over 2 persons, yet around 22,000 housing units have four or more bedrooms.  There has to be a substantial number of single-family homes that have an extra couple rooms that could be converted into a small separate unit, or garages that could fit a half-story apartment on top.

Minneapolis already allows accessory dwelling units, but confines them to Ventura Village.  I don’t know the history on this, but presumably it was an idea that came out of the neighborhood rather than this area being chosen as a test case, because I would think 10 years would be a long enough test.  I haven’t heard of any ADUs actually being built, and if that means there hasn’t been any, it may be because of the restrictions, such as that the principal structure must be homesteaded and that the ADU be built outside the principal structure.  While the former no doubt makes ADUs more politically palatable for neighbors, the latter actually may be counterproductive.  After all, if you allow the ADU to be built within the principal structure, it’s likely the neighbor won’t even notice a difference, whereas most people notice a half-story being added to a garage.  Unfortunately, regardless of whether or not neighbors notice them, they are likely to be opposed, or at least that seems to have been the case in Vancouver.  Because of the political force of knee-jerk NIMBYism, my guess is Rybak is unlikely to push this one, even though it’s a no-brainer if you look at it dispassionately.  In addition, Rybak doesn’t really have any way to implement it besides cheerleading at the council, so I’d say ADUs are a long shot.

Listen to the people, R.T.

4.  Respect pedestrians.  In 2006, a miracle happened in South Minneapolis.  I don’t know if it was an accident or an experiment, but Hennepin County added zebra crosswalks to the streets crossed by the easternmost phase of the Midtown Greenway.  Then, something even more miraculous happened: many motorists observed Minnesota crosswalk laws at these crossings (tragically, many didn’t at the 28th St crossing).

So respect for pedestrians may be one of the easiest things to accomplish thanks to Minnesotans’ already sheep-like driving.  A study in Miami Beach found that all it takes is enforcement to get drivers to obey crosswalk laws.  Traditionally in Minneapolis the Mayor has had the most control over the police department, so why shouldn’t Rybak lean on Dolan to do some crosswalk enforcement, including ticketing for stopping past the stop line and blocking intersections?  Well, because no one really cares about pedestrians.  The mayor seems to feel that promoting (but not really supporting, see above) biking satisfies his transportation alternatives cred.  Meanwhile, we already get ped-friendly awards by just not being as terrible as the rest of the cities in the sprawling country.  So this easy step is not likely to be taken and Minneapolis will continue to be relatively walkable in terms of density but rather unwalkable in terms of conditions on the street.

You might be able to tell that this list is just a bunch of stuff that’s been floating around in my head, hammered into a frame about what R.T. Rybak could do to meet my standards of goodness.  Franky, I have no idea how likely he is to do any of these things; after 10 years of semi-activism and obsessive attention to local government, I can’t really tell how much of his rhetoric is just politics in a pervasively but vaguely left wing city and how much he really cares about causes like cycling, sustainability and Trampled by Turtles.

I do know that if he actually showed up to meetings to advocate bike lanes, more lanes would get striped.  If he pushed a study of which streets could trade a lane for trees, Public Works would find the dough for it and the first step would be taken towards a greener downtown.  If he browbeat some councilor into introducing an accessory dwelling unit ordinance, currently wasted space could be used to grow the city.  And if he got the cops to enforce crosswalk laws, people mind find it less stressful and more convenient to walk, and do more of it.  So hopefully this post comes across less as a wish list, and more as a to-do list for a progressive city.

 

 

*It may not be stalled – the project page claims it will be built in 2012 – but if not, it is eviscerated, downgraded to sharrows for about a quarter of its length.

Rybak to the Future?

Two quotes from recent Star Tribune articles:

In 2007, the city estimated that a West Broadway streetcar line would cost $154 million.

-Minneapolis considers ways to get North Side rolling

Under the preliminary deal, the city would contribute $150 million in construction costs to the downtown Minneapolis project.

-Tentative Vikings stadium deal is set

Not even the Mayor can make it across Mpls' traffic-choked streets

Mayor may not be good

R.T. Rybak hasn’t been a bad mayor.  I voted for him in 2009, when no one ran against him.  I also voted for him in 2005, because Peter McLaughlin, the better candidate, can do more as a Hennepin County Commissioner than as Mayor of Minneapolis.  I didn’t vote for him in 2001, although in retrospect he may have been the not-baddest candidate.

The problem with calling Rybak a good mayor is that he really hasn’t done anything good.  Looking closely at his accomplishments, you find that they are really more not-failures.  A lesser mayor might have fumbled the city’s finances, as happened to municipalities around the nation.  A lesser mayor might not have won the pension fund fight.  A lesser mayor might not have picked up the Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program handed to the City on a silver platter by Jim Oberstar.

Rybak would to have to be high to say no to free money for bikes

Not doing anything good doesn’t mean he’s done anything bad, but neither has there been anything that has noticeably improved quality of life in Minneapolis – nothing Rybak can really take credit for, anyway.  Sure, crime has plummeted, but that has been mirrored by a nationwide decline in crime.  Ok, there has been renewed investment in multifamily housing, but that is also a nationwide trend, and isn’t anything that hasn’t been seen in previous decades.  Cool, new bike lanes, but should Rybak be lauded for not rejecting free money from the Federal government?

Doing good things costs money, and Rybak has clearly chosen a cautious fiscal path over signature projects.  The problem is that not spending money can have a cost also – how much does it cost the city to lose Target IT jobs to Brooklyn Center?  To have flat population growth?  To have no change in the share of residents driving alone to work?  Most Minneapolitans have sat on our concerns, not really interested in arguing against fiscal stability in a time of recession and red ink.

Wintertime for the wise ant

Stop that dog! She's got Mpls' only revenue stream!

But now, it seems, Rybak has admitted that we do have some money to spend, which he is proposing to spend on a playground for millionaires that will be vacant 345 days out of the year.  My disposition is in favor of large public works projects, but after a decade of frugality, there are about a million things I’m ready to splurge on before a stadium.  MPR has the most details I’ve seen about the proposed financing plan, which apparently has a $55m hole.  I have to admit that I’m a bit puzzled by the documents provided by 35W Financial, but I think the hole is in up front costs (the city’s $314m contribution would be $164m in capital costs and the rest in operating, I think).  Still, one detail jumped out at my tiny brain:  around $31m over the 30 year life of the plan would come from parking revenue.  I’ll explain why that sounds familiar.

Around 50 years after the City’s Public Works Department decided that the area’s low-density development patterns did not “warrant the capital investment in a fixed rail rapid transit system”, they’ve decided to study fixed rail after all, albeit not rapid transit.  In Minneapolis streetcars are on the drawing board rather than on the street because the city sat on their preliminary planning efforts in the belief that there were no funds available, thereby missing all the free money that started raining down in 2009, when the federal money in programs like Small Starts, TIGER, and Urban Circulators was awarded to better-prepared cities.

Transit or stadiums?

For the most part, the feds dole out matching grants, so there needs to be a local source as well.  In addition, only capital costs come from Washington, so the City looked into sources of operating funds.  In various funding scenarios, the City looked at capturing $350k-665k per year from parking meter revenues, which the report implies would be 25-75% of a 25% increase in meter revenue.  Meanwhile the stadium plan captures 100% of revenue from 2,975 meters – almost half the City’s 6800 meters – at $25 and $30 a day, a 25-50% increase on the current max rate of $20 a day.  It seems unlikely there would be anything left for streetcars.  (Edit:  Minnescraper user newsole and commenter Brad below have both pointed out that it’s likely that only game-day revenue from the meters would be dedicated to the stadium.  That means there would likely be something left for streetcars.  However, there are still several problems with the plan to capture meter revenue for the stadium, and I’m collecting them into a miscellaneous stadium post that if you’re lucky I’ll never get around to actually posting.)

I’m not necessarily in favor of streetcars.  Although there are certainly some routes that would justify them, it seems likely that a wiser move would be to spread streetcar money out to a wider range of routes using much cheaper Baby BRT improvements.  (All the Minneapolis segments of the proposed Rapid Bus routes could be built for $145.6m, coincidentally close to the West Broadway streetcar estimate and Minneapolis’ contribution to the stadium capital costs.)  In addition, I’m skeptical that a short segment of streetcar would draw many users, or if implemented mostly in the Downtown Fare Zone it would generate as much revenue as a bus.  The point is that transit improvements are much more desperately needed in Minneapolis and would be a much bigger benefit to the city than a stadium would be.  Certainly building a stadium would be a huge and visible reminder of Rybak’s legacy, but he faces a tough job convincing Minneapolis voters that the Minnesota Vikings need to be paid for by Minneapolis.

Trouble, more trouble

Stolen from the NY Times

Besides, there’s another huge and visible reminder of Rybak’s legacy, although it’s one that he’d like to forget.  North Minneapolis was in rough shape before Rybak was first elected, of course, and he has made both visible and holistic efforts at addressing the area’s pervasive and unique problems.  But it was also on Rybak’s watch that the neighborhood lost 10,000 residents, suffered thousands of foreclosures (6,243 from 2006 to 2011, 45% of the city’s 13,842 total in that time frame), and consistently and deeply declined in median income.

I’m not so petty as to blame Rybak for market conditions that created ample credit or lax regulation that allowed mortgage brokers to stoop to new lows of fraud and discrimination.  And I’m not aware of any city that took matters into its own hands by creating its own loan modification program to assist underwater homeowners.  But there’s no question Minneapolis could have created such a program, at least after 2009, when restrictions were lifted on the sales tax that is now being proposed for use on a fancy playground for the Vikings.

Are the stars out tonight?

Minneapolis already dabbles in the mortgage game through the Minneapolis Advantage program, which was created in 2008 to create an incentive to buy homes that are “foreclosed, vacant, or in a high foreclosure-impacted neighborhood”.  This program is now funded by HUD Neighborhood Stabilization Program 2 funds and may be considered a success, in that it’s assisted almost 350 home purchases, presumably some of which wouldn’t have happened without the program.  In that case it would be a small success, notable if you compare those 350 purchases to the total number of foreclosures listed a couple paragraphs up.

A longer-standing program is the City Living program, a more complex program that provides both interest rate subsidy and second mortgages in Minneapolis and St Paul.  It’s hard for me to say for sure without more details than I can find on each of these programs, but it’s likely one or both could have been modified to provide refinancing to homeowners at risk of foreclosure, although probably at greater expense.  Home values in North Minneapolis dropped by at least 50% (probably more), which is a substantial amount for the City to make up.  But almost $30m a year of the sales tax would be diverted to Palazzo Wilf, so even if the City were eating up to $40k per mortgage, more than twice as many homes could be salvaged per year than the Minneapolis Advantage program has affected in its lifespan.

The sense of an ending

Why not let a city that can afford it pay for a stadium? Enter the SouthDome!

A big question with a City-sponsored mortgage modification program is whether the banks would participate; several have resisted a federal-level program with the cowboyish reasoning that modifications would encourage more widespread default.  I mention this to emphasize how many of the forces that have resulted in Rybak’s meh mayoralty were beyond his control.  One thing that is not beyond his control, though, is whether to spend the City’s long-awaited fiscal freedom on a sports facility that at best debatably benefits the city.  As a cynic, I can only assume that he thinks he can get the stadium built against the will of most Minneapolitans, then park in the mayor chair until a statewide office is up for nomination, which he’ll then use his Stadium Builder legacy to win.  He may be right about the third part of that plan, but he shouldn’t assume that he will be mayor by default.  A majority are against using city money on a stadium in the first place.  When they realize what they could have had, it seems likely that most will pass on their fourth chance to vote for him.

Metropolitics

Steven Dornfield recently did an article on the Met Council’s Livable Communities grants.  Since 1996 the Met Council has been granting for developments or planning that encourage location efficiency or affordable housing.  As Dornfield writes:

From 1996 through 2010, the council awarded 633 grants totaling more than $212 million in Livable Communities funds. Of those, 68 awards have been relinquished, for a net of 565 grants totaling $181 million. The net results of these grants are expected to leverage billions of dollars in private and other public investments.

Dornfield does not mention that grants to projects in Minneapolis and St Paul are capped at a combined 40% of the total granting.  He does link to a Met Council staff report that displays all the fury of a bureaucrat politicized.  If your sense of humor is as nerdy as mine, you’ll agree that it’s worth quoting extensively:

Impact of the 40/60 ratio between the central cities and the suburbs

The previous Council instituted guidelines for funding that allow the LCAC to recommend no more than 40% of the available LCDA funding for projects located in the central cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul. The LCAC may, if it desires, suggest an additional amount to be awarded to the central cities above the 40% threshold. In this funding cycle, the LCAC is recommending 39.13% to the central cities. Between 1996 and 2010 42% of LCDA funds have been granted to the central cities out of the total $98,014,453 awarded, or $40,711,364.

As a result of the requirement to consider the urban/suburban ratio, in some funding cycles higher-scoring projects in the central cities are not funded, while lower-scoring suburban projects receive awards. In the 2011 recommendations, five central cities projects were not recommended for award in whole or in part in order to maintain the required 60% recommendation for suburban projects.

…To make their recommendations for Development awards, the LCAC starts with the highest-scoring projects and works down the list, making funding recommendations for each individual application. During this process, the LCAC monitors the overall percentage of funding being recommended for the central cities. When the percentage equals the 40% limit, the LCAC skips any further recommendations for central cities applications, moving down to the next-highest scoring project from a suburban applicant.

This makes the funding recommendation process somewhat complicated. For example, the top five scoring Development projects are all located in the central cities. However, when the two Pre-Development projects from the central cities are added to the top five Development projects, the amount for the central cities exceeds the 40% threshold. The LCAC therefore withheld their recommendation for the fifth-highest project, Currie Park Lofts, until they could determine how much was available. They then recommended the full funding for The Enclave Trails Apartments. Because the 40% limit had already been exceeded, the LCAC did not recommend any funding for Corcoran Triangle, from Minneapolis, but instead recommended full funding for the next three projects, all from suburban applicants. The Committee then skipped West Side Flats, from Saint Paul, and recommended full funding for Cobblestone Senior Housing and 9805 Highway 55 Apartments. They skipped Minneapolis’ Spirit on Lake, recommended full funding for Woodbury’s City Walk Apartments, skipped Saint Paul’s Beacon Bluff, and fully funded Watertown’s Downtown Redevelopment Phase II. With the available remaining funds, the Committee opted to recommend partial funding to the Mahtomedi request and, skipping back up to the highest-scoring unfunded central city project, they were able to recommend just over 40% of the requested amount for Currie Park Lofts, rounding out the full $9 million available for 2011.

The Met Council, of course, “serves at the pleasure of the Governor”, so it’s not surprising that Pawlenty’s council would cap the amount of money going to an area that never voted for him.  Seems like bad policy, though, to limit grants for multifamily housing in the part of the metro that has the most available land for multifamily housing… and that was hit hard by the foreclosure crisis.  Hopefully this new council will read the frustration in this bureaucratic report and allow merit to be the primary determinant of grant recipients.

Can you find the brown in the suburbs?

Apartments go boom!

With all the chatter about apartment construction in the last couple months, I wanted to see whether the current level of activity is really an aberration or just a way to sell newspapers.  There certainly are a lot of proposals floating about, but after the severe downturn of the last few years, it’s hard to know what’s normal.  Besides, is it a coincidence that the paper that says the most about the new construction just happens to have a subscribers only online map of it?

But what exactly is the current level of activity?  If 8500 units were under construction or proposed as of September, what does that mean in terms of eventual places to live?  Presumably almost all of what is under construction will be finished, but much of what is proposed will never see the light of day.  I thought it safe to compare the number proposed to building permit data, although probably a bit more is proposed than actually gets permitted.  From F&C’s 8500, I thought it safe to subtract 2000 considering my count of 1,732 units that were under construction in 2011 just in Minneapolis (most of which would have been permitted in 2010).

So how rare is it for 6500 multifamily units to be permitted in the metro area?  Met Council data going back to 1970 gives us a hint:

Permit rainbow!

Well, not very rare.  10 of the last 40 years saw 6500 units permitted.*  In fact, in the 70s the average year saw 6100 multifamily units permitted, helped out by the massive years 1970-1972 that permitted over 10,000 multifamily units each.

I think the story here is more likely that not nearly enough rental units were constructed in the last 20 years.  As I’ve noted before, the 90s were a disastrous decade for dense development.  When multifamily heated up again, it was the condo craze, leaving little room for renters.  But while the ownership housing stock was increased, sometimes at the expense of rental housing, the number of renter households was increasing faster than the number of owner households.

In other words, it’s true that there is more multifamily rental units being proposed and built than in recent years, but don’t think of it like a speculator-driven bubble.  Instead it is more likely to be a “new normal,” where the market is providing a supply in reaction to demand.  That’s good news for people who want an energy-efficient, walkable, low-maintenance place to live.

Zooming In

There’s more news buried in this building permit data, and I’m going to finish up with a long digression on it.  Check out this table of the top 10 metro area cities for total residential building permits issued between 1970 and 2010:

City DTQ DUP MF3 MF5 SFD TH Total
Minneapolis 98 854 21507 6543 4238 2807 36047
Plymouth 44 118 9172 240 13925 3273 26772
St. Paul 146 652 16033 3234 4537 1172 25774
Eden Prairie 32 1112 6498 95 12132 4430 24299
Eagan 75 704 6886 68 12430 3710 23873
Woodbury 107 442 4836 1127 12490 4123 23125
Maple Grove 157 565 3646 692 14496 3473 23029
Brooklyn Park 16 834 2750 475 12820 3504 20399
Burnsville 0 366 8431 394 7472 3305 19968
Coon Rapids 2 736 4760 48 9106 3462 18114

DTQ=Duplex, Triplex, Fourplex

DUP=Duplex

MF3=Multifamily (3 units or more)

MF5=Multifamily (5 units or more)

SFD=Single-Family Detached

TH=Townhome

Minneapolis has a comfortable lead, appearing to have added more housing units in the 40-year period than any other municipality (assuming the same rate of actual construction resulting from permits across all the municipalities and years).  This lead seems to have primarily resulted from the 70s and 00s, in the latter of which Minneapolis added significantly more housing units than anywhere else in the Twin Cities.

Seas of purple and green

So how could Minneapolis add tens of thousands of housing units in the last 40 years, while simultaneously losing more than 50,000 residents?  Some of the reasons for a similar effect in the 60s are also valid for later decades; the entirety of the drop occurred in the 70s, when a great deal of (edit: Froggie points out in the comments that most of the clearance for freeway construction had been wrapped up by the 70s) freeway construction and some slum clearance was still underway.

Later decades fared better.  The 90s saw a population increase; looking at population by sector makes it clear that the mediocre performance of the 00s was almost entirely a product of the foreclosure crisis:

Sector 1980 1990 2000 2010
Downtown 19155 21824 24977 31034
North 61278 64001 67674 59970
Northeast 37507 36515 36913 36255
South 137551 136333 142150 139854
Southwest 83728 79912 78292 77989
University 29615 29798 32612 37476
Citywide 368834 368383 382618 382578

The two sectors with the most foreclosure activities were also the only two with significant population decline.  In the case of North, two decades of steady growth were wiped out.

The 80s are the mystery for me.  Seven or eight thousand units were constructed in Minneapolis, which should have resulted in some population growth.  Instead the most population growth occurred in North, not in the Downtown and University neighborhoods that saw the most units added.  I don’t have demolition permit data, so I don’t know if an unusually high number of units were demolished.  Household size may also have been a factor, since many of the units added were likely smaller than any units lost.

Regardless of what happened in the 80s, the census data seems to suggest that, barring any new freeway construction or popular predatory lending practices, Minneapolis should see steady population growth in this decade.  Wandering back to the main topic of this post, the return to historic levels of multifamily rental construction, a greater proportion of which tends to occur in central cities, is another indicator that the chatter may soon be about how Minneapolis and St Paul are leading the metro in population growth.

*Until 2004, semi-detached units with more than two units were counted in the multifamily category.  In 2004, they were moved into the Duplex category.

Hit by nice Berg, census reeling

Portland Model City?

Steve Berg gets my nomination for King of Urbanists in the Twin Cities.  A talented writer, I consider him the most eloquent Minnesotan activist for safer, more inclusive streets, smart density, and mixing uses.

He’s been writing lately about the 2010 census results (2 more census articles than either of the local newspapers, by the way), and while I agree with his conclusion – municipalities in the Twin Cities need to do a better job of encouraging dense, transit-oriented growth as well as transit for the growth to orient to – I’ve been a bit irked about his decision to compare us to the same three cities of Denver, Seattle and Portland.

Portland annexation map

Portland does a great job encouraging growth along transit lines in developed areas, but it also has a dirty secret:  The greenfield area around Powell Butte was a significant contributor to the city’s growth.  As Portland’s annexation map makes clear, it has annexed land as recently as the early 90s, and plans to eventually annex the entirety of its urban growth boundary.  That means that Portland has as much in common with Forest Lake as it does with Minneapolis.

The population growth in the Powell Butte area accounted for a greater share of the city’s growth than the downtown area – although downtown had a higher growth rate and is a smaller area.  Still, it’s not really fair to ask a city that has been built out for decades to grow as fast as a city that still has a greenfield advantage.

Denver is an even worse comparison, since its population was boosted by massive redevelopments of Air Force bases.  The Lowry and Stapleton developments added a cumulative 16,664 residents to the Mile High City, way more than Downtown Denver’s 9,815 added residents.  Those three areas account for more than half of the 45,000 residents that moved into Denver in the oughts – other areas of the city grew as well, but there were also substantial sections that declined, specifically the Highland area across the river from Downtown.  It doesn’t seem to me that Denver’s census change pattern deviates all that much from MSP, except that it grew a lot more:

Denver Population Change 2000-2010

Mpls-StP Population Change 2000-2010

These maps are from Data Pointed and I’m pretty sure they’re not to scale.

Edit:  Data Pointed apparently doesn’t like hosting images for my blog so for now you’ll have to find the maps yourself on that site.  I’ll maybe screen print the NY Times maps or grab them from Transport Politic this weekend – I live to serve.

Seattle, however, is a more fair comparison to Minneapolis-St Paul.  I wrote a few months ago about how it contains more recently-built suburban areas than Minneapolis, but not necessarily more than St Paul.  Still, it hasn’t annexed any land since the 50s, so there isn’t any greenfield development in the city proper.

There is no question Seattle has done a better job encouraging growth in the center city than Minneapolis.  If you look at their growth map, you see strong growth in the downtown and around the university, like the Twin Cities and most cities nationwide.  But you also see people moving into areas outside of downtown, such as Ballard, Northgate, and NewHolly – these growth areas were codified in their most recent comprehensive plan as Urban Villages, areas where a dense mix of uses will be encouraged.  It’s a similar concept to Minneapolis’ Activity Centers, but Seattle sets aggressive targets for job and residential growth in these clusters.

Seattle Population Change 2000-2010

So if only one of Berg’s three comparison cities is actually comparable, are there other cities that are more like the Twin Cities, if just so that we’re not adrift in a sea of relativism?  Let’s look to our neighbors, who are of a similar vintage, and who were similar choked off by the upper classes seeking their own municipalities safe from the votes of the teeming, ethnic masses.

Milwaukee, St Louis and Cleveland are of similar size, age and metropolitan structure, and at first glance Minneapolis and St Paul look good in comparison.  St Louis and Cleveland each lost tens of thousands of residents in the last decade, and Milwaukee lost about two thousand – eerily similar to the Twin Cities’ combined losses.  But the three rust belt cities also had population booms in their downtowns – all three had growth rates that surpassed Minneapolis and St Paul, and St Louis beat Minneapolis in absolute increase as well.

Downtown population change

Just for kicks, I’ll throw in this info for the cities Steve Berg likes to compare to the Twin Cities:

Downtown Population Change

You can, of course, find similarities and differences between most cities.  And certainly all of these cities are auto-dependent, Euclidian-zoned (although I think Denver is experimenting with a form-based code) and in the Anglo-American tradition.  And, honestly, Berg’s points hold up in all of them – the USA has a racial ghetto problem, and while it’s less pronounced in cities with smaller minority populations, the Twin Cities is one of several metro areas that have failed to handle this problem.  Denver seems to have the same problem, and I don’t think we should follow Seattle’s lead by exporting the ghetto to a different city (Tacoma, in Seattle’s case; we’ve already gotten a start on sending minorities to the Brooklyns).  Instead we should continue the Met Council’s work on increasing affordable housing opportunities in the suburbs.  Here is some data to back up these assertions:

Census race 2010

Because of the racist nature of American settlement patterns, it’s predictable that cities with greenfield development (Portland, Denver) would have a smaller percentage of minority populations.  Conversely, it may be that the Twin Cities, with relatively small central cities relative to suburbs, have actually done a better job than these “peer” cities of reducing minority concentration, although a large ghetto remains on the Northside and Minneapolis sure suffered for it in the 2010 census.

Steve Berg’s other point, that successful cities develop their transit systems and encourage dense growth around stations, is more supported by census data.  Looking at the percent of metro area growth that occurred downtown, it roughly corresponds with the level of transit investment, although Milwaukee is a major outlier.  Also the metric doesn’t work with metros like Cleveland that lost population, although the fact that the downtown nevertheless grew is a major triumph.

Downtown vs Metro population change 2000-2010

I’m going to put my spreadsheet out there for people to look at and build on.  This rambling entry is not meant to be the final word on anything, so feel free to engage in the discussion by tearing my points to shreds in the comments.  I’m going to add more and more stats to this spreadsheet and maybe eventually I’ll do a another post when I have a more complete picture.

downtown census pop

A note about the data here:  it is always debatable how to define unofficial geographic areas such as downtowns.  As you might expect, I have my own opinion about what constitutes  Downtown Minneapolis and Downtown St Paul, but amazingly I don’t consider myself an expert on the neighborhood geography of other cities.  Therefore I’ve relied on others’ definitions, which I’ve referenced in the spreadsheet.  When I pulled the census data myself, I’ve referenced the census tracts I used, which usually didn’t correspond exactly with the downtown boundaries.  But then life itself is inexact.  As always, feel free to disagree, but if you do I ask you to specify your disagreement in the comments.

Back to the 90s

Then

The 90s weren’t bad, as far as decades go; there were colorful sweaters, Steve Urkel, and bracelets that you put on by violently attacking your wrist with them.

And now

The decade was a mixed blessing for Minneapolis, however; our state’s ample supply of refugee-services non-profits fueled an influx of immigrants, who proceeded to revitalize many commercial areas; but in the meantime almost no residential buildings of consequence were built in the city.  Recently I attempted to document all multifamily and row/townhomes built here in the postwar era; in the 90s I found a total of 2,346 units built, less than any other decade.  Instead, tacky single-family homes were built, for example this one:

In today’s Community Development Committee meeting, the city will decide whether to sell a parcel to Habitat for Humanity for development of a single-family home.  Normally I’m okay with Habitat operating in the city.  Even though we have already have more than enough single-family homes in Minneapolis, Habitat is at least addressing the affordable housing crisis.

This parcel, however, is primed for multifamily development.  It lies a wide but walkable distance from Hiawatha LRT (a half-mile), but it is a block or two from three bus routes, meaning it is ideal for transit-oriented development.

But Alex, in Minneapolis we pretend that you need a 40′ wide lot just to build a single-family home.  So if this lot is only 40′ wide, how will you cram a whole multifamily building in there?

Well, to the north of this parcel is not one but two city-owned, vacant parcels.  And to the south is an additional vacant parcel, in private hands.  These parcels would be ideal for the type of development that occurred at the north end of the block – basically a typical English urban model of attached single-family.  Unfortunately even those had to be up-zoned to R4 in order to get built, because Minneapolis is so eager to become Richfield that it categorizes small-scale traditional urban housing with dense low-rise apartment buildings.

One of two things need to happen if Minneapolis is going to achieve its sustainability goals – either the R2B district needs to be amended to allow attached housing on smaller lots or wide swaths of the city need to be up-zoned to R4.  Housing is a 100-year investment; we need to stop wasting the limited space of our central neighborhoods on inefficient types of housing.  Others have argued effectively that “location efficiency is more important than home efficiency,” but there are only so many efficient locations to go around.  Habitat for Humanity is welcome to provide its affordable but wasteful single-family homes in relatively less-efficient locations, but let’s save our prime central neighborhood locations for buildings that will allow more than one family to enjoy them.

The Chosen One

Mark Dayton’s pick for Met Council Chair is, on the whole, good news for urbanists.  The best sign that Susan Haigh will lead the Met Council back to the city is her credentials as an administrator, both at Habitat and as a commissioner at Minnesota’s most urbanized county.  I have never heard of the Metropolitan Counties Light Rail Transit board mentioned in her bio, but even if it was made up it would be a good sign that she thought it to be a beneficial lie.

I always had a knee-jerk negative reaction to Habitat for Humanity because they seem to perpetuate that American myth that all you need is a single-family home and a mortgage (plus they’re Christian).  They do, however, build some multi-family units, and are definitely in the trenches of the affordable housing crisis.  Haigh says that she “would like to see the council do more work on housing.”  Presumably, not a lot of that work would be with Habitat, to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.  There certainly is a lot to do; Housing Link says that in 2009, only a third of Twin Cities families that needed affordable housing could get it.

THAT MEANS 100,000 FAMILIES PAID MORE THAN THEY COULD AFFORD FOR HOUSING.

(sometimes I wish this blog could shoot lasers from the screen, you know, for emphasis)

Meanwhile, has-been Peter Bell claims to have overseen a “golden age” for transit.  I sure hope not.  The Strib article, while prefacing with the profound insight that Republicans are not generally disposed towards transit, give us hope that the “golden age” will soon be outshined:

In an interview Wednesday, Dayton said Haigh’s background on affordable housing makes it very important for her to select a senior staff “that has transit as a certainly, co-equal priority.”

Probably just politics, but Dayton has promised to fight for a billion-dollar bonding bill, which could get a lot of transit built (hint, hint, Minneapolis:  it’s time for alternatives analysis on a Hennepin-University streetcar).

Susan Haigh says she’ll keep her day job at Habitat for Humanity, which is disappointing.  She says it’s because both posts are “exciting,” but the $60k salary for the Met Chair’s part-time job kind of points to a different motive.  Mark Dayton has said that he has had trouble finding commissioners since state law forces a $110,000 ceiling to their salary.  How many multi-billion dollar companies pay their executives that little?