Would the Twin Cities Survive New Urbanism?

Caribou Coffee; Edina Minn.jpg

In December, the Metropolitan Council of Minneapolis and St. Paul is scheduled to vote on a vision for the region's housing and transportation future. "Thrive MSP 2040” is the council’s comprehensive development plan for the seven-county Twin Cities metro area for the next 30 years. It's a regional growth plan that will result not in a cure for the area's ills, though, but in a virus that will kill its vitality.

The Minneapolis/ St. Paul area is one of the most livable regions in the nation. That's not because residents were forced onto transit and into high density housing, as 'Thrive' will do. Growth occurred in a natural manner, in an area with great schools, because people here had the freedom to choose the size of yard for their kids, and the ability to embrace the natural openness of the region. The vigorous suburban growth that resulted has helped our vitality, despite past decisions from the Met Council to neutralize it.

The Metropolitan Council isn't alone in adopting New Urbanist plans on a wholesale basis. Their approach, and the problems that go with it, are being repeated by many planning boards nationwide. The 350-page ‘Detroit Future City’ plan is a tunnel-vision strategy based on the same New Urbanist thought. With the best of intentions — goals of avoiding pre-fabricated monotony and sprawl, and creating affordable, livable communities — municipalities are actually writing prescriptions that will do just the opposite.

I speak with the perspective of a locally-based development consultant, and as an observer and resident of the region for 31 years. I've witnessed what has actually helped make this area succeed. At my company, we've designed hundreds of sustainable neighborhoods that don't adhere to the New Urbanist principles of high density and only public transit.

Two decades ago, the Met Council placed its faith in an urban growth boundary, limiting sewer development in the metro area to inoculate itself against “sprawl”. The result was an increase in the very sprawl the council sought to avoid, as development leap-frogged outside the seven-county area to escape the high land prices created by the artificial land limitation.

The Met Council hired Peter Calthorpe, founder of Congress for the New Urbanism, for several million in tax dollars, to provide a vision for our region’s future growth. The ‘one size fits all’ approach resulted in projects like Clover Ridge in Chaska, Ramsey Town Center, and indirectly, others like St. Michaels ‘Town Center’, none of which delivered the promises that had been made.

Calthorpe’s attempt to create a ‘sense of place’ failed to sufficiently attract home buyers. For example, the ‘conventionally planned’ sections of Clover Ridge sold well. But, with their sardine-like density, the housing along alleys remained vacant. Because the development did not attract as many homebuyers as anticipated, among other reasons, local shopping and restaurants did not materialize as the Met Council had promised.

More recently, ‘Smart Growth’ planners of projects such as ‘Excelsior and Grand’ in St. Louis Park failed to acknowledge why retailers were abandoning their spaces. A spokeswoman for Panera Bread cited poor location and lack of convenience for customers. Yet 'Excelsior and Grand' is a model New Urbanist plan, complete with the obligatory central ‘traffic circle’ with a ‘sense of place’ sculpture.

These smart-growth projects are examples of architects preaching a singular growth model that does not work for all people, in all climates. Those who assume that working class residents will appreciate waiting outside in 20 below zero weather at an architecturally designed “sense of place” bus stop, and then coming home to the 14th floor of a high rise, are clueless. And the dense projects being built in this region have the same sort of repetition of design that smart-growth planners criticize in suburbia.

Today in the Twin Cities, sales of new, single-family homes are rebounding, creating a catalyst for economic stability. Despite this market reality, some developers are still submitting new multifamily housing proposals. That's due to Met Council density mandates, not because of market demand. The Council’s assumption is that the population will migrate to the urban core for its (expensive) restaurants and its 19th century rail technology, abandoning spacious suburbs and cars. But sales suggest otherwise.

The Met Council’s ‘Thrive 2040' vision will undermine the American Dream of obtaining an affordable single-family home in an area where one desires to live, with the freedom of travel (and protection from our harsh winters) that only personal vehicles currently provide. Under the ‘Thrive’ mandates, more workers will need to live in ‘affordable housing’ (mid- or high rises) and take mass transit to their jobs. Yet ‘affordable housing’ remains elusive in ‘Smart Growth’ projects, unless it is heavily subsidized with tax dollars.

Calthorpe’s Congress for the New Urbanism actually boasts of the gentrification it produces. But when home prices go up, what happens to the living standard for displaced low-income families? The working class, regardless of race, should be outraged by ‘Thrive’.

Density does not guarantee affordability. We cannot forever throw tax dollars at high-density development solutions in an effort to make them economically feasible. A successful, balanced housing market drives the economy. At their December meeting, let's hope the Met Council recognizes that the 'Thrive' vision is anything but balanced.

Rick Harrison is President of Rick Harrison Site Design Studio and Neighborhood Innovations, LLC. He is author of Prefurbia: Reinventing The Suburbs From Disdainable To Sustainable and creator of Performance Planning System. His websites are rhsdplanning.com and pps-vr.com.

Flickr photo by Adelie Freyja Annabel: Edina, a suburb of Minneapolis. "This is the original Caribou Coffee, which opened in 1992 on France Avenue between Sunnyside and 44th Street."

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That is indeed the way it is with the Met Council

I've lived in the Twin Cities metro area for eleven years now, and Mr. Harrison sums it up nicely. I spent most of my previous life in New York City. I could go back if I wanted to. You couldn't pay me to do it, or to live in Minneapolis. I stay in the suburbs (or the wonderful woods, which you can't access without a car). I go into the cities when I need something that can't be gotten elsewhere. And then I get right out.

Captchabot sounds like a refugee from the comments on the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, where dozens of such parrots show up whenever the suburbs or outstate want their own transit and housing needs considered--and increasingly, whenever the suburbs or outstate speak up at all. Most of the "urbanists" have no idea what it's like to live in a real city, much less the kind of failed city they want so much to imitate here. Everyone else at New Geography knows that what matters isn't where children want to live when they first start sleeping away from Mom and Dad's. (That kind of children often never grow up, so their chronological age can complicate demographic analysis.)

What matters is where grownups with real lives (and money to pay taxes) want to be for the long term. Given the failure and corruption of the cities, they want to be in the suburbs. The Metropolitan Council, and similar initiatives elsewhere, are just thinly veiled efforts by corrupt cities and related private interests to use coercion to stem the flight of their tax base. That flight has been one of the most important realities of metropolitan America for about sixty years:

Population of Minneapolis in 2103: 400,070. Population of Minneapolis in 1950: 521,718. That's a drop of 23%. The city has gained about 30,000 since 1990, but that growth has been very slow and not steady. Population dropped slightly between 2000 and 2010. Population growth in the rest of the state has been much higher. The same is true for the average of similar cities throughout the U.S. All this despite the fact that Minneapolis actually does have a lot going for it, compared with many other cities. (The picture in St. Paul mirrors that of Minneapolis.)

Minnesotans are slow to react to any abuse that poses anything less than an immediate and grave threat to life or pocketbook. But this has been going on a long time, and they do seem to be speaking up more lately about the arrogance and corruption (and incompetence) of the Minneapolis-St. Paul political/corporate machine. Housing, transportation, crime, and multiple half-billion-dollar tax-funded boondoggles hit close to home, and as the urban machine has become more and more detached from reality it has been testing the tolerance even of Minnesotans.

Perhaps more importantly, it has increasingly been testing the tolerance of rural Minnesotans--even those who have long been Democratic chattels. These are increasingly questioning the wisdom of blindly following the city Democrats on the assumption that whatever happens won't touch the rural areas. This will probably change the political realities long before "Thrive MSP 2040” takes full effect.

Keep on believing

Wait, so density is bad because no one wants to live there and it causes gentrification? That seems a bit contradictory, doesn't it?

But don't worry Rick, someday young people will aspire to live in anodyne rows of identical houses on big lawns connected by culs-de-sac again.

Lesson in reality versus utopia/stated preferences

Everyone wants everything. Stated preferences are one thing. Revealed preferences in the market, are the result of each desired attribute and amenity having a price put on it, and trade-offs being made.

Trying to suspend markets so we can have utopia, always results in hell on earth. Trying to do prescriptive "planning" with markets intact, always results in massive gouging by land and site owners, and nobody else any better off - in fact the prices of all options are disgracefully inflated.

Houston actually has easily the best-value luxury apartments and utilitarian inner city accommodation as well as the best-value suburban McMansions. You cannot have the former without the latter. In fact the way markets work when distorted by growth-containment policies, the cost of the "urbanist" living options is always inflated far MORE than the cost of the suburban options. I have seen city after city where the suburban fringe McMansion has inflated from $150,000 to $450,000 and the inner city condo has inflated from $150,000 to $1,000,000. And the planners always claimed to be "increasing housing choice"!

Their excuse often is that they have "increased amenity" hence the prices have gone up. What about people who don't have the money to pay, period, Marie Antoinette?