I kid, but only sort of. Not a single candidate at the Mayor’s forum yesterday convinced me Minneapolis is ready to move from good to great urban design. The forum, sponsored by AIA Minnesota and ULI Minnesota and held at International Market Square, was a chance for candidates Cherryhomes, Hodges, Winton, Samuels, Fine, Andrew and Woodruff to offer their opinions on urban design, transportation, the approvals process, sustainability, life-cycle housing and preservation. Despite a lovely setting, very good questions and fine moderation, candidates mostly danced around issues with big generalities and they only rarely reached out to us to indicate they’d value our expert opinion once in office (this may sound self-serving, and I’ll get to it later). And stop complimenting architects on their fancy glasses! The questions were good (the pitching solid) but answers left a lot to be desired (poor hitting, raising lots of questions about next year’s lineup (I’m using a tortured baseball analogy for two good reasons: it is fun; and Target Field is an actual example of great urbanism for the city in need of more examples)).
Glimmers of hope included Jackie Cherryhomes’ answer about how a mayor can encourage individual council members to make planning and development decisions in the best interest of the city rather than the more typical reactive manner that is in the interest of each council member’s ward (“fiefdom”). She indicated she’d grow the planning department and that design is more important (cough-Block E) than density. She could have distanced herself from Betsy Hodges by throwing out a name of who she’d nominate to run CPED. Thus, she was swinging for the fences but managed a bloop single, and nobody really addressed the issue of mayor versus fiefdoms, essentially striking out with the bases loaded.
The affordable and lifecycle housing question is where many candidates stumbled (run to first base, then second, then third, then home). Few seem to understand how market forces and construction costs encourage high-end development in some areas while preventing it in others. Only Betsy Hodges managed a single by mentioning the city’s affordable housing program, and all others generally whiffed at answers. A missed opportunity was the failure to mention the high cost of free parking.
On the green development question most candidates hit routine ground ball outs. How can seven presumably smart people answer a question about sustainability and talk about only buildings, failing to mention how land use and transportation are a critical component? Only Mark Andrew hit a high fly ball to deep left field (I nearly rose to my feet in anticipation) by mentioning how 40% of greenhouse gases come from buildings, but he left it there, the ball got held up in the wind and was caught on the warning track for a disappointing out.
When asked about preservation, every candidate claimed the city has done a good job on preservation. True, for the buildings we’ve saved, we’ve done a good job preserving them (Midtown Exchange and theaters on Hennepin Avenue), but with all due respect, the city has a pretty checkered history on preserving it’s physical history. I had some high hopes for Cam Winton, that his “fresh eyes” would see the opportunity for zoning code reform or actually suggest a new development financing mechanism, but his answer to the preservation question was unnecessary by suggesting there should be a skyway between the Guthrie Theater and its parking ramp. Big swing and a miss.
Hodges scored major league points by saying her favorite place in the city is any restaurant that served breakfast all day (is she Leslie Knope in disguise or is that just a coy reference to the Al’s Breakfast non-issue?). A home run for breakfast, but the question should have been “What place do you like least, and what does that say about how you would be chief developer for the city?”
So perhaps I’m being too hard on candidates. Minneapolis, after all, has a lot of good urbanism and examples here and there of great urbanism. But, like in baseball, you can’t win by getting just one single per inning. We must string together a series of hits and do so consistently, be they singles, sacrifice bunts of home runs. Maybe mayors can talk a good game and then turn to my colleagues and I to “pinch hit” by serving on boards and commissions and otherwise help make decisions to improve the city’s urban design from good to great. That is a fine idea – we are willing to help and many of us are doing so already. But rather, I think the leadership must start at the top to produce consistent hitting by developers, council members, and even public works. Several candidates are stumping for a plan. We already have a plan called the Minneapolis Plan, and it’s pretty good. What we a mayor who recognizes this and find better ways to implement the plan.
The next mayor will preside over the urban design details of the Vikings stadium and downtown east build-out, Nicollet Mall reconstruction, a streetcar line, the hopeful removal of Kmart and reopening of Nicollet Avenue at Lake Street, one or two more light rail lines and some big-time TODs along the existing rails. In other words, the next mayor will oversee whether Minneapolis chugs along with good urbanism or rises to the level of great. The right people must be appointed to the right positions (CPED director, for example) and the right decisions must be made. Transit is good, a mix of housing is critical, and preservation is inspiring, but a person taking light rail doesn’t end their journey on the platform and a beautiful building doesn’t exist in isolation. A mayor must understand how it is all connected and how the city functions as an organism. Not a single candidate hinted at the importance of how the public and private realm interact.
We get the government we deserve. A colleague of mine similarly concerned about the future of Minneapolis has spent some time recently in other major cities that have much more consistent great urban design. He commented to me how he can rub elbows with other citizens as he wanders the streets of these great cities and feel a camaraderie he doesn’t feel in Minneapolis. It is deep sense that the citizenry generally agrees that great urban design is not debatable but simply necessary. In other words, when it comes down to it, citizens create the cities in which they live by electing the right people and encouraging good planning and development. Maybe Minneapolis isn’t cut out to have great urbanism, and maybe our candidates are a reflection of that. Perhaps our weak-mayor system makes this issue somewhat irrelevant. Maybe good schools and fixing potholes are enough. Depressing to consider, and I hope it isn’t true. But Target Field, the Midtown Exchange and West River Commons offer evidence that Minneapolis can be great, we just need to be more consistent, so I’m a hopeful urbanist!
Still, I may cast a vote for a write-in candidate…Mayor Joe Riley of Charleston, South Carolina.
This was crossposted at Joe Urban.