It’s not really about a roof


The City of Woodbury is debating a public building’s roof replacement. It’s really voting on its future as a forward-looking, prosperous east Metro city.

Thirty-five years ago, Woodbury built a public safety building. Its roof, covered with curved Mediterranean-style tile, is designed to last 50 years. Everyone – elected officials, planners, roofing inspectors, and residents – agree that it’s holding up beautifully. The controversy involves an expansion’s aesthetics but really it’s a referendum on Woodbury’s view of itself.

Woodbury isn’t the city it was in 1975. It’s much, much larger. The public safety building outgrew its capacity, requiring an addition that, again, everyone agrees is needed. Its roof, however, won’t be covered with clay tile. It’s going to look goofy – which is why the city is contemplating replacing the older roof, creating a single, harmonious whole.

This is where the conservative, Tea Party criticism rears its narrow, pointy head. In today’s Saint Paul Pioneer Press, Woodbury resident Bonnie Fox is quoted dismissing the old roof replacement’s cost as ridiculous. She advances a fine version of the “penny wise, pound foolish” argument, diminishing public structures’ value simply because they house government. The desire for a respectable government building is objectionable, because government itself is considered objectionable.

Public edifices convey public confidence. A crappy, run-down building creates the public perception of a crappy, run-down community disinterested in the common good. The broken window theory of community safety, a criminological idea that links crime growth to neighborhood disengagement, first popularly appeared in a 1982 issue of the Atlantic monthly magazine. Usually, the theory applies to homes and the risk that untended maintenance like broken windows or cracked steps, degrade the neighborhood’s faith in itself, unintentionally inviting a spiraling decline. Poorly maintained public buildings, communicate that same unease just loudly and more effectively.

Woodbury’s city council hasn’t ruled out roof replacement. A recent bid came back considerably below original estimates, but that’s really not the issue. In truth, does Woodbury believe in itself, or will it fall to debilitating conservative attacks on all government? If it falls, property values decline and Woodbury loses its east Metro anchor role, all for the cost of an extra $60,000 on an $8 million project.