Q&A | Envision Minnesota’s Lee Helgen on balancing urban sprawl with conservation


With a world population of seven billion and counting, the human being is one prolific creature — and in recent history, humans have treated nature mostly as an obstacle to urban sprawl. For years, the people at Envision Minnesota have been working to bring balance back to the equation, focusing on smart ways to redevelop communities while conserving and protecting natural resources.

We spoke with Envision’s new executive director, Lee Helgen, to ask him about that balance, his transition from St. Paul city council, and just how Envision’s recent EPA funding will be put to use. He noted that the city council focuses on a city with 280,000 people, a budget of $550 million, and 3,000 employees, with an even more specific focus on the ward’s population of 40,000.

You were very recently named the new executive director of Envision Minnesota. How big of a change is this from City Council, and what should we expect from Lee Helgen, executive director?

As a city council member, the issues [are] pretty narrowly defined … around neighborhoods, around community redevelopments, around housing, around crime and safety issues.

What a smaller nonprofit organization doesn’t have [is] the budget or the staff. But what we get to do is take a look at the bigger picture of policy implication, be able to [make] connections, work with peer organizations that mobilize communities and advocacies as levels of support. … Envision [will] continue to work with communities providing technical assistance, as they plan for downtown vitality projects, looking at building off the complete street, thinking about how parks and trails connect together. [In the long term, how] do they build that healthy, vibrant community?

How will Envision be putting its new federal funding to use?

Well, we received some EPA funding as part of … a Partnership for Sustainable Communities. And that’s something we use to work with communities to provide technical assistance around planning, around getting the sustainable land use principles into a planning process.

Envision is participating in efforts to help shape the Thrive 2040 goals, with the idea that creating a more dense, more connected [community], building off the transit line, building the housing, and really strengthening the core, the urban core of the region, would give a lot in terms of economic competitiveness to the overall metropolitan region. But the goal is to really, instead of letting the region continue to sprawl out with low density, let’s find ways to bring back that higher density, building up around the transit corridors, and building out a transit network.

And we think that will have some positive impacts by better connecting people to where jobs are, creating the affordable housing options that people need, but at the same time protecting those sensitive natural areas, the water recharge areas, the agricultural land that then can be used for supporting local food production, and really adding to the overall sustainability and health of the region.

Envision is known for community development, but also for natural conservation. Are there any specific projects that Envision is tackling now that represent that balance?

One of the projects that we are really excited about and have been starting to put some time into is the redevelopment around the Snelling and University area. There’s the old bus barn site, as it’s called, where the Metropolitan Council is currently using a large chunk of property right on the intersection of Snelling and 94, there, for a staging area for the light rail construction. Right next to that, there is an adjacent piece of property that’s ready to be developed.

As the Green Line construction along University Avenue gets completed, that staging area will become available for redevelopment. We think that represents a really great opportunity to look at how you take the transit connection that will be there with light rail, with the anticipated high speed bike infrastructure improvements, but create a sense of place of destination, and a scale of development that would really become a signature spot right there between the two downtowns. So, we’ve been working with the district council, and the Riverfront Corporation Design Center, to figure out if there’s a way we can do some real community engagement, to help the neighborhood and the community be part of shaping the vision or how that area can be redeveloped.

Here’s a spot where we have successful retail going on, but maybe it can be transformed to create more of an urban node, that really leverages the transit connection, creates opportunities to clean up brownfield space, provide housing opportunities, and then look at some of the infrastructure that really looks at strong water quality management and improving the overall health and walkability in that section of town.

What issue do you think Minnesotans should know about?

I think there are a lot of issues that we think people ought to spend some time thinking about. As an organization, we have really looked at the overall ‘how do you look at creating more dense, urban connected nodes, where people want to live?’ So, there’s a lot of underlying land use planning and thinking that goes into that. But if we start with the idea that there’s a sprawling growth that we’ve been experiencing, it’s going to have an impact on our quality of life because of the number of vehicle miles people have to travel, the amount of natural areas that get consumed by development.

The idea of creating a scale of neighborhood that you can walk in or bike in, I really think there’s more to that sense of place. So try to think about how you re-imagine redevelopment.

All across the states, people are looking at ‘how do we plan better? How do we put our job centers close to where people live? How do we connect with the existing transportation or transit infrastructure?’

We’ve created a conservation design score card, that could allow communities and planners and developers to go through and say ‘if we do these kinds of things, we will build better buildings, we’ll have better developments, but we’ll also protect the natural beauty.

These conservation design score cards, can you explain that a little bit?

It’s like a toolkit, like a checklist, where you’re going through and evaluating a potential development, and you’re looking at the site and you’re looking at ‘what’s the impact?’ Instead of, let’s say, having a site that would tear out a bunch of the woods, and create kind of a large set back on pipe stormwater management, maybe you can think about how do you change the materials, how do you change the pipe location. Maybe you look at, where are the better redevelopment sites so that you can protect the natural areas — function economically, but also protect the natural resources and the beauty.

If someone was considering redeveloping and wanted to get one of these conservation design score cards, they can access that where, on your website?

Yeah, we have that available on our website. We have also a citizen’s guide to land use planning on our website. We try to make a bit of a toolkit for communities or for citizens that want to be engaged in that thoughtful redevelopment strategy.

Coverage of issues and events that affect Central Corridor neighborhoods and communities is funded in part by a grant from Central Corridor Funders Collaborative.