Taking stock of the Rybak years

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December 4, 2013 // UPDATED 11:29 am - December 16, 2013
By: Journal staff
Journal staff
A look at how Minneapolis has evolved during the mayor’s 12-year tenure

By Dylan Thomas, Sarah McKenzie, Michelle Bruch & Ben Johnson

Mayor R.T. Rybak arrived at City Hall in early 2002 with a mission focused on restoring the city’s financial health.

When asked by the Southwest Journal how he was faring in his first few weeks on the job, he said: “I’m having as much fun as you can legally when you have to cut $20 million from the budget.”

The new mayor was also faced with trying to convince state lawmakers and then-Gov. Jesse Ventura to avoid making steep cuts to the city’s Local Government Aid. Budget challenges have been something Rybak has had to wrestle with throughout his tenure. Financial problems left behind by previous city government leaders, massive pension burdens and the economic crisis of 2007 and 2008 made budget work particularly challenging for Rybak and other city leaders.

With just a few weeks remaining in his final term, Rybak is focused on working with the City Council to pass a budget for 2014. Out of all the budgets he’s overseen, Rybak has said this one is the most focused on making investments in the city’s future. It also includes a 1 percent tax decrease — the first cut to the city’s property tax levy in 20 years.

The Council is scheduled to vote on the budget Dec. 11.

As part of the stadium financing package — the most controversial deal Rybak has championed while mayor — Target Center is no longer on the city’s property tax rolls, which means about $5 million has been freed up for basic services like the police and fire departments.

He’s also spent a lot of time in recent weeks advocating for projects with big price tags, including a Nicollet Mall redesign, a proposed streetcar line and the redevelopment plan for Downtown East that calls for a new park, housing and office towers. Whether those ideas become a reality will be up to Mayor-elect Betsy Hodges and the new City Council.

Here’s a snapshot of how the city has fared during the Rybak years across a number of different categories.

>> City budget

The city’s property tax levy has increased every year Rybak has crafted a budget with the exception of 2012 and 2014. The 2012 budget kept the levy the same as 2011, and the proposed 2014 levy includes a 1 percent property tax cut.

During his 12 years in office, the mayor has often pointed to unpredictable and severe cuts to Local Government Aid (LGA) from the state for forcing city officials to increase property taxes. From 2003 to 2013, LGA to Minneapolis was cut by more than $459 million, Rybak said in his August budget address.

Despite the financial challenges, Rybak will leave behind a smaller city budget than the one he inherited in 2002, according to city officials.

Adjusting for inflation, the 2013 budget is 16 percent smaller than the one in 2002. The 2013 budget is approximately $1.2 billion.

The city also has fewer employees today than it did when Rybak took office, according to information provided by the city’s communications department. In 2012, the city employed 3,379 regular full-time employees compared to 3,826 in 2002.

City leaders have also paid off $350 million in debt during Rybak’s tenure and reformed the closed pensions, which saved taxpayers millions. “Ten years ago, we faced a ticking fiscal time bomb in the form of taxpayers’ exploding pension funds,” Rybak said during his Aug. 15 budget speech. “In the case of two of those closed funds, the deck was severely stacked against taxpayers and in favor of middlemen.”

In 2011, the city’s closed pensions were merged with the state’s Public Employees Retirement Association.

>> Education

The Minneapolis mayor may have no real control over what happens in Minneapolis Public Schools, but that didn’t stop R.T. Rybak from attempting, during most of his years in office, from speaking with every ninth-grade student in the district.

Rybak visited classrooms each fall with a message about the Minneapolis Promise, a city initiative that pledged to help dedicated students overcome the barriers to higher education. He would talk about STEP-UP Achieve, a summer jobs program that is one aspect of the Promise, and the thousands of youth placed in paid internships.

“He made a lot of emotional connections with young people,” said Pam Costain, the former School Board member and CEO of AchieveMpls, the nonprofit that runs STEP-UP. “I think young people think of him as their mayor.”

It was a role Rybak grew into.

Costain said he entered office “fairly disconnected from education” and absorbed by other priorities. His co-founding of STEP-UP in 2004 marked a shift to the mayor he would become in his second and third terms: a fundraising force and an ally of superintendents.

African American Leadership Forum director Chris Stewart, who served on the School Board with Costain, said Rybak’s ability to garner financial support for programs like the AchieveMpls-run College and Career Centers in Minneapolis high schools belied the common understand that mayors have no role in schools.

“He’s a very charismatic individual with a huge Rolodex who was able to pull things together all the time that improved education in Minneapolis,” Stewart said.

When Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson unveiled her Shift initiative in a May speech at Minneapolis Central Library, Rybak was in the room. He publicly backed reforms aimed at raising academic achievement in low-performing schools and narrowing the district’s stubborn achievement gap.

Those gaps have persisted through Rybak’s three terms in office, and in some cases they are wider than they were 12 years ago. Children of color and children from low-income families still lag behind their peers on reading and math assessments and in graduation rates.

Rybak’s next job puts him on the frontlines in the battle against the achievement gap. As executive director of the public-private collaborative Generation Next, he’ll attempt to marshal community resources behind proven gap-closing strategies.

For those who’ve watched Rybak evolve on education, it’s an exciting time.

“What’s different about this role is it’s more nuts-and-bolts,” Stewart said. “It is not just a supporting role.”

>> Environment

Early in his first term in office, Rybak called for the city to set environmental sustainability goals. The key to success, Rybak said, was to make progress toward those goals measurable.

By the start of his second term, in 2006, those “sustainability indicators” were included in the first Minneapolis Sustainability Annual Report. Today, those indicators have grown to 26 measures of not just environmental sustainability, but also public health and the vitality of the city and its economy.

Rybak was criticized when his campaign to promote city tap water — pitched as an environmentally responsible alternative to bottled drinking water — produced four “artistic” water fountains, each with a jaw-dropping price tag approaching $50,000. That misstep aside, he leaves after 12 years in office widely seen as having steered the city toward a greener future.

Rybak’s Homegrown Minneapolis initiative is an example of how City Hall projects capitalized on shifts in culture, like the growing awareness of how consuming locally grown foods can benefit both public health and the environment. During Rybak’s third term, the City Council adopted an urban agriculture plan that eased restrictions on commercial growing in the city.

JoAnne Berkenkamp, who formerly worked on local foods issues with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and is president of Tomorrow’s Table, a consulting firm, said Rybak “broke a lot of ground” on local food issues. But Berkenkamp said much of the credit goes to Minneapolis’ First Lady.

“Honestly, I think his wife Megan (O’Hara) would read him Michael Pollan at home and that helped catalyze his interest and helped him see the much broader picture into which local food issues fit,” she said.

In September, the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition presented Rybak with its second-ever Bike Champion Award. Ethan Fawley, executive director of the local advocacy group, said the outgoing mayor “deserves a lot of credit” for Minneapolis’ evolution into one of America’s top bicycling cities.

“We were above average [in 2001] when the mayor started, but now we’re well above average,” Fawley said.

Census estimates bear that out. The number of people who commute by bicycle in Minneapolis, a common way to measure the prevalence of biking, more than doubled during Rybak’s tenure, to more than 9,000 from less than 4,000, Fowley said.

The Rybak years saw a major expansion of the city’s on-street bicycle infrastructure as well as the opening of major off-street trails like the Cedar Lake Trail; the city hired staff dedicated to bicycle and pedestrian issues; and the Nice Ride public bike-sharing system launched.

There’s no doubt the mayor happened to be in office during a time when the city’s culture embraced biking, but Fawley argued Rybak was also a force behind the shift.

“When he talks about it, it raises awareness,” he said. “When people see him doing it, they think it’s possible and more people try it.”

>> Employment

Throughout the recession, Minneapolis enjoyed one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation.

Now the Minneapolis-St. Paul area ranks No. 1 in the country for its low unemployment rate — a tie with Oklahoma City. (Oklahoma City might seem like an odd city to share No. 1, but USA Today reports that the city enjoys lots of stable government jobs, two large oil and gas companies, and a shuttered auto plant converted into a military aerospace repair facility.)

Minneapolis’ current unemployment rate stands at 4.5 percent. That’s after losing more than 10,000 jobs during the recession, recovering all of them, and adding about 5,000 more, according to the state Department of Employment and Economic Development.

Local government and business leaders attribute the recovery to Minneapolis’ diverse economy, the metro-area concentration of Fortune 500 companies, and strong banking institutions.

“Minneapolis has a complex economic ecosystem, and one of its greatest strengths is that it is diverse,” Rybak said in his 2011 State of the City speech. “No single downturn in a single industry can sink us, and this simple fact has kept unemployment lower in our city and metro region than it is in comparable cities and regions across the country.”

>> Public safety

During Rybak’s tenure, Part I crime — a measure of crimes like homicide, robbery and burglary  — has both risen and fallen, landing in 2012 nearly 14 percent lower than the time he took office in late 2001.

Rybak’s office touted that in 2011 and 2012, violent crime in Minneapolis had reached the lowest levels since 1983, with property crime at the lowest levels since the early 1960s.

The peak for violent offenses during Rybak’s term came in 2006, driven by significant increases in robberies and aggravated assaults. (The spike was still significantly lower than highs in the 1990s.)

In response, the city hired more than 100 police officers to return the force to 2002 levels — officers had been laid off during budget cuts in prior years. The city also added security cameras, created a juvenile crime unit, placed more community prosecutors in precincts, and cracked down on repeat offenders and problem properties.

Motor vehicle theft has decreased substantially since 2001, dropping from 4,000-plus incidents in 2001 to under 2,000 in 2012, according to federal Uniform Crime Reporting stats. News reports have partially attributed the drop to anti-theft improvements in cars.

Most property crimes also fell during Rybak’s term, with the exception of burglary, which increased 17 percent.

>> Urban landscape

The completion of numerous major construction projects helped reshape the urban landscape of Minneapolis during Rybak’s tenure.

The Carlyle, Minnesota’s tallest residential building with 41 floors rising 468 feet into the air near the Mississippi River in Downtown, serves as monument to the condo boom.

Now luxury rental apartments are driving residential construction as Minneapolis continues to recover from recession. Upscale apartment complexes are being rapidly constructed in downtown, Uptown and near the University of Minnesota.

During Rybak’s tenure several of Minneapolis’ bridges over the Mississippi were rebuilt. Most notably, the 35W bridge was completely reconstructed by Mn/DOT in a little more than a year after its tragic collapse in 2007. The Lowry Avenue bridge, a Hennepin County project, was rebuilt to include dramatic white arches and LED lighting, and the Plymouth Avenue bridge recently reopened with a bike-friendly design.

Bikes lanes were added to many of the main arteries traveling to and from Downtown, and the completion of the Midtown Greenway also greatly increased the ease of biking in the city during Rybak’s term.

The new Guthrie Theater and the new Central Library both opened in 2006, and a year before that the Walker Arts Center expanded its indoor and outdoor facilities at its location in Loring Park.

The massive former Sears building was transformed into the Midtown Exchange in 2005. The building, which features more than 1 million square feet of space, is now headquarters for Allina Hospital & Clinics and home to the Midtown Global Market, apartments and lofts.

A few of the largest projects approved in city history were designed for Minnesota sports teams and championed by Rybak. The Twins moved into the $545 million, 39,000-seat Target Field in 2010 after a 0.15 percent Hennepin County sales tax increase was approved by the state Legislature in 2006. The ballpark has been lauded as one of the best in the country and has contributed to the North Loop neighborhood’s resurgence over the last decade.

More controversially, Rybak was a strong supporter for the new Vikings stadium. Minneapolis will be contributing $150 million toward its nearly $1 billion price tag.  Next to the stadium, a deal to redevelop five blocks owned by the Star Tribune into apartments, corporate offices, street-level retail, a park and a parking ramp stands to be one of Minneapolis’ largest developments in recent years. At press time it was uncertain whether the deal, spearheaded by Ryan Construction, would be approved before Rybak leaves office. However, the success of that development — along with the Vikings stadium — in revitalizing Downtown East and its surrounding neighborhoods stands to significantly impact Rybak’s overall legacy.

>> Development

Development trends during Mayor Rybak’s tenure waxed and waned with an unstable economy.

“We went through the post-9/11 recession, the Great Recession, a building real estate boom and now we’re entering another real estate boom,” said Jeremy Hanson Willis, who has served as Rybak’s communications director, chief of staff and director of Community Planning and Economic Development (CPED).

Or as local developer Kit Richardson put it: “It was great, then everything fell apart and it was awful, now it’s getting to be pretty good again.”

The total valuation of building permits issued in the city steadily declined from $944.7 million in 2004 to a low of $547.6 million in 2010. In 2012 they bounced back to reach $1.118 billion, the highest level yet during Rybak’s tenure, and that number is on track to be even larger in 2013.

Hanson Willis said four major initiatives helped define Rybak’s role in Minneapolis development: Putting an emphasis on transit-oriented development, encouraging public-private partnerships in new developments, forming the Affordable Housing Trust in 2002 and consolidating several departments to create CPED in August 2003.

“The creation of CPED was huge,” said Scott Takenoff of Hillcrest Development. “The combination of having one agency to go through every step of the way and…how much information is now readily available online has made a big, big difference.”

The Affordable Housing Trust provides gap financing for private affordable housing projects. It has leveraged $77 million in public funds to draw approximately $800 million in private investment since its inception, Hanson Willis said.

“Public-private partnerships need to be looked at for any project Downtown now, because it has simply gotten too expensive for a private company to build down there while providing the types of amenities people desire,” said Richardson, who also is advocating for public-private partnerships to build more parks in the city.

Rybak’s emphasis on improving mass transit and advocacy of Minneapolis’ growing bike culture has also shaped many of Minneapolis’ latest developments.

“In the mayor’s time we’ve seen a dramatic increase in bike amenities and bike culture and bike facilities all over the city,” Hanson Willis said.

Takenoff noted that in his new commercial developments facilities for bike storage and repair have become very important, along with other communal amenities like showers and workout rooms.

“It’s all about attracting and retaining young talent, and in my view companies are emphasizing shared amenities … more than large offices,” he said.

That dovetails with Rybak’s push to add to Minneapolis’ population through greater density and improving public transit. 

The mayor spent more than half of his tenure calling for streetcars. Now plans are moving ahead for a line on Nicollet, and the City Council recently approved funding to study streetcars on West Broadway.

Rybak’s fondness for public investment in large-scale projects like the streetcar line, Vikings stadium and Downtown East development project contrast with his platform when he first ran for mayor in 2001. At that time he railed against public subsidies for Block E and Target’s downtown corporate headquarters.

“It’s fascinating to me that he originally ran on a platform of cleaning up lake water, anti-airport noise and anti-subsidy,” Takenoff said. “What’s he’s doing now is radically different, but I think he’s done a terrific job of evolving with the city.”

**

End of the Rybak Era at City Hall

As Rybak approaches his final weeks as mayor, we’ve been reflecting on his work with this special series, “The End of the Rybak Era.” We also want to hear from you — our valued readers. 

What do you think Rybak’s legacy will be? What do you think his greatest accomplishments have been, and what important issues remain to be resolved by his successor?

Also, what are your hopes for Mayor-elect Betsy Hodges? Email your thoughts to smckenzie@mnpubs.com. (Please include your name and neighborhood with your email.)

Previous stories in the series

The city's economy on Rybak's watch 

Rybak's next job focused on tackling the achievement gap 

Rybak reflects on priorities for final months in office