Urban Studies

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May 29, 2006 // UPDATED 2:07 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

Nicollet Island resident and urban geographer Judith Martin shares insights on city development trends

From her home on Nicollet Island, Judith Martin has witnessed the revitalization of Downtown’s riverfront.

She has lived on the island for 24 years — a transformative period for the city’s stretch of the Mississippi.

In that time, the “island has become a park rather than an industrial backwater,” the city has “grown a real skyline” and new neighborhoods have sprung up Downtown, she observed.

As president of the Minneapolis Planning Commission, Martin has a front-row seat for many of the key debates over the future of development in the city. Martin has served on the Planning Commission for 15 years — the last eight of them as president. Her time on the commission is nearing an end, however. Mayor R.T. Rybak has decided not to reappoint her to another term and said he wants an opportunity for “new voices” on the commission.

While serving on the commission, Martin has had a unique opportunity to delve into urban development issues she also analyzes as an academic. She is a geography professor and chair of the University of Minnesota’s Urban Studies Program. She moved to Minneapolis in the early 1970s from Chicago to attend graduate school.

The Planning Commission, a 10-member citizen’s advisory committee, is charged with long-term planning and works with the City Council on development and zoning issues.

“Being engaged in the public stuff is important for me because it kind of keeps me thinking about the ways in which the world is changing and the students are changing at the same time,” she said during an interview at her office on the university’s West Bank. “Minneapolis and St. Paul, and this region, has become a much more vibrant and interesting region than it was when I first came here for graduate school. You see here really in a microcosm a lot of what are the major issues that are happening in the New Yorks and Chicagos of the world.”

While serving on the Planning Commission has been satisfying for Martin, it’s no easy assignment. The commissioners often preside over heated public hearings wherein business and neighborhood leaders spar over development proposals, and the meetings often run very long — even by Minneapolis standards.

The commission meets every other Monday at 4:30 p.m. The hearings often last several hours.

When Martin started on the commission in the early 1990s, typical agendas had 20 to 30 items. Now having to address 60 to 80 items is routine.

While she often displays a terse style when presiding over the meetings, she manages to move things along in an efficient manner.

David Frank, chair of the North Loop Neighborhood Association and a project manager for residential developer Schafer Richardson, said she’s an effective leader. “She makes sure that stuff gets done. She guides the conversation well,” he said.

Condo projects, among other redevelopment proposals, have clogged the agendas. Even though the housing market has cooled, developers continue to parade projects before the commission for approval.

While the housing boom has reenergized the area, there are consequences the city needs to consider, she said. Maxfield Research Inc., a Minneapolis-based real estate research company, has been commissioned by city officials to review the city’s industrial land use policies and has met with neighborhood leaders to go over the findings.

According to a draft of the study, the city has seen a significant decline in industrial activity as many areas have given way to new housing development. All told, the city lost 930 acres of industrial land between 1990 and 2004.

“We can’t be a city where people just live,” Martin said. “You don’t want to send out a message that you are a city that doesn’t present opportunities for people with new ideas to grow a company here. I think that’s a huge, huge thing for the city to kind of get a hold of.”

Another significant challenge for the city is finding a way to prevent a serious gridlock in Uptown in face of new development, she said.

“An ongoing issue for the next year or maybe even longer than that is the whole question of traffic in Uptown,” she said. “That’s a big, big challenge.”

As for Downtown, Martin said she’d like to see community leaders find a way to make the urban core more people friendly. There are signs of progress on that front. The new riverfront park slated for a parking lot next to the Guthrie Theater will be a welcome addition to the city, and there’s talk of turning Washington Avenue into a pedestrian-friendly, tree-lined boulevard.

Martin also would like to see people a more “elevated” discussion about building heights — a source of intense debate in neighborhoods throughout the city, particularly Downtown and Uptown.

“The lack of understanding in the sort of broader Twin Cities community about the benefits of density is a thing I’d like to see changed at some point. I think it’s beginning to happen,” she said. “It’s a really hard sell here still.”

Former Planning Commissioner Randall Bradley, an architect based in the North Loop, is equally perplexed by the aversion to tall buildings and lauded Martin for her work on the commission.

“The thing that I am impressed by is she has a lot of understanding of urban places from all over the world. She tries to bring that perspective to Minneapolis as often as she can, and Minneapolis doesn’t appreciate it as much as they could,” he said. “She is a champion of urbanism, which means density. Density means eyes on the street.”

Martin fell in love with cities at an early age. “I think it was genetic,” she said. “I had a father and a grandfather who liked to drive around the city and look at stuff, and I tagged along a lot.”

Now she’s often the one taking people on tours of the city.

“It seems to me that people who live in cities are the most tolerant people in the world. They have to be — they have no choice,” she said, referring to the close encounters urban people have with one another everyday. “The ability of people in cities to negotiate what are pretty complicated interactions and relationships on a minute-by-minute basis I find very impressive.”

Sarah McKenzie can be reached at smckenzie@mnpubs.com and 612-436-4371.