A half-million Minneapolitans: heaven, or hubris?

Share this:
January 27, 2014
By: David Brauer
David Brauer

In August, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak set a goal: 450,000 residents by 2025. Six weeks later, he raised it to 500,000. When Betsy Hodges was inaugurated in January, she again upped the ante:

“To grow our city, and make it more than great, means above all that we must grow a population where 500,000 people — no, 500,001 and more people — live and thrive in Minneapolis,” the new mayor declared.

How radical is this notion? Since Jimmy Carter’s presidency, the city’s population has oscillated in a narrow band: between 368,383 and 382,578. Between 2000 and 2010, Minneapolis actually shrunk 169 people, despite a Downtown building boom so intense the Journals created a condo development map to keep up with it.

Of course, the economy tanked and we killed the map. But now the map, the economy, and the city’s population are all back — the latter, by nearly 10,000 people between 2010 and 2012, says the Met Council. In two years, the city added 3,000 households — equal to the number added between 1980’s low point and 2010.

As a guy who moved here in 1981, it’s hard not to be swept up in mayoral rhetoric. There’s a whole lot of pride here, and not a small amount of vanity: people moving here ratifies our taste. More importantly, as Hodges and others argue, a denser city means better transit, more customers for local businesses, and more taxpayers to shoulder Minneapolis’s fixed costs.

So why does all this rah-rah make me nervous?

One reason is sheer pace, which is break-neck. Minneapolis would add 108,000 residents in 11 years, double the rate of even the two most recent fast-growth years. And that assumes no recessions.

Yes, Minneapolis had 500,000 people in 1950, but that was when family size was much bigger. Met Council forecaster Todd Graham sees our current household average (2.22 people) as stable. This means the city will need nearly 50,000 new housing units. That means a *third* of Minneapolis’s housing would be new by 2025.

“I find it hard to believe that something like that would happen,” says Ed Goetz, who heads up the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs at the University of Minnesota. “That’s a tremendous growth rate, one that boom cities in the best of times would be glad to have. And not just boom cities in the best of times, but boom cities that are young. The figures [the mayors are using] are completely unreasonable.”

Now, 500,000 may be, as they say in the corporate world, a “stretch goal,” more marketing than policy. When I chatted with Mayor Hodges in late January, she first said she could leave the 2025 target “a little more open-ended,” but concluded (a bit impishly), “shooting for 2025 — at the end of my third term — is fine.”

It is perhaps unwise to doubt a candidate who ran under the banner of “Wonder Woman.” In her actions, Hodges has not been an ideologue; she supported a smaller-but-still-denser “Linden Corner” project. Still, if “500,000” becomes more policy than cheerleading, it would shift power toward land-sellers and developers.

Like the mayor, city planners have high hopes for options that minimize the “height wars” consuming places like Linden Hills and Dinkytown: reducing lot-size minimums and shared lawns like Nye’s neighbor Lourdes Square; detached housing above garages and on alleys (Google “Vancouver laneways”); and development in current dead zones like around the proposed Van White Southwest LRT station.

But the city has fewer fiscal tools to spread development; historic growth goals and tax-base lust increases the temptation to approve towers where the market is boiling. Hitting 500K so fast would cement today’s construction styles/placement as indelibly as Minneapolis’s early 20th-century bungalow boom. Timeless diversification or brick-and-mortar leisure suit?

As the pom-poms wave, less is said about the tax ledger’s other side: expenses. Urbanists predict transit will follow development, but there are no guarantees slower-moving public dollars will follow private ones. In Uptown, where pals complain transit is more crowded and less convenient, mobility’s growth linkage remains more hope than holistic.

Perhaps high demand and unstoppable growth will diversify Minneapolis schools — or lead to an expensive buildout/mothball cycle we’ve seen in past decades. Likewise, the Park Board is grappling with how to pay operating costs for a “gift” Downtown park — evidence that after the splashy unveiling comes decades of upkeep, often competing with existing, underfunded facilities.

These are undoubtedly exciting times; compared to post-war urban flight, growth looks like a very nice problem to have. But city history is replete with errors of development enthusiasm — New Town In Town; Nicollet & Lake closure; The Conservatory and Block E. I’m on Team Urbanism, but I don’t think it’s immune from hubris.

David Brauer is a former Journal editor who lives in Kingfield, where he chaired the neighborhood association and farmers market boards. Find him on Twitter @dbrauer.