Out With the New, In With the Old

In Minneapolis and elsewhere, proponents of the New Urbanist planning movement are promising a new tomorrow -- one that looks a lot like yesterday.

Take parks, for instance, an area in which Minneapolis has built a golden reputation. If the city is suddenly reviving its commitment to them, it's not necessarily for old-fashioned reasons, such as the restorative effects of fresh air and open space upon the citizenry. The Park Board, the MCDA, and the Historical Society have plans for a new riverfront green space, Mill Ruins Park, in an area where the Whitney Hotel and its accompanying offices have stood as a lone beacon of elegance since the late '80s. With its excavated remains of several old mills, the park will anchor a larger development in which mill buildings will be restored for housing and retail; the area to the west, now a moat of parking lots that stretches over to the Milwaukee Road Depot, is also targeted by the city as a prime area for development. The whole site is eventually to be known as the West Side Milling District.

No doubt Mill Ruins Park will be a nice addition to the city. A brochure about the West Side Milling District, however, makes no bones about one of its major attractions being the tony private development it's expected to attract. Looking at renderings of the project at a recent meeting about metro-area development on the riverfront, I asked a representative from the Historical Society (which is excavating the ruins) whether people like me would be able to live in this new district. "There will be a few affordable units, probably," he said--meaning condos in the $90,000-$120,000 range--"but with these kinds of places the city wants to go upscale, to get the tax base."

In fact, this is one of the chief missions of another urban development project known as Hennepin Community Works. In the words of John McLaughlin, a manager at Hennepin County's Department of Training and Employment Assistance, "The idea is to address three things: job creation, tax-base enhancement or stabilization, and natural systems enhancement or restoration. We want to combine as many uses for a public infrastructure as possible."

Combining uses means, for example, that tax-base enhancement and natural systems enhancement can go hand-in-hand. "There are lots of buried streams and wetlands that could be re-used to filter water and build housing around," he notes. Moreover, the first projects funded by HCW are aimed at what are called "distressed" neighborhoods with the purpose of raising property values and, theoretically anyway, bringing in jobs--first in the parks themselves, and then in the businesses and developments the parks are meant to attract.

An HCW report says plans for one of its projects, the transformation of Humboldt Avenue North into a parkway, "will require the acquisition and removal of some exising housing along Humboldt Avenue. Much of this housing is declining in value and represents a potential for urban blight if not restored." But is the "stabilization" and "enhancement" of these downwardly mobile neighborhoods simply a euphemism for the kind of gentrification that drives out the previous residents? "That's a huge concern that can't be ignored," acknowledges McLaughlin.

Unfortunately, affordable housing is not a hot political issue. It's not even lukewarm. "Most voters already have a decent place to live," points out George Latimer, the former St. Paul mayor who now teaches urban studies at Macalester College, "so it's not even among the top five or 10 things that concern them." So while cities and first-ring suburbs are putting out the welcome mat for those middle-income-to-affluent people tiring of the ex-urban lifestyle, the outlook for low-income people, no matter where they live, is decidedly less cheery.

The plan for the Sumner/Glenwood neighborhood sounds great, but the problem, as many have noted, is that it'll only be great for those lucky enough to live there: This kind of mixed-income, "urban village" public housing amounts to fewer units overall, and at a time when the demand for affordable housing has never been greater. "I'm not skeptical of the desire or the need to deconentrate poverty," says Latimer, regarding the redevelopment of that area. "The jobs weren't there, the housing and the environment were very poor, and the opportunities for kids were not there; it's a very isolated area." But when it comes to developing new, low-income and affordable housing, he says that "everyone who's examined it is very doubtful that the level of activity that is now occurring is anywhere near the level that is needed."

Rhetorically at least, the New Urbanism makes much of the mixed-income ideal, of providing "choice" in housing options, and making them "affordable." But in an age when incomes are polarizing at an unprecendented rate, what's affordable--and for whom? One of the missions of the state's Livable Communities Act is to increase the amount of affordable housing throughout the metro area; Latimer recently headed up a task force that examined whether it's living up to that promise. The task force noted in its report, "Promises Deferred," that the prevalent definition of "affordable" means $70,000-$100,000 homes--such as the modest but quite attractive townhouses in West Ridge Market--which remain prohibitively expensive to families making $15,000-$30,000 a year, who are most urgently in need of affordable housing. Worse still, the task force accused some cities of using the Livable Communities Act as a pretext for tearing down existing cheap housing.

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