Goodbye Golden Boy

Baby Boomers and Block E. Preservation and parks. Urban history and virtual reality. Outgoing city planning director Paul Farmer on the politics and passions that got him fired.

In that initial Minneapolis Plan, the Neighborhood Revitalization Program is mentioned as a force that can crisscross neighborhood lines and bring the city together. It's clear that the NRP has dedicated both planning time and city money to involving residents in the plan. Will this pay off?

The NRP process is unique to this city. While any number of cities engage in neighborhood planning, I don't know of any place that has committed the money we have and then tied it to planning. This is a unique experiment in putting $400 million out there over the next 20 years. NRP money is just now starting to flow. By state law about half of that money has to go into housing. When I came here and took ward tours, I was surprised by the housing deterioration in the neighborhoods. Knowing the progressive traditions of Minnesota, I didn't expect to find some of these problems. This money flowing into housing is only going to be beneficial.

The Minneapolis Plan workbook includes a concept called "growth centers"--places where the number of jobs is growing, housing is plentiful, open land is available for new development, and mass transit is easy to use. South Minneapolis, specifically the Phillips neighborhood around Honeywell and Abbott Northwestern Hospital, is described as one of these growth centers. How will the Sears building rehab at Lake and Chicago affect this area?

It is rare in an American city that you get the opportunity to repopulate over a million square feet of development that isn't downtown. The Honeywell-Abbott area is one that is already thriving in terms of job creation. We see the rebirth of Sears as really being a part of that, and helping to continue the positive transformation of that area. We see real interest in housing in that area. It's already going on. If that building weren't there, no one would be talking about building anything close to a million square feet.

Houses built around the turn of the century dominate many city neighborhoods. A fair number of these are crying out for rehabilitation. There are those who believe they should be knocked down, that new houses would attract more monied buyers. How important is it to preserve Minneapolis's aging housing stock?

If housing is well built and maintained, it virtually can last forever. Here in Minneapolis we have the problem of some housing built on bad soils that shift so much you can't afford to maintain housing on them. But we don't find in most people's price ranges the interior woodwork being replicated today; we don't even find the hardwood many of our homes are built from available in the forest. It's wise to maintain, and wise to move houses when they're still in solid shape. The Jordan neighborhood [on the near North Side] has housing as a priority in their NRP plan. With a school being built there now, they got out in front and said, "Hey, we want the new school but we don't want all these houses torn down." Out of 29 homes they've identified 19 worth moving. They've got 100-plus vacant lots, so they've certainly got places to put them. Hopefully, other neighborhoods will learn from that. We may see some renewed interest in movement and rehabilitation for houses that a few years ago would have met the demise of the wrecker's ball.

FARMER ON THE

PLANNING DEPARTMENT

Paul Farmer had big shoes to fill when he took the Planning director's job. He also had reason to be uneasy about whether he could actually keep his offices above the political fray. The Planning Department today is but a shadow of its former self: Under director Lawrence Irvin in the mid-1950s, it stood as a national model. While other downtowns watched their tenants flee to the suburbs, the heart of Minneapolis continued to thrive. In the 1960s, a city-charter reform made the Planning Department answerable only to the mayor. The City Council, in turn, began to view the department as an organ of the mayor's office and beyond its control. In the early 1980s, the Council cut Planning's budget by a third, effectively crippling it to carry out all but the most basic of tasks. Though then Mayor Don Fraser switched oversight of the department back to include the Council soon thereafter, of the 100 staff positions in place during the department's heyday, only about 30 remain.

CP:Minneapolis has two divisions overseeing projects that influence the shape of the city--your department and the Minneapolis Community Development Agency. What's the difference between urban planning and development?

FARMER: The development side is actually taking the risk and putting the financing package together and making it happen. Planning is typically much broader. It includes development, but there's a lot of preparatory work that makes it possible for development to be successful. But it's not just development; it's also, for instance, transportation: We do the planning and public works, and metro transit does the implementation. Even public safety--we don't provide it directly, but we have a role working with the police. It's up to us to understand how design influences opportunities for criminal activities. Here, transparency of buildings so you have eyes on the street is very important. Big blank walls create situations where you may feel safe inside the building, but the fact that there isn't natural surveillance on the street means you're probably going to feel less safe outside. So just like we don't plow or pave the streets, we have a dialogue with the people who do.

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