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.

How important is that position?

It's vital to anyone who serves as planning director. You need a second in command.

Mark Wojahn

With your strong support among neighborhood groups, it is difficult for some to understand why the City Council didn't reappoint you. How do you understand the decision?

I don't. I think I've done the work I was brought in to do. One of the things I was told by the City Council was that they did the political side quite well themselves, thank you. They wanted solid professional advice. I think we've done that. I was asked to rebuild the Planning Department, and to make progress on a whole series of major items, like the comprehensive plan for the city and the zoning code, planning for the airport, transit, and housing policy. We made progress in all those areas.

You were awarded a raise each of the three years you served as Planning director. Still, some Council members have characterized you as a poor manager in charge of a $2.8 million department. What's your response?

Severe doubt. I think I inherited a poorly managed department. And I think we have done a superb job of management inside the department.

Has three years at the helm of the Planning Department, which was often under fire, changed your feelings about Minneapolis?

I certainly learned to love Minneapolis and develop an attachment to the city and its people. There are things that Minneapolitans can be justifiably proud of in terms of the legacy of past generations, among them the wisdom of providing lakes and creeks and river frontages that are truly public to an extent I don't think one claims in any other U.S. city.

Where will you be going next?

Not sure yet.

FARMER ON OTHER FRONTS

Farmer's hands-on experience in Pittsburgh could have helped Minneapolis with two undertakings the city is just beginning to grapple with, namely contaminated industrial land and mass transit. Farmer speaks energetically, almost zealously, on the subject of Herr's Island in Pittsburgh, a former industrial site--or "brownfield"--that his department succeeded in cleaning up. Minneapolis's history as an industrial powerhouse left many acres of urban real estate choked in chemical waste--"hot" spots, in environmental lingo. Transit, too, is hot these days around City Hall. As the metro sprawls farther, so do jobs--out of the urban core and into second- and third-ring suburbs. How will employees who live in the center city get to them? How will city businesses accommodate employees who live in new and farther-flung suburbs? Farmer's answer, the environmentally and economically smart one, is better mass transit.

CP: You've long been known for your work in cleaning up and redeveloping brownfields. You helped transform an industrial site called Herr's Island into space where homes, parks, and businesses could thrive. Does Minneapolis have a Herr's Island?

FARMER: We don't have an island sitting there waiting. But we are finding that as quickly as we can clean up the brownfields, there's economic demand for them. The Milwaukee Depot downtown is a good example of this. What folks need to understand is that most of the ground fills are here because of standard operating procedures back when business was conducted in that way. It was a train dropping pollutants along the way, an industrial process where scientifically the harm wasn't known. Much of the wealth that was created in Minnesota was by activities that had as a by-product what we now call brownfields--just like much of the wealth of the state was created by agriculture or extraction industries in the Iron Range. So when we look at brownfields, it shouldn't be seen as just a city problem, but as a by-product of state creation. We're now getting unproductive lands into very productive uses in locations where it doesn't create urban sprawl, doesn't create loss of farmland, and doesn't mean filling wetlands.

During the last legislative session we saw the state climb aboard the light-rail bandwagon. Your experience with light-rail and busways in Pittsburgh must give you a unique take on the Hiawatha Transit Project.

There has finally been a commitment made to providing new, and long overdue, transit. Transit is an incredibly efficient way of moving people. When you look around Minnesota, you see a lot of people driving vehicles and consuming gasoline. You won't find many oil wells pumping, so every time we fill our tank, we've exported dollars. Every time that happens, we have to do something at home to bring dollars back to Minnesota. The state needs to understand that you can build your economy and invest in jobs, but you can also substitute for imports. By dealing with efficient transit, we save ourselves from exporting dollars. There's a balance-of-trade issue, and for that reason it makes transit very important to our state economy.

FARMER ON THE FUTURE

Farmer's imminent departure has prompted more than a few people to wonder what legacy Farmer will leave behind. As much as his champions would like those who showed him the door to reconsider their decision, even the mayor--until last month one of Farmer's staunchest supporters--seems to have given up hope. Amy Phenix, a spokesperson for Sayles Belton's office, says the search committee for a new Planning director might well be named next week. Depending on who ends up in the director's chair, say Farmer's supporters, Minneapolis residents may soon realize just how ahead of the curve he was. Although Farmer admits he's not sure where he'll land next--and refuses to divulge if and where he is currently interviewing--residents in neighborhood planning might soon be offering invitations to him, perhaps as a consultant. "We're so impressed with his work, we're considering using our own NRP money to hire him," one Central neighborhood activist said last week. With all the murky reasoning behind his dismissal at City Hall, one thing remains clear: The residents of Minneapolis want Farmer applying his vision to this city, not someone else's.

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