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Ted Mondale is carrying his son's hockey gear out of the Minnetonka Ice Arena, where 11-year-old Louie has just finished a game. It's a Sunday afternoon in April, the first springlike day of the year. But, Mondale laments to a hockey mom, it's going to be "just another day of driving around."
Once the boy's pads and skates are stowed in the trunk of Mondale's silver Oldsmobile Aurora, father and son will head east on I-394 to Golden Valley, where they'll share a quick lunch with some of Louie's teammates and their families at a Fuddruckers. Afterward the Mondales will get back in the car and drive back to Minnetonka. There the heir to one of Minnesota's best-known political names will lead a little-league team through some drills at an indoor batting cage.
Driving around the metro area is what Ted Mondale, 43, is all about these days, albeit with a much broader purpose than shuttling Louie from one practice to the next. He is the head of the Metropolitan Council, the regional government agency that oversees the Twin Cities' sewers, transportation, airports, and parks. He directs a staff of 4,000 and a budget that last year topped $327 million.
And that makes him the man who understands why Burnsville, ten years ago just a bedroom community with a few strip malls, now has a problem with traffic jams. He's the man who understands how Anoka has morphed from a rural hamlet to the de facto downtown of the northern suburbs. He understands that most Twin Citians say they hate sprawl yet believe they have a God-given right to move as far away from urban blight as possible and drive home every night on wide, unfettered freeways. And he knows that by 2020, another 500,000 people are going to try to squeeze onto those already overcrowded commuter routes.
Ted Mondale is the guy who is supposed to have a solution to the problems that come with all of these things.
And it seems a job he was born to do. As the Aurora blazes up I-394, Mondale and Louie have a quick exchange about the hockey game, but within a couple of minutes he has shifted out of Sunday-chauffeur mode. He can't help it. Everything he sees triggers a mini-diatribe on the state of urban planning: The 394 carpool lane starts him ruminating on how drivers and politicians alike are misguided to want to open the lanes up for all vehicles. Those lanes are vital to bus lines, he opines. He sees a Burger King and a Taco Bell here, an Amoco and a SuperAmerica there, along with a smattering of office buildings and car dealerships separated by asphalt and concrete. There's too much "gray space," he rants.
Just past Hopkins Crossroad, over his left shoulder, on the north side of the interstate in Minnetonka, he points out West Ridge, a five-year-old residential development that is the kind of project he thinks should be going up all over the metro area. The neighborhood, which was built with a $770,000 Met Council housing grant and $8.8 million from the city of Minnetonka, boasts low-income and senior housing, a church, a daycare, and a school. "It's been very successful," he beams. "It's close to transit, close to jobs, close to business." (It would be even better, he can't help adding, if a light-rail line had been laid down when the interstate was built ten years ago. "But nobody wanted it out here," he gripes. "It will never happen now.")
Inside Fuddruckers, Mondale peels off the top of his blue Adidas warm-up suit, revealing a Coke stain on the front of a white "Democratic Governors Association 1996" T-shirt. Louie goes off to play video games. Mondale buys a plain cheeseburger but neglects to eat it. He's still talking about the nuts and bolts of how to keep the Twin Cities livable in the face of projected population increases in coming decades. Otherwise, the sprawling suburban portions of the region increasingly will be hampered by gridlock, pollution, and a lack of affordable housing, while an ever-more-impoverished urban core goes to seed.
The solution, he says, is to encourage cities to develop housing in a variety of price ranges within walking distance of shops, services, and public transportation. If Mondale got to design it, the suburb of the future would have affordable apartment buildings and townhomes tucked among $300,000 houses. Residents would be economically and ethnically diverse. Large private lots would be scant, but plenty of greenery and open park space would be scattered throughout the neighborhood, along with small clusters of stores and offices. And, of course, there would be public transportation: Vast parking lots and wide, fast thoroughfares would be replaced by bus stops, park-and-rides, sidewalks, bike paths and light-rail stations. It is, to be sure, a utopian vision.
And it's also one of those ideas that everyone thinks is great--until a low-income apartment building goes in next to their backyard patio, or they're faced with going to work on the bus, or a late-night grocery opens up a couple of doors down. Ted Mondale knows this. He knows that if he gets his way, he stands to alienate lawmakers, suburban mayors, neighborhood activists, and homeowners. In short, pretty much everyone.
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