Tedís Excellent Adventure

Ted Mondale thought he could sweet-talk the 'burbs into building their share of affordable housing-- but Eagan told him to get lost.

 

Just off of I-35E and Yankee Doodle Road stands the mother of all strip malls. Eagan Promenade's red brick façade rises a full three stories, extends for nearly a half-mile, and houses an Office Max, an Old Navy, a Barnes & Noble, and just about every other mega-chain-store there is. People drive their cars from stores on one end of the parking lot to those on the other end.

In the west part of the mall, at a Caribou Coffee shop inside a Byerly's supermarket, Eagan Mayor Pat Awada is talking about the city's meteoric growth. Since she was first elected to the city council ten years ago, the city's population has grown from 47,000 to 65,000. Twenty years ago, fewer than 20,000 people lived here. Prior to that, the town was "just an onion farm." Awada expects the city's population to hit a saturation point of 72,000 within five years.

John Vogt

Awada, 35, is the founder of a successful direct-mail company, a veteran of several GOP polling and fundraising efforts, and the mother of four children. This is a good community for families like hers, she says. "Eagan is nearly fully developed," she boasts. "Demand to live in Eagan has gone up in ten years. We've worked hard to give the good suburban life, with low property taxes, good locale, good schools."

Awada leaves the coffee shop, climbs into her white Jeep Cherokee, and drives slowly out of the strip mall and east down Yankee Doodle Road. As she drives, the mayor proudly points out shopping complexes, gas stations, and new subdivisions, as well as gaggles of kids riding their bikes around cul-de-sacs in the fresh April air. A raw acre, one with no sewage or utility lines, goes for as much as $100,000 around here, she explains. The newer homes are fetching $250,000 to $450,000.

She points out a new, city-built, $7.1 million water park and several office buildings: West Publishing, Northwest Airlines, and UPS are just three of seven Forbes 100 companies with Eagan offices. These people, Awada maintains, don't need mass transit. "People who work out here have cars," she says. "It's a corporate city. This is where urban services end."

After a couple of miles, Awada turns off Yankee Doodle Road into what she calls one of Eagan's two "problem areas." The contrast is shocking. Wescott Square is a cluster of homes occupied by families on public assistance. Litter is strewn about in driveways, shoddily clothed kids run barefoot up and down deteriorating streets, and one of the 30-year-old units houses an Eagan Police Department substation. "This is where all of our crime is," Awada says. "It's mostly African Americans fighting with African immigrants. It's everything--drugs, assaults, knife fights. We had to have a police presence here."

A group of kids play basketball on a ramshackle court. "We built them a park," she continues. "It's the only time we've spent city money on a private property. This is what you get when you build high-density housing. Density breeds problems."

Awada says she and her constituents don't want more apartment complexes like Wescott Square. It's not so much that more low-income families wouldn't be welcome, she insists. The issue is one of practicality and philosophy. People move out here for the big houses on large lots and the long stretch of interstate separating them from the urban poor. "It's been treated like the issue is about low-income housing," she says. "For us, it's about density, and not income."

Nor, in her view, do Wescott Square's residents need more public transportation. They "can walk to jobs at the mall or one of the fast-food places," she suggests. "Or we could buy everyone a used car for what it would cost for expanded transit services."

This is the point where Awada begins to froth at the mouth. Ted Mondale, she opines, understands none of this. She's been battling with him and the Met Council about this clash of philosophies for years. Last fall the dispute finally came to a head. State law requires every city in the metro area to periodically turn over blueprints of the city's plans for future parks, transportation, and sewage systems to the regional planning agency in the hope that some level of coordination will be possible. Usually it's merely a formality; rarely does the council reject a community's plan.

Things didn't go that way when Eagan submitted its plan to the Met Council last September. The agency refused to approve the document, arguing that Eagan hadn't set aside enough land to be used for new "high-density" housing, such as moderately priced townhomes and inexpensive apartments. Without an approved plan Eagan might not collect its share of public transportation, road, and sewer money, Awada says Mondale and other Met Council officials told city leaders.

As she navigates her SUV out of Wescott Square, the dispute chafes at Awada. "We have never thought, as a city, that we should be in the housing business," she says, adding that the city's growth should be led by developers, whether or not they are chiefly interested in building and selling the McMansions she's driving past. So Awada dug in her heels and told Mondale no.

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