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.

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.

 

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.

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.

 

Back in 1990, before a run for governor made his first name as well known as his last, Ted Mondale was elected to represent St. Louis Park in the state Senate. He quickly garnered a reputation for being a savvy dealmaker. He also developed something of a fetish for the kinds of nerdy, technical development issues few people understood.

In 1995, toward the end of his second term, Mondale and former Rep. Dee Long co-authored the Livable Communities Act, a law aimed at getting Twin Cities suburbs to help resolve Minneapolis's and St. Paul's affordable-housing crisis. The law established a voluntary Metropolitan Council program offering incentives to cities and suburbs to construct low-income housing. In addition to helping to subsidize the cost of building affordable homes and apartments, the Met Council would give participating communities funds for other projects, such as a new community center or park.

It wasn't the kind of headline-grabbing victory that puts a politician's name on people's lips, but the program got off to a roaring start. At the end of its first year, nearly 100 of the 186 eligible communities had signed up.

In 1998 Mondale ran for governor and lost to Jesse Ventura. Ventura hated the Met Council, which he viewed as an ineffective, invisible waste of tax dollars. Created in 1967 to handle federal transportation money, it was initially praised as a national model of how to administer regional park, sewer, and transportation systems. But 25 years down the road, critics complained that it had become stagnant. By 1993, with a budget of $16 million and 185 employees, the council was too small to wield any influence in the rapidly growing Twin Cities metro area. By most accounts, it was a place where many philosophies and plans were tossed around, but there was precious little action. Ventura had heard Mondale's stump speech during the governor's race, and he thought if anyone could make the agency into something worthwhile, it was Ted Mondale.

For most folks with political aspirations, being appointed chair of the Met Council would be a one-way ticket to obscurity; to most people, the only recognizable thing the agency does is manage Metro Transit, the area's largest bus system. But Mondale enthusiastically took the reins in January 1999. "We're going to quit acting like a nonprofit and start acting like a business," he was frequently heard to say.

The new chairman set to work making Livable Communities a reality. Most of the action during the program's first couple of years had been in Minneapolis and St. Paul. The council had spent more than a half-million dollars to help convert the old Milwaukee Depot in downtown Minneapolis into an ice rink and restaurant, and funneled $1.6 million to the Hiawatha-Lake area for a light-rail station and an adjacent "mixed-use center" boasting shops, affordable housing, and a park-and-ride.

But in the suburbs, despite the initial flurry of interest, progress had been nearly undetectable. Housing advocates charged that the law wasn't strict enough, because many communities signed on for funding for uses that had nothing to do with housing the poor, such as pollution cleanup. Meanwhile, suburban governments complained that some of the parameters for the grants--such as having to locate a certain number of housing units near transit lines--shouldn't apply to their communities.

 

Eagan was one of the cities that quickly got on the bandwagon, and then just as quickly got off. In 1996 the Eagan City Council voted 3-2 to sign up. (Awada, not yet mayor, cast one of the opposing votes.) The following year, the council reversed itself. Awada and her fellow naysayers had become more resolute that the Met Council had nothing to offer the city. "I think we've gotten one $10,000 grant from the Met Council in ten years," she says. "We've decided that whatever we need, we can get it ourselves."

By way of example, she points to Sibley Memorial Highway. Awada had hoped the road would be revamped with Met Council money. But after she was elected mayor in 1998, the agency declared that the city would have to rejoin Livable Communities if it wanted the Met Council to consider building a light-rail transit stop along the road. Awada declined, and instead found federal money to underwrite the reconstruction. The city and the council continued to argue.

In June of 1999, according to published accounts, Mondale told Dakota County Board members that unless Eagan rejoined Livable Communities, the city could forget about being included in future light-rail plans and about collecting any of the federal transportation money handled by the council. Further, Eagan had wanted to expand a park-and-ride on Yankee Doodle Road, but Mondale threatened to withhold the Met Council's portion of the funding for that, too.

Awada countered that Eagan was being "bullied" into participating in Livable Communities, and that a park-and-ride was part of the regional infrastructure that by law the Met Council was obliged to help provide.

The dispute made headlines. As a result, Awada says, Mondale called her and asked if they could try to smooth it out in private. The two arranged a breakfast meeting at the Lincoln Del in Bloomington and invited about ten people, including Eagan city administrator Tom Hedges, members of the Dakota County Board, and Met Council staffers. A truce was declared, with Mondale agreeing to help fund the park-and-ride, but insisting that Eagan would not get light-rail money without rejoining the housing program.

The ceasefire was short-lived. In September 2000 Eagan submitted its "comprehensive plan" to the council. (The plans, prepared once a decade, are enormous, covering everything from mind-numbing minutiae about sewers, roads, and zoning to growth plans for coming years.) The agency's staff was unhappy with Eagan's plan. The city has some affordable housing, they noted, but had not planned for the construction of more.

Mondale was taken aback. He says he thought leaders in Eagan, Burnsville, Apple Valley, and Dakota County had all acknowledged the need for more affordable housing. Nearby Apple Valley and Burnsville had both agreed to double the number of apartment and townhouse complexes in their plans. By the Met Council's reasoning, Eagan should have planned to build 160 affordable homes and 133 inexpensive rental units by 2010. The agency charged that the city had set aside just seven of 3,500 acres of available land on which to accomplish this. (The plan, Mondale quips now, is "organized sprawl.")

Meanwhile, Awada caught wind that the Met Council was preparing to reject the plan. At her direction, Eagan officials investigated the agency's legal powers and concluded that Mondale had no authority to force the city to build any particular type or quantity of housing. They concluded that the Met Council must provide for basic transit and sewage costs whether Eagan participates in Livable Communities or not. If the agency withheld the funding, Awada threatened in a letter to the council, Eagan would sue. The council rejected the plan anyway.

In November the Eagan City Council met to discuss the issue. A number of residents attended the meeting to complain that they were being priced out of the community. "People who work here won't be able to live here," cautioned one; another said she was "ashamed."

Barb Baker commutes from Minneapolis to her job at St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Eagan, where she says she can't afford to live. She gathered signatures on a petition. "There are community members who worked here in the service industry or at entry-level positions," she says. "We are not against all the upscale housing; we are just looking for balance. Eagan has the resources...to be a leader on developing mixed housing. If other folks around us can do it, so can we."

But the city council voted to stand firm, and on December 13, 2000, the Met Council caved in and approved Eagan's version of the plan. As it turned out, Awada was right. Minnesota law gives the Met Council authority to require communities to make their growth plans compatible with regional transportation and wastewater systems. The agency can't, however, force any community to build any particular kind of housing.

In hindsight, Mondale admits that Awada is on solid legal ground. And he's frustrated by that fact. "Housing technically is not part of the regional system, and it would be illegal to reject a comprehensive plan based on that," he concedes. "But these housing requests are not draconian; they are very limited and basic.

"This is not heavy lifting," he adds. "The mayor has simply chosen to veer completely out of the mainstream on this."

 

Though Walter Mondale's role in local, national, and international politics is legendary, his son's history is more scattershot. Ted Mondale was born in Minneapolis in 1957 but grew up mostly in Washington, D.C. At the age of 16, he began racing motocross bikes, winning a sponsorship and working as a "parts guy" in a bike shop.

"Ted was the most impressive downwardly mobile kid I'd ever seen," recalls Walter Mondale. "He liked motorbikes, and that was it. But I tried to stay off [his] back." The only time Walter used his leverage for Ted's benefit was in 1975 after the boy graduated from high school. The elder Mondale got his son a job clearing snow away from rescue stations in Vail, Colorado. "I knew a guy on the mountain crew, and I made him promise me not to do anything for Ted but give him the job," he says, laughing. "Something about shoveling snow on a cold mountain at 5:00 in the morning made him realize you had to work for a living and pay rent and develop skills. After that, he became very serious."

A year later, when Walter Mondale ran for vice president, Ted was given a job with the campaign. Instead of plotting strategy, however, he was in charge of handling campaign workers' luggage. "Which means you are the last one to sleep and the first one up," he recalls. "A lot of times, you'd get into town at 1:00 in the morning, then you'd have to get everyone's bags in their rooms and be the first one to be ready at 5:30."

Ted also worked for his father and Jimmy Carter's unsuccessful bid for reelection in 1980. By the time Walter Mondale ran for president in 1984, Ted's role as a campaign aide had expanded. "I did that campaign mostly as a surrogate speaker," he says. In 1988 he served as the Midwest director of Michael Dukakis's doomed presidential campaign.

"For eight to ten years, I was consumed with elections," he says. "Then I fell in love, got married, and started a family." In between campaigns, he had attended first American University and then the University of Minnesota, where he earned a bachelor's degree in 1985. He went on to William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul in 1988, graduating the day after his wedding.

In 1990 Mondale ran for state senator in District 44 and won by a slim margin, representing Hopkins and St. Louis Park as a DFLer. (At the time it was the most expensive state Senate contest ever.) He won reelection handily in 1992 but chose not to run again in 1996. Instead, he ran for governor in 1998. The news media had a field day with what was quickly dubbed the "my three sons" race; Mike Freeman and Hubert H. "Skip" Humphrey III, sons of famous politicos Orville and Hubert, respectively, were also running for the DFL endorsement. Mondale came in fifth. The poor showing stung. Mondale quit politics and went into e-commerce.

In addition to the Met Council chairmanship--in theory a $50,000-a-year part-time job--Mondale is the president of the Eden Prairie-based RedtagBiz.com, an Internet firm that buys consumer goods from manufacturers and sells them to retailers. He, his wife Pam, and their three children, Amanda, Berit, and Louie, live in what he calls "an economically and ethnically diverse" neighborhood in St. Louis Park.

Mondale concedes that sometimes he can't distance himself from his father's reputation. "Most sons and daughters of politicians do not seek out public lives," he insists. "But our family was fortunate in that there was never a hint of scandal [surrounding] anything my parents did, and that leaves a better taste in your mouth."

Mondale has his father's angular nose, heavy-lidded eyes, and a thick, short crop of strawberry blond hair. And though he is tall and stocky, from time to time he still resembles someone stuck in the middle of adolescence. He spends most of his free time taking his kids to soccer, hockey, or baseball practices. And when the topic turns to public policy, he will grow excited and stammer a staggering litany of theories, laws, and statistics. It's hard not to be impressed by his quick intellect, but his charisma can be fleeting.

He's a sucker for details, and has his father's almost corny, romantic vision of public service as a calling. For Ted Mondale, Livable Communities is a crusade. "What we are talking about here is not a revolution," says Mondale. "What we are talking about is balance. We're talking about looking at what the needs are actually going to be, and bringing the services that will keep things moving forward. We are bringing up things that weren't talked about before, such as affordable housing, and now is the time to do that.

"My goal is simple," he continues. "We shouldn't throw away our communities."

 

After word of her standoff with Mondale got around, Awada claims, she fielded encouraging calls from several metro-area mayors congratulating her for "uncovering the truth." It's a sure sign, she says, that the cracks are beginning to show in Mondale's vision. "He's just not listening to us out here," she says. "I don't want to say there's going to be an uprising, but, in the suburbs, people are going to get angry with this new urbanism.

"You can't change people's lifestyles," she continues. "You can try to force us to walk or bus, but I have four kids and two jobs. Nobody goes straight home from work. That's just not how the world works anymore."

Ed Goetz, an urban-planning professor at the University of Minnesota's Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, disagrees. Awada may have trumped Mondale in legal terms--indeed, Goetz describes Livable Communities as "toothless"--but in terms of public policy she is out of step with other mayors in the region, he says. "There's a trend now toward suburbs having high-density housing," he notes. "The goals set out by the Met Council won't necessarily lead to an increase. But at least now it has got us talking about affordable housing."

Last month the Met Council announced that four municipalities--Blaine, Golden Valley, Maple Grove, and Edina--had agreed to allow the agency to create 75 units of public housing within their borders. Although the units are not the result of Livable Communities, the announcement was particularly noteworthy for two reasons. In the early Nineties, Maple Grove developed a reputation as hostile to low-income housing. The city was sued twice by developers who charged that citizen fears of increased crime were allowed to torpedo their affordable projects (both suits were settled). Two federal investigations also examined the city's housing policies.

Just as significant is the participation of Edina, which was motivated to agree to build low-income housing by its business leaders. The city's largest employer, Fairview Southdale Hospital, had complained that it was having a hard time recruiting and keeping workers because there was nowhere nearby where they could afford to live.

"Reality is changing the way businesses are looking at things," says Mondale. "They need entry-level workers living nearby, and for the first time the business community is thinking about housing. I mean, if we can get Edina, then maybe we've hit the tipping point."

Mike Christenson, head of the Allina Foundation, has worked closely with the Met Council to bring private investment into Minneapolis's Phillips neighborhood. He believes that Mondale--a man who dabbled in elected politics and found himself more comfortable in the less glamorous world of a wonky urban planner--just might be the right guy to make such a tough sales pitch.

"If he alienates people, it looks to me like he doesn't care all that much," Christenson says. "He is appointed rather than elected, and he doesn't feel a need to answer to constituents. He knows that this is about dirty work."

Plus, Christenson adds, Mondale may be helped in his quest by the fact that attitudes toward unchecked growth are changing. "Five years ago, we were headed toward a consciousness of nothing but gated communities," he says. "Now people see that kind of sprawl as bad. There are daily reminders on highways 169 and 62."

Perhaps most telling is the fact that Ted Mondale truly believes he can talk people who moved to the suburbs to get away from the city into making their new homes more like their old ones. Awada may not have bought the notion, he concedes, but he's positive that swelling cities can't manage explosive growth all by themselves. After all, he says, Richfield used to think it could go it alone. Edina used to think it could go it alone. Those cities regret it, and soon enough Eagan will too.

"The voice of Pat Awada is the voice of ten years ago," he says. "She says, 'We're not gonna do any affordable housing,' and we say, 'Fine, whatever.' She can do whatever she wants. It's a vote of ignorance." If he's persistent, he believes, the tide will turn in his favor.

Back at the recreation center in Minnetonka, Mondale is getting Louie's baseball team ready to take some swings in the batting cage. "You okay?" he asks a kid who runs in about ten minutes late. "All right, grab your helmet and get in the cage." The kid takes a few swings and misses, but Mondale is right there, coaching him. "Hey, you're stepping out of the batter's box," he points out. "You can't make contact if you're stepping out. Don't step out of the batter's box until you swing and get your hit."

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