Eyebrows all around the city went up last month when newly elected Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak appointed Chuck Lutz interim director of the Minneapolis Community Development Agency. A principal theme of Rybak's campaign had been the agency's extravagant spending and misguided priorities. Citing projects such as the Block E redevelopment and the downtown Target store as reasons incumbent Sharon Sayles Belton shouldn't be reelected, the candidate pledged to overhaul the city's development apparatus, including the MCDA and the city's planning and zoning departments.
Lutz is a consummate city-government insider. In the late 1970s he served as administrative assistant to then-Eighth Ward council member Mark Kaplan, then spent six years doing downtown development for the MCDA and another decade working with the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority before returning to the MCDA last year as deputy director. Among the projects he has worked on are an early incarnation of Block E, a revamping of the city's implementation of the federal Section 8 housing program, and the mammoth Heritage Park housing development on the near north side. He was also a supporter of Sayles Belton in the last election. In other words, he does not seem like the ideal person to stimulate the sort of administrative shakeup Rybak had promised.
But many people who know Lutz and have worked with him say he shouldn't be counted on to promote business-as-usual at the agency, even as it undergoes scrutiny from a management consulting firm, McKinsey & Co., which the mayor has brought on board to evaluate the city's development functions. "Don't assume this is about maintaining the status quo," claims former 13th Ward council member and current developer Steve Minn, a frequent MCDA critic. "Chuck knows where the bodies are buried and he knows how to get things done. He's a perfect choice for the position." MPHA deputy executive director Tom Streitz, who was often at odds with the Sayles Belton administration over housing and who worked with Lutz on the Heritage Park development, uses similar language. "Chuck is a really smart guy who knows city hall, knows the agency, knows housing, knows where the bodies are buried. I have a lot of confidence that he's the person to lead the MCDA at this time and get things done."
"I guess I qualify as an insider," says Lutz, reached in the midst of his first week as interim director. His description of his mission does not sound like that of a change agent, however. "I think R.T. wants me to keep the agency on an even keel as we work with the McKinsey group on looking at ways to reform. The structural changes he is talking about may be necessary. We'll have to see what the outcomes of [McKinsey's] study produce. The structure we have now has been in place for 20 years, so it is certainly worth doing the analysis.
"If there are changes, I want to be at the table to see that the right perspectives are kept," Lutz says, adding that he has been promised his deputy-director job back but "won't rule out" becoming the permanent director if Rybak offers him the position.
Rybak, meanwhile, takes pains to emphasize the interim nature of Lutz's appointment. "To those who say Chuck is too much of an insider, I say we need an insider right now, but that should be no indication of what things should be long-term," says the mayor. "As we do this comprehensive review of the MCDA, planning, and zoning, we need to leave ourselves the latitude to make decisions on who leads it after we're done. Chuck is playing a transitional role at a key time. Nobody should read any message out of this except that in a period when we need a creative bridge we have chosen a person with creative ability to get that done."
Rybak adds that he offered Lutz the interim position only after meeting with the agency's former director, Steve Cramer. "I told Steve we needed to have flexibility over who would head the agency long-term, and that it would probably not be him. He chose to leave early under those circumstances, which I totally understand."
Cramer confirms the account: "R.T. made it clear he wasn't going to appoint me, and at that point I didn't see how it would be any good for the agency or me personally to hang around."
If Rybak is uncertain about who will eventually head up a reconfigured development department, he stands firm on the need to change its structure. "Whether or not I had a problem with how it was done before, there needs to be dramatic reform, because both the MCDA and the Neighborhood Revitalization Program are running out of money," he says. "Second, I did have a problem with the way [the city] spent too much money on projects, particularly downtown, that were not responsive to the needs of the broader community. So we are at a unique period of time where the funding challenges require change, a new mayor's hands are not tied by traditional campaign contributions, and the community has been empowered by NRP. It is clearly time for a new alignment. Some people may say we should do it in bits and pieces. I say it is a special moment--let's do it now."