Goodbye Golden Boy
Urban planning, as a discipline, must breed a kind of fatalism in its disciples--outgoing Minneapolis Planning director Paul Farmer among them. According to the Farmer bible, planners can't expect results in a few weeks. Or months. Or years. All that waiting around for an idea to pan out--to turn into a building, a road, a neighborhood--makes planners an exceedingly patient bunch. There's a sense among Farmer's colleagues, locally and elsewhere, that when all of today's planners are gone and their plans turned to dust, cities will remember their efforts long after cities' residents forget. For a distinguished urban planner like Farmer, that means there's no point in worrying about leaving work for a week, even in the heat of crisis. It's unlikely that the city will change much while you're away. So when Farmer ducked out of the Planning Department office in mid-May to volunteer at a YMCA camp in the Adirondacks--just as his stint as director comes to an embattled close--he didn't give much thought to taking the week off. Minneapolis would be there when he got back, as would the political snarl that led to his dismissal. Though his champions in Minneapolis would have liked to change the fact that Farmer will be out the door on July 5--after watching the City Council's Executive Committee refuse to renew his contract this spring--even that ending hadn't been altered by the time he returned. Farmer, the "visionary" who rode into town three years ago with the assignment of restoring Minneapolis to some of its former glory, has been, simply put, fired. Perhaps it was inevitable, given the historical inability of the Planning Department to keep out of the political crossfire. Perhaps it was fate. Oh well, he says--a certain fatalism apparent in the shrug of his shoulders. "It's out of my hands."
Paul Farmer is not the man one might expect to meet, given his reputation of late. Council member Steve Minn calls Farmer a poor manager who couldn't get things done, and blames him for driving away 11 staff members. From that, one might anticipate finding the Planning office demoralized and more chaotic than it was late last month. One might expect papers piled up and spilling off desks. Overwhelmed underlings scurrying to make sense of the imminent change in leadership. But the department is, as it has been with Farmer at the helm, in order. The crushed velvet chairs in the reception room are shipshape. The coffee table is free of dust. On a typical afternoon a couple of weeks ago, staffers were gathered casually around the front desk, engaged in a lively debate about zoning with a neighborhood resident who'd just stopped in. As Farmer emerged from his office, they watched him protectively, as if looking upon a revered statesman.
Farmer comes across as part Harvard scholar, part old-fashioned Southern gentleman. The cool hand he offers in greeting likens to a physician's touch--professional, except for the playful smile that pulls up the corners of his mouth and makes his Newman-blue eyes sparkle. His hair is curly, salt and pepper, and his soothing baritone voice registers with the richness of polished mahogany. It's a warm spring day as we exit City Hall and head toward one of the Planning director's favorite lunch spots, a deli hidden at the back of the Grain Exchange building. Farmer, who stands well over 6 feet tall, propels himself down the city's sidewalks with an easy stride. Others on the street tend to move out of his path, craning their necks to meet his face as one might gaze up to glimpse the crown of a skyscraper.
When Farmer speaks, he speaks with an expertise that transcends the here and now. The impression is that he possesses a permanent bird's-eye view of the city, as if someone had tattooed an aerial photograph of the urban landscape on his brain. He peers up at the tops of the old milling buildings and, suddenly inspired, proclaims, "You can tell that the grain and flour exchanges were more lucrative than the lumber exchange because of the architecture." His mind holds a seemingly innate grasp of the big picture, gathering in the minutiae of location, design, material, mass, and economics to tell an epic story of the city's history--and its unfolding future. All in one take. Flash.
Yet for all his forward thinking, Farmer is very much rooted in the past. Brought up in Shreveport, Louisiana, he looks every bit the part of a Dixie native in his off-white summer suit. He still watches a woman's step, timing his gestures before holding open a door. As he sits down to lunch, his deep drawl turns to a running commentary on Minneapolis, the city's neighborhoods, his academic past, a recent trip to Boston. He delivers his oration, somewhere between sermon and lecture, complete with introduction, body, and conclusion to every point--sharp essays that convey his appreciation for the complex forces shaping this city. His manner remains mellow no matter how sticky the subject before him--his dismissal, say, or his prospects for the future--broken only by a rare smile when it comes to historical preservation or the cleanup of contaminated urban land, two of his favorite topics.
After the interview, Farmer leads the way down the street, surveying the cityscape once again with a gaze that seems to take in everything at once, like a panoramic lens. Finally he studies the heavy scaffolding snaking up the side of his soon-to-be-former headquarters and asks, with a tinge of irony, "City Hall is never finished, is it?"
FARMER ON FARMER
Paul Farmer's reputation as a visionary planner is what first caused Minneapolis officials to seek out and court him in 1994. Farmer had already served 14 years as deputy planning director in Pittsburgh when he accepted the Minneapolis post. He'd worked as a planning consultant in Canada, India, and Germany. He'd taught urban planning at several universities. In Pittsburgh, Farmer led the charge to redevelop 35 miles of waterfront, install busways and a light-rail transit system, and transform contaminated land into parks, businesses, and residential neighborhoods--all projects that city leaders have long been anxious to see happen in Minneapolis.
CITY PAGES: In addition to teaching at four universities, your credentials include more than three decades as a city planner and planning consultant. What inspired your interest in cities?
PAUL FARMER: Well, I grew up in a city of about 170,000 people in Shreveport, Louisiana. I went to a Jesuit high school where we put on a play every spring, usually Shakespearean. We practiced in one of those old derelict warehouses down on the riverfront. Riding home from practice one night I noticed, in the back of my friend's dad's car, the master plan for metropolitan Shreveport. I was intrigued by it. The kid's dad said, "Oh, somebody gave me that a couple of weeks ago. You can have it." So I took it home. Then during Latin class I was always redesigning the downtown and the riverfront. I thought, "It looks like people actually get paid to do it!" The name on the cover was Arch R. Winter, from Mobile, Alabama. The next time he was in town we talked about this profession called city planning. He told me the very best planning school in the country then was Cornell University. Six years later there I was there getting my master's degree. Since then I've been doing what I set out to do.
You taught planning at the University of Wisconsin from 1971 to 1979, and also at Carnegie-Mellon University, the Georgia Institute of Technology, and the University of Pittsburgh. What did you tell your students about urban planning?
Cities are always changing. We talk a lot about managing change, guiding change. You need to understand the basic forces that are at work so you understand how we got to where we are, and what more change means for the future. One of the exciting things we face is that the basic demographics are changing throughout the country; certainly here in the Twin Cities it's the case. Baby boomers who fled to a lot of suburban growth are now moving into their 50s. Certainly some will be looking for the excitement and the proximity one finds not just in downtowns but in city neighborhoods.
Jim Niland, who alone with the mayor voted to reappoint you, calls you a "visionary." Even those who voted against you, Steve Minn and Joan Campbell among them, admit that you're a man of vision when it comes to planning. How do you react to that?
I'd take that as a compliment. I still remember one Council member's questions when I was interviewing for this job three and a half years ago. They said, "I hope you're not just one of those visionaries who can't get anything done." My response was, "Well, I hope that after working with me you would either call me a pragmatic visionary or a visionary pragmatist. Because in good, solid, effective planning you try to do both."
You've also been described as a "New Urbanist." That sounds like a term planners thought up. What does it mean in plain English?
A lot of folks feel that New Urbanism means the good old neighborhoods we used to take for granted. Minneapolis spent the '60s and into the '80s trying to out-suburb the suburbs, building ever larger lots and inward-looking development not facing the streets. We thought, "Well, if folks are fleeing to the suburbs for those kinds of things, then if we copy them we'll be competitive." But we're never going to copy the suburbs so that we do it as well. When you look around the country at the New Urbanist architects, it's ironic that much of their work is in high-end suburbs. They're trying to say that the long-term success there will be related to how well they, in fact, copy the old neighborhoods of cities--where houses have front porches, and not just meaningless lawns and driveways where the major physical features are three garage doors, and all the activity takes place in back. Also, that there ought to be civic space--places for people to come together that isn't on private property, where you feel welcome and can meet your neighbors.
FARMER ON DOWNTOWN
When Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton announced Farmer's nomination in November 1994, she credited him with helping to resuscitate downtown Pittsburgh after the loss of 200,000 jobs during downsizing by the steel industry. As downtowns go, Minneapolis hasn't done badly. True, the city didn't enjoy the booms that Seattle and Denver did, but it has been spared the busts that inevitably follow. As an industrial center rooted in milling, railroads, and timber, however, Minneapolis has aged--not always gracefully. When Farmer arrived in early 1995, everyone agreed his office should set its sights on a downtown face-lift. The new Mall of America was drawing shoppers away from Nicollet Mall. Block E had been paved into a parking lot--a huge black hole in the Warehouse District's burgeoning nightlife. During his tenure as director, Farmer made good on his promise in the form of the Downtown 2010 plan--a blueprint for development--which the City Council adopted in October 1996.
CP: When you came to Minneapolis, it was clear why the city wanted you working here. Projects you steered in Pittsburgh--light-rail transit, the riverfront, downtown improvement--have had city councils across the country drooling. For your part, you've been quoted as saying Minneapolis had always been on your short list of places to live. Why?
FARMER: One reason is simply the long period of success of public-private partnership in downtown Minneapolis. This is a downtown that didn't just boom in the 1980s when a lot of downtowns were. It boomed in preceding decades, and for a city of our size it's going through an unparalleled boom right now. I believe that has something to do with planning. From a practical level, downtown is now over 40 percent of our tax base. People like to says jobs have been growing in the suburbs, which is true, but the single area of greatest growth has been and continues to be downtown Minneapolis.
Between 1980 and 1997, Minneapolis added nearly 40,000 employees and 12 million square feet of office space to downtown. With the Piper Jaffray building, the Target office tower, and American Express in the works, are we in danger of overbuilding downtown?
I don't think so. All these buildings are utilizing a prime tenant as a mechanism to decide their square footage. I don't think we're anywhere close to the overbuilding that places like Houston and Denver saw when they had a booming economy based only on oil. When oil prices fell, those cities were left with enormous amounts of extra square footage. It took years to get beyond that. Minneapolis has a diversified economy and we have some businesses, like Target, that actually need room to grow.
That brings us to Block E, an area expected to generate interest in city residents and visitors alike. Countless rounds of proposals inform the saga of this block, with your department authoring the specifications for the most recent one. How does Block E fit into Minneapolis?
The city already has a regional entertainment destination called the Warehouse District, and that has been reinforced by decisions such as the one to put Target Center in that location. Just go down there at night and you'll see the kind of draw it has. There are two equally valid approaches that we can take to Block E: We could continue to add by doing Block E alone, or embark on a grand gesture by also doing blocks D and F, which are largely parking lots. We're working on both of those scenarios. What we're trying to do is, first, respect the historic nature of the Warehouse District. It can't be re-created in a Mall of America or a suburban location. Block E is critically important because of the way it ties so much together--Target Center into the Nicollet Mall area through Block E and the City Center. It ties the theater district along Hennepin into the heart of the Warehouse District, which is more north of the Target Center and along First Avenue. Then, you don't try to re-create the look of the warehouse in a building on Block E that looks old. You simply respect your neighbors in terms of scale and massing, and develop something that's of its time. You don't try to create retail there. You try to do something we don't have now, like a downtown multiplex cinema. And developers are proposing a whole series of other kinds of entertainment experiences--virtual reality and the like. Keep in mind that people's entertainment tastes change over time, and the building on Block E is almost guaranteed to outlive the actual uses that are there when it is built.
What about those who have suggested a park for Block E?
A park is a viable option, but because of the history of acquisition of the block, it's become financially difficult. When you look at something like Central Park in New York, there were those who said, "Oh, we can't take that valuable land and do nothing but a park!" But no one can imagine Manhattan today without it. Look around the country: There are downtown city squares where the economic value that occurs on the perimeter of the park certainly justifies the park itself. But I think that rather than a nonbuilding, which is basically what the park is, a building allows the connections to be maintained more easily four seasons of the year, given Minnesota's climate.
Nicollet Mall, to many residents, has always been a place to go shopping. Now with several office towers going up, is the historic nature of the mall changing?
To some extent. It's actually called for in the city's plan--office development on the west side of the mall, instead of the entire downtown being east. In the area of south Nicollet, there was uncertainty brought on by a 1989 lawsuit against the city. Tenants were on month-to-month leases, so they weren't willing to make major improvements, and property owners weren't willing to sign long-term leases. There was kind of a false economy created for the last half-dozen years that may be ending with new construction there. What we've been trying to do is put back retailing on the mall. The Piper Jaffray tower will have some retailing flanking the lobby. In the Target project, the entire frontage along the 900 block will be retailing. There's a conscious attempt to really put back much of the liveliness that retail shopping and restaurant experiences bring to our street life.
FARMER ON NEIGHBORHOODS
Ron McKinley, president and 12-year veteran of the city's Planning Commission, is one of the many worried that neighborhood residents will lose an ally in the Planning office when Farmer leaves. "We needed someone with a vision for citizen participation in the planning process," he said recently. "Paul gave us that." Perhaps most surprised by Farmer's dismissal are residents who teamed up with him in inner-city neighborhoods. They describe a man utterly dedicated to making their neighborhoods more "livable"--restoring historic homes, cutting traffic, adding public space on corners and empty lots, reducing crime through better lighting, advocating for schools and mass-transit routes. What it comes down to, McKinley says, is that Farmer relied on citizens in the planning process. If that meant Council members' pet projects in their wards got trumped, so be it. "Everybody in the city knows the stories," he says of certain Council members' demands on the Planning Department, "but no one will stand up and say that this is why Paul is getting fired."
CP: You've been credited with spearheading Pittsburgh's Mon Wharf project to reclaim the city's riverfront for pedestrians and recreation. How important is public space in a city, and where should it be located?
FARMER: It distinguishes cities from other areas. In Minneapolis we have this incredibly special model of the lakes, the parkways, and the river. With that on our doorstep, I'm amazed that most of our lakes have been privatized and too many of our wetlands filled--that the regional model we chose over the last 40 years was the freeway, and the water and sewer infrastructure that went with it. We should have learned from the chain of lakes and the creek, and developed an amenity-rich environmental system. I'm astounded that folks took the Los Angeles route instead. When we go around the neighborhoods, we find they are all trying to figure out how to tie into a regional, open-space system.
How's that? Could we connect every neighborhood through planning around lakes and parks?
First of all, once upon a time every neighborhood was connected by what's called a "grid." Another tenet of the New Urbanism is that cities work because the grid works. It moves people around the city. It's easy to understand. It's legible. People can travel without fear of getting lost. Originally, the grid served the needs of streetcars and wagons, not motorized traffic. But as that has changed, we've been faced with the issue of traffic. Commercial areas like traffic, residential areas don't. We've ended up with a number of streets on the Minneapolis grid that carry increasing traffic, but continue to be residential in nature. That creates problems for property values.
From an urban-design standpoint, what's interesting is that as cities developed--like ours, or Denver, Milwaukee, or Chicago--you see that when the grid was interrupted it was because something very special was happening. There was a lake there, or a creek, or a diagonal movement system like Hiawatha Avenue. In terms of problems in the Minneapolis grid, there are places where we've disrupted it with things like the freeway system, where we had an option of putting most of the grid back and didn't. When you start cutting off the grid like that, you create a system of winners and losers. It's very clear which streets are the losers: If you have to walk 12 blocks out of your way to cross a freeway, when there used to be a connection from your house to the house a block away, rarely are you going to make that trip. So the connections are lost. People who live on those streets end up without incentives to invest and keep the area strong. People are also going to seek out the winning locations and avoid the losers. Whereas the grid, when it's allowed to remain or is restored, is very forgiving.
Neighborhood leaders have said you provided a vision for citizen participation in planning that was sorely missing in this city. How important is citizen participation in planning?
In one sense, you can never have enough citizen participation. In another, it's very time-consuming to do right. You can't let it bog things down. People need to know that you're treating everyone fairly, and development ought to take into account public interests. At the same time, developers make money developing, not meeting. If you can't provide a process that takes things through in a expeditious fashion, then you're going to hinder investment. You're going to send it elsewhere. And that's not good for anybody.
One of your top priorities has been to put together a formal, comprehensive blueprint for development in the city--called the Minneapolis Plan. When it was first published last year, your office subtitled this plan a "Workbook for Citizen Comment."
That was the way we issued it for the first time last summer. We were trying to convey that it's not set in stone. We wanted people to take that workbook and scribble all over it, to treat it almost like an artist's sketch book. At public meetings, we put some big maps up and said, "Go to work and tell us what we ought to change and what ideas you have." The Minneapolis Plan covers every square inch of the city. It ought to be at a somewhat general level in terms of a direction. It ought to have a story line. It ought to be readable. We've gotten a lot of compliments about the fact that it's a plan people can understand.
In that initial Minneapolis Plan, the Neighborhood Revitalization Program is mentioned as a force that can crisscross neighborhood lines and bring the city together. It's clear that the NRP has dedicated both planning time and city money to involving residents in the plan. Will this pay off?
The NRP process is unique to this city. While any number of cities engage in neighborhood planning, I don't know of any place that has committed the money we have and then tied it to planning. This is a unique experiment in putting $400 million out there over the next 20 years. NRP money is just now starting to flow. By state law about half of that money has to go into housing. When I came here and took ward tours, I was surprised by the housing deterioration in the neighborhoods. Knowing the progressive traditions of Minnesota, I didn't expect to find some of these problems. This money flowing into housing is only going to be beneficial.
The Minneapolis Plan workbook includes a concept called "growth centers"--places where the number of jobs is growing, housing is plentiful, open land is available for new development, and mass transit is easy to use. South Minneapolis, specifically the Phillips neighborhood around Honeywell and Abbott Northwestern Hospital, is described as one of these growth centers. How will the Sears building rehab at Lake and Chicago affect this area?
It is rare in an American city that you get the opportunity to repopulate over a million square feet of development that isn't downtown. The Honeywell-Abbott area is one that is already thriving in terms of job creation. We see the rebirth of Sears as really being a part of that, and helping to continue the positive transformation of that area. We see real interest in housing in that area. It's already going on. If that building weren't there, no one would be talking about building anything close to a million square feet.
Houses built around the turn of the century dominate many city neighborhoods. A fair number of these are crying out for rehabilitation. There are those who believe they should be knocked down, that new houses would attract more monied buyers. How important is it to preserve Minneapolis's aging housing stock?
If housing is well built and maintained, it virtually can last forever. Here in Minneapolis we have the problem of some housing built on bad soils that shift so much you can't afford to maintain housing on them. But we don't find in most people's price ranges the interior woodwork being replicated today; we don't even find the hardwood many of our homes are built from available in the forest. It's wise to maintain, and wise to move houses when they're still in solid shape. The Jordan neighborhood [on the near North Side] has housing as a priority in their NRP plan. With a school being built there now, they got out in front and said, "Hey, we want the new school but we don't want all these houses torn down." Out of 29 homes they've identified 19 worth moving. They've got 100-plus vacant lots, so they've certainly got places to put them. Hopefully, other neighborhoods will learn from that. We may see some renewed interest in movement and rehabilitation for houses that a few years ago would have met the demise of the wrecker's ball.
FARMER ON THE
Paul Farmer had big shoes to fill when he took the Planning director's job. He also had reason to be uneasy about whether he could actually keep his offices above the political fray. The Planning Department today is but a shadow of its former self: Under director Lawrence Irvin in the mid-1950s, it stood as a national model. While other downtowns watched their tenants flee to the suburbs, the heart of Minneapolis continued to thrive. In the 1960s, a city-charter reform made the Planning Department answerable only to the mayor. The City Council, in turn, began to view the department as an organ of the mayor's office and beyond its control. In the early 1980s, the Council cut Planning's budget by a third, effectively crippling it to carry out all but the most basic of tasks. Though then Mayor Don Fraser switched oversight of the department back to include the Council soon thereafter, of the 100 staff positions in place during the department's heyday, only about 30 remain.
CP: Minneapolis has two divisions overseeing projects that influence the shape of the city--your department and the Minneapolis Community Development Agency. What's the difference between urban planning and development?
FARMER: The development side is actually taking the risk and putting the financing package together and making it happen. Planning is typically much broader. It includes development, but there's a lot of preparatory work that makes it possible for development to be successful. But it's not just development; it's also, for instance, transportation: We do the planning and public works, and metro transit does the implementation. Even public safety--we don't provide it directly, but we have a role working with the police. It's up to us to understand how design influences opportunities for criminal activities. Here, transparency of buildings so you have eyes on the street is very important. Big blank walls create situations where you may feel safe inside the building, but the fact that there isn't natural surveillance on the street means you're probably going to feel less safe outside. So just like we don't plow or pave the streets, we have a dialogue with the people who do.
When you came in, the city had a comprehensive plan from the 1970s and a zoning code from the 1960s. What did that tell you about Minneapolis planning?
That they had been busy doing other things. I was asked to jump-start both the zoning effort, which was pretty much stalled out, and the planning effort, which was totally dead in the water. This will be the third zoning ordinance in the city's history. Doing these things is a huge investment of time and effort, a burden for a small staff without much budget to speak of. I don't know of another city that has in recent years at least tried to do both at once. We're trying to make sure they're related one to another, as they should be.
At least on the part of 10th Ward City Council member Lisa McDonald, there was some disappointment that the comprehensive plan your office submitted didn't contain concrete strategic planning. Was there a reason behind it being so broad?
Absolutely. We want this to be continually refreshed. We see it as part of the city's annual planning, priority-setting, budgeting process, to make sure that it never gets totally out of date again. When I came here we had a legally adopted plan for the city but nobody knew what was in it. Not the planning people. Not the neighborhoods. Not department heads or elected officials. It had kind of just dropped out of sight.
At your first meeting with your staff in January 1995 you said planning departments tend to be overworked or irrelevant. Was that true in Minneapolis?
When I was brought here I was told to rebuild a planning department. I remember telling the mayor and the Council's Executive Committee that I don't believe one should expect to be first in everything. You can't possibly be the first to dream up every new idea for a city. But I said shame on us if we're not a close second.
FARMER ON GETTING FIRED
Politics was the last thing Paul Farmer had a mind to tangle with when he arrived in Minneapolis. The City Council wanted a director who could come up with solid planning advice, not involve himself in politics--at least that's what Farmer understood to be his marching orders. It's by now no secret that Farmer will be exiting his office on July 5. That much has been public since February, when the Council's Executive Committee voted 3-2 against renewing his contract. That decision was politically controversial indeed, coming as it did under a disputed 1989 charter amendment giving the Executive Committee power to fire department heads. Two camps have sprung up in the wake of Farmer's firing: those who believe he did his job and did it well and those who don't. His supporters, including the mayor, claim he's a victim of petty City Hall infighting. That he ruffled too many political feathers with his innovative ideas and no-nonsense energy. That in his push to make his office influential again, Farmer crossed swords once too often with those who held his employment fate in their hands. The other side, led by Lisa McDonald and Steve Minn, figures that for all of Farmer's promise, the golden boy never made good. They point to the city's lack of a finalized comprehensive plan and zoning code--among the director's top priorities when he took the job. They cite what they say is Farmer's inability to stay afloat in a political system where the Planning director is accountable to more than a dozen individuals. They offer the fact that 11 of 30 or so Planning staffers left during his tenure as evidence of his managerial ineptitude. "I just don't think it was a good fit," Minn said last week. When it came to nuts-and-bolts leadership and getting things done, Farmer just didn't make the grade. It's been three years, he complains, and the City Council is still waiting for Farmer's big ideas to turn into real plans on paper.
But wait, cautions Perry Thorvig, a 29-year veteran of the Planning Department. "At least seven of the staffers who left left because they got better jobs for better pay, advanced within City Hall, moved out of state, or didn't want to keep the hours that Planning staffers are required to keep. I have no doubt that a few left because of Farmer, but it was a decided minority." Thorvig also takes issue with the Council's demand for quick-turnaround plans from Farmer. The last time that happened, he says, was in 1978, and the plan took four years with 10 people working on it full-time--a far cry from the skeleton staff Farmer inherited.
CP: It seems your department has been understaffed during your time here, with certain key positions left unfilled or closed. It's been reported that you asked for a deputy planning director from the Council a number of times. Steve Minn denies this.
FARMER: I didn't ask for one. When I came here I was given a staffing chart and a commitment that I had one. At the time I was brought onboard, the budget was being passed without that position.
How important is that position?
It's vital to anyone who serves as planning director. You need a second in command.
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.
CP: What needs to be done now to make sure Minneapolis stays a "livable" city?
FARMER: We've had a metropolitan region in almost unparalleled sustained prosperity for the last 25 years. We've almost always outperformed the national average on major indicators like unemployment rates, real income growth, and job growth. We feel recessions, but not to the extent that the national average has. And we recover better. We do in the next 25 years have an opportunity to bring a lot of people back into the city who are going to be looking not for the four bedrooms, the three-car garage, the huge basement for the kids, out in some third-ring suburb. They're going to be looking for something that provides access to a theater or to a river or to the excitement of Uptown or Central Avenue. So there has been a lot of migration to the Twin Cities for all levels of employment--high income, middle, low. With older, smaller, less-modern housing concentrated in Minneapolis, St. Paul, and increasingly the first-ring suburbs, these areas have inevitably gotten more of the low-income population. I don't think it's good for the region in the long term.
If you could imagine the skyline of Minneapolis 10 years from now, how would it look?
I would imagine the sidewalks of Minneapolis as opposed to the skyline. What we do at the street level is far more important than what we do at the skyline. Skylines are very forgiving. Streets aren't. We need to get it right in terms of how our buildings meet our streets and our parks and our open spaces. We need to encourage livelihood of space. If we continue to be successful with that, then I think we can have a great city.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.