Great City Forum
Reweaving the Urban Fabric: Creating Great Spaces for a Great City
Prepared Remarks by Mayor R.T. Rybak
Tuesday, February 28, 2006
Yesterday morning a boy named Lucas was born at Abbot Northwestern Hospital. It’s almost impossible to know what Minneapolis will look like when Lucas is 50. But we can certainly say this: the Minneapolis that Lucas is about to enter is far better able to grow into a great city than the Minneapolis I entered when my parents walked out of the old Swedish Hospital with me a half century ago.
Back then, Minneapolis and cities across America were moving in what we know today to be the wrong direction. Suburban sprawl was sucking the life out of corner stores and once-vibrant streets. Jobs moved further from our homes. Streetcar lines were ripped up. Freeways plowed through huge swaths of the city, segregating our neighborhoods and schools by destroying the parts of town where different cultures actually worked and lived together. The fabric that wove together walkable urban villages, where shops and jobs were close to our homes, had begun to unravel.
As I grew older our sprawling, car-oriented culture did even more damage to our cities and for most of my lifetime the neighborhoods of Minneapolis (and cities across America) were fighting an uphill battle against a popular culture that put little worth on the values that make cities great.
But the world that Lucas enters today is a far different place. Cities are now the place to be. With suburban congestion increasing and gas prices soaring, people want to live closer to jobs and transit. The Hiawatha LRT line is surging past anyone’s expectations. As any visit to Eat Street will tell you, Minnesotans are willing to drive past miles of cookie-cutter chain stores to find one-of-a-kind restaurants and shops that celebrate our diverse cultures. Developers may try to create "new urbanism" on the side of a suburban freeway but why buy an imitation when can get the real thing?
For the first time in my life, the popular culture of America values urban living and no other city in America is as ready to step up to that challenge more than Minneapolis. Americans are moving back to cities and Americans are moving to Minneapolis. From 1990 to 2000 our city grew by 14,000 people and is expected to grow by as much as 50,000 in the next 15 years.
In spite of half a century of suburban sprawl, Minneapolis has stayed strong. In fact Downtown is now one of the first cities in the country to have recaptured all the population it lost after World War II. Neighborhood shopping streets like Lake Street and Central Avenue, and small corner commercial districts in all parts of town have come to life.
More than $3 billion of business construction is underway and we are one of the country’s top centers of the creative economy. A regional transit system is beginning to emerge with the Hiawatha line, the Central Corridor and Northstar Corridor all converging in the heart of Minneapolis. We have the greatest urban environment in America, the Grand Rounds is the greatest urban park system in America, and we are in the midst of the greatest buildup of arts institutions of any city in America.
Our city is growing, and that is a very good thing. But I believe that we are not just here to build the City but to weave it together, to restore the fabric that differentiates a great city from just another housing development, office park, or shopping center.
The New Minneapolis will not be about just housing, jobs, or transportation in isolation, it will be an integrated collection of urban villages with quality jobs and stores within walking distance of our homes. Transit will support our commercial corridors and the economy grows because we are stewards of the greatest natural environment of any city in America. To reweave the urban fabric we have to get beyond the silos that often isolate our work. It is about how transit, community development, public art, beautiful architecture, environmental design, green space, a tangible connection to commerce and services, even universal high-speed Internet access—and more—all work together to create great, sustainable spaces.
Fortunately, we are not starting from scratch. We have in place a Comprehensive Plan with strong policies and values. We are building a ten-year transportation action plan. We have dozens of boards and commissions engaging citizens at many levels of government. We have small area plans addressing local needs. Through all of this work, three core values should guide us as we build the New Minneapolis:
- Our streets aren’t just ways to destinations; they are destinations in themselves
- Urban villages thrive on diversity
- Minneapolis should embrace growth, and guide it to create the city we want
1: Our streets aren’t just ways to destinations; they are destinations in themselves
Last year I visited Millennium Park in Chicago, which may rightfully go down as one of the great urban places created in the past decade. But as I walked away, I didn’t think: let’s create one of those in Minneapolis. In a city with the Walker Sculpture Garden, a park within six blocks of every resident, a booming riverfront and many remarkable neighborhoods, our first challenge is not to create one more great place. Instead of spending the next few years creating our own version of Millennium Park, let’s take that energy to reweave the connections between our great spaces. Our challenge is to link great places together and make those links between destinations—destinations in themselves.
Imagine the Sculpture Garden and Loring Park, already linked with Siah Armajani’s great bridge, tied more closely to downtown via a better Loring Greenway being built next year, which in turn connects to the Nicollet Mall with a renovated Peavey Plaza and Xcel Plaza, leading to the new Central Library and Planetarium, and the Hennepin bridgehead.
Now think about Washington Avenue: have you ever told a visitor to walk down Washington Avenue? But imagine this street transformed into Washington Boulevard, a grand promenade connecting the University of Minnesota, Guthrie Theater, Center for Book Arts, Mill City Museum, Brenda Langton’s new farmer’s market, MacPhail Center for the Arts, the Central Library and Planetarium, the new condos in the North Loop, the Cedar Lake Bike Trail, and a new Twins ballpark. This link between the Riverfront and Downtown will be an unparallel concentration of culture. It will be a brain-way connecting students and professors to researchers at Valspar, to the Central Library to the emerging tech firms in the North Loop and on to Geek Squad’s World Headquarters. It can be a grand promenade where residents of all those condos opening in the North Loop finally become a true community because neighbors meet on their walk to the Twins game or the new Whole Foods on Hennepin.
The remarkable concentration of new attractions along Washington Avenue make this an opportunity we have to seize, and in the grandest way possible. And the lessons we learn here by turning a street into a destination can be used in streets all across our city.
Take 10th and 11th avenues through the heart of Midtown. Today they are average residential streets. But with a new focus and vision—and a few more trees —they could become great gathering places that build community. On a spring afternoon a doctor from Children’s Hospital could bike to Powderhorn Park and then down the Greenway, or kids from Andersen and Powderhorn schools can meet after classes and walk to the Global Market for ice cream.
This value of connecting great places together is especially needed to reconnect north Minneapolis with the rest of the city. The north side was separated from downtown by freeways. Well-heeled neighborhoods were severed from neighborhoods in need of healing. Residents were separated from jobs and opportunity, and the area declined. Today we are reversing that trend with Heritage Park and its Van White Boulevard which will rebuild that connection through what is now the impound lot to the Walker. The exciting Basset Creek Valley master plan will take this a step further, as will West Broadway Alive. These connections will make all of us better.
To grow our neighborhood commercial corridors—Broadway, Lake, Nicollet, Central, Washington, Hennepin—into destinations, transit must play a key role. Corridors that grew and thrived as centers of transportation can have new life as places where transit and people interact.
That is why we are focused on transit corridors throughout the city with our 10-Year Transportation Action Plan. And it’s why we are launching a Streetcar Study to find the right corridor to demonstrate the transformative power of a real upgrade in local transit service.
Why a Streetcar? Because this is about neighbors using local transit as an integral lifestyle—riding a few blocks to get a haircut, to the grocery store, the library, park or restaurant—with the certainty that comes with fixed rail. The certainty that allows transit to aggressively build its own ridership; the certainty that attracts developers to build on a vibrant street that is far more than a thoroughfare. Streetcars will make our major corridors a destination, not just a connection.
2: Urban villages thrive on diversity
I believe one of the reasons cities are becoming popular again is that they are among the last places in America where you can actually be surprised. Where in this country anymore can you find a place, or store, or district that isn’t predictable? How many chain stores, how many housing developments, how many strip malls do you have to pass before you begin to ask: haven’t I been here before? Cities aren’t immune; too many are trying to compete with suburbs by imitating them.
Let’s say clearly and without question: Minneapolis does not want to be a franchise. Minneapolis does not want to be "McCity." We want to be a collection of urban villages, each with its own character, growing out of the best of who we are…all of us. Eat Street, Lake Street, Central Avenue and streets all across Minneapolis are coming alive because diverse people are creating varied businesses that can’t be imitated. To continue to have these one-of-a-kind-businesses bloom, we have to go even further to make it easy for immigrants and entrepreneurs to do business in the city.
It also means every citizen of Minneapolis has a stake in fighting the cynical, wrong-headed political attacks being made on immigrants and gay and lesbian communities. Fighting for rights for everyone is the right thing to do; it’s also about building the kind of city we want. Ask yourself: what would our Minneapolis streets and urban villages be like without immigrants and gay and lesbian communities? We are better off when all of us come together and this is a fight for all of us.
And we should hold ourselves accountable to shop our values. If you just talk about neighborhood hardware stores and spend all your money at Home Depot, you’re not going to have a neighborhood hardware store. If you want unique restaurants in north Minneapolis, make it a point to eat this month at Coconut Grove, El Amin’s Fish Shop, and Papa’s Pizza.
A collection of urban villages by nature has diverse needs. At the same time, we have some city codes that by nature are applied universally across the whole city. Within the city we need to find ways to add flexibility to our code to allow different textures in different parts of town. Here’s a quirky example: our current city code rightfully protects us from becoming a city of fast-food drive-thrus, but those provisions also make it very difficult for Porky’s Drive-In, a landmark for years in this city, to open on Central Avenue in Northeast. I know why the code says what it says, but surely that corner on Central, for years the site of a vacant gas station, would be better off if we found a way to allow a unique local institution like Porky’s.
The best way to create cities that can’t be imitated is to weave them around the natural environment and in this area we are truly blessed. We have the nation’s greatest urban environment and thanks to Theodore Wirth and so many others, the nation’s greatest park system. We owe future generations to continue to expand the system but also connect it to the rest of town. Parkways should no longer be seen as exceptions, but examples with lessons that can be applied to every street in town.
This is being done, and magnificently, with the Midtown Greenway as it links the center of town with the Chain of Lakes and the Mississippi via the spectacular proposed bridge that will cross Hiawatha. Let’s keep going, with the a bikeway along 40th St. S., which one day will include a grand bridge crossing 35W; let’s weave northeast to the river via an 18th St. bikeway; let’s use the new bike trails being built in north Minneapolis on Plymouth, and 26th and Lowry to connect neighborhoods like McKinley and Jordan to the river and Victory Memorial Drive. Let’s make sure that green values are an essential aspect of all our urban villages.
3: Grow the city, and use growth to build the kind of city we want
As we build connections as destinations, as we find more alternatives to moving around from place to place in a car, we will find that we can comfortably open our arms to more growth. Remember that the Minneapolis of streetcar days, the city where there were actually ways to get around without a car, housed 500,000 people.
Think about it: at our peak Minneapolis housed 115,000 more people than it does today! That alone should convince us we have more room for more people. Not only can we grow, we need to grow. This region will have one million more people in the next 15 years and if Minneapolis wants to continue to be at the center of the region, we have to take our share.
We can grow, we need to grow, and we should also want to grow. Remember what made the streetcar city of Minneapolis so appealing—that city of half a million people right after the war had vibrant shopping streets, corner stores, and jobs near homes in part because there was enough density to support a truly urban, walkable lifestyle. The energy that makes street life so appealing is almost always the result of having a critical mass of diverse people, enough people to support great shops and restaurants and jobs and services in one place.
Growth to a city is like wind to a sailor: if you can direct it, the wind can take you to great places. So, one of our great challenges in the next few years should be to aggressively articulate where we want this city to grow. Our city plans say clearly that we want to grow along transit corridors and our Corridor Housing Plan is helping neighborhoods visualize how they want that to happen. We have created existing plans that show how developers and communities can come together to add more growth along Hiawatha, in the Basset Creek Valley, along South Lyndale, on the current site of the Upper River Terminal and other parts of the river. A decade from now new growth can make each of those areas as exciting as the booming Mills District is today. Making this happen takes work, which is exactly why we added three new city planners to engage citizens in areas like Downtown and Uptown.
Growth to a city is, indeed, like wind to a sailor, but sailors also know if you can’t harness the wind, it can tip you over. Like a boat on the seas, we need to keep our balance, and keeping balance is part of the role of mayor, and I will continue to hold the line to maintain that balance in Uptown.
Uptown is not downtown, and a surge of development threatens the fragile fabric that allows us to move from parks to dense commercial districts to single family homes in only a few blocks. I will continue to raise questions about the volume of development in Uptown, in part to protect that fabric, but also to push development pressure further east down the Greenway toward Lyn-Lake and Nicollet Avenue. I will support the project proposed by Arne Gregory at Lyndale and the Greenway because it will help pull the energy we now see in Uptown further down the Greenway. And if we continue pulling the market to the east, we may finally create the market demand needed to take that step we all know needs to happen: Reopen Nicollet. That’s worth fighting for.
Let’s restate those values:
- Our streets aren’t just ways to destinations; they are destinations in themselves
- Urban villages thrive on diversity
- Minneapolis should embrace growth and use it to create the city we want
Together these values can help us build the New Minneapolis, but the values themselves are not new. They are the values that were core to the City’s growth during the first half of the century, and they are values you can find in the city’s Comprehensive Plan today. It’s time to bring these values to life, to take them off the shelf and into action.
We also need to have all parts of the city government working together, and working with the same values. I realized coming into office that just as we need to reweave the city, we also need to reweave the city government. That’s why we merged the planning and economic development arms of the city into the new Department of Planning and Economic Development. It’s why we need to now integrate that effort with our work on transportation and public works.
It’s also why we need more than ever to have a strong, visionary Planning Commission and why I hope many of you apply for the opening on the commission that now exists. The Commission—with representatives from the city, parks, libraries, schools and community—already works overtime appraising the regulatory issues of how new developments in the city conform to existing city code. They are mostly citizens giving great amounts of their time and they deserve our applause.
Now that we have thanked them, I have to say we need them to do even more work. We need the commission to periodically stand back from and help pose for the community the larger questions: how do we encourage pedestrian-oriented streets? How wide should our streets be? What is the role of public art? When should we be reconnecting to an historical part of the city and when should we be moving ahead? Should there be limits on height?
And as we reweave city government, we also need to reweave our connections to the thousands of people in this city who care about building great spaces. Look at this room! We need every one of you, and the hundreds of others like you throughout Minneapolis, to create an ethic in this city that inspires and demands great design in every corner of town.
Toward this end, I am excited to announce tonight the creation of the Mayor’s Great City Design Teams, modeled after the Governor’s Design Teams which for more than a decade have engaged volunteer architects to help communities across the state plan their futures. In conjunction with the American Institute of Architects 150th anniversary, the Mayor’s Great City Design Teams will recruit 150 architects to work directly with community organizations on visions for our neighborhoods. These architects would partner with other design professionals at the Urban Land Institute, the University of Minnesota, landscape architects, public artists and City staff to incorporate visions for the community with existing City plans and initiatives, including the 10-year Transportation Plan and Sustainability Plan, our small area plans and Neighborhood Revitalization Plans.
Community groups can apply to have the Mayor’s Great City Design Teams available to work directly with neighborhoods and city staff and their visions will be directly incorporated into the City’s 10-year comprehensive planning process that begins next year.
I am also pleased to announce that the first project of the Mayor’s Great City Design Teams will be to convene all the parties along Washington Avenue to help create a vision for the great Washington Boulevard.
Along with the work of the Mayor’s Great City Design Teams, I want to make a call to all of you as a community, to actively engage in all parts of the planning of our city. We need both your vision and your action. As the ancient proverb says, vision without action is just a dream; and action without vision is a nightmare. We need professionals and visionaries like many of you to be more involved in neighborhood decision-making bodies. Spend less time talking to each other and spend more time talking to your neighbors. Take fewer trips to other cities you love and spend more time actively working with your neighbors to build urban villages we all love.
If we do nothing more, Minneapolis will be one of the better cities in America. But is that enough? I ran for mayor five years ago because I couldn’t get a single phrase out of my head: I was born in a great city and I don’t want to die in a mediocre one. Generations before us have brought Minneapolis to the edge of greatness. Now it’s time to go further, for Minneapolis to claim our rightful place as the Great American City of our time. And we should settle for nothing less. Thank you.
Last updated Sep. 27, 2011