Same Old Minneapolis?

Wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to replace Shaun Murphy? What if we lived in a culture of urbanity in Minneapolis where the needs of pedestrians and bicyclists were addressed in a way that didn’t require the creation of a job with a title like “bicycle and pedestrian coordinator?” After all, Janette Sadik-Kahn and Gabe Klein were simply “transportation commissioners” for New York City and Chicago, respectively, and did more for walking and cycling than has been done in most other cities. To be sure, Shaun Murphy did a commendable job, and will be missed, but how great would our city be if we didn’t need a Shaun Murphy in the first place?

What if the new CPED director’s first question about new development projects in Minneapolis was “will it add to the beauty of the city?” We don’t need to overthink this – Minneapolis needs a CPED director who consistently finds ways to get deals done based first on good design principles (sometimes this means saying no, or being patient for the right development to come along). Measurable tax receipts often follow when this occurs and are much more sustainable long-term. The new CPED director is arguably as important as last November’s election, and the mayor’s decision will explain a lot about her priorities for Minneapolis.

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What if Minneapolis had a Design Review Commission. Whereas the responsibility of the Planning Commission is to advise the City Council on matters of zoning, development and capital improvements, what if there was a Design Review Commission to advise on matters of urban design, pedestrian- and bike-friendliness and the relationship between buildings and the street? After all, this works in Portland (yes, I said Portland).

Wouldn’t it be nice if more development was built as-of-right according to our zoning code? Particularly along commercial corridors where the comprehensive plan calls for infill, it seems the vast majority of proposed developments are allowed a certain height as-of-right, but are given a bonus for meeting certain criteria. Why give neighbors the argument against added height and density? Why not fix the height limit or eliminate it entirely? Consistently requiring a Conditional Use Permit for the kind of development encouraged by the comprehensive plan is a waste of everyone’s time. Of course, there are other ways to oppose new development, like historical designations, but I’ll get to that momentarily.


What if we welcomed talented developers to our fair city and challenged them to build even more innovative projects? When I say “we” I mean all of us. West River Commons is consistently cited as one of the better infill developments built in the modern era in Minneapolis. But remember, West River Commons isn’t a great urban building because it is 53 feet tall or 48 units per acre or has an FAR of 1.4 (who the hell really cares what an FAR is?). It is great because a talented developer and design team did a great job putting the retail storefronts in the right place, hiding parking and stepping the height of the building down appropriately to the existing neighborhood. And it only took dozens of public meetings? The brain damage required to develop a building in Minneapolis hasn’t gone away, and in many ways has become more pitched, despite when projects by the Lander Group deserve to see the light of day.

What if we could find a way to encourage developers to retain or add to the character of a place rather than abuse the historic preservation process to oppose developers’ proposals in places like Dinkytown and Uptown?

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All of this has a pretty common tie-in – if a street is pleasant on which to walk or a building is pleasant to walk past, we’ve probably done it right. We can measure a good city by VMT, energy usage, and access to shopping and employment, but we also intuitively know it when we see it. This is a qualitative process but must be addressed, and the first step of the approval process should take in to account rather than (or at least in addition to) use, density, height or traffic counts. There are many ways to do this, and I cannot claim to have all the answers, but it must start with our collective approach what we want our city to be like. Will Minneapolis be more beautiful and walkable in the future? Let’s hope so.

This was crossposted at Joe Urban.

Sam Newberg

About Sam Newberg

Sam Newberg, a.k.a. Joe Urban, is an urbanist, real estate consultant and writer. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two kids, and his website is

12 thoughts on “Same Old Minneapolis?

  1. hokan

    No more bike/ped coordinators? In the future, I very much hope so.

    I’ve always felt that such positions — MnDOT’s Bike/Ped Section, for another example — were temporary until cycling and walking could get fully integrated in transportation planning and engineering.

    We’re not there yet, but in Minneapolis we’re getting closer.

  2. Jessica Paulsen

    NYC has a whole Office of Bicycle and Pedestrian Programs that employees over 30 people just to focus on bike/ped issues and projects, not to mention the separate staff dedciated to plazas, safe routes to school and safety projects. Yes, JSK may have been the head of the Department of Transportation, but she was backed up by a very strong and well staffed bicycle and pedestrian unit within the department.

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      Interesting! So as a proportion of population having 30 staff in NYC equals one or two bike/ped staff in Mpls!

    1. Dave P

      Hear, hear! So frustrating having to hit those on UMN campus and Minnehaha Parkway. One of the most popular bike/ped paths in the state, beg button on Cedar/M’haha which is impossible to get to in winter!

      1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

        The Cedar/Minnehaha Parkway is the most nonsensical beg button in the city – thanks for pointing that out!

        1. Jeremy HopJeremy Hop

          When I was a little kid riding in the car, I always wondered we pedestrians had to push a button but vehicles didn’t have to. Later on in life, I discovered loop sensors, so in effect, vehicles also push a button to activate a crossing. I have mixed feelings on beg buttons. The Cedar/Minnehaha PkWy one seems logical in my mind, because its a major through crossing (n/s cedar ave) and e/w Minnehaha PkWy, bikes/peds/cars all sharing this narrow space.

          Again, very mixed feelings on the beg buttons. The city has been putting them in all over, especially with the free ADA money to retrofit the intersections for disabled folks.

  3. I Am A Person

    “What if the new CPED director’s first question about new development projects in Minneapolis was “will it add to the beauty of the city?””

    Seriously? You opt for “beauty” before, say, “the wellbeing of the populace”, or “social harmony among the people” or even something like “the effective functioning of the city”?

    In the context of development, “beauty” is far from a radical criterion. “Beauty” has a lot more to do with property values than realities that can benefit everyone.

    “if a street is pleasant on which to walk or a building is pleasant to walk past, we … intuitively know it when we see it.”

    No, dude, “we” don’t. The poor, the marginalized, or even just people who have different sensibilities — basically everyone who isn’t a professional White dude masking his untenable ideological preferences behind faux-technical “urbanist” rhetoric — are not going to feel magically blessed and rejuvenated when they walk past whatever shiny new development.

  4. David

    I agree with “I am a person”; this post is racist and elitist rhetoric abusing the urban planning process to impose a very narrow viewpoint on others.

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      I can accept being called elitist and even racist, but how dare you imply that the poor and marginalized don’t appreciate beauty? If we can’t build cities that are beautiful and offer even a glimmer of hope or grace, then what?

      1. Cedar

        I agree. Maybe I’m missing something, but why shouldn’t the poor or disadvantaged also appreciate and benefit from beautiful surroundings and pleasant, walkable neighborhoods? These comments were running through my mind today while reading Charles Montgomery’s “The Happy City,” and specifically the chapter focusing on the radical changes in Bogota — changes that were all about social justice and equity.

        And I, for one (and I am not a professional white dude) believe in the power of good urban design and strong cities in part because I think good design does have the power to help address so many larger issues. I think increased density can help affordable housing, and believe that good design can enhance social harmony. Good design can help bring together diverse neighborhoods that serve the needs and desires of all residents, regardless of their age, family status, ethnicity, or income level. I believe a well-designed, appropriately dense city has an easier time of creating quality public transportation as well as safe streets for walking and biking — attributes that benefit everyone.

        And since when is the desire for safe, human-scaled walkable streets limited to just white professional men? I think we all deserve access to such neighborhoods, whatever our housing budget.

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