If I Were Mayor…

Yesterday I presented at Cuningham Group’s “Urban Currents” series. The theme was “What if I Were Mayor?” Keep in mind the following ideas don’t represent a platform for getting elected, but rather to try and implement once in office (there’s a big difference). So here goes….

If I were mayor, I would:

1. Create a more beautiful, equitable city.

Picture 006

As part of that, I’d push the idea that zoning is part of creating beauty, and advocate for both a Form-Based Code and Design Review Commission (to be chosen by developers as parallel alternatives to the existing zoning and the Planning Commission, respectively). Ideally, the result would be a faster, more predictable (for developers and neighbors) approvals process and better urban design (see above).

2. Build streets for people

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Can you even spot the pedestrian in the above image?


As mayor, I would advance a streets policy that genuinely placed pedestrians first, transit and bikes next, and cars last. I’d also eliminate all one-way streets in the city. Coupled with a better zoning code, our streets (even Hiawatha Avenue) could one day look like this (above).

Shared Street - Germany

While I’m at it I would create a pilot project for residential streets to reduce the speed limit, narrow the street, and add street amenities like play equipment. Why do playgrounds need to be relegated to our parks? Let’s bring the parks to the kids.


Lastly, I’d formalize a progressive on-street bicycle parking policy. It is long past due that we meaningfully catch up to Portland as the best biking city in America, and to do so we need an actual bicycle parking policy on our streets (above). Besides, any time you see people standing around on the street, it is probably a pretty good street, right?

3. Eliminate one freeway

2013-04-21 13.24.32

Following the Congress for the New Urbanism’s Highways to Boulevards initiative, I’d eliminate the viaduct that connects 3rd and 4th Streets to Interstate 94.

Chungaechun 027

But why stop at a boulevard? I’d restore Bassett Creek and make transform the route in to something more akin to the Cheonggyecheon in Seoul.

4. Welcome great architecture, but ensure it fits in to the city

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Is it right that the Walker faces a public realm like this (or that the proposed reconstruction of Hennepin/Lyndale is essentially a resurfacing project)?

National Gallery - 1996

What did London do when a congested roadway divided the National Gallery from Trafalgar Square?

National Gallery - 2003

They closed the street, giving it over to people, and the city as a whole benefited.


What if the Walker and Sculpture Garden faced a street that looked a little more like this (Paris)?

5. Restore respect for the public realm


Citing the civic travesty that way too many people use skyways on even the nicest days (see above), I would find a councilmember who has already announced their retirement to take one for the team and introduce a bill to remove one skyway per year until they are gone. Finding no takers, I’d issue an official but unenforceable decree to close all skyways immediately, after which a recall election would be held and I’d be forced from office. Maybe, though, just maybe, I’d have elevated the level of discussion around Minneapolis and gotten just enough residents and business leaders to come forward with their own plan, one that included putting on a coat in the winter and an understanding that because of our strong pedestrian policies, funding for street-level improvements, better zoning code and overall sense that our public places are more valuable than private, that therefore skyways are simply redundant and unnecessary. Then I’d be forced from office but quite proud of my legacy. And then Alice Hausman would have no reason to question the City of Minneapolis’ request of $25 million from the State of Minnesota for rebuilding Nicollet Mall based on the very good design ideas of James Corner Field Operations.

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 www.joe-urban.com.

24 thoughts on “If I Were Mayor…

    1. Obvious Oscar

      Glad to hear that you’re of the rarified social class that gets to make that decision based on these superficial criteria. “Cool, some contextually-sensitive architecture and expensive-but-walkable neighborhoods! I want THAT city in my Pokémon-card collection.”

    1. Froggie

      Savor it while you can. DC has plans to rebuild that particular photographed street that would effectively eliminate the service roads, but instead would have center-running dedicated transit lanes (likely bus at first, but eventually streetcar).

        1. Adam MillerAdam

          It doesn’t have any bike lanes and actually is too wide and encourages traffic that is too fast. Of course, it’s also one of very few downtown streets that let’s you pass by the White House as well.

          I didn’t even recognize it as K St. at first.

  1. Adam MillerAdam

    I was looking at that viaduct from someone’s office yesterday and thinking about how nice it would be to get rid of it. It was mid-work day, of course, so there were also no cars on it at all. So yeah, we do that to the North Loop neighborhood (which of course wasn’t really there when it was built) all for maybe a half hour of peak traffic five days a week? We can do better.

  2. Obvious Oscar

    “Equitable”, you say? Great, so where’s the numerated point about affordable housing, or, uh, anything that wouldn’t simply drive up property values and displace lower-income communities? Because that’s all I’m seeing here.

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      Good point. Gentrification is a tough one. I’m unapologetically in favor of public and private investments that indeed increase property values. After all, when you stop to think about it, why would anyone in their right mind advocate for things that lower property values? In fact, affordable housing development has even been shown to accelerate the rate of increase of property values.

      That said, I’m a big supporter of the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit as a tool to both create and preserve affordable housing in locations where property values are increasing or are otherwise too high for housing to be naturally affordable. It is certainly a complicated issue, and maybe good for another post, but I definitely as mayor would advocate for an increase in resources to create and maintain affordable units in all neighborhoods of the city.

      1. Obvious Oscar

        Yeah, that’s about what I suspected. For you, “equity” is a wishy-washy, oh-so-“complicated” buzzword, an afterthought hastily tacked onto a comments thread. I sure as hell wouldn’t vote for you, and I doubt most Minneapolitans outside of the Uptown-Downtown axis wouldn’t either.

        “After all, when you stop to think about it, why would anyone in their right mind advocate for things that lower property values?”

        I’m not advocating for that. I’m advocating for policies that allow existing communities to stay where they are–including their lower-income constituents. But in any case I doubt your dismissive, condescending, out-of-touch tone would go over well with the people on Minneapolis.

        I recommend you spend a few years actually engaging with actual people (i.e. those who lack the privileges to be able to fantasize about superficial urbanist dream-cities, much less to weather the disruption that it would take to actually create them), find out what they actually want from their elected officials, and then come back with a less self-parodical version of an “urbanist” as mayor.

        1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

          That’s not possible. Policy cannot address demand. And demand is driving things like rent increases, not supply. The only policies that have attempted to lower demand have been to make neighborhoods worse off (and, by extension, less desirable). But is it a good idea to enshrine disinvestment and poverty? Richard Daley tried that in Chicago in the 50s and 60s and it created the most segregated urban population with massive social problems. The solution needs to involve investment in neighborhoods that’s realized by more populations, not disinvestment for the sake of reducing demand and thus rent prices.

          1. Obvious Oscar

            Unfortunately, in the real world there’s a lot more at play than market dynamics in a vacuum. It simply isn’t true that when you build luxury or market-rate housing, that the new demand fills up that new supply and everything else stays hunky dory.

            For example, the people who move back from the ‘burbs into new high-end developments tend to bring racism with them. I mean, sure, plenty of these people probably vote DFL and imagine themselves post-racist, progressive whatever, but the fact is that these are the sort of people who prefer not to be confronted by anything outside of the “clean”, “polite” sensibilities and aesthetics of the educated and upwardly mobile. Given our flawed and racially imbalanced system of justice, when these people start calling the cops over minor infractions and whatnot (and the cops tend to actually show up for these people), suddenly the new economic inequality in the neighborhood transforms into something less passive, and yes, that too will drive out existing residents.

            Also, let’s be honest: these people aren’t going to spend their money at the shabby minority-owned corner store. Instead, they’re going to view it as “decay” or something. Meanwhile, that shopkeeper’s overhead will increase, and s/he’ll probably be forced to close eventually.

            1. Nathanael

              If all you want is to add affordable housing as a bullet point — I’m all for that. The UK has had, for several centuries, a legal requirement that local governments provide housing for everyone who cannot find market rate housing. Something similar would do wonders for the US.

              This would still have the *same* “gentrification” dynamic that you describe above. Even if affordable housing is mixed in with market rate housing (which is current best practice), you would *still* see all the social”gentrification” results you’re talking about.

              Or maybe not, if you’re wrong, but my point is that affordable housing doesn’t change the social dynamic you describe: it either happens or it doesn’t, with or without affordable housing.

              You haven’t suggested much of an alternative.

              I don’t understand why. Give us an alternative.

              And let’s be honest: in New York City, the “gentrifiers” DO spend their money at the shabby minority-owned corner store. And they do in LA too. And they do in San Francisco too.

              Are you saying that there’s more racism in Minneapolis than in New York, San Francisco, or LA? Maybe you’re right; maybe Minneapolis is more like Chicago. I don’t know. In Chicago, from what I can tell, the “gentrifiers” don’t spend their money at the shabby minority-owned corner store.

      1. Obvious Oscar

        Your line of thinking seems to be, “Let’s displace lower-income folks who have managed to establish a modest, stable means of existence in this formerly community-oriented neighborhood, and assume that since I can’t see them anymore, they must have transformed overnight into fully assimilated middle-class urbanites.”

        Sorry, pal, but that’s not actually how it works. Maybe some business- and home-owners can profit from unchecked private development, but low-income renters just get pushed out, further away from their workplace (and/or transportation to it) and their community support networks.

        There’s a difference between lower-income and impoverished. Your variety of top-down, market-driven “development” doesn’t alleviate poverty; it transforms lower-income communities into impoverished, isolated individuals.

        1. Nathanael

          The “entomb it in amber” propsal which you seem to be advocating WILL convert your “lower income” neighborhood into a poverty-stricken ghetto. Fast.

          Becuase property values are primarily driven by one thing: location.

          If the location is popular — for instance, because it’s near a lot of busy workplaces, or nice parks — then there will be demand to build bigger, taller buildings. If you don’t allow that, then one of two things happens:
          (1) the existing smaller buildings become very valuable, regardless of quality, and the rents skyrocket. The poor are priced out in favor of the actual luxury elite.
          (2) to compensate for the increased value of the land (& associated taxes), since they can’t increase sales by building taller buildings, if they can’t increase rents the landlords stop repairing anything and the buildings decay, keeping rents the same, and heading for “ghetto”.

          You can actually have *both* happen, as has happened in some of the really messed-up rent-controlled districts in SF and NYC, where decrepit unmaintained one-room apartments cost a fortune to rent.

          Despite the presence of vast numbers of “advocacy groups” who claim to “support the lower-income” people in the way you claim to, the results in San Francisco have been abysmal, and lower-income people simply can’t live in the city at all. *That’s where your prescriptions seem to lead us to, Oscar*.

          If you have a major disagreement with the various incompetent “afforadble housing” advocacy groups in San Francisco — the ones who, by preventing development, prevent affordable housing — please do tell us your disagreement.

          You gotta allow taller buildings in popular areas.

  3. Kyle

    The first week I moved to Minneapolis, my Realtor mentioned that the Walker looks like the head of a a Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em robot and I can’t get that out of my brain even eight years later.

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      Great – thanks Kyle! Now I’ll see it that way, too. I do like the Hennepin side of the Walker but for the lousy street it faces. I’d have insisted that Herzog simply had doors and maybe windows facing the Sculpture Garden as well – shouldn’t there be a stronger relationship between the two? If you look at the Walker from the Sculpture Garden all you see is a blank wall – big mistake and not easy to undo.
      Oh, well.

  4. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

    For the record, everything I suggested in this post has an equity angle. A more attractive public realm – streets, sidewalks, trails, parks – with more attractive buildings facing them, is an equity issue. Streets that are not just for cars is an equity issue. Eliminating a freeway that divides a neighborhood is an equity issue. And in fact, a downtown where everyone shares the sidewalk is a more equitable city. And yes, providing enough affordable housing so nobody is without is also an equity issue.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      It reminds me of the old question, Why is New Urbanism (or old urbanism) so expensive? Because we make it so hard -illegal often- to build quality places that people want to inhabit. So the remaining places with character and walkability become really expensive, since they are in such high demand.

      It fits in with a view of gentrification that investing in the public realm may push folks out of a neighborhood… this was a common concern with the Green Line coming live soon. It’s a very valid concern, and I don’t want to see our neighborhoods with character become accessible to only one high earning slice of the population. But I also don’t see disinvestment as a sustainable solution either. The answer seems clear to me: We need to build more quality places so that they become the norm rather than the expensive exception.

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