This summer, Minneapolis will be losing a longtime advocate when Thatcher Imboden moves to Seattle to take a job with Sound Transit. Thatcher currently works for Hennepin County doing transit oriented development work, and he will be working in a similar capacity out in Seattle.
Thinking it would be kind of fun to pick the brain of someone with a pretty good spread of community, academic, political, private-sector, and public-sector experiences in Minneapolis, but is also moving out to one of those cities I always hear about, but is also a friend of mine, I sat down with Thatcher for an exit interview of sorts over lunch earlier this week. It has been edited for length–it’s still pretty long, but there’s lots going on!–and clarity.
NM: So now it’s rolling–so we’re sitting here right now, at lunch, up on the skyway level in Downtown Minneapolis, with Thatcher Imboden, who has a pretty good history in that general South Minneapolis, Uptown-ish area doing different advocacy work over the past ten or so years. So you grew up in, like, Uptown, approximately.
TI: Pretty solidly Uptown.
NM: Yeah, pretty solidly Uptown. So can you tell me a little bit briefly about your history in Minneapolis, so you grew up here, etc., so like kind of up to college?
TI: Yeah, grew up in Uptown. 33rd and Dupont. Played baseball in Bryant Square Park, back when it was full of broken glass, and, some grass I guess. Never saw myself as a quote-unquote “urbanist,” but, like everyone else, lots of Legos, lots of drawing cities by hand, instead of doing SimCity. Well, there was SimCity, too, and that was fun too, but it had limitations. So I drew cities–I drew semaphores and things like that.
NM: That’s cool.
TI: Nerdy. So I thought I was going to be a computer programmer for Microsoft, and then realized I sucked at programming, and heard about, through my sister who was a little bit older than me, that there was such a thing as Urban Studies at the U–she’d taken a class with Judith Martin–and she said “hey, when you go school you should look into that.” So when I was probably a junior in high school, I started looking into what this whole urban studies/planning thing was about and realized that it was exactly what I was interested in. How cities work, how cities change. When I was touring colleges, I already knew that was what I wanted to do.
TI: And then in senior year of high school, one of my neighbors recruited me to the neighborhood board–the CARAG [Calhoun Area Residents Action Group] neighborhood board–and so I joined that, and started to get some exposure to community organizing. It was right as that particular neighborhood’s NRP [Neighborhood Revitalization Program] planning was wrapping up, and so it was a time when a lot of different neighborhoods were pretty involved because we’re talking about billions of dollars that were going to be invested in the community, and so there was a pretty robust group of people participating and working on some pretty interesting things, from biking infrastructure to home loans and the works.
NM: So you were on the board then, as a senior in high school?
TI: Yep, I was on the board. I was 18.
NM: Was that the minimum age?
TI: Yeah that was the minimum age for the board. I can’t say I probably contributed a ton, but it was an interesting experience to have and see how these things work–Robert’s Rules of Order and that. It was a young age to get involved, and that was fun. It was right around the same time the Midtown Greenway was opening, and so again, it was like all this stuff was happening, people were talking about that huge investment and all the development that would follow, and people were talking about the bike connections along Bryant and such, and so it was kind of a good way to see infrastructure and planning and neighborhood activism. It was enough to get me really passionate.
So then I showed up to college, you know, with Judith Martin and Paula Pentel, I remember walking into Paula’s office as a freshman probably like the third week of school saying “I want to declare a major,” and Paula being like, “you do know that a lot of people don’t declare when they come in, are you really sure this is what you want to do?”
NM: Similar experience here.
NM: Hell yeah. You gotta know what you want to do! You save a lot of money that way!
TI: Yeah, and you can take grad courses as an undergrad. It’s brilliant.
TI: So yeah, that’s kinda me in a nutshell. Oh yeah, also during college, my sister [Cedar Imboden] was living out east working for a historical society, and they were doing a book with Arcadia Publishing, who publishes a lot of local history books, and she’s like “God, I can’t believe there’s not one for Uptown.” And so in college, we decided to write this book together on the history of Uptown. And so that’s what we did.
And around the same time I started getting involved in the business association in Uptown, mostly as a volunteer with the art fair. I just liked doing things, and volunteering. And I was running a website called OurUptown.com at the time, which I think originally I started doing in late high school, maybe early college. It was called something else back then. It was mostly a visitor bureau site, it wasn’t news or opinion pieces then.
NM: When did you start college?
TI: 2001, graduated in 2005.
NM: Ah, okay. So, moving on a bit–in my experience, I feel like I kind of came out of college finding out that you don’t really get to play SimCity at all–things don’t really work at all in the way I was thinking. Did you kind of learn anything like that? Because you didn’t become a city planner, you went to work for a private company.
TI: Yeah–that was different.
NM: It’s interesting!
TI: I think during my junior year in college, I perceived that planning–urban planning specifically–was something where you were telling people what you wanted them to do, but you didn’t have a ton of control as a staff person, and that wasn’t very attractive to me. I applied to some internships and didn’t get anything, so then I thought, well, I’ll be a transit planner, because transit: I’m passionate about that. It’s that thing you go through in college where you’re trying to figure out, you know, when you’re young, you want to change the world and leave your mark.
NM: “Burn it all down!”
TI: Burn it all down, whatever.
NM: Or build it all up, it could go either way.
TI: laughs Yeah, and then I met some transit planners, and kind of found out that they spent a decade of their life or more–several decades of their life–on a transit project waiting for it to come to fruition, and I was way too impatient for that.
So then I started just applying for jobs, and I heard through a gentleman I knew through the book writing process as well as the business association, he said that this guy who was a commercial real estate agent for Ackerberg, he needed an assistant, and he thought I’d be a good fit. So I checked it out, and at first I wasn’t really that interested in sales and leasing, but his primary trade market was Uptown, on Lake Street, and Ackerberg was a developer I was interested in. And I was realizing by the time I was graduating from college that development is where many decisions get made, and so that gets me one step closer.
And sure enough, I learned a ton in that job–about how and why people make the decisions they do about what tenant goes into a building and why they’re selling the building and who would buy the building and all that stuff you read about extensively on websites: grumpy voice “Well, I don’t understand why that space is empty,” or “we don’t need another xyz.”
NM: Another apartment building?
TI: Yeah exactly–I got good insight into that. So one thing led to another at Ackerberg.
NM: When about did you start with Ackerberg?
TI: 2005, by the end of that summer.
NM: That’s good!
TI: I lucked out.
NM: Hey, there’s always Lake Street Arby’s.
TI: Well, the plan was that I’d go back to grad school a year later–probably Chicago or Portland or something. I was waiting for my girlfriend, now wife, to finish up school in Duluth. But then I got this job, and you’re making money, and do you want to take out more debt while making money? I never took the GRE, and so I didn’t go. Good decision.
NM: And so you’ve talked in the past about working with different neighborhood groups in the Uptown area on behalf of Ackerberg, and you’d been involved in some of them when you were younger, so you’d get sent to meetings to talk with people, and that. Can you talk in sort of a basic way about neighborhood groups in the Uptown area and your experiences and challenges throughout that?
NM: ‘Cause it seems like to me, a lot of people will complain–and I complain, everyone complains–about neighborhood groups, but at the end of the day, most of the stuff eventually gets built, though a lot of things go through the ringer, so do you have any thoughts about that?
TI: So I guess I’d say–so I was on the CARAG board when I was 18 in 2001, and then got back on the board right around 2005, right around the time I graduated from college. 2004, 2005 was a pretty controversial time in Uptown–Mozaic was proposed, Edgewater was proposed, a lot of anti-development concern ranging from legitimate concerns to people who were more resistant to change. So there was a lot of organizing going on.
Mozaic was a project where there were two sides–there were people who were absolutely supportive of it for a lot of reasons, and there were people who were fundamentally opposed to a tall building there. There were people in LHENA [Lowry Hill East Neighborhood Association]–the Wedge–who were reasonably concerned about just making sure the project got done right, and so they started pulling in all the neighborhood groups and invited other people to the table. So I would, as a CARAG resident, attend the LHENA Zoning and Planning meetings, and it was really their show, but they did a really great job with the meetings. And there were people who went from fundamentally opposed to that project to conditional support.
NM: Well, hey, that’s something.
TI: Which I think is pretty impressive. And so to me, when you have people who are really dedicated to working together, neighborhoods can work well, and work through really challenging issues. But when you have people who are doing things just on principle and not really looking at what I would consider real choices–it’s kind of like watching Republicans and Democrats fight in Washington. It’s just–nothing is actually being done. And so I think neighborhood groups can do a lot.
Then, after Mozaic went through, there was the Uptown Small Area Plan, and I was on the steering committee for that. My key interest was engaging with people who were usually not represented. And I had perhaps more optimism than was justified in that I was hoping we’d be able to answer a lot of questions that we weren’t prepared to answer.
NM: So like renters and stuff?
TI: Absolutely, renters, transit users. And on the business side, because you get a lot of the same players–you know, there are a few property owners that really dominate the area. There were a few problems I would have loved to solve. Like with trash collection, everyone has to have their own trash collection and their own place to store it, could we do collection sites in the alley and carve out some shared spaces? Right now the Uptown Theater block has something like that. And issues of loading, commercial space affordability, and stuff like that.
NM: Moving away from your work experience for a minute, and so, you know, this is still a hot topic, which is crazy because it’s 2015, but you had a lot of experience back in the aughts advocating for, I mean at this point I wouldn’t even say “3C” because at this point that’s all water under the bridge, but for an Uptown alignment for Southwest Light Rail. So if you could do it over, is there anything you would do differently? Or is there was any advice you would give to future advocates in similar situations?
TI: Hindsight is 20/20, but strictly speaking as an advocate, I would have focused far more on organizing, and far less on the technical part of studies. In general, if you want to get something done, you need your elected officials to give direction to have it happen. And granted that still may not be enough, because there may be a technical problem that can’t be resolved, but you know, where there’s a will there’s a way. And so something I learned in the process was that you’re fighting the system, and it’s an institutional power that you’re going up against, and that involves federal guidelines and state rules and regionally adopted forecasting models and things of that sort. So one person or a small group of people really aren’t in a position to change that–so your best bet is to focus on creating a political condition where the choice made is the one that you want. It’s like anything else, noise gets attention.
People who advocate for transit are always worried about infighting that can take place, and the Republicans who are anti-transit drool over that, because that makes it so they can sit out. But the climate now is totally different, I mean the fact that the business community supports transit generally is very good, we have CTIB [Counties Transit Improvement Board] and its funding mechanism, which we didn’t have back then. So I think transit advocates and elected officials have moved the needle, those weren’t even options then, we’ve gotten there. It’s easy to look back and say “gosh, we should have done xyz” but there were some heavy lifts that took place to get where we are, and now we have the opportunity to tweak it, and that’s what you’re going to have to decide–how do you tweak it, what do you tweak, how do you get the political support to do it? There’s a big game of chess going on–it’s super complex and I don’t even have a complete view of the game. That said, I would challenge advocates today to fight for something, building alliances, and adding to the conversation versus tearing the system down. I don’t see rock throwing as a path forward for those wanting a more robust transit system.
NM: That was a good for a couple paragraphs! So back to work stuff, about a year and a half ago (?) you started working for Hennepin County?
TI: A little under 2 years.
NM: God time flies, Jesus Christ. Weird.
TI: I left the private-sector development world for a change of pace and came over and did TOD for Hennepin County. What did you want to chat about?
NM: I dunno, I guess it’s weird–you wouldn’t want to talk too much about your current job?
TI: I can talk about my current job–somewhat sarcastically hey, whatever your narrative is.
NM: Yeah, I dunno–well, okay–so the narrative is, like I said, I figured it would be fun to talk with someone who’s been kind of involved in this stuff for a pretty long time, and so you’re going to another place for a few reasons, but I think you used the term “vision” at some point, they have a vision in Seattle of a certain kind of city, a different vision than we maybe have. So we’ll talk about Minneapolis in a second, but what are some of the specific things in Seattle, other than like the mountain backdrop–
TI: That is pretty sweet.
NM: –yeah, that is cool. Earthquakes and volcanoes, too. That’s interesting.
TI: So why am I moving to Seattle?
NM: Yeah–I mean it’s a similar position, right?
TI: It’s a similar position. Currently I manage a transit oriented development funding program that cities and developers apply to, and I serve as a subject matter expert on economic and community development within the transit planning process. So there I’ll be serving as a subject matter expert on their planning, but also focusing on implementing TOD projects on agency-owned land. Not as the developer, but as we sell land to the developers.
NM: So you can kind of tell them what to do?
TI: Well they’re buying it from us, but we’re picking them and what projects we’re going with. So I’m excited for that piece, the implementation of TOD. Hennepin County has a lot of opportunities ahead of itself–it’s a great job, I’m not leaving here because of my current job isn’t great–rather this position in Seattle was the right job in the right location at this point in my life.
And so location-wise, I’ve always lived in Minnesota, I never went away for college, I’d like to travel and get some more experiences. I’ve always kind of felt like Seattle, Portland, and Denver were cities that were a similar scale to Minneapolis that we’d enjoy but realistically that we could also break into. It’s hard to get employed in California if you’re not already a resident. I think with Seattle in particular, it’s very outdoor-centric, it’s a very walkable city, you’ve got the mountains and ocean, you’re close to Vancouver and Portland, lots of people, lots of food.
But from a job perspective and a vision perspective, I’m really excited because they’re doing planning in a way that I’m interested in better understanding–where are the places that have the most activity and transit need, and how do we connect them regionally? How do we connect these regional centers of commerce and living via transit? So they do corridor analysis and try to connect all these dots. When I look at these documents, it looks like they’re trying to figure out what the range of possibilities are, and rather than remove things too early because they’re potentially too expensive, they’re allowing the options get more thoroughly vetted for viability and more stakeholder engagement.
So they just studied a line from what we hope will be our future home in Ballard to downtown, and they’re studying everything from surface transit with a bridge across the channel to downtown, to–and they noted the public preferred this option–a tunnel underneath the channel. The whole project is like a $3 billion dollar project, and it’s not that long, but it’s connecting some pretty substantial populations who use transit. I like that they haven’t ruled out some pretty expensive infrastructure solutions too early in the process. I like the vision and it comes off as finding a wide range of options and then deciding whether there is a stomach for pursuing a pretty expensive option. As opposed to assuming there is no appetite and it feeling like a number of potentially viable options–excluding cost–were removed from consideration before the public and elected officials really had an opportunity to understand their choices.
So I’m really eager to join a place that’s working on that big vision, and is working on a plan to fund it.
NM: I saw something on Twitter the other day, and it was like construction permits or units permitted or something like that per city, and Seattle was huge. It was crazy. It was like over a thousand a month.
TI: Everywhere I looked I saw a construction site. [Thatcher was there looking for a place to live this weekend] So we were looking for housing up in Ballard, and keep in mind I’m not really informed on the history of these places yet, but using my “urban intelligence,” you could kind of tell that this neighborhood we were looking at, since the 1970s it had gotten a ton of infill development. So it’s originally these smaller wood houses near the docks from the early 1900s, and over time, they built triplexes, tenplexes, small little one lot projects, sometimes two. And in this current boom, you’re getting lots of townhouses, multiplexes and now walking around, these types of units far outnumber the single-family houses that are left there. And there are pros and cons to that. But to someone who’d never been in that neighborhood before, it was just astonishing how much redevelopment had taken place. Every block had one of these small-scale construction sites. And there were plenty of large projects too.
Almost every apartment showing we went to, there were other people interested–in some cases, it was like a nightmare from San Francisco where three people were trying to turn in applications at the same time.
NM: Yeah, I mean I was just shocked by that chart. And Minneapolis isn’t doing badly.
TI: To give you a perspective, and this is all from my personal experience, ever since I told people I was moving, everyone is telling me “oh you need to talk to this person and that person, they’ve all just moved to Seattle in the past year.” The guy who did the Truth-in-Housing inspection on my house, he said every week from the past five weeks he’s had people who were moving to Seattle.
NM: That’s a good factoid.
TI: And when we were out there, we were at multiple open houses where we heard people saying that they were just in town until Monday, just like us, to get a place before relocating. Microsoft is hiring a lot of people, Yahoo! is apparently hiring, Amazon is hiring, Google is opening an office there.
NM: So here’s a broad question–do you see any sort of, like, existential risk to Minneapolis that we’re not one of those four or five super hot cities–we’re not Austin, we’re not Seattle, we’re not San Francisco–it seems like there are a few really crazy shining stars, and then on the other hand there’s Detroit, but then there’s a lot of–
TI: Well, Minneapolis is growing.
TI: It’s growing, it’s a desirable community. Keep in mind that not everything is rosy in these other cities. Saw an article the other day that Seattle is running into some of the same issues as San Francisco, where their affordable housing issues are going to get worse in the next decade with displacement and more people with money moving there and driving up rents. So that Minneapolis isn’t the Wild West of development is probably a good thing. You can make better decisions and be more intentional. Those cities probably have enormous growth in their taxbase, but they have other problems. In Seattle you can have bus-only lanes, but then there are bridges with two lanes of traffic in each direction, and realistically they’re not going to convert one of them to a bus lane. So what I’m getting at is–are there opportunities in Minneapolis to better leverage what’s going on and learn from other regions? Yes, though I don’t know exactly what they are.
I mean I guess the question is, how many people are leaving Minneapolis because they don’t want to be in Minneapolis, versus because they just got a job somewhere else or want to have a different experience? I’d be much more concerned if there were a bunch of people saying that they can’t wait to get out of Minneapolis, and I don’t think I’ve heard many people say that.
NM: Okay. And that’s a good thing. So in the interest of time–is there anything generally that’s frustrated you in Minneapolis in the past ten years? Not naming names, I guess, but just stuff. Like it seems like we fight World War II over so many little things here–it takes thirty years to maybe build Southwest, or it takes two years to build a four story building in Uptown.
TI: Yeah, I think it’s frustrating to go that slow.
NM: And there can be pros to that.
TI: It’s always good to look at your process and constantly look at what’s working and not working. That said, individual development projects getting hung up on something can be frustrating, but sometimes–different developers navigate those waters differently, and sometimes it’s not the project, it’s the developer. Sometimes, yeah, there’s a lot of neighborhood resistance to something. I see it as more of a society issue–people who disagree with each other have to be labelled and seen as an enemy. It’s easy to do that. I think everyone finds a moment where they get wrapped up in something and they just really want to see things black and white.
So I guess my view is that a lot of those individual battles are just a clash of opinion, and plenty of development has happened, and only a few projects have been held up, and in general the climate is decent for growing the city. It could be easier, but at the same time some of the things that people are concerned about like preservation shouldn’t always be viewed as anti-development.
TI: But that wouldn’t be my frustration–I guess my frustration in Minneapolis is that if you want to live in a really walkable community where you’re within five or seven minutes of the grocery store and you have a family, and you want more than a two bedroom, it’s just too cost-prohibitive in most places. So we need to figure out how to add more services to existing neighborhoods, or how to add more housing stock to neighborhoods that have those services and can support more.I felt like a little bit of a hypocrite moving out of Uptown but that was the time when homeownership was the thing, and you were supposed to own a home someday, you’ve gotta own property.
NM: When’d you buy the house in Kenny?
TI: 2007. Our options were to buy a condo in Uptown, and we didn’t want a condo conversion, or to move further south. And I tested it out, and I love my neighbors and love my neighborhood, but I want to be able to say “oh crap, I need chicken for dinner,” and not have to get in the car. I want to live within throwing distance of a grocery store. And that’s extremely limited in Minneapolis if you have a family. The very few three bedroom units that are getting built in those areas are unbelievably expensive.
So to me, I subscribe to the idea that constant supply growth is how you drive down costs in the long term. We need these units coming online today to be on the market for thirty years before they’ll be relatively affordable. It’s a Jane Jacobs idea–you need storefronts and buildings of different ages for different market needs. Anyway, there’s a lot of opportunity for Minneapolis to try to provide more housing diversity, and to focus on commercial space for entrepreneurs and growing businesses.
NM: Anything else you’d add? Parting thoughts?
TI: Well, I’ve thought a lot about being a “lifer.” There is a part of me that wanted to leave the Twin Cities–
NM: To try something new?
TI: To try something different. Like I said, I’ve never lived anywhere else. We have a perspective here that’s one way of doing things. I thought, I might be missing my opportunity–I’m at a point in life where my kids will be starting school soon, and so waiting until after they’re grown and in college, I’d have a whole career here, and I’ll have a whole perspective from here, and so it’s hard to go work somewhere else and I worry that I won’t have that flexibility later in life without that experience.
A lot of people talk about how people from the Twin Cities go somewhere else for college or in their 20s and then they come back.
NM: Yeah I talk about that all the time.
TI: So there’s a part of me that says we’re not moving there for life, but we are making a commitment to living there, but there’s certainly a possibility that someday we’ll come back. Not committed to anything.
NM: I mean it’s good to get new experiences.
TI: Maybe I’ll love volcanoes? And fresh seafood. Smoked salmon.
NM: Lox? Well, no cream cheese. [Thatcher can’t eat dairy]
TI: Not so much. But I think it’ll be a lot of fun. But yeah there are people from the Twin Cities who celebrate that they’re from here, and have always lived here.
NM: It’s weird, you get a lot of credit for living places, in some sense. Like having lived in Loring Park for the past four or five years, this is the longest I’ve lived anywhere, and I almost feel like I’ve sort of invested years in it. I’ve been interested in maybe moving further downtown or somewhere in South Minneapolis, but I dunno, do I want to say I’ve only lived in Whittier for six months?
TI: It’s funny.
NM: It’s weird!
TI: For me, I see the value in seeing change and understanding change over a long time, but then it turns into “I should have more clout” and I reject that notion, which I think is part of the reason I think I was so outspoken as an advocate when I was young. I remember having a viewpoint that was different from some others, and there’s all sorts of things people say about when you’re young and have an opinion, and it’s true that when you’re younger, you don’t have the years of experience to see as much of the world and how it works. But at the same time you’re a legal adult who has an opinion, and it should matter just as much as everyone else, so when people will try to shut you out of discussion, that’s a bad strategy. I’m sure I’ve done it. It’s easy in the heat of the moment. So I didn’t want to be the guy who’s like “I’ve lived here my whole life and ______.”
NM: There’s a good Louis C.K. bit about that. But yeah it’s interesting how that works, I moved around a lot as a kid and am not going anywhere. But I feel like I’ve almost encouraged other people to go somewhere else for a few years and try things out if they haven’t before. So is there anything else you wanted to say?
TI: Nah, you can just look me up if you’re out there.
NM: Yeah! Going out west has been on my to do list for ages. I was born in California but left after a few months and haven’t been west of Mount Rushmore since then.
TI: I’m really looking forward to being a student of the city again–learning the transit system, the neighborhoods, the real estate, being outside my comfort zone and learning the new dynamics. It’ll be a fun challenge and am looking forward to bringing my experience to that region and eventually feeling like I’m an actual resident.