February 14, 2006 - From the February, 2006 issue

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak Champions Smart Growth, True Regional Cooperation in Twin Cities

First elected mayor of Minneapolis in 2001 with 65 percent of the vote and re-elected in 2005, R.T. Rybak has pursued innovative initiatives to promote economic development, downtown vitality, and smart planning within Minneapolis' city limits, while also promoted a robust spirit of regional cooperation. TPR was pleased to speak with Mayor Rybak about his success in the Twin Cities region, whose goals and challenges are not so different from those of Los Angeles.


R.T. Rybak

Minneapolis is a relatively small center city in a major metropolitan area. How do you collaborate to address regional issues in the Twin Cities area, and what are your priorities as a region?

Number one is to address the gap between haves and have-nots, which is too great in this region. The second is to put Minneapolis once again in the forefront of great urban planning around the country. Minneapolis in the 1960s, '70s and '80s became one of the leaders in smart regional planning and created a number of very effective regional governing models.

The Metropolitan Council, for instance, is a governing body that crosses the two cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul and the myriad of suburbs. It historically has been a very good structure. We had some pioneering tax-base sharing strategies called the Fiscal Disparities Act that helped poor property tax areas get compensation. So that structure was in place, and some tremendous things happened. The city grew in very productive ways, but over the years the regional emphasis died a bit and that needed to be reenergized with, quite simply, more visionary planning for the city.

So, affordable housing was the number-one part of my "close the gap" strategy. I've now expanded that to focus on housing and jobs. We've created close to 3,000 affordable housing units in Minneapolis since I became mayor and placed about 10,000 hard-to-employ people in jobs.

But from a regional perspective, we went from a governor who strongly supported regionalism in Jesse Ventura to one who ripped the soul out of much of the regional structure in our current governor, Tim Pawlenty. He was a suburban governor with very little understanding or appreciation for these urban qualities. He didn't get many of his votes from the city and lot of the time he tried not to put much back into it.

In any event, while that very destructive unraveling of this pioneering metropolitan governing was taking place, we weren't going to sit by and watch. So, I helped form a coalition to bring 52 regional mayors together across geography and ideology to focus first on affordable housing and now on regional transportation planning. And, that, I believe, has illustrated that while the state government of Minnesota is moving in the wrong direction on regional planning, the need to address these sweeping regional issues of affordable housing and transit are being pushed now by local units of government like cities.

Elaborate on the relationship between Minneapolis, St. Paul, and the suburbs, and on how you, as a mayor, build consensus among the entire metro region on affordable housing and transportation. What have you all agreed on, specifically?

We started with affordable housing, and siting affordable housing throughout a metropolitan area is not always easy, but I give great credit to my fellow mayors who sat at the table where we talked about inclusionary zoning and other issues and made great progress. We argued it from an asset base as opposed to a deficit or a charitable base. Instead of saying, "Here, take your affordable housing" like you'd tell your kid to take his medicine, we talked about the need to have a balanced economy and housing for the workforce. But even that argument will only take you so far. At the end of the day, having housing for those most in need may have something to do with the workforce but ultimately it is about a society opening its arms wider, and along with the mayors I have found great partners in progressive faith communities who help push some of these suburban communities to open their arms.

As for regional transportation, the first light-rail line opened here and it was a colossal success, and so now people are tripping all over themselves to get the next line. I just came back from meeting with the new mayor of St. Paul, also a strong regionalist, and we've agreed in this next session of legislature I will support the light rail line to St. Paul as the number-one priority. Those tradeoffs are important.

A few days ago, I met with our newly formed regional mayors association, and we all agree that it's time to start pushing a regional sales tax to put more money into transit. I imagine that as the governor gets into a reelection battle and sees that the gridlock on the road has become a more political issue and he will turn around just as so many mayors already have.

Let's focus on the city of Minneapolis and your tenure as mayor. You conducted, immediately after your election, a consulting study of the various departments and how they could work together. What did that study conclude, and how did that change the governmental structure of the city?

Right after being elected but before I took office, I approached McKinsey and Company, which offered to do a million dollar pro bono project for the city to reassess our development structure, and that led to the merging of our planning department with what had been an independent economic development agency. Those are now being tied together with our creation of a ten-year transportation plan and even parts of our public works into a single, focused part of what had been a far too fractured city government. That wasn't about moving boxes on an organization chart. It was saying that the people who are about growing the city and the people who are about planning the city should be cross-trained and thinking about the same thing.

Elaborate on that connection between economic development and holistic city planning.

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Minneapolis is positioning itself as aggressively pro-growth in a period when many suburbs aren't. So, this flips the old dynamic of suburbs being the growth but not cities. Minneapolis is, we believe, the first downtown in the country to have regained all the downtown population it lost after World War II. We now have 30,000 people living downtown and see no end in sight in the amount of housing construction, which of course turns the downtown from being a jumbo office park and shopping center into a 24-hour livable place to work and play.

Downtown revitalization is one of the major trends all across the country. You said Minneapolis set this trend early. Your region could, geographically, sprawl up to Canada if it wanted to, much like Los Angeles. What have been the incentives for people to support downtown Minneapolis?

Minneapolis sits at the edge of the prairie, so we could sprawl from here to Wyoming without getting into any major landmass except maybe the Black Hills. So, it's especially important for us to identify limits. I think our region suffers from sprawl just as everyone does, but the downtown has stayed very healthy for a number of reasons. First, downtown never lost its retail core. The Dayton's department store was headquartered here, and its flagship was always at the prime retail corner of downtown. It remains there today. Target is headquartered here with its flagship store as well. Best Buy is headquartered in the suburbs, and we're now working with them to try to get them to locate a flagship store in downtown Minneapolis.

There has also been, over the years, significant public investment in retail and entertainment growth in downtown. There had been retail incentives; there aren't now, nor should there be, because we've already seeded the market. We've also done a significant amount with the arts, not only with historic theaters but also with creating the new Walker Arts Center, the new Guthrie Theater, the new addition to the Institute of Art, the Children's Theater, the Central Library, and a new planetarium. These new cultural institutions together create a much more vibrant downtown, and that, mixed with the housing, has made it all very viable.

But I think a difference between Minneapolis and almost every other city in America is that we've kept to a plan and been very candid about where we want retail to be. Virtually any city that you go to has had sprawl within its downtown instead of a concentrated shopping core. You see a major store here, another store several blocks away, several blocks away another, and they're so spread out. In Minneapolis, we've always said that the focus of retail was Seventh and Nicollet, period. And when we're going after Best Buy, we're saying very intentionally that we don't want you to build a stand-alone store on the outskirts of downtown. We want you to build an urban store right at Seventh. That strong plan matters.

In L.A., Mayor Villaraigosa has made it clear that he wants to take over the LAUSD. What is your relationship with the schools in Minneapolis? How should a mayor address education?

I believe that all over America we're under-investing in education. The issues of schools in L.A. are, I'm sure, tied to the issues of schools and Minneapolis and many other places. We've tried to pretend we can educate in places where we speak 81 different languages while cutting the budget and wrapping them in "No Child Left Behind" red tape. National and state support of schools, I believe, is scandalous. A mayor's role should be to carry that message.

At the core a mayor's role is working on the issues of what happens at the end of the school day, what happens on the weekends, what happens in the summer, and what happens before the child is old enough for school and as the student moves into the workforce. We're doing an initiative now where we're working with private funding to set up career centers in the ninth grade of every Minneapolis school. That's tied to our summer jobs program, which now has several hundred people working each summer and is tied to a new initiative we're working on to provide college assistance to any city student who needs it.

In doing that, I don't believe the mayor's job is to pick out which book to teach in math class. The mayor's job is to make sure the schools have the political support they deserve to get the funding they need and also to work with our youth at times that they're not in our schools so they're ready to learn. We're also working on a national initiative in partnership with the league of cities and a number of other cities called "Ready By 21," which is a comprehensive approach to having the community really deliver on the promise that it does take a village.

You're in the second of two successful successive terms. L.A. has a new mayor who is also very popular and trying to make dramatic improvements in the city. Do you have any advice for him?

I followed his race very closely and was so excited about how he energized the community. I think it's time for mayors to speak up about how our federal government and often our state governments have no urban agenda. As one of the mayors who helped lead the U.S. Conference of Mayors work on affordable housing, which was led by Mayor Thomas Menino of Boston, I believe we need to stand up and stop waiting for the state and federal governments to help.

My main advice to Mayor Villaraigosa is be a partner in the wider effort to turn around this country's lack of value in urban school systems and investing in workforce and housing. We can say that our schools face huge challenges. In Minneapolis schools, people speak 81 languages, and I can't even imagine how many languages they must speak in L.A. Yet, we have to start talking about this from an asset standpoint because we now compete in a global economy and if we can educate the students of our region as we need to – with their skills in speaking 81 languages and experiences coming from around the world or at least being used to sitting next to somebody from around the world – they will be far better able to compete in the global economy than we ever were. So, we need to acknowledge that urban students are going to be the wave of the future in the global economy if we can give them the tools that they need and that, frankly, they're not getting them right now.

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© 2021 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.