Turning the Twin Cities into Sim City

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Turning the Twin Cities Into Sim City
The Metropolitan Council’s plans include making sure there is a proper mix of races and incomes in each suburb.

May 19, 2014

Wall Street Journal

Minneapolis

Here in the Twin Cities, a handful of unelected bureaucrats are gearing up to impose their vision of the ideal society on the nearly three million residents of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro region. According to the urban planners on the city’s Metropolitan Council, far too many people live in single family homes, have neighbors with similar incomes and skin color, and contribute to climate change by driving to work. They intend to change all that with a 30-year master plan called “Thrive MSP 2040.”

The Met Council, as it’s known here, was founded in the 1960s to coordinate regional infrastructure—in essence, to make sure that sewers and roads meet up. Over the years, its power to allocate funds and control planning has expanded. Now, under Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton—who appointed all 17 current members—the council intends to play Sim City with residents’ lives.

Thrive MSP 2040 is part of a nationwide movement called “regionalism.” Regional planning of infrastructure is important, of course. But regionalism, as an ideology, is about shifting power away from local elected officials and re-engineering society on behalf of “equity” and “sustainability.” According to regionalist guru David Rusk, author of the book “Cities Without Suburbs,” federal programs that promote regionalism should strive to produce “racially and economically integrated and environmentally sustainable regions.”

While minority residents have been streaming into the Twin Cities’ suburbs for the past 15 years, the Met Council wants to make sure there is a proper race-and-income mix in each. Thus it recently mapped every census tract in the 2,800 square-mile, seven-county region by race, ethnicity and income. The purpose was to identify “racially concentrated areas of poverty” and “high opportunity clusters.” The next step is for the council to lay out what the region’s 186 municipalities must do to disperse poverty throughout the metro area.

The council has provided few details, beyond noting that it will emphasize construction of low-income housing in “higher-income areas.” But the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development—the source of the $5 million planning grant used to fund the racial mapping—says that mapping is intended, in part, to identify suburban land-use and zoning practices that allegedly deny opportunity and create “barriers” for low-income and minority people. Under its forthcoming “Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing” rule, HUD will provide communities with “nationally uniform data” of what it views as an appropriate racial, ethnic and economic mix. Local governments will have to “take meaningful actions” to further the goals identified.

The Met Council has declared that “transit-oriented development” will be the guiding principle of regional development. To this end, the Thrive plan instructs the region’s municipalities to consider “travel modes other than the car at all levels of development.” The strategy has two parts. First, the council wants all future housing and economic development within “easy walking distance” (one-half mile) of major transit stops—primarily in the urban core and inner-ring suburbs. There tax dollars (mostly from people who live elsewhere) will be lavished on high-density housing, bike and pedestrian amenities and subsidized retail shops.

The Thrive plan also will pour public funds into mass transit while virtually ignoring congestion relief on highways. The Twin Cities region is projected to have just $52 million available annually from 2014 to 2022 for highway congestion relief, according to the Minnesota Department of Transportation. Yet the Met Council intends to spend at least $1.7 billion on a single light-rail project, with more rail transit to follow.

The Thrive plan’s most radical element may be to evaluate all future development policies through the “lens” of climate change. Over time, this could give the council a license to dramatically remake the entire metro area.

One former member of the Met Council told me that in the not-so-distant future local governments seeking approval of a new sewer line may first have to meet onerous “carbon footprint” dictates. The council apparently views herding people into dense urban conclaves and restricting their use of cars as the key to reducing greenhouse gases. Yet an exhaustive report by McKinsey & Co. in 2007 found that neither driving less nor densification is necessary and that technological advances, such as fuel-economy improvements, can achieve sufficient reductions.

Regional planning is on the march in other states. Leading examples include “Plan Bay Area” in the nine-county San Francisco Bay region and “Seven/50” in southeast Florida. The movement is getting a strong assist from the Obama administration, which is aggressively promoting such plans through new HUD rules and grants like the one awarded the Met Council.

So far, Twin Cities-area mayors and city councils have not mounted organized resistance to the Thrive plan. Yet even officials in inner-ring suburbs such as Brooklyn Park, which hope to benefit from light rail, are troubled by the plan’s aggressive densification provisions. Many officials in outer-ring counties such as Scott and Anoka worry their communities will disproportionately shoulder the plan’s costs while getting little back in infrastructure and public services. Fearing retaliation, many local officials hesitate to speak out against a Met Council power grab that will undermine their ability to direct their own communities’ future.

Once implementation begins, however, Twin Cities residents will likely realize that Thrive MSP 2040’s centralized decision-making and Orwellian appeals to “equity” and “sustainability” are a serious threat to their democratic traditions of individual liberty and self-government. Let’s hope that realization comes sooner rather than later.

Ms. Kersten is a senior fellow at the Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis.

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