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


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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