Minneapolis long-range planning director Kjersti Monson takes a wide view of downtown’s future

Interview by John Reinan

Most city planners have been around the block. Lots of blocks, actually. But not all have seen as much of the world as Kjersti Monson has. After completing graduate degrees in both landscape architecture and urban planning at Harvard and a yearlong Fulbright fellowship in Belgium, the Blue Earth, Minnesota, native lived and worked in Shanghai as an urban planner and designer. In 2006, she joined global giant AECOM in Atlanta, where she served as market sector leader for real estate strategy for U.S. East.

Monson returned to Minnesota and was appointed to her current job, with the City of Minneapolis, two years ago, equipped with a broad perspective on what makes cities thrive. She lives in a downtown tower with her husband and two children, and her favorite hangouts are Loring Park and the Loring Greenway for family time, and St. Anthony Main for adult time with a chilled glass of wine. She spoke with Architecture MN contributor John Reinan about the city’s plans for downtown.

What’s your working definition of downtown Minneapolis? Does it include the North Loop? Does it include the area just across the river?

We have a downtown sector, which has specific boundaries roughly defined by the freeway belt and the river. But in terms of practicality and strategic thinking, we think of both sides of the river. When I think of downtown, I think of the entire area within the freeway belt and the river, as well as the key connections—across I-35W to Cedar-Riverside, south across I-94 and I-35W, across the river to the east, north to “the West Loop,” and northwest through Basset Creek to the Van White Station area on Highway 55.

Why is a healthy downtown important?

There are so many reasons. Downtown truly is the economic engine of the region. We’re at a point in the U.S. where “second-tier” cities like Minneapolis are on the rise. We can see clearly that net domestic migration is leaving first-tier cities like New York City and Chicago and moving to second-tier cities. And that’s because there’s a crisis of affordability. This, paired with a strong desire in the residential and commercial markets for walkable urbanism, creates an imperative that we have a strong core and a strong downtown.

Nationally, most of that migration is 25- to 35-year-olds. They’re very mobile, and they like city living. They want walkability, mixed uses, transit. So our core downtown has got to be competitive. That’s the player we’re putting on the field.

What are the city’s population and development goals for downtown?

We’ve been supportive of the Downtown Council’s goal of 70,000 residents downtown by 2025. That is about a doubling—it’s  around 37,000 now. And we have a citywide goal of 500,001.

We’re ramping up toward our next [comprehensive] plan update, so we’re doing a lot of basic research and inventorying. That’s going to give us some perspective on what development goals could be, to support strategic objectives. We know, for example, that a ton of the [housing] inventory in Minneapolis—both single family and multifamily—is one- and two-bedroom. We are wildly short on three-bedroom and larger accommodations for families. So people are moving to the suburbs to get that bigger house. This may not be an issue for a regional economy like ours from an economic growth point of view, but it has a livability impact. Residents bring buying power for retail. They pay taxes and provide transit ridership. There are climate and traffic impacts. So we want to attract and retain population.

There’s been discussion of the relative merits of wood-frame construction downtown versus “100-year buildings.” Your thoughts?

This is a fascinating question. Clearly the city’s growth goals will not be met if we continue to avoid higher densities in areas that would accept higher density. We would like to see higher density. There is a balance between what is allowed by zoning—and that’s on us—and what will pencil out for the developer. There’s a huge jump in price from a stick-built walkup to adding an elevator core. So we have to have an appetite for that height and density. And I think we at the City do.

The city, through its regulations and zoning, has to establish a position. And this goes back to the [comprehensive] plan and being very purposeful about where we are guiding growth, and sticking to it.

What kinds of development contribute to achieving your goals for downtown?

Every kind of development can contribute. I think a lot of the amenities [we want to see] depend on our having a residential population. We’re very strong in our office core. But adding significant residential is going to bring more retail. It’s going to add a significant constituency for park programming. You hear the phrase “Retail follows rooftops,” and it’s absolutely true. We have substantial vacancy in Class B office downtown. Perhaps looking at potential adaptive reuse for Class B that is geared more toward the residential population would be interesting.

But of course we also want to see a lot more institutional involvement. We want to see our university population downtown be strong. We have some industrial use downtown—Izzy’s [Ice Cream Kitchen] is an example of the new downtown industrial. There’s a place for that kind of maker community.

Let’s talk about the river. How is the city planning to maximize this amazing natural resource?

Here’s what I will say: In the [early 1970s,] the same era in which the EPA was formed nationally, a lot of regulations went into place at local levels to protect environmental assets. And that happened here, too. The legislature created the Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area, which was to be guided by the DNR as a protected corridor.

What came out of that was new thinking about the river as a natural asset. But a lot of the guidance for the river was pretty much the same whether it was running through the wilderness or a post-industrial channel in a central business district. Same setback, same basic rules. So our river has evolved as a passive corridor with wide setbacks, even as it flows through downtown. That differs from the sort of thing other cities have done with downtown waterfronts—like creating hard edges and docks, bringing restaurants to the water, and permitting active uses such as paddle zones or swimming.

For the past 18 months, we’ve been talking to the Park Board and the DNR as the State prepares to update this policy, and one of the things we’ve been advocating for is differentiated guidance along the river as it flows through the state. Particularly in the central business district, we want to be able to have the city touch the river more purposefully in certain places. We want an update to the Critical Area policy that includes differentiated “districts” along the corridor with differentiated rules—like how close a structure can be to the high water line, or how tall it can be, or whether there can even be a structure. And [we also want it to include] guidance on how underlying zoning and planning interacts with the overlay of the state-adopted corridor.

Which cities are we in competition with, and how are we doing against them?

I look at Denver, Portland, Seattle, and Austin. I’m sure there are others, but those are the ones I’ve tuned in to, because we’re all competing in terms of the creative economy—in general terms of scale and being classified as second-tier cities but actually having a leading role. The Twin Cities is the second-largest economy in the Midwest after Chicago.

We’re doing pretty darn well. One of those areas where [Minneapolis is] winning is buying power. If you do a comparative analysis considering metro median income and the cost of living, we outcompete every city except Austin. We’re better than Denver, and we’re way better than Portland and Seattle. And we’re miles ahead of the first-tier cities. Your Minneapolis dollar is equivalent to 41 cents in New York City.

We have the top park system in the nation. Our recreational network is second to none. We have our 19 Fortune 500s and a strong workforce. We have this incredible creative economy—we’re fifth in the nation in terms of the value of our creative economy. And we have a great craft beer culture, a great music culture.

All of these things are of value to the next generation of entrepreneurs. One key thing we’re missing is a way to promote that—we’ve got to make our brand a little cooler. And we need to find a way to make more of an investment in our public realm—the physicality of our civic being. For a person moving through our downtown area, there should be a greater sense of civic pride. We’ve got to work on that.