Active investment and passive divestment: A small town’s fight against itself.

“In its garden-sheltered streets and aisles of elms is white and green New England reborn.”

The famous author Sinclair Lewis wrote these words about my very own Mankato, MN and if you were to go downtown, you can see the shell of his words.

One of my friends in town, who’s significantly older than I am,  talks about what Mankato used to be like. He says that pre-urban renewal, we had a downtown that easily rivaled Galena, IL.

Like many cities in America, an iron wrecking ball under the auspices of “renewal” came in and shattered the bones of our great cities to make way for king car. Now, 50+ years later, we’re still trying to get our downtowns back.

That’s why it’s so sad to see cities work against themselves. City Councils often think they are doing good, pleasing both sides of the “growth” coin, but a closer look shows that they often flip a weighted coin–one that always lands downtown side down.

Mankato, MN is no different and we’re doing exactly what I mentioned above.

You may have heard my complain about the new middle school that they plan to build way out on the edge of town. It’s a massive 65 acre campus being built with the idea that growth will happen around the school. Even though there’s evidence to suggest that schools cause sprawl, we’re plugging along with the project like nothing has changed in the world since 1992.

The problem with the “growth will follow” model is that you’re making active investments in parts of town that
A. Have smaller returns on city investment.
B. Hurt your agenda and commitment to a strong city core.

Cities, especially small cities in the midwest, still have the idea that the downtown is a destination. I can’t tell you how many times during the Front St. Redevelopment council meeting I heard the phrase “Dining and Entertainment District.” This isn’t right and not even close to what a downtown should be. A mentality like this sets your city core up for failure when you inevitably saturate the market with too many knitting stores, cafes and music joints and not enough pharmacies, grocery stores, and daycares.

Think about your downtown as a child and good dining/entertainment as dessert.

We as humans are ingrained to help our progeny succeed. We want them to be strong, healthy and to live a long prosperous life. Accomplishing this requires a varying amount of factors, but one of them is food. We know that food is the key to life and growth. Parents don’t feed their children dessert food for breakfast, lunch and dinner (yeah you could argue that we’re getting there) because it’s unsustainable for the child. Without proper nutrients (veggies=quality, diverse housing, retail and services) your child will not become strong, it will in fact, become quite ill.

Same thing with downtowns. Too much of the “fun stuff” doesn’t bring back a downtown. Cities need to invest in making meaningful buildings happen. Things like grocery stores, mechanics, barbers, gyms, dept. stores, etc, etc…

So, what does this have to do with the school? Well exactly as the report I cited above says, parents, who want the best for their children, will move to be close to the school so they bear the brunt of the necessary commute, not the child. When everyone moves out near the school, the downtown is left with mainly rental property and in a college town, that generally means low-income, déclassé houses and buildings. This is the active investment on the edge of town and the passive divestment and undermining of our downtown.

This is exactly what’s happening in Mankato. We triumphantly dump 1.3 million of tax-payer money into redeveloping Front St. only to make it a destination instead of an integral part of people who live downtown. A majority of the things you need still reside on the far-flung hilltop. We need meandering, we need strollers and perusers.

Imagine for a minute that the city decided they were going to take the same 1.3 million they spent on Front St. or the bonding money for the civic center and clean up some of the old industrial sites near the downtown. They could then zone them for R2 and turn them over to a developer for new, shiny row-houses eliminating farmland being paved over and re-investing in the downtown at the same time. That’s active investment in housing and passive investment in downtown retail. We could put the money toward making the area below nice for everyone.

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This article sounds like it’s an attack on the new school, which it’s not meant to be. It’s meant to be a exposition on the hidden tug of war we’re playing with our votes. I love that we’re getting the revamp of Front St., but downtown investments can be boondoggles just like sprawl if it offers little to no return on investment.

I get a lot of criticism from people that I complain a lot and don’t offer any real solutions, so here:

I think that a tempered solution would first be not zoning such massive parcels for development. During the planning process for cities, they’ll often mark these huge sections of land for low density residential, and as we know from induced demand, if you build it, they will come. If we do decide to zone undeveloped land, make it simple, connected, and incremental.  We should also look back to our cores and keep nothing sacred. Every couple of years the city center should be assessed and re-zoned appropriately, even if it means tearing down old buildings (to a degree–Mankato’s downtown didn’t come about by keeping the 1840s wood shanties.)

At least for Mankato, it’s crucial to have single family housing near the city center. With that being said, we have way too many rentals (houses) downtown and in the surrounding blocks. If at all possible, we should reduce the number of rentals and encourage healthy home ownership. We can do this by re-zoning near the college, where the bulk of renters need to be. I’ve found a lot of large single family housing near downtown that has been turned into multiple “family” (college kids) housing. We should look to rezone these into high density residential and invite developers to look at our core and building higher efficiency, higher returning buildings.

I will be the first to admit that I don’t know everything that’s happening behind the doors of City Council (maybe everyone should…), but they have definitely given the appearance of more of the same. I know most of the council members, they’re all really great people, I would love to see them embrace creative solutions to tough problems. The cheap thing (which most cities migrate to) is usually never the quality thing to do and that’s just the problem with so many Midwestern cities, if not all cities in America. We’ve taken on massive financial obligations be it through big city governments, massive infrastructure costs, fraud or whatever. We then experience “growth” and the easiest, most affordable places to build things are way out on the edge of town. This cycle of thinking only hurts our cities in the long run. It ruins any sense of “place” for residents and burdens us with a myriad of problems.

What I’ve said above is nothing groundbreaking, nothing new. We know all this now, we know that our cities have become financially unsustainable in many places. This is why I think the new focus for urbanists and developers should be small cities much like Mankato. Cities where you know leaders, where you can mold the future, where life moves a bit slower and where people stop to say hi.

We can bring back place in America and I think it starts in small cities downtowns.

About Matthias Leyrer

Matthias Leyrer is a resident of Mankato looking to restore a fraction of its old glory. He writes about the economic, aesthetic, practical and financial issues facing the city of Mankato going forward.