Advice to R.T.: Small is beautiful

Oh yeah, civic infrastructure and balancing competing interests look good, too

Mayor R.T. Rybak recently asked the design community for ideas on how to make Minneapolis a better city. So here, R.T., is my list of three broad themes that should guide your thinking about design in Minneapolis over the next four years:

1. Think small: Forget "silver bullet" mega-development projects like Block E. They don't work. Minneapolis is cluttered with the carcasses of once-grand schemes that turned into white elephants, sucking millions of taxpayer dollars from city neighborhoods. When's the last time you went "festive retail" shopping at Riverplace? Or had a drink at Mississippi Live? (Do you even remember Mississippi Live?) The paint is hardly dry on the Metrodome and both the Twins and Vikings want to tear it down. The city was forced to buy Target Center. Gaviidae Center is teetering on the brink of foreclosure.

Instead it's the little projects built with private dollars -- an infill house built on an iffy block, a coffee shop in a renovated building, a new front porch on a once-gracious four-square -- that improve our quality of life. Such modest projects are neither glamorous nor dramatic, but together they make the city work.

Likewise, Fortune 500 companies can take care of themselves. Focus city energy instead on helping small businesses grow. Who knows which of the thousands of little home-based businesses percolating in garages, attics, and spare bedrooms across Minneapolis will turn into the next amazon.com or Dell? Elected officials can't predict what companies will turn into the big employers of the future, so they should think small and spread the wealth among lots of more modest projects. One big project is almost guaranteed to fail. By funding many smaller projects, you'll always have a few that succeed.

2. Think civic: Minneapolis should not focus on subsidizing large-scale private development, but rather on creating a wonderful civic infrastructure that will attract private development. Think of the lakes. Over a century ago, Minneapolis invested in public parks with walking and bicycling paths, beaches and a community bandshell. City leaders believed in creating the greatest good for the greatest number of citizens. Today neighborhoods surrounding the lakes have the highest property values in Minneapolis.

High property values = high property tax revenue. Civic investment pays off.

Extend this thinking to downtown and other neighborhoods. If the City built a great urban park in the central business district, the value of surrounding property would skyrocket. We're already seeing how the most desirable addresses Downtown are along the Nicollet Mall--a grand piece of civic infrastructure that the city has invested in over several decades. What civic infrastructure could the city build in other neighborhoods, like North Minneapolis, to increase property values and civic pride?

Think civic on a grand scale, but also on a small scale. For example, almost all the benches in town have been eliminated for fear homeless people will sleep on them. Bring them back! Who but Ebeneezer Scrooge wants to live in a city so mean-spirited and small? Be grand and magnanimous.

3. Think balance: The core of architecture is the struggle to balance firmness, commodity and delight. Architects are constantly asking: Will the building stand up? Will it function well? Will it be beautiful? A beautiful building that doesn't function well is as much a failure architecturally as an ugly building that functions well.

A city also needs to balance utility, function and beauty. Too often design decisions are scattered among various departments, and any one department, left to its own devices, will maximize its own interests.

For example, converting a street from two-way to one-way may increase average traffic speeds and allow more cars to flow through an intersection per hour, but

high-speed, one-way streets are death to neighborhoods. Yes, more cars flow more quickly through the Hennepin and Lake intersection since the streets were converted to one-way, but the flood of speeding SUVs has pretty much killed street life. Traffic engineers won't worry about what it feels like to walk next to a too-fast street: they'll just work to maximize traffic flow.

Someone in the city must have the vision to balance competing interests. So what if it takes a Wayzata homeowner longer to drive home after work? Think balance.

Good luck, R.T., over the next four years. If you never forget that all design -- like all politics -- is local, you'll do fine.