Council Member Lisa Bender reflects on busy first term

Council Member Lisa Bender said affordable housing would be a huge priority in another term. Submitted photo

There’s no question Council Member Lisa Bender has made a mark in her first four-year term on the council. She played a role in expanding the city’s bikeways, raising the minimum wage, adding requirements for earned safe and sick time, approving project designs in the midst of a Minneapolis apartment boom, nominating a new historic district in Lowry Hill East, and reducing parking requirements in new developments near transit.

Affordable housing would be a “huge priority” in another term, she said.

“Step one, we need to build more housing, because we don’t have enough for the people who want to live here,” she said. “…We’re losing more affordable housing than we’re able to build as a city.”

Other ideas would provide financial incentives for landlords to keep rents affordable, make it harder to evict tenants and require public notice so nonprofits have a chance to bid on forthcoming apartment sales.

Bender lives in the Wedge, and she has a background in urban planning in New York and San Francisco. She’s also a founder of the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition, now called Our Streets MPLS, and worked for the Minnesota Department of Transportation to help make it safer for kids to bike and walk to school.

Now Bender is escorting one of her own daughters  to school on bike. Helping to author the city’s Complete Streets policy was one of her top accomplishments in office, she said. The policy has shifted the conversation at City Hall from a focus on moving vehicles to a focus on pedestrian safety, she said.

Lisa Bender 2
Submitted photo

“We’re prioritizing the most vulnerable road users first,” she said. “It really changes how you look at the design of the street.”

Bikeways have become a divisive issue in the ward, as some small businesses and residents raise concerns about losing parking spaces to bike lanes.

“Parking is constrained in the ward, those are tough tradeoffs,” Bender said, adding that she’s compromised to keep parking in spots like 36th Street.

Bender’s supporters say they appreciate having an advocate for urban design in office, while some critics use the term “Bendrification” to protest growing density. (Bender said city officials approved 672 housing units in the 10th Ward during her term, and approved 1,408 units from 2009-2013.)

Bender’s 10th Ward opponents include Saralyn Romanishan, a resident of the Wedge neighborhood and Metro Transit employee who has been a vocal opponent of some development projects. She’s calling for more restraint in development approval, and she’s critical of reduced parking requirements.

Brooklyn Center High School teacher David Schorn joined the council race to address the rising cost of living in the ward. He said a new bikeway on 28th Street where he lives has created a “disaster,” and said reduced parking is hurting small businesses — the owner of Lucia’s reported the restaurant closed due to lack of parking, he said.

Republican candidate and Vietnam veteran Bruce Lundeen works in building trades, and he said the word “progressives” made him shiver during a recent candidate forum. He said he’d prefer to improve the economy to help people afford homes, rather than try to keep apartment rents low.

10th ward candidates Bruce Lundeen, Saralyn Romanishan, David Schorn and incumbent Lisa Bender at a candidate forum Oct. 3.
10th ward candidates Bruce Lundeen, Saralyn Romanishan, David Schorn and incumbent Council Member Lisa Bender at a candidate forum Oct. 3.

In response to challengers, Bender said reduced parking requirements for new developments near transit are meant to ultimately reduce rents and create the chance to build new housing. Structured parking can cost $25,000-$50,000 per space, she said, and parking requirements can mean demolition of more houses to assemble development sites.

“With parking reform, the reason that was so important is because there were so many sites in the city where you literally couldn’t build housing. But now you can,” she said.

She said the city has a new small business team that’s getting up and running.

“I know businesses feel like all these different things we’re doing as a city are putting more stress on them,” she said. “…We need to do more to support businesses proactively.”

BenderRegarding development approval, she explained that city officials work under legal guidelines and the zoning code as they approve projects.

“It’s a misperception to think that the Council Member gets to decide where buildings go and all the details of what they should look like,” she said.

Projects undergo months of feedback from the community and City Hall, and projects typically don’t reach the Planning Commission until city staff feels comfortable recommending approval, she said.

Bender said she tends to push for ground floors that are inviting to pedestrians and resident amenities like balconies and green spaces. Bender said she also tries to soften the transition between larger buildings and smaller homes across the alley.

“We’re just trying to get the best building for the context,” she said.

She’d like to see more small-scale development in neighborhoods across the city, and said she would take a close look at the zoning code to see if it’s generating the best design possible.

“How can we make it easier to build what we want?” she said.

Regarding police relations, Bender said the city needs to reflect on the duties of sworn police officers.

“What is their job description? Because right now we’re asking them to be an enforcer, and friend walking around, and social worker, and mental health responder, and it’s probably too much to ask,” she said. “Instead of doing that, let’s get the right people there for the job.”

Bender said she’s encouraged by a pilot program in which officers respond to 911 calls jointly with mental health professionals, as well as community-based policing and violence prevention strategies.

Bender said she would work to advance racial equity in another term, and she praised the city’s work thus far to make equity considerations part of standard operating procedure.

If Bender is reelected to another term, she doesn’t think the pace would slow down.

“We had a very, very busy first term,” she said. “…It’s an exciting time in the city.”