Linden Hills, with all of its leafy, lakeside charm, makes for an improbable battle zone, yet the idyllic neighborhood in southwest Minneapolis tilts nervously on the front lines. Real estate developers, sensing a back-to-the-city shift in the market, have been busy measuring its main thoroughfares for new projects that fit the city’s policy aim of “densifying” commercial corridors.

Neighbors quickly sounded the alarm, stopped the invaders at every turn, and even clamped a moratorium on new development in the area until they can settle on a new, presumably more restrictive neighborhood plan.

“Our hope was to provide housing for people who wanted to downsize but stay in Linden Hills,” says developer Mark Dwyer, whose plans to transform a restaurant/parking lot at 43rd and Upton (now Famous Dave’s) into a corner of urban-style housing and retail have been repeatedly shot down.

As in other attractive neighborhoods in Minneapolis and St. Paul, people tend to prefer their surroundings just the way they are. Even along main streets, where city planners envision stretches of four- to five-story apartments over shops with lively pedestrian and transit options, the idea has met stiff resistance. As it turns out, the last thing the neighbors want is more neighbors.

Trouble is, more people and a growing tax base is precisely what Minneapolis and St. Paul need most if they hope to remain viable, livable, competitive cities. After six decades of declining population and sliding wealth, the need to grow again is critical.

That’s the wider perspective that never gets mentioned at the tumultuous zoning hearings and neighborhood meetings that still play out as melodramas: greedy invaders against heroic defenders of hearth and home. It’s an outdated script that fails to consider the cities’ larger needs or the shifting real estate market.

If, as developers and demographers suspect, the appetite for urban living is growing; if the local market is poised finally to join Seattle, Denver, and other national trendsetters; if last year’s modest uptick in core city population is the start of something truly significant, then the question must be squarely confronted:

Are Minneapolis and St. Paul really ready to grow? Or are their vigilant neighborhood politics and problematic zoning code poised to stop urban-style density in its tracks—or, at least, to make growth as difficult as possible, and drive away the developers, new people, and tax base that the cities need so badly?

Mayors Chris Coleman of St. Paul and R.T. Rybak of Minneapolis have pronounced their cities ready to grow. Indeed, city officials in Minneapolis, where a recent population spurt is most impressive, point to the nearly 6,000 residential units added in the teeth of the housing slump (with 2,800 more on the way) as proof that their strategies are working.

But developers and urban geographers have doubts, citing not only persistent neighborhood opposition but also fastidious bureaucracies, parochial politics, outdated zoning codes, and insufficient tools to finance the urban infrastructure needed to support growth (streetscape, transit, etc.).

Those shortcomings are best evaluated after a quick trip through the past six decades to see how Minneapolis and St. Paul arrived at this point.

Driven by Suburbia

Starting in the 1950s, it was suburban growth that tripled the metro population and remade the Twin Cities as one of the nation’s most admired and competitive places; the core cities were left behind. They retained their symbolic skylines, cultural attractions, and classic neighborhoods and parkways. But their once-solid blue-collar districts slipped gradually into poverty and social dysfunction as household sizes declined and middle-class families migrated outward. By 2010, Minneapolis had lost a fourth of its population, and household incomes in both core cities had fallen 32 percent below the suburban average, a staggering gap by national standards.

1112-Density_fig1.jpgAs a whole, the Twin Cities metro stacked up impressively against its highest-performing rival markets. But the metro was flourishing in spite of—or, perhaps, at the expense of—its struggling core. The 2010 census results cast a long shadow on the disparity. The core cities of Denver, Seattle, and Portland, Oregon, were growing and prospering along with their suburbs. Each added 45,000 to 55,000 people within their boundaries over the decade, and each recorded 28,000 to 38,000 units of new infill housing, enough to capture a 13- to-19 percent share of overall metro population growth.

In contrast, Minneapolis and St. Paul lost 2,100 people. While the cities managed to add a modest number of new housing units—15,000—those gains were offset by big population losses in north Minneapolis. As in most of the past 60 years, the core cities’ share of metro growth was zero. Income results weren’t much better, with Minneapolis and St. Paul suffering substantially higher poverty rates than top rivals.

Urban experts posed a scary question about the Twin Cities region: Can a body be truly healthy without a healthy heart? “My concern is that you’re not positioning yourself for the future market,” says the Brookings Institution’s Christopher Leinberger, lamenting the failure of Minneapolis and St. Paul to share in the region’s growth. “You think it’s still 1970.”

Good News, Bad Behavior

Finally in July came some good news. The Metropolitan Council released estimates showing a sharp reversal in population trends. Sixty percent of growth during 2010 had come in the central cities or inner suburbs. Minneapolis had quite suddenly added nearly 5,300 residents and St. Paul nearly 1,300, while many outer suburbs had suffered losses for the first time.

City officials greeted the numbers with cautious optimism. “I think we were just a decade behind the national trend,” says Tom Streitz, Minneapolis’ city housing director.

Although growth had been slower in St. Paul, the city has exhaustively prepared for development along University Avenue, where a light rail line will open in 2014. “We’re waiting for the developers to find us,” says Principal Planner Lucy Thompson.

The Met Council’s estimates could be an aberration. With a history of overwhelming preference for suburban living, it’s hard to put too much stock in one year.

Still, Minneapolis and St. Paul would be smart to do what businesses do when a favorable market appears. If the CEO proclaims growth of market share as the top priority, the company marshals its forces to pursue that goal. Unfortunately, cities are more complicated than businesses.

Start with the notion that city residents are skittish about newcomers bringing parking and traffic hassles and fraying the quiet decorum of many city enclaves. Indeed, political systems in both cities are lined up mainly to protect the wishes of the residents already in place, not to go prospecting for infill development. The reason: Neighbors vote; prospective neighbors don’t.

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