4.3 What Do We Mean When We Say “Politics?”

For the purposes of studying the implementation of urban public realm projects, I propose a definition of “politics” that goes well beyond just electoral politics. Politics is about people and it means everyone from the mayor down to that one unhappy resident or business owner who will call the newspaper or the councilmember if they don’t like what is happening. So I also propose that politics falls into three broad categories: Capital “P” politics (related to elected officials and bodies of government); small “p” politics, which includes almost everyone else and broadly includes stakeholders, community members, and special interests; and bureaucratic politics, which has to do with inter-and intra-governmental relations between individuals, departments, agencies, and governments.

Capital “P” Politics

Capital “P” politics is politics that have to do with actual elected officials. For really big projects that are citywide assets or large enough in scale or budget, the most important elected official is usually the mayor. The mayor may not be as involved in a small neighborhood park but could choose to promote and lead a project that can be argued will benefit all city residents. For really large and important urban public realm projects, the mayor’s support and leadership can be critical to success, as it will help with engagement, approvals, design and fundraising. A project that does not have the mayor’s support may face longer odds of success.

After the mayor, and for community scaled projects, the most important elected politician typically is the City Councilmember whose ward or district the project is located in. Whether or not the district councilmember supports or opposes the project is probably the most important thing of all, as other forms of support or opposition follow. In many American cities there is a historical tradition called “Councilmanic Prerogative” (in Philadelphia, for example) or “Aldermanic Privilege” (in Chicago, for example), which means that the rest of the council members defer to the wishes of the councilmember in whose ward the project or issue is taking place. [1]

In other words, councilmembers don’t try to influence things in other wards because if they do, other councilmembers will seek to influence what’s happening in their ward. The idea is that each councilmember has unique knowledge of the issues in their ward and relationships with those constituents, so their opinion carries more weight. In practice this means, “you support me on issues in my ward and I’ll support you on issues in your ward” or, sometimes, “you stay off my turf and I’ll stay off yours.”

Typically, council usually will vote with, or at least not oppose, the district council member when the whole council must vote on a project. The relations amongst city council members also matter over the long run, too, because over time council may be voting on numerous actions for one project, such as a vision, design, funding, designer and contractor contracts, capital and operating funding, or all of those things.

For projects that will rely on approvals and funding from superior governments (the county, state, and federal governments as well as other regional governments such as the Met Council in the Twin Cities), then those politics come into play as well. For large projects with a statewide benefit it is common to seek grants (bond funding) from the state, which may require lobbying the governor’s office and members of the legislature for support – and being willing to solicit and integrate their feedback if you hope to receive their funds.

Prior to starting any project, it is important to understand which elected bodies and individual elected politicians will be involved as well as those who may be interested and to begin talking to those people as soon as possible. Elected politicians include but are not limited to:

  • Mayor
  • District Councilmember
  • City Council Committees and Committee Chairs (Public Works, Economic Development, etc.)
  • Other city council members with specific interests, such as jobs, sustainability, the environment, equity, affordable housing, access, bikes, cars, downtown business, public safety, etc.
  • City Council as a body
  • County Commissioners
  • Governor, governor’s office, state administration
  • State legislators (senators and congressmen/women) – individuals, committee chairs and co-chairs, committees, and the house and senate as voting bodies
  • Metropolitan Council members (in the Twin Cities)

Example – Mayoral Politics and the Media

In the summer of 2017, the Nicollet Mall project was in its second year of construction (third if you count preliminary utility work) and the local elections were on the horizon for that fall. One mayoral candidate who was challenging the incumbent chose as their primary election plank the fact that the Nicollet Mall project was a disaster, had taken too long, was off schedule, and that it was the fault of the incumbent mayor and her administration. The incumbent lost but the challenger lost too, and another candidate was elected mayor. It is not clear that the Nicollet Mall project construction duration was the reason for the outcome of the election but it does not seem to have played a major role in public opinion. The long construction period, however, did create a lot of stress for businesses and property owners and after a while, fatigue had set in. In the end, the project was basically on schedule but a different narrative had taken shape around the perceived endlessness of it and the constant delays. [2] Towards the end of the project, after a lot of media attention, one Star Tribune reporter made fun of himself and his media colleagues saying, “and Nicollet Mall has taken 12 years to finish!” The fact is, perception becomes reality and big disruptive projects can influence careers and elections. The ten-block-long Hennepin Avenue in downtown will be under construction from 2019-2022, so we will see if that project becomes an issue in the next mayor’s race, in 2021.

Photo of the Minneapolis mayoral candidates in 2017.
Figure 43. Minneapolis Mayoral Candidates – 2017. Photo from “The students’ guide to the 2017 Minneapolis election,” Minnesota Daily, November 2, 2017, https://www.mndaily.com/article/2017/11/election-hub, accessed August 8, 2019.

Example – Fundraising and Which Mayor?

For a big project, a group of business leaders were putting together the fundraising committee. They needed to raise a lot of money, they had a big business leader ready to serve as co-chair, and they wanted to ask a former mayor to be the other co-chair. Then someone asked, “before we ask the former mayor, shouldn’t we ask the current mayor first?” The committee felt that the former mayor was more invested in the project, would take more interest in the fundraising role than the current mayor, and would be more effective at fundraising. But not asking the current mayor could be offensive and might backfire if that mayor chose to withhold support for the project. So, the fundraising committee asked the current mayor first – and they accepted the invitation. The fundraising goal was not reached (whether or not it was ever realistic) and some features had to be removed from the project. Some believe that if the former mayor had been involved more money might have been raised but no one will ever know.

Example – Bonding and Statewide Elections
Sometimes you don’t know how lucky you are until later. In 2012 the City of Minneapolis requested a state grant from the legislature to help fund the reconstruction of Nicollet Mall, based on the argument that it was an economic engine for the entire state and that it effectively served as the State’s main street and primary business address. The legislature did not make a grant and the feedback was that it was a large number and that there was little vision – they couldn’t understand what they were getting other than a street, and streets are typically funded locally. Later that year, The mayor, several elected city and state officials, and a group of city business leaders developed a plan to use a design competition to promote the project and create a vision that would help sell the idea and attract the state funds. The competition work started in March 2013 and ended in September 2013 when James Corner Field Operations (JCFO), the designer of the Highline in New York City, was selected to design the new Nicollet Mall. In December, JCFO signed their contract with the City and began work on the concept design – taking their competition entry and developing it to reflect client, stakeholder, and community input. With JCFO on board, the project team also began to lobby the state heavily – from January until May 2014, when the Legislature included a grant of $21.5M for the project – a statewide benefit and economic engine – in its bi-annual bonding bill. With that grant, the project went from speculative to real in one day. Six months later, in the November election of that year, the legislature flipped from democratic majority to republican majority and with that flip, support for city-related projects and initiatives shrank as interest in out-state spending grew. The legislature typically takes up a bonding bill only in even numbered years, so if the project had not received that grant in 2014, it is very unlikely that it would have received funding in 2016 or 2018. In the election of November 2018, the house flipped back to being majority democrat (the senate stayed republican and the new Governor remained a democrat, like his predecessor) so under the best of circumstances, state funding for the Nicollet Mall project might have become possible again in 2020 and, if awarded a grant, the project might be completed by 2023 or 2024, nearly a decade later.

Small “p” Politics/Stakeholder Politics

There are many different types of stakeholders and I personally think of stakeholders as comprising a type of “Russian Doll” of influence. One way to think about stakeholders is that they are all important but some are more important than others. The following is a partial list of stakeholders

  • Elected politicians (see above)
    • Councilmember within whose district the project is/will be located
    • Other councilmembers with specific interests (e.g., sustainability, the environment, finance, economic development, etc.)
    • The Mayor
    • Superior government elected officials and staff (county, regional, state, federal, and local and regional special district governments, such as watershed districts and park districts)
  • The Downtown Business Community (organized and powerful business leaders acting together, as represented by organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce. In Minneapolis there is a chamber, but the Minneapolis Downtown Council is the organization that has historically played the major role of representing business)
  • The local “Growth Machine” members (Big companies, the business community generally, sports teams, educational and medical institutions – “eds and meds,” arts and culture institutions, and media companies – print, television, radio, and online)
  • The Neighborhood Association or other community organization where the project is/will be located
  • Nearby neighbors who will be most affected by the project
  • The Business Association where the project is/will be located
  • Nearby affected property owners (office buildings, apartments, condos, hotels, restaurants, libraries)
  • Nearby affected business owners (office buildings, parking garages and lots, bars and restaurants, and retail, for example)
  • Single issue interest groups (Audubon Society in the case of bird-safe glass; Clean Water Action in the case of water quality, various environmental groups in the case habitat protection – birds, bees, bats, turtles, etc. – and, for example, pollinator-friendly plants and flowers)
  • Accessibility/mobility related interest groups (bicycle, pedestrian, and disabled communities)
  • Operator (the city or other government, business improvement district, or non-profit operator of the facility who will be responsible for operations, maintenance, and programming/activation)
  • Key individual promoters of the project (politicians, business leaders, community members, institutions)
  • Donors (corporate and private donors may have an interest in the design)
  • And last but not least, the users (The people who you hope will come to the place, including nearby residents, patrons of nearby businesses, nearby employers and workers, visitors, tourists, and all residents and taxpayers of the city)
  • The project team members (the success of the project will depend upon them and their reputations and opportunities will be influenced by how successful the project is)
    • City project team leader
    • City staff running the project
    • Designers and other key consultants
    • Contractors
    • Consultants

Example – That one little Restaurant

Road projects can be very disruptive and damaging to businesses that are served by the street that is being reconstructed. Unfortunately, roads in Minnesota’s climate need to be reconstructed every 25-30 years and there is no easy, quick, or non-disruptive way to do it. Road projects are even more difficult and time-consuming when old or inadequate underground utilities deep in the ground must be replaced or reconstructed. The New Hennepin Avenue Downtown project will require the replacement of a storm sewer that is 20’ below the street, requiring a big trench, because the sewer was built in 1884, when Chester Arthur was the President (ever heard of him?). So, a big part of stakeholder engagement on road projects is with the property owners, residents, and business owners that line the street. On one recent project, the owner of a small restaurant (a tenant in another property owner’s building) attracted a lot of media attention during a mayoral election. The restaurant owner complained to the district council member, the mayor’s office, and other city agencies and then decided to vocally support one of the incumbent mayor’s competitors in the upcoming election. The owner received a lot of media attention and sympathy and lot of exposure in print and on television. There is no doubt that this business owner and many others suffered during the project but in the grand scheme of things this was perhaps the smallest – yet most vocal – of many other restaurants and bars that were affected. No one was ever able to determine the individual’s true motive – the alleviation of pain, the hope for some form of monetary assistance from the city, a genuine interest in mayoral politics, or something else.

Example – What are they doing in Miami?

Donors are important stakeholders because, if they are interested in donating, they are also likely to be personally interested in the project, will want to be involved, and may want to influence the design. In some case key donors may have an idea or want to point to an example. On one project, an institution was considering acquiring technology that would allow for outdoor programming and help to attract larger audiences. One donor was a potential provider of the technology and others were interested in seeing it implemented as a way to improve the public project as well as the institution’s programing offerings. One similar institution in Miami had successfully implemented a similar outdoor program using the same technology, so a small group of donors and project design team members made a trip to see it. The trip helped all parties understand better how the program and technology worked, but travel and meals together also strengthened relations between the leaders of the institution, potential donors, and those designing and implementing the project, all in a way that made future conversations and negotiations more fruitful. In many ways, the trip ended up being more about relationship building and helping the project team develop an esprit des corps and work better together throughout the duration of the project.

Example – Accessibility vs. Preservation?

There are many different interests surrounding Peavey Plaza, but an over-simplified version of the story is that there was a simple (some would argue a “false”) choice to be made between preserving an important example of a late mid-century modern “brutalist” urban plaza, and making the place accessible and compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, which was enacted after the plaza was built in 1975. As is often the case, things are more complicated and less black and white. Regarding preservation, many surrounding neighbors had lived nearby for decades and, over the years, had taken their children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren to the plaza since its opening in 1975. These neighbors were interested in seeing the plaza rehabilitated and improved – but not completely replaced. Two non-profit historic preservation advocacy organizations, the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota (PAM) and the Washington, DC-based Cultural Landscape Foundation (CLF), were the original plaintiffs in the lawsuit, when the first design, for the complete replacement of the plaza was unveiled in 2012. These groups succeeded in having the plaza placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2012, which, in turn, put the plaza under the jurisdiction of the US Department of the Interior, whose standards are interpreted by the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) – the state agency responsible for regulating historic preservation. Despite their shared interest in preservation, there is not always complete agreement amongst these different groups and the individuals who represent them, as even preservation advocacy, design, and regulatory folks have slightly different perspectives. Similarly, accessibility is required under ADA but there are different voices in the accessibility community too. In Minneapolis, these interests are represented by the Minneapolis Advisory Committee On People with Disabilities (MACOPD), which advises and provides recommendations on public projects. This committee includes people with mobility, sight, hearing, and other impairments. In the past, mobility impaired people had a difficult time experiencing Peavey Plaza because it was sunken and had many steps and terraces but no ADA-compliant ramps – people simply had difficulty getting in, around, and out of the plaza. Sight-impaired people had a whole different experience, as the plaza for them was one big potential trip-and-fall opportunity. With so many stairs, many sight impaired people just stayed far away from the plaza. So, even in what can over-simplified as a false choice scenario (preservation vs. accessibility) there are many more shades of gray on both sides and as many different perspectives and opinions as there are individuals involved. And beyond preservation and accessibility, there were many other important issues including lighting and public safety, water usage in the fountains, design for operations and maintenance, the provision of infrastructure for event use, and the balancing of all of these needs with costs. In the To manage and integrate these interests, the City’s project team created a “technical committee” that included the design team and city staff as well as members of both the preservation and accessibility communities to work through the details of the design. In the end, much of the plaza was preserved and restored to its original condition and most of the “character defining features” were retained. In several areas where changes had already been made, new ADA-accessible ramps were inserted. The one big change was that the former 2’-6” deep reflecting pool – a very big character defining feature – was changed in a way that made the plaza more accessible and safer. A new surface of black granite was installed flush with the surrounding sidewalk was installed. A thin layer of water – ¼” – covers the granite which turns dark and reflects the blue sky. The reflectiveness makes the basin look very much like the original sunken basin but anyone can walk – or roll their wheelchair or stroller – across it. Most important, the ability of all of these people to come to agreement led to the completion and reopening of the plaza after a decade of operating with the fountains off. If there had not been agreement, there could have been more delay, and even other lawsuits – from both the preservation and disabled communities. So, the politics of this project had a lot to do with arriving at a design that would accommodate the needs of both of these key interest groups.

People wading in a shallow pond at the Peavey Plaza grand opening celebration.
Figure 44. Peavey Plaza Grand Opening, July 2019. Author.

Bureaucratic Politics

Never underestimate how important and powerful people within (and between) bureaucracies can shape a project – for better or for worse – based on their own personal and professional interests, motives, agendas, and perspectives. Staff work for the elected officials and must do what they are directed to do, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t make things easier – or harder – depending upon their own ideas and their own relations with other staff, design team members, and stakeholders. Bureaucratic staff include:

  • Department head for the department implementing the project
  • Project team leader and staff assigned to the project
  • Department heads
    • Finance
    • Public works
    • Economic development
    • Planning
    • Administration
    • Procurement/Purchasing
    • Mayor’s office/staff
    • Council offices/staff
    • Sustainability
  • Other governments
    • Park Board (in Minneapolis, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board or MPRB)
    • Special District Government (For example, the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization or MWMO)
    • County
    • Regional government (In the Twin Cities, Met Council, including Met Transit)
    • State (Administration, economic development, Department of Natural Resources, etc.)
    • Federal (National Park Service, Department of the Interior, Army Corps of Engineers)

Example – Intergovernmental Relations (IGR) and Bonding

In 2010 the Minnesota Legislature included in the Bonding Bill for that year a $2M grant to the City of Minneapolis to be used in the rehabilitation of Peavey Plaza. The project stalled and the grant was renewed in the 2014 Bonding Bill and in 2018 the project finally began construction. Once a bonding bill is passed, the State of Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) is the agency responsible for working out the details – the terms and conditions – and executing an agreement between the State and the City. No funds can be disbursed until there is an agreement and once there is an agreement, DEED reviews and approves each monthly request for payment from the city. So, it is very important to get that agreement finished and signed. For this project, this required diligence and perseverance particularly on the part of City staff and the City Attorney, who found state staff to be difficult to reach, slow to respond to emails and phone calls, and sometimes overly thorough (picky). For more than a year city staff gently and persistently worked with the one key state staff person (who, to be fair, was likely busy with many other competing priorities) to finalize the details of the agreement, get it executed, and ensure that payment would follow. This is an example of how relations and style matter, because as in any other part of life, if you aggravate a key civil servant, they can slow things down and make things very difficult. So, the lesson is, “keep your eyes on the prize,” be patient, persevere, and don’t unnecessarily aggravate key people or escalate problems until you absolutely have to.

Example – Bureaucrats vs. the Elite Design Team
For Nicollet Mall, the City’s award-winning designer wanted to design custom light and signal poles for the whole one-mile length of the street. Throughout the City the public works department has two typical light poles (high for the street, low for pedestrians) and a typical signal pole. The bottom ten feet of the typical signal pole, at intersections, is always painted yellow and green (Green Bay Packers colors – who knows why). So, the design team asked the city project team if they could design signal poles and light poles that were the same and all of which would be painted the same custom gray color from top to bottom (not yellow and green). The question started at the bottom with signal shop staff who said, “No, this is how we always do it.” The project team then asked if there were state statutes, city ordinances, or safety conventions that dictated these colors and, after some digging, the answer came back, “no, not that anyone can find, but this is how we always do it.” So, finally the project team and the design team took the question up to the head of the street lighting and signals department and then finally up to the Director of Public Works who ruled: “You don’t have to paint the poles yellow and green.” This is an example of intradepartmental politics, where it is best to start with staff and work your way up rather than jumping to the top too early. By the time the Director made the decision the subject had been thoroughly discussed and everyone had had a chance to participate and offer their opinions. No one was surprised by the final answer and everyone was ok with it because they saw how thoroughly the issue was considered and how the final decision was made.

A gray pole with traffic signals, walk signs, and other signage on Nicollet Mall.
Figure 45. An all-gray Nicollet Mall Signal Pole. Author.
Example – The Commons
In 2012, the Minnesota Legislature passed what is commonly known as the “Stadium Legislation” for the purpose of building a new NFL stadium in Downtown Minneapolis. The legislation created the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority, or MSFA (replacing an older agency), and gave it responsibility for developing what is now the US Bank Stadium. The stadium legislation also included a number of specific requirements related to the stadium development including provisions for parking and for a shared public park that could also be used periodically for stadium and NFL events. The Ryan Companies, a private developer, came forward with a related proposal for an adjacent five block area that included office space (now housing Well Fargo), a hotel, a parking garage and space for the park. Together, the MSFA, Ryan, and the City of Minneapolis collaborated in developing these projects, which were linked by a complex series of agreements, funding sources, and bond covenants. When work began on the park, now known as “The Commons,” the original concept was that the Park Board (MPRB) would work with Ryan, the City, and the MSFA to develop the Commons and then own and operate it when it was completed. The MPRB, however, was concerned because the Commons was going to be a very different model than the typical MPRB park, requiring significantly more operating funding. At the last minute, the MPRB decided not to lead the development of the Commons so the City and Ryan stepped in and completed the design and construction of the Commons together. Once completed, the MPRB owned the land under the Commons; the City had paid for and owned the “improvements” on the land (the physical facilities from grass to trees to lighting and drinking fountains – everything you can see); and Green Minneapolis, a non-profit operator, ran the park under contract to the City. It’s an unusual example of an intergovernmental arrangement (state, MSFA, City, MPRB) arrived at under pressure and as time was running out. (It is important to remember that the park was a requirement of the stadium legislation and had to be completed.) The Commons opened in August 2017 and for 2017 and 2018 seasons, the City contracted directly with Green Minneapolis to operate the park. A recent lawsuit, however, called that arrangement into question. The suit contended that the City did not have authority to operate a park in Minneapolis and that only the MPRB had that power. The judge agreed and the City has appealed that decision. Meanwhile, and as a result of that decision, the MPRB has contracted with Green Minneapolis to operate the park for the 2019 season.


Photo showing the development around the new US Bank football stadium.
Figure 46. Development surrounding the new stadium from left to right. Wells Fargo office towers on the left, fronting on the Commons; apartments at the left end of the Commons, the Commons (grassy oval), and the parking ramp with skyway connection to US Bank Stadium. Ryan Companies. https://www.ryancompanies.com/project/downtown-east, accessed August 12, 2019.

  1. Councilmanic Prerogative and Aldermanic Privilege are sometimes associated with the potential for graft, corruption, and inside dealing in cases where individual council members influence real estate transactions involving city-owned land within their districts. See for example, https://billypenn.com/2019/04/15/councilmanic-prerogative-in-philly-what-it-is-who-benefits-and-why-its-hard-to-change/, accessed August 8, 2019.
  2. See, for example, Peter Callaghan, “No, really (say Minneapolis officials): The new Nicollet Mall is on track to be finished by November,” in Minnpost, August 9, 2017 https://www.minnpost.com/politics-policy/2017/08/no-really-say-minneapolis-officials-new-nicollet-mall-track-be-finished-nove/, accessed August 9, 2019.


Producing the Urban Public Realm: Field Notes on Project Implementation Copyright © by Peter Hendee Brown. All Rights Reserved.

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