Anchoring a Community: From Malls to the Legislature

“What we’ve created in the suburbs can now be a model for downtown.” *
Victor Gruen
1956

The urban planning revolution in the suburbs never did play out like Victor Gruen intended. This refugee from Nazi-controlled Europe quickly rose in the ranks of American urban planners as one of its true visionaries during the booming 1950s. He had a vision of creating a well-planned urban community in the open fields of suburbia without all the mistakes that brought us our poorly planned urban centers of the time. He envisioned the enclosed shopping mall as the anchor for a community that was easily walkable and designed to meet all the needs of its surrounding community in a carefully planned, appropriately dense network. Once this revival of urban planning took root he believed most urban centers would then strive to replicate this concept.

His first attempt at this revolutionary concept actually occurred at the southwest edge of Minneapolis in Edina with the opening of the Southdale Mall in 1956. This was the first enclosed shopping mall and set the trend for later mall development for the next half century. Unfortunately it was not the trend Gruen envisioned. The major investors in the mall’s development, anchored by Dayton’s department store, did not follow through on the rest of the vision for the nearly 500 acres of surrounding property. The mall was such a huge immediate success as an automobile commuters destination that developers soon sold surrounding property at a significant profit for more urban sprawl catering to the automobile commuter.

Even though the Southdale Mall area failed to spark the kind of revolution Gruen desired, it did spark a revolution in major suburban mall development across America that was tied to the automobile. This year, in the battle for the Minnesota Legislature, this same area will also be a major battleground in the revolution in Minnesota’s political landscape. Three of the most significant races for the control the Minnesota Legislature and the heart of Minnesota’s political future will occur in District 49 that encompasses the Southdale Mall.

Though this area has had the reputation of being an affluent suburb, the area encompassing new Senate District 49 has a recent voting history that is surprisingly very competitive between the parties.  The Republican endorsed candidate for the Senate seat is Keith Downey. He is from a well-connected family in Edina and has been serving the area as a House member for 4 years. He has placed a stake into the right end of the economic and social spectrum of the Republican landscape. His position to the right has opened the door for his past electoral success, but it could be a challenge in this area that has a reputation of electing moderate Republicans and that has been trending slightly to the DFL.

The DFL leaders view this as a must win if they are going to take back control of the Senate. Their choice of a challenger for the Senate seat is Melisa Franzen. She would appear to be a good DFL candidate for the area as a woman working for one of the larger local employers. She has also wisely taken a moderate track to her positions. She is working very hard and has amassed a good local team. Both candidates have been among the top fundraisers this election. Given what most people have seen from outside organizations assisting in the district, this race has already gained the reputation as likely the most expensive Senate race in the state.

In the northern half of the Senate District is House District 49A that is on everybody’s watch list. The DFL candidate Ron Erhardt is one of the most interesting characters in Minnesota politics. As a moderate, he lost the Republican endorsement to Downey in 2008 after 18 years as a Republican legislator, in part due to his steadfast support for a gas tax. Erhardt then bolted from the party and ran as an independent, losing in a very close three-way race to the eventual winner Downey.  Erhardt is now in a two-way race, but this time with the full backing of the DFL party. His Republican endorsed opponent is Bill Glahn, a former energy advisor of Gov. Pawlenty. In that position he worked against several renewable energy and global climate change initiatives.

The southern part of this Senate District is designated House District 49B encompassing west Bloomington and portions of Minnetonka. Due to redistricting and retirements, this is an open seat without any incumbent. DFL candidate Paul Rosenthal did serve one term in the legislature before being beaten in the Republican wave in 2010. He was considered one of the more thoughtful members of the legislature and worked on urban growth issues that would have pleased Gruen. His opponent Terry Johnson fits the ideal profile of a Republican suburban candidate with soccer mom type credentials. This race is shaping up as one of the keys for control of the legislature with both candidates doing a good job of fundraising, the district past voting history indicating the district is it dead even between the parties and several outside organizations aggressively targeting the area.

* Jeffrey Hardwick, ”Mall Maker: Victor Gruen, Architect of an American Dream”, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003

About John Tuma

John is a former state legislator and litigation attorney. He served in the Minnesota House of Representatives for eight years from the Northfield area, beginning in 1994. Elected as a Republican, John was known for his independent thinking and ability to work across party lines. He is well-known in Minnesota state government circles.
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