Minneapolis Third Ward Council member Steve Fletcher’s ward has a split personality. On one side of the Mississippi River are the development-friendly North Loop, Downtown West and Downtown East neighborhoods. On the other side are Bottineau, Sheridan, St. Anthony West, St. Anthony East, Beltrami and Marcy Holmes, where development is regarded with suspicion, if not downright animosity. Sandwiched between them all is the Nicollet Island/East Bank neighborhood. Serving them all is a challenge, but Fletcher’s up for it.
Since he took office in January, Fletcher has been getting to know his constituents on both sides of the river. He’s also learning how the City of Minneapolis works, from its 500-page budget to its aging storm sewers. “It’s been an interesting mix of getting to work on the issues that I chose, that I said I was going to work on, and the issues that chose me,” Fletcher said recently.
Billboards, for example, was not one of his campaign issues. “There were a bunch of people who wanted to put up billboards in Ward Three and we had to decide if we were going to let them,” he said. “It was a big hot issue during my first month on the job, and it’s something we’ll continue to work on. We don’t want a lot of visual pollution in our neighborhoods.”
Strip clubs are another issue that wasn’t on his radar before taking office. “We’re the only ward in the city where strip clubs are allowed. We have to figure out what’s appropriate.”
It’s a balancing act, he said. “You want to make sure you’re not always reactive. We want to move our intentional agenda at least part of our day.”
Asked if there was an appreciable difference between his downtown constituents and those who live in Northeast or Southeast, Fletcher said, “People make different assumptions about their neighborhoods when they move into them. Every neighborhood, when there’s a proposal for a new building, wants to know how we’re managing the traffic around it, the new density. Will it negatively impact me? In downtown, that means something very different. There’s a proposal for a 39-story building and nobody’s making an issue of the height. That would not be the case in Beltrami! Things are happening at a different scale in different neighborhoods across the ward.”
“I think we all want the same things,” he said. “We want to feel safe, we want to get around easily, and feel comfortable in our neighborhood. We want amenities that make the neighborhood a nice place to live, places to shop, places to eat.”
The Minneapolis City Council does much of its work through committees, and Fletcher serves on his share of them. As vice president of the Ways and Means committee, he sees all the budget items that come through the committee. “I’m a numbers guy and a data nerd,” he said with delight. “The reason I’m excited to be on the committee is that I see the budget as a moral document. Are we putting our money into the things we say we believe in?
“One of the things we’ve talked about in this committee is transparency. How do we engage people in the budget process in a way that makes it more open? I hope that in the next four years, we can introduce a more participatory model for how we do the budget so that more people can weigh in on it and understand how we’re spending City money.”
As vice chair of the Public Safety committee – a position he actively sought – Fletcher hopes to bring a critical lens to community policing. “It’s going to take some real courage. We’re going to have some tough conversations,” he said.
He also serves on the Transportation and Public Works committee, Economic and Regulatory Services (“Ward Three is usually half the items on the agenda for liquor licenses”), and a new committee called Enterprise. “It gives the City Coordinator a committee to report to,” he said. “They’re doing really good work over there in IT, small business support, and the innovation team.” The teams are looking at cross-departmental services and how to measure success of the city.
Fletcher said he’s proud of the Public Works department. “People don’t realize how much is happening out of sight. I got to tour the storm sewers that run underneath Northeast. They lowered us in a crane 80 feet below the street to where the water runs to the river. Minneapolis has done some groundbreaking work on its sewer systems. Most cities have struggled to separate their sewage and their storm water. A lot of times the EPA has come in with a mandate and tells them how to do it. We were able to do that without federal oversight and get it done faster than other cities.”
Affordable housing was one of the issues Fletcher championed during his campaign, and his work in that area continues. “There’s a lot of interest in development [in the Third Ward], and I have built a reputation in the first three months, that if a developer is coming into this office, they better have an answer for how many affordable units are included in the proposal or if not, why not? I’ve created an expectation that affordable housing is the priority here. As a result, we’re getting a good pipeline of projects going.”
Fletcher said the Third Ward has been disproportionately targeted for development. “There is only one block in the entire ward that is zoned R-1 residential,” he said. “We have long stretches of blocks with single-family homes, but they’re all zoned for something much bigger. That’s been true for decades.” He compared his area to Ward One, which has a higher concentration of R-1 properties. He said the city’s 2040 Comprehensive Plan addresses those differences.
He is also laying the groundwork to better protect tenants and to prevent current affordable housing from becoming “upscaled”. He said it’s incumbent upon the City to come up with a city-wide affordable housing solution. “We pay so much for homelessness, and the costs of unstable housing,” he said. “The school district, for example, spends $12 million a year busing highly mobile kids to keep them in the same school for the whole school year. That’s more than what the city spends on affordable housing. We have a $10 million-a-year investment in the affordable housing trust fund. We spend more to treat the symptoms than the disease.”
Health care, homeless shelters, social work and mental health care costs all increase if affordable housing isn’t available, he said. “At some point, “We’re going to have to look at everything we pay for the symptoms and say, ‘Would it be cheaper to issue a stadium-sized bonding bill and build a whole bunch of affordable housing?’ It’s a big question we have to ask as a community.”
Police reform, a city ban on assault weapons and a greener city are all on the menu for Fletcher. “We’re going to roll out a resolution to get the City to 100 percent renewable electricity by 2030, which is a really big deal,” he said. “It’s a really aggressive timeline, but we have all the right players at the table.”
Fletcher, who works long hours and spends many evenings at community meetings, said his new job doesn’t always allow him to have dinner with his wife, Heather, every night, but “we’ve been able to carve out some quality time together.” He is able to walk from his condo to City Hall for work, and often rides his bike to events, allowing him to lead the “urban-density lifestyle” he espouses.
Below: Council member Steve Fletcher is getting to know the Third Ward very well. (Photo by Cynthia Sowden)