Driving home from work one day in Rochester, MN, Michael Wojcik came across an accident where a 6-year-old girl riding her bicycle with her family had been struck and killed by a vehicle. The family lived in a subdivision, and had to cross two major county roads to get anywhere. That is what they were doing that day, when three lanes of traffic had stopped—but the fourth did not.
Wojcik decided then to run for City Council. He didn’t expect to win, but is now serving in his second term in office. To him, the death of a young girl could have been avoided with better land use and transportation planning—with a street that had a safer design, or a neighborhood that wasn’t cut off by a highway—as much as it could have been avoided if the driver had stopped.
During Councilmember Wojcik’s second City Council meeting, a Complete Streets policy was passed, the first in the state of Minnesota.
“Ultimately, my goal is for this community to develop in a way that allows the people who live here to thrive,” says Councilmember Wojcik, a member of Smart Growth America’s Local Leaders Council. “In particular, I want to see great neighborhoods throughout our community–neighborhoods where people of different income levels and different backgrounds can live together, work, share public amenities, and have good access to transportation.”
Rochester, with a population of about 120,000, is the third largest city in Minnesota. Home to the Mayo Clinic, which this year was rated as the top hospital in the U.S., Rochester is the fastest growing city in the upper midwest. As with most cities that have developed over the past 50 years, the city is quite sprawled out, exacerbating growing struggles with affordable housing and public transportation options.
To capitalize on the success of the Mayo Clinic and related medical industry, the city is engaged in a $6 billion public-private partnership that will re-create the downtown district to make it more livable, with a mix of uses, outstanding amenities, and world class transportation.
“The biggest challenge in our community’s future is attracting and training the best workforce that we possibly can and making sure that people want to live in our community and can afford to live in our community,” says Wojcik. “From a smart growth perspective, that means that we really have to develop in a way that facilitates the existence of a good public transit network and we also have to examine our mix of uses and ensure that people have access to basic needs and employment opportunities within mixed income neighborhoods.”
Rochester is currently going through the process of updating a Comprehensive Plan that was written in the ’70s, taking a look at how the community wants to develop, and overlaying that with an economic analysis of different development models. “Ultimately, my hope is that once we see the dollars and cents associated with the options that we have, the community will chose to pursue smart growth development just out of a pure understanding of what continuing to build sprawl would mean to our taxation,” says Wojcik. “From a sustainability standpoint,” he continues, “we have to be smarter about how we develop. We have to be able to operate and maintain the assets that we have and still enough dollars left over for things like public safety and public amenities – great parks and a library and good cultural amenities.”
In addition to the comprehensive plan updates, the City of Rochester is kicking off a transportation planning effort that is intended to provide quality access that meets the needs of all citizens, community wide. With a projected need of an additional 22,000 units of housing over the next 15 years, Rochester is also creating a community housing plan, which will include measures to fix the gap in affordable housing availability.
“We have an obligation to provide a housing stock that meets the needs of the community,” says Wojcik. “Everyone in the community, regardless of income level, should live in safe, healthy, and desirable neighborhoods. We have an obligation to give all of our citizens safe transportation options. We have an obligation to address climate change through the use of clean energy. Finally, I think as a community, we need to have great amenities here that attract the best and the brightest from all over the world to come and live and work in Rochester, MN.”