Mayor Elizabeth Kautz on creating a thriving downtown – from scratch

Heart of the City in BurnsvilleA park in Burnsville, MN’s mixed-use “Heart of the City” project includes shops, businesses, diverse housing options and a community arts center. Photo by Nick Ortloff, via Flickr

Community transformation typically requires both strong leadership and widespread buy-in from residents and business owners. Over the past 20 years, Burnsville, MN Mayor Elizabeth Kautz worked together with her community to shape a common vision for the city’s future growth and on the path to becoming more walkable, vibrant and sustainable.

Elizabeth Kautz is the mayor of Burnsville, MN and member of Smart Growth America’s Local Leaders Council. Located in the greater Minneapolis area on the Minnesota River, the site of what is today the city of Burnsville was dominated by agriculture until the middle of the 20th century. The population grew quickly during the subsequent decades but the city’s development pattern was heavily oriented to the automobile, leaving little infrastructure for pedestrians and no discernible downtown or urban center.

Since taking office in 1995, Mayor Kautz has taken steps to make the city more walkable and to implement smart growth development principles. Some of these strategies include creating a trail master plan, a Complete Streets policy that builds off a strong transportation system, and “a sustainability plan that incorporates a comprehensive look at our city including redevelopment, streets, our carbon footprint, and recycling.”

In a recent interview with Smart Growth America, Kautz identified the lack of a downtown as a significant issue for the city’s development efforts. In seeking to improve this, Kautz explains, “we put all of the regulatory and economic tools in place to create an urban center that is pedestrian-friendly with a beautiful urban park and performing arts center.” This plan came to fruition when the site of an outdated shopping center was transformed to become an economic development engine and cultural center called the “Heart of the City”. The 54-acre site is a smart growth project aiming to create a mixed-use, walkable downtown area. It has multiple retail shops, businesses, a community arts center, a park, and diverse housing options.

Kautz recalls working with property owners and developers to make changes to the city’s zoning code to allow for integrated mixed-use with urban scale lots. “When you put good plans in place and you have a strategy and work with the private sector and property owners, you can get a lot done,” said Kautz.

The project is a boon to the community but it is also economically successful. Prior to its redevelopment, the Heart of the City area only produced $246,000 in property tax revenue annually. Today, it brings in over $1 million.

When asked how she was able to accomplish such a large undertaking, Kautz explains, “When you’re focused and you do things that are good for the community and you engage the community, you can accomplish a great deal. I needed to commit to staying in office to see these things through. When leadership changes, direction changes.”

Building on the success of the Heart of the City, Burnsville is now undertaking a massive riverfront redevelopment project. The 1,700-acre site known as the Minnesota River Quadrant currently contains a mixture of heavy industry, a quarry, and a landfill Superfund site.

The City held multiple meetings with property owners, rezoned the area to accommodate the desired uses, and lobbied the legislature to put tax-increment financing (TIF) in place for the area. The city intends to establish TIF on a project-by-project basis, to pool money from districts for infrastructure needs, and to correct soils with high levels of contamination.

Kautz is excited about the future evolution of site. When an adjacent quarry stops operating, “it will be converted to a 340-acre lake with mixed-use development on the east side designed to be pedestrian-friendly. There will also be trails including a bike trail that goes along the river, a park, and a beach,” explains Kautz. To the south and west, zoning allows for a progression of light to heavy industrial uses. The plan will allow the city to capitalize on the beautiful riverfront while still maintaining space for industrial use.

This plan requires the cooperation of public and private interests. Kautz understands that “we can’t go in and do redevelopment without the support of the property owners so we’re being very systematic and working with them to correct the soil and to put the properties up for sale.” This effort is part of a common theme for Mayor Kautz, who said, “no matter what, you must have a vision and you must engage the community.”

Local Leaders Council