University Colloquium on Public/Private Interaction


This fall, Donjek principal Jon Commers is again offering a colloquium in the Urban Studies department at the University of Minnesota, focused on the interaction of public and private sectors in cities. He created and has taught a similar course since 2014.

Cities are many things: Buildings, streets and transit routes, infrastructure to collect and distribute water, energy, and communication. More fundamentally, cities are networks of human relationships, drawn together by reduced costs of connection. Typically having developed over many years, cities have a unique history both of physical design and social dynamics, which influence their health and future prospects.

Public and private organizations have different roles to play in the city, different motivations, and perspectives about the other that don’t consistently match. At the same time, government agencies and private firms are truly interdependent in the city environment: Neither can accomplish their objectives without engaging the other. Interdependence of the public and private sectors can be traced historically, and this dynamic produces political tensions that can support or undermine urban areas.M-static

Public-private partnerships are an essential urban redevelopment tool applied in U.S. cities to accomplish a wide range of development and social objectives. This course will explore the history, current condition, and future of how private- and public-sector organizations identify, structure and implement partnerships that shape community development and real estate development in cities.

Through reading, discussion and other media, this course will use the advantages of the University’s urban setting to explore the many types of partnerships that have evolved to support the economic, social and cultural health of Minneapolis and Saint Paul. Students will also consider what kinds of partnerships will make a difference in an increasingly urban future. Key themes of the course will include:

  • The City is a Platform for Interaction
  • Roots: Recent and Distant History of Public/Private Interaction
  • Contemporary Tools for Partnership
  • Politics of Public/Private Interaction and Interdependence: “You Didn’t Build That”
  • Future Marketplace and Partnerships
  • Applications of Public-Private Partnerships
  • Using Data to Evaluate How People Use Places

Future Perfect, As Told Downtown

FuturePerfectFuture Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age is author Stephen Johnson’s latest work. It is a city book.

Human progress has always been the fruit of small and iterative innovations, undertaken by individuals acting on what Johnson terms “slow hunches” that accrue from experience. When these individual tinkerers are connected via decentralized networks offering numerous ways for them to interact, the cross-fertilization and productivity of these innovations is magnified.

As a result, Johnson presents his confidence that members of these flat, decentralized networks of peers, using an increasingly broad and powerful set of platforms to work together, will advance human progress in the future. They are, in his term of art, peer progressives. Interaction using these platforms is evolving the way we go about invention, trade, social life, music making, even revolution.

Johnson’s frame of reference is primarily the internet, but his heralding of the power of peer progressive values could not viably take place without both the model of the city, and the contributions of urban networks to nearly every example he cites. Consider this handful of insights from Future Perfect as they relate to urban dynamics:

Faster, Higher, Stronger
“The density and open exchange of a peer network drive up the information productivity of the overall system, because new ideas circulate quickly through the network and can be built upon or expanded at little cost. You can do more with less.” Reducing the transaction cost of developing new ideas, and stretching them into multiple commercial forms, are why Jericho was formed and the essence of why modern cities exist. In Triumph of the City, economist Ed Glaeser expresses the same sentiment in his language: “The increasingly global marketplace means that the returns to innovation have increased. Since urban density speeds the flow of new ideas, an increase in the value of innovation naturally strengthens those cities that specialize in innovation.” Information productivity will vary among cities, but cities will increasingly lead the way. They are the global leaders.

Crowdfunding as Urban Springboard
“Kickstarter, for instance, took an existing problem that markets had traditionally fumbled – how do we find and support interesting new creative forms – and radically increased both the density and diversity of participants. It gave thousands of creative people direct access to the wallets of millions of potential patrons.” Cities provide a rich backdrop for ideas to be conceived and developed as they spread through professional, personal and civic networks forming there. In art and commerce, cities provide a forum for creators to combine and recombine. Crowdfunding sites have taken the assembly of productive, critical masses around specific interests that occurs in cities, and multiplied it using technology.

City Mashup
In one of Johnson’s prior works, Where Good Ideas Come From, the author presented valuable historical context, drawing on examples including the process Johannes Gutenberg used to derive the printing press. In his account, Johnson establishes the connection between the wine presses used in Gutenberg’s native Rhineland in the 15th century, and the design of the printing press, which by economizing published print, unleashed an era of democratization and reform. In Future Perfect, he draws the same thread through to today’s open source world. “When text is free to flow and recombine,” he argues, “new forms of value are created, and the overall productivity of the system increases.” Just as the city is where individuals come to mix and match with others, it is also where their ideas are shaped and shifted and made into new forms. Call it concept arbitrage.

Buckminster Fuller said “To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” In Future Perfect, Stephen Johnson has delivered a succinct argument that the peer progressive model is at this moment rendering the prior model obsolete. And the peer progressive model’s home field is the city.

Donjek Building Update


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Donjek, Inc.
There’s an evolution underway in cities today. Job location, transportation, housing development, are all happening according to patterns that diverge from the recent past. Creating great projects and prosperous places in the future demands a new approach, and use of public and private strategies that align with a new marketplace. In three areas, Donjek helps private and public clients build places that work. Here’s a sample: 

  • Public and Project Finance: Project value still revolves around location, but the nature of location is changing. I’ve assisted investors in structuring and closing loans for real estate, advised developers of affordable multifamily housing, and given counsel regarding historic building reuse in this new context. This week, I’ve introduced a new service that unlocks the value of urban location in new ways.
  • Project Management: Over ten months, I have led development of a public and private funding strategy for RiverFirst, an ambitious initiative to reconnect people to the Mississippi River undertaken by the Minneapolis Parks Foundation, Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, and the City of Minneapolis. When implemented, the RiverFirst projects will leverage the value of river-oriented parks as economic engines, transportation assets, and water quality infrastructure as well as places for physical activity and leisure.
  • Policy: For nearly fifteen years, I’ve provided advice to cities and other consultants on how to align finance tools and market dynamics for successful urban places. A current example is work with the Marcy Holmes Neighborhood Association and Cuningham Group, developing an updated master plan for one of the oldest, most dynamic parts of the Minneapolis St. Paul region. I’ve recently created a three-minute video narrative of another redevelopment policy project, that unlocked underutilized land around a light rail station area in Minneapolis:

You’re in the business of creating successful places, and Donjek is in business of making it possible with finance, project management and policy strategies. Contact me to talk about moving your project forward.

Jon Commers

Founder and Principal

One-Minute Donjek Update


Donjek, Inc.
Dear Colleague,

As founder and principal of Donjek, I continue to manage custom teams formed to solve land use, public finance and policy issues for private, public and philanthropic clients. In three areas, Donjek develops valued ways to help clients create prosperous places:

  • Public and Project Finance: I have continued to advise Wellington Management on financing of the City Limits apartments, and Fine Associates on Currie Park Lofts, transit-oriented developments in St. Paul and Minneapolis. This month, I have started work for the Minneapolis Parks Foundation, creating a capital roadmap to finance public and private investments along the Upper Mississippi River.
  • Project Management: Over ten months, I coordinated a redevelopment and tax impact analysis of a prospective linear Gateway Park downtown Minneapolis, for the Trust for Public Land. Based on analytics of property and sales tax data, as well as developer and stakeholder interviews, our team produced a return on investment study that is shaping next steps.
  • Policy: Earlier this summer, I completed the final report on a year-long feasibility study of commercial land trust models. Creating opportunities for experienced entrepreneurs to occupy stable-priced  commercial space is one policy strategy to leverage the rising importance of commercial corridors in U.S. cities. Next, policy work shifts to a citywide public work initiative in the first-ring St. Paul suburb of Falcon Heights.

I’ve also been engaged since early 2011 representing St. Paul on the Metropolitan Council, the metro planning organization, the state’s largest provider of affordable housing, and operator of the Minneapolis St. Paul region’s transit and wastewater systems.

You’re in the business of creating successful places, and Donjek is in business of making it possible with finance, policy and project management strategies. Contact me to talk about moving your project forward.

Jon Commers

Founder and Principal

Great Inversion – But Not Monolithic Inversion

Alan Ehrenhalt’s latest book, “The Great Inversion,” is valuable reading for nearly anyone in my professional practices: In particular, private and public organizations involved in redevelopment and city building.

The author’s premise argues that the comparative value of proximity to core cities – their economic and cultural assets, diverse building stock, and ease of transit access – is rising. As that shift in value unfolds, says Ehrenhalt, many U.S. metro areas will invert, assuming a pattern where core city neighborhoods typically are among the most desired, while suburban areas offer values accessible to more residents.

Ehrenhalt writes a compelling narrative, observing dynamics that can be observed in cities across the country. In interviews he’s described the shift as “an entire metropolitan area rearranging itself…a true inversion of demographic groups.” Still, at times the premise does not allow full exploration of variation within regions. He stresses the importance of transit in reshaping regions, for example, but does not organize his argument to reflect how effective transit service can itself reshape the city/suburb relationship. If in one area of a metro, transit can move people from city to suburb (and vice versa) more effectively than in other areas, how might they invert differently? Job growth on a transit corridor, for example, may affect residents living elsewhere along that corridor, more than it does other residents living nearer by, even if it’s occurring within the same municipal boundary.

That caveat aside, it’s clear that fiscal scarcity, changing pricing caused by climate change (essentially unaddressed to date), shrinking households and shifting cultural attitudes about cities are converging powerfully to reshape metro areas, and increasingly channel investment toward the center. For public agencies and firms involved in redevelopment, such as Donjek clients, this return to a pattern based on proximity will produce a whole universe of new opportunities.

The news narrative around these issues is usually simplified in an unhelpful way (see this critique of coverage of recent demographic data released for the Minneapolis Saint Paul region), presenting these trends as “core cities up, suburbs down.” None of the ingredients here are so simple: The physical geography and amenities of regions, job location criteria, and the politics that shape transportation investments are just a few examples. Instead, shifts like the Great Inversion will create opportunities and troubles which are different than the recent past, but very familiar in history. Creativity is required for good redevelopment, now more so with these dramatic demographic shifts underway.