High Rises and the Transect

It’s probably safe to say that high-rises rank at the top of the list of things most residents don’t want to see in their neighborhoods. Fears of traffic, crime, depressed property values, and changing neighborhood (or even citywide) character for the worse will no doubt be cited in opposition. Even most pro-urban folks will agree that development should respect the scale of neighboring properties and have a design that mitigates impacts, which makes anything greater than five to six stories pretty difficult in most neighborhoods in a given region.


“Say no to moon elevators.” (Source: UrbanMSP.com)

I’m here to defend high rises, even ones that are way out of scale with their surroundings. I’m aware this isn’t a popular opinion, so please hear me out before rushing to the upper right corner of your browser. Before I get started, I’ll define a “high-rise” as anything six (6) stories or higher. The definition of mid-rise and high-rise is often blurry, with the cutoff somewhere between four and six stories. But most of the recent development, much of which we’d call mid-rise, has been 5-6 stories, and fire departments usually say anything above 75 feet is high-rise. So sticking with a conservative definition for when things are “high,” let’s call it six stories.

What are the impacts?

External impacts typically represent the largest complaints against new development in established neighborhoods. The most common include:

  • Loss of property value from shadowing, and loss of privacy
  • Added traffic (congestion)
  • Parking concerns
  • New buildings are out of scale (or, sometimes, “character” if the architecture or proposed tenant, like a chain restaurant, don’t meld with the area)

Let me come out and say that I do believe these issues are real (at least, most of the time). In fact, I’d even agree with you that I wouldn’t be thrilled with a 30-story tower going in ten feet from my single family home’s property line in CARAG.

However, I also believe the impacts are far less than most people claim. We fear traffic, but the impacts in walkable areas aren’t as bad as the experts tell us, and the typical responses are wrongheaded. We fear parking issues but won’t accept smart reforms that would mitigate the issues (and let’s be honest, 98% of streets in the Twin Cities have no parking problems). We can’t come to grips with the fact that, even in zoning-crazy America, we don’t actually have the right to block new development to preserve existing light and air (even if zoning codes try to encourage design elements that do just that). And, with respect to everyone who fears these changes, my personal moral code says we should put a whole lot more effort, including personal advocacy and public resources, into other issues (is the AM sunlight flooding my back porch more valuable than allowing places for real, breathing humans to live?).

But let’s say we accept preservation of light and air for as many city residents as possible is a goal we share. Our culture doesn’t say “no towers anywhere,” but rather “towers where they fit in with the built environment.”

An overview of the transect as it relates to form-based codes.

An overview of the transect as it relates to form-based codes; elements of which pepper our core cities’ zoning codes and comprehensive plans.

If limiting impact of shade or traffic is the goal, we should encourage towers (or even six story apartments) to locate in areas with the lowest surrounding density possible, right?

A conceptual example of shade and privacy impacts.

A conceptual example of shade and privacy impacts.

Put it another way: why should residents of single family homes – people with four exterior windowed walls, setbacks, yard space, etc – have more right to privacy or light than people in a six story apartment or another high rise? Is it because we just assume that people living in denser housing already make some tradeoffs, and they should be willing to accept the (socially agreed upon) downsides of new, dense development? That doesn’t seem right to me. But it’s exactly what we do! In fact, a local neighborhood organization recently preferred a design with worse aggregate sightlines just to avoid a tower. Check out the rendered comparisons if you don’t believe me:

Moving past external impacts, we sometimes throw around concerns for future residents as well. What little research exists shows only slight impacts to residents of high-rises and their mental & physical health, childhood development, social behavior, and overall housing satisfaction. As the meta-analysis notes, the research is scarce, old, and uses methods that are difficult to replicate. Even then, the impacts in those areas are fairly small. My takeaway: we should stop concern-trolling people who might make an informed decision with known tradeoffs who live in high-rises.

We Ignore Precedent

A while back, Charles Marohn posted this video at Strongtowns.org:

This video shows a Vancouver street with a wide range of housing, with detached single family homes (now small scale multi-family) right next to multi-story apartments, both across the street 14+ story towers. All on a non-commercial street in a neighborhood interior about a mile from the central business district. In his own words, “this neighborhood works.” This from a person (who I respect very much yet sometimes disagree with) who struggles with infill that doesn’t meet the scale of its neighbors.

I’ve never been to Vancouver, but you can absolutely tell from the video that he’s spot on. In fact, there are places all..


Monza, Italy (Google Maps)



Annecy, France (Google Maps)

the world..


Tokyo, Japan (Google Maps)

..where this type of transect violation happens, and life moves on magically.

Heck, we don’t even need to hop in a plane to see examples like this. It’s amazing to me that we walk, bike, or drive around our region and manage to ignore all the examples in the Twin Cities where towers sit right next to single family homes (or attached townhomes) without much of a fuss. I can tell you that my one and a half year old son wasn’t phased one bit while enjoying the Loring Greenway playground, next to townhomes in the shadow of a residential tower:


Let’s Violate the Transect More

What I’m getting at is that we should focus less on building height, density, even a structure’s design elements and instead bring our attention to the public realm. As Chuck noted in his video above, the excellent tree canopy, calmed street, and ample sidewalk made for a very pleasant place to be. Contrast that to this recent experience at a local restaurant:

I can tell you the tower in the background paled in comparison to the noise, safety issues, and localized pollution wrought by a street designed almost solely for cars. As far as outcomes go, that Vancouver neighborhood I referenced earlier has the lowest car ownership rates in the city and a walk+bike+transit commute mode share (67%!) that would make The Wedge blush.

I’m not arguing we should go drop a bunch of high-rise towers in Blaine to prove a point. But we need to be more willing to accept development that feels out of context. Everyone has a different definition for “too dense” or “stack and pack.” This single-family neighborhood in Japan might seem too dense for folks living in Southwest Minneapolis given the lacking setbacks and scale. Yet someone living in Bloomington might find even Minneapolis or St Paul houses to be “right on top of each other” (watch enough HGTV and you’ll hear that phrase A LOT). Ask your average Lakeville resident if they’d enjoy the prying eyes of my alley neighbors:


And the thought of a Bloomington lot size might give exurban Twin Cities residents mental fits. We’re all on the spectrum somewhere, and it’s not hard to imagine someone who might want a smaller condo in an urban neighborhood interior (or an apartment away from dangerous suburban arterials), but the only way a developer can make it work financially is with a building out of scale with its neighbors. There’s a middle ground of well-designed towers we need to grapple with, but ultimately we need to let scale mismatches happen more often.

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53 Responses to High Rises and the Transect

  1. Wayne September 17, 2015 at 11:23 am #

    Unfortunately we’re still at the point where a highrise that matches the scale of an existing one across the street is unacceptable to certain groups (Nyerise).

    • Nick Sortland
      Nick Sortland September 22, 2015 at 10:19 am #

      Why I left Mpls, too provincial of a mentality for always wanting everything and everyone to blend in. Be different! Be urself! Especially if that pisses someone off! ?

  2. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell September 17, 2015 at 1:33 pm #

    Great post Alex.

    Expectations play a big role. When someone buys a property (house, condo, etc.) they are paying for certain features. Sunlight is a big one for my wife who gardens (and I don’t mind it either). Some people want a view, others want to be surrounded by trees, etc. Others of us value the ability to walk or bicycle to a local café or grocery. We pay for our desired features in a higher price or in giving up other features. We may desire a quieter low traffic neighborhood but give that up to be near cafés and stores.

    If you purchase a property with some implied (legally or otherwise) expectations of features that you desire and then have them removed you’re going to be pretty angry. If someone buys a house with the area around them zoned single family residential and then a year later it gets rezoned multi-family high-rise and a 6 story building goes up blocking the shade on the garden they’d just built then don’t they have a reason to be upset? They might be scrimping on a lot of other things to afford this house or might have given up something else they really wanted.

    I am a proponent of higher density but at what point do we have an obligation to make people whole who are being negatively impacted? Or do we simply tell them that it’s their civic duty to pay for making the community better?

    I agree that in many cases people are reacting to things they don’t understand (e.g., loosing 11 parking spaces to build a bikeway when that bikeway will reduce the demand by more than 11).

    Hope this makes sense.

    • Wayne September 17, 2015 at 1:48 pm #

      I think you’re on to something with expectations, but I’m more of the opinion that they’re mistaken in their expectations and that’s the source of conflict. When you buy a house and the property it sits on, you own the house and the property it sits on. You don’t own the parking spot on the street in front of it. You don’t own the trees on the neighbors land that provide great shade and privacy. You don’t own anything outside of the bubble you bought, and outside of certain things like zoning you cannot have any reasonable expectations that everything around your bubble will remain unchanged. Even zoning will change.

      So I think it’s naïve to buy a house and expect the world around it to remain static. We need to stop coddling people who make these kinds of assumptions and letting them derail progress. In a world where your entire neighborhood could be torn down to put a highway in for people who live 30 miles away to commute on, why do you think you get to tell your neighbor they can’t do something that’s legally permitted with their land? People need to accept their sphere of power extends exactly to their property lines and whatever is currently in the municipal code governing the area and not a single iota more.

      But of course we have this weird overly restrictive zoning system that essentially forces the use of variances as a bargaining chip for anyone interested in actually building anything so there can be a back and forth in the planning process. This is great in theory, but in practice it’s coopted by the aforementioned people who think they have a right to tell everyone around them what to do because they hate change. We really need a better default zoning code that allows reasonable things to be built with zero variances required so we can tell overzealous neighbors to bugger off or buy the land up for development themselves if they don’t want it to change.

      • Nathanael September 23, 2015 at 3:14 am #

        Yep. You shouldn’t expect your surroundings to remain the same… unless you’re rich enough to buy up your neighbors’ lots and become their landlord, of course.

    • Alex Cecchini
      Alex Cecchini September 17, 2015 at 1:52 pm #

      I don’t disagree with your take on the system we’ve created for ourselves. The one where zoning equals a social compact for understanding what things can/can’t change when buying property. I’m trying to question those things because I don’t think they’re fair nor do they consider a host of other unintended consequences.

      First, as I said in the post, we have this notion that it’s okay for someone living in a six story building to lose views, light, or air when another one goes up nearby because “scale, context, & character” dictate that we put similar buildings next to each other. That is an implied consequence of our zoning. Folks in lower density areas receive guarantee of things other people don’t.

      Second, I think we need to move past the expectation of public protection of these private benefits. People complain about developers privatizing the profits and socializing the costs all the time (e.g. the opposition to parking minimum reductions where it’s assumed new residents will just park on the street and harm others’ ability to easily/cheaply park while a developer just rakes in the cash). Why don’t we do the same for things like sunlight, privacy, etc? I’d be all for a system that trades development rights within a neighborhood so people bid to retain the things they value, both against each other and incoming developers, with proceeds going to the city to help proactively improve transit/biking/walking/affordable housing funds/etc. But if people howling about losing free parking in front of their house sounds entitled, why doesn’t fighting the loss of a sunny garden area sound just the same?

      Like I said, I wouldn’t be happy about something of that scale going in next door. I also don’t like paying property tax increases, but support most of them when I know what they’re going toward (organics recycling, affordable housing funds, etc). And I 100% support the ‘missing middle’ type of solutions that are more friendly to existing scale. But I’d say that anything 4+ stories being proposed in an area of single family homes and single story commercial buildings tells me that area has been restricted far too long. The time for missing middle investments was 40 years ago, but the market has so much pent up demand that an under-utilized lot or dilapidated house is simply begging for something more. In other words, residents enjoyed 40 years of no impact (which would have been small structures peppered about the area) thanks to zoning.

      There are no easy solutions. There is no right or wrong. I just want people to think outside the box a bit and challenge their own privilege a bit.

    • Monte Castleman
      Monte Castleman September 17, 2015 at 2:12 pm #

      Yes, pretty much. If I had wanted a house with a bunch of condo balconies overlooking my yard, I would have bought a house with condo balconies overlooking my yard. I row of spruce trees does a good job screening the two-story deck our neighbors have, but there’s no tree high enough to screen a six story building. Buying a house zone for single family residential with strict height limits that’s what I expect.

      • Alex Cecchini
        Alex Cecchini September 17, 2015 at 2:25 pm #

        So (and realize I’m not talking to you specifically),

        1) is protecting your privacy or access to sunlight more or less important than allowing people to live where they want to live (the suburban warcry) even if it means being next door to you in a stack n pack?

        and (if so)

        2) is spending city time & resources on that outcome the best use of public dollars (or, the opportunity cost of the tax base that could have come in from denser development) relative to any number of other things government could be doing?

        It’s fine if we can differ on where our priorities are. We just need to be honest about what the likely outcomes will be.

        • Monte Castleman
          Monte Castleman September 17, 2015 at 3:00 pm #

          Well, if you’ve built a six story tower, then you’ve forcibly removed “living where you want” from people already there on all sides of it, and probably several houses away. Obviously sometimes redevelopment happens, but you can usually predict where it’s going to happen. With being able to build six story towers anywhere, then no-one is going to be able to be safe from being next to one.

          • Alex Cecchini
            Alex Cecchini September 17, 2015 at 3:14 pm #

            “can usually predict” = we zone for a small % of total land (especially in suburbs) for multi-family housing, usually next to freeways, and often with restrictions on height/footprint that doesn’t match reality. And if we’re so good at predicting it, why are there always proposals, asking for up-zoning, CUPs, etc that see neighborhood resistance. Fact is, we’re actually *not* good at predicting housing demand by type and location.

            Again, thank you for making my point that as a society we value the relatively few number of people living in lower density areas over the relatively much larger number who would hypothetically take up residence near them.

          • Wayne September 17, 2015 at 3:40 pm #

            “Obviously sometimes redevelopment happens, but you can usually predict where it’s going to happen. With being able to build six story towers anywhere, then no-one is going to be able to be safe from being next to one.”

            You have never had any guarantee of being ‘safe’ from this. And you have zero right to tell anyone they can’t build something because you didn’t ‘predict’ where it was going to go. One of the big problems we have is that places where anyone with the slightest understanding of housing demand can predict there should be denser redevelopment have been held back from that development by restrictive zoning and NIMBYism. So now people have just continually changed their personal predictions to think that development will never happen because it hasn’t yet, which is stupid and wrong.

            No one is going to want to build a skyscraper next to your suburban house, Monte. But people living in the Wedge who expect the same are delusional and screwing up our housing market.

        • Monte Castleman
          Monte Castleman September 17, 2015 at 3:39 pm #

          I think the old cliche about the limits of constitutional rights “You’re rights end where mine begin” is a good way to look at it with respect to housing. “Living where you want” doesn’t mean anyone can build anything everywhere you the feel like. Just like free speech doesn’t mean you can yell “Bomb” in an airport or “Fire” in a theater. There’s common sense limits like “don’t cause a panic in a theater” or “don’t steal other people’s light and privacy (although as I stated before I’d welcome the decrease in property value). If you want to live in a high-rise, there’s areas zone for that, and as you mentioned, inherent trade-offs.

          It works both ways too. There’s plenty of people in the city who think you shouldn’t be able to build a surface parking lot downtown, or a K-mart on Lake Street.

          • Wayne September 17, 2015 at 3:49 pm #

            We have a moral obligation to make the best use of limited space with access to infrastructure. Forcing suboptimal uses so you don’t hurt anyone’s feels is amoral because it drives up costs and prices out the poor and middle class. Encouraging a better use of limited resources is not at all equivalent.

            Every development in a municipality relies on government-provided infrastructure (roads, sewer, water, etc.) that we pay for as a society. Why can’t we insist on the best return for that investment to get the best social bang for our shared buck? Saying you’re entitled to suck up shared infrastructure for just yourself when it could easily be shared with more people is … well, selfish.

            • Wayne September 17, 2015 at 3:55 pm #

              *immoral, not amoral. Derp.

            • Monte Castleman
              Monte Castleman September 17, 2015 at 4:05 pm #

              And selfish isn’t sticking a stack and pack right smack in the middle of a residential neighborhood when it could be built in a more appropriate area a mile or two away. Or making sure none of the vast majority of people that want a house are never safe from having one built right next to their house?

              • Wayne September 17, 2015 at 4:43 pm #

                Maybe the developer can’t buy it doesn’t own a parcel a mile or two away. Maybe people would rather live in the middle of a residential neighborhood instead of a mile or two away. That’s not your decision to make.

                Ps- residential just means primarily housing, not primarily single family housing. An apartment building with no commercial in it is also residential and quite compatible.

              • Wayne September 17, 2015 at 4:51 pm #

                And for the millionth time, nobody is going to do this on the burbs. But people living within a mile or two of the cbd should have no expectation of their neighborhood remaining single family homes.

                • Monte Castleman
                  Monte Castleman September 17, 2015 at 5:55 pm #

                  Isn’t that the point of the article, the developers should, in theory, be able to in the burbs? If they shouldn’t, then I’ll shut up because it’s not going in my backyard, and whether it belongs in the Wedge or not isn’t my concern.

                • Alex Cecchini
                  Alex Cecchini September 17, 2015 at 7:38 pm #

                  Actually, I do advocate for things like this to be built in the burbs. There may be many situations where a small or young family chooses to live close to a suburban job center but only wants 1 car, the hassle-free life of renting, and just 2 bedrooms (as you say, Monte, it’s not evil to have 2 kids share a bedroom). An apartment building on half an acre lot at, say, 83rd and Aldrich in Bloomington could be had at a much cheaper land cost than something zoned commercial and right on American Blvd. Yet that family would have access to okay transit along American & Lyndale many jobs within walking or biking distance (including that Toro HQ), and could still get around to a second job or regional destinations on the weekend by owning one car. But people in single family homes can’t bear the thought of that.

                  Monte, I highly recommend reading the book “Zoned Out” as it goes over all kinds of scenarios like this that happened in real life where stricter zoning in suburban neighborhoods was tangibly preventing infill development.

                  I might agree that in a perfect world, infill at sequential steps of density & scale would happen along pre-described corridors and filter slowly into neighborhood interiors never mismatching scale by more than a story or two. But reality is more complicated than that. You have some people who hold out for high prices, some commercial landlords who refuse to sell, tenants who are willing to pay more, owners who just spruced up their property and are better off holding onto it, etc all at varying locations, making the perfectly planned infill process difficult-to-impossible.

                  A lack of housing supply at different price points and locations across the entire region is a major component of our housing affordability crisis.

              • Nathanael September 23, 2015 at 3:19 am #

                I’ve never seen a “stack and pack”, whatever that is. I’ve seen plenty of nice apartment buildings. I suggest you stop using derogatory terms if you haven’t defined them.

                I can define sprawl. Continuous stretches of ranch houses with large setbacks on all sides, (low-density), on non-gridded roads, occupying formerly-productive agricultural land or formely-ecologically-valuable wilderness, miles from the nearest jobs.

      • Nathanael September 23, 2015 at 3:16 am #

        Sooooo, can I sue for damages and lost property value *every time* my neighbor’s land is rezoned?

        No, I can’t?

        In that case, I have no cognizable right to expect the zoning to stay the same. Change your expectations.

        I live opposite a forest lot. But it could be developed at any time. I would be disappointed, but I don’t have the right to *complain* if it happens.

    • Sandy Sorlien September 19, 2015 at 7:57 am #

      It makes perfect sense.

      • Sandy Sorlien September 19, 2015 at 7:58 am #

        That didn’t line up right. I was responding to Walker asking if his comment made sense.

  3. NiMo September 17, 2015 at 1:42 pm #

    Lots of good points here.

    Counterpoint: Something is changing. DEFAULT TO HATE

    • Wayne September 17, 2015 at 1:50 pm #


  4. Casey September 17, 2015 at 3:11 pm #

    I chose where I have lived for 11 years because of the sunlight it gets and the balcony. If a building were to shade what I consider valuable I would move in an instant. That is my personal take, as Minneapolis is cold and dismal for most of the year, and sunlight is necessary for me to get through the winter.

    • Wayne September 17, 2015 at 3:50 pm #

      Then you should buy your neighbor’s house to protect your sun and view, because it doesn’t really belong to you. You’re just enjoying it because no one else has used it yet.

      • Casey September 17, 2015 at 4:11 pm #

        Sound logic except I live in a commercial area and would have to buy 17 businesses across the street. So, as I said, if they built a building that shaded my place I would move. I understand that many of you on this site are for development at any cost but there are reasons that many people are drawn to this city, the lakes, parks, culture and the arts, to name a few. If areas get overdeveloped and/or gentrified this changes many of the city’s assets.

        • Adam Miller
          Adam Miller September 17, 2015 at 4:13 pm #

          Moving is the right reaction. Insisting that you have the right to prevent the new building from being built may not be.

          • Wayne September 17, 2015 at 4:44 pm #

            Yeah actually good point. And if you live next to something that big going up you’ll probably do well when selling.

            • Rosa September 17, 2015 at 8:34 pm #

              It might not be that big, though – I keep seeing “modern” “green” renovations of single-family homes that shade out their neighbors. It doesn’t take that much, in Minneapolis. I’m sure they were well within existing zoning. The one nearest me did it just by building a same-height extension to the back of the house, shaded out a chunk of the neighbor’s backyard.

              • Scott September 18, 2015 at 1:36 pm #

                This is very true. I’m probably going to be “that guy” in a couple of years.

                We just bought an infill lot in St. Paul, and plan to build a passivhaus on it. Our new house will be several feet taller than the neighboring houses, not because I want to tower over them, but because building an efficient building envelope requires it.

                Half stories are far less energy efficient than full stories. Dormers are very energy inefficient. Both of these older approaches would help the new house meet our space requirements while keeping the elevation down, but they also both introduce energy inefficiencies that we as a society should not tolerate in a new home. So, it will be substantially taller.

                Even a new two story house compared to a 1930s two story house with an identical floor plan will be at least three feet taller, probably four feet, just to get the proper insulation and mechanical systems installed.

          • Nathanael September 23, 2015 at 3:20 am #

            What Adam said!

    • Peter Bajurny September 17, 2015 at 10:29 pm #

      Fun fact: you have absolutely no legal right to sunlight in this country: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Right_to_light#United_States

  5. Eric September 17, 2015 at 4:03 pm #

    “It works both ways too. There’s plenty of people in the city who think you shouldn’t be able to build a surface parking lot downtown, or a K-mart on Lake Street.”

    Yep. Alex does a nice job in this post of candidly admitting that property rights, zoning, and implied protection of the status quo are all very entwined and complicated. There is no perfect answer, but yes many of the peanut gallery would like to have it both ways when it comes to their preferred course of action for development and zoning.

    • Wayne September 17, 2015 at 4:48 pm #

      Because as I said above they are not equivalent. We’ve invested in the infrastructure as a society to make development possible, expecting a minimum return in terms of density of use and property tax value is not crazy.

  6. Joe Scott
    Joe Scott September 17, 2015 at 8:35 pm #

    I live in a neighborhood of mostly single family houses and duplexes that also has several high rises. I like the idea of high rises in a mostly single family neighborhood in that it adds residents, counteracting the depopulating effect of fewer and fewer people occupying our single family houses over time, while mostly maintaining the vibe.

    Unfortunately the high rises in my neighborhood are pretty bad, not because of the height but because the first floor and surrounding lot. The best one is probably this one https://goo.gl/maps/ZbM1i at least compared to these two: https://goo.gl/maps/tAK36 and https://goo.gl/maps/UqXdC

    Compare that to high rises in Cordoba, Ar: https://goo.gl/maps/Gzf6d and https://goo.gl/maps/WdDhV

    They come from the same era of 70’s brutalism, yet they generally have the same setbacks as surrounding two-story buildings and occupy the same sized lots – they’re just a lot taller. (Maybe it’s just me, but their brutalism also seems to be a little less uptight and have a subtle funky flavor)

    We need to start building our high rises with smaller footprints on standard lots. A tall skinny building causes shade for a much shorter time over the course of a day than a less tall, wider building. We should be doing this https://goo.gl/maps/lgTKt only 8-12 stories instead of 3. i.e., this: https://goo.gl/maps/CRBo9

    • Steve September 18, 2015 at 9:22 am #

      I think this raises a good point. Alex, it seems like you present this as some kind of evil bourgeois plot to exclude people from neighborhoods, when I think most of the opposition comes from the fact that the majority of these high rises are so ugly, with blank walled parking podiums, awkward proportions and a chaotic jumble of cheap materials. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think if neighbors were presented with something that was actually well designed, there would not be nearly as much opposition.

      • Adam Miller
        Adam Miller September 18, 2015 at 9:49 am #

        I don’t think it’s a plot, but you only need to read these comments to see the sense of entitlement to view, light, etc on display.

        And I’m pretty sure you’ll hear “it’s ugly” do not buy that there is a magic design aesthetic that would resolve opposition.

      • Wayne September 18, 2015 at 12:41 pm #

        Well, considering how expensive it is to build things at this scale, making them not ugly requires a lot higher asking prices for the units. Then people complain all new development is luxury and cry about gentrification. But you can’t have it both ways. New construction is expensive, and “nice” new construction is even moreso. I do think the requirement to including parking (whether by law or implied necessity) is ruining a lot of development and adding to its expense/ugliness, but there’s still a base line for how much it’s going to cost and it’s going to be more than a lot of people can afford until we address wage stagnation in America.

        • Joe Scott
          Joe Scott September 18, 2015 at 5:47 pm #

          Some people may say it’s ugly no matter what due to ideological opposition to high-rises, but reducing setbacks and lot size and making the ground floor a little more permeable shouldn’t add much cost to construction.

  7. B. Aaron Parker September 18, 2015 at 11:23 am #

    Great article, Alex.

    Harris’ CIDNA article and the accompanying comparisons was sobering. Thanks for including those. It really lent to your point.

    You’re correct about the definition of “high-rise” currently in Minneapolis. A caution though is that the definitions of high, mid and low in both density and height are intensely local. In Manhattan, the consistent 12 story height along avenues on the West Side is definitely mid-rise while it would be high-rise in Minneapolis. Our mid-rise would correspond to the structures around Stevens Square. The mix and vitality of Vancouver buildings is another sua generis example of urbanism that defies such neighborhood labels and deserves greater study by those who would be making thoughtful decisions about livable city-building.

    Again, thanks for a thought-provoking article! Great job.

  8. tono-bungay September 18, 2015 at 12:22 pm #

    I successfully make those bogus arguments all the time, but that is because the people who make planning decisions are more comfortable with familiar fictions than with facts.

    There are many good reasons to dislike highrise residential buildings, as most CNU members do. On a long term basis they consume more energy per square foot and per person than any other form of housing. As opposed to wood frame, their concrete construction emits a great deal more GHGs, and since adaptive reuse is virtually impossible they are disposable structures. According to several small-scale studies (I would appreciate finding about larger-scale ones) their residents do not engage as much with the community and they proportionately provide less to local businesses. Because they are so often the result of rezoning, where the developer influences decision makers to increase the value of a property whose purchase price reflected the old zoning, it is corrosive to local democracy. As one developer quipped to me “local officials are remarkably affordable”.

    For those who live in mature central neighbourhoods the real reasons can be the opposite: they fear that property values will increase or at least their property tax bill will. They fear that landlords, seeing demolition and highrises in their future, will stop maintaining and renovating older buildings. They have a very valid fear of changing the demographics: residents of highrises don’t have children, and anecdotally there seems to be a child-free zone that develops in the immediate vicinity of highrises. That means those neighborhood schools, the few where most children walk to school, may close down.

    There are some situations where a residential highrise in a ground-oriented area may be an appropriate solution despite their drawbacks. Apartment dwellers do have to be housed somewhere. Some neighborhoods lack a diversity of housing choices or have housing that doesn’t suit the range of demographics of the city. Some lack transit-supporting density. A single building in an appropriate location may resolve those deficiencies. Now those apartment dwellers would live elsewhere if the project weren’t built. What is the difference in impact between putting these people in this location versus the alternative where they would be otherwise? If they are low-elasticity transit users, does this location make transit more accessible to higher-elasticity users? That is to say do they allow the line to be extended or the frequency to be increased, which makes transit more attractive to others in the area? That is an excellent argument for putting residential high-rises in the suburbs, bringing transit users from elsewhere to bring an area up to the next threshold of transit-supporting density. In already-dense areas they would have no impact.

  9. Wayne September 18, 2015 at 12:36 pm #

    “There are many good reasons to dislike highrise residential buildings, as most CNU members do. On a long term basis they consume more energy per square foot and per person than any other form of housing. As opposed to wood frame, their concrete construction emits a great deal more GHGs, and since adaptive reuse is virtually impossible they are disposable structures.”

    On the first point, I’d be interested to see sources because I’ve not heard of that before. Is it possible that high-rises tend to be skewed towards higher income residents who are generally a bit more wasteful and consume more per capita in general, whether in a huge suburban mansion or a high-rise luxury apartment?

    On the second point, do you really need adaptive re-use of these? Investment in a concrete and steel building is generally much longer term than a wood frame building and given how short on housing we are in urban areas I really don’t see anyone needing to convert reasonably dense housing to anything else for a long time. I’m baffled at calling concrete/steel buildings ‘disposable’ while talking about wood frame construction at the same time (especially the modern stick construction, which really is disposable). And if you spread out the construction impact over a longer period is it really any worse than wood? We obviously don’t have long-enough term data to say yet, but I’d imagine the usable life of a modern skyscraper is much longer than the kind of stick construction we see these days.

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller September 18, 2015 at 1:17 pm #

      I’m not even sure what “adaptive reuse” of a highrise housing building would mean.

      If it’s condos, they get something rather similar all the time as units are renovated, but I’d bet that doesn’t count as “adaptive reuse.”

      That said, we built some terrible structures in the 60s/70s, an era that’s certainly over represented among our towers, so maybe there’s a point in there somewhere.

      • Peter Bajurny September 18, 2015 at 1:45 pm #

        I’m thinking that maybe anything built today that’s not like Carlyle levels of luxury would probably have a lot of 1 bedroom units, and those may not be desirable in 20 or 30 years. Since we’re talking about steel and concrete, the support of the building is done by the columns and not the walls. So it shouldn’t be too hard to leave the structure and exterior envelope and gut everything else, replacing it with predominantly 3 bedroom apartments or something.

        It’s something you can’t really do very easily with stick construction because the support is in the walls, so you can’t move those much. I suppose you could maybe join 2 1 bedroom apartments into a 3 bedroom/2 bath or something like that.

        But realistically that’s only going to be a problem if we’ve somehow overbuilt housing to the point where we have a glut of any one kind of unit, which would, admittedly, be a great problem to have.

        • Wayne September 18, 2015 at 2:56 pm #

          Plattenbauen … Plattenbauen as far the augen sehen kann!

    • tono-bungay September 22, 2015 at 6:37 pm #

      There have been quite a lot of studies in several countries about energy use and you can check the US data here http://www.eia.gov/consumption/residential/data/2009/index.cfm?view=consumption#summary in the per square foot column of the spreadsheet

      Similar studies in Canada http://www.cmhc-schl.gc.ca/publications/en/rh-pr/tech/97100.htm and Australia http://www.theage.com.au/news/national/melbournes-energy-guzzlers-still-living-the-high-life/2006/12/22/1166290743036.html

      The Autralian report is no longer online but some of the data is here

      Regarding adaptive reuse and disposable buildings, a lot of commercial high-rises to have steel or column and slab or even curtainwall construction that at least allow the floorplan to be changed, but the trend I’ve seen, which may vary regionally, is for precast panels to be load-bearing for interior walls and for plumbing to be inside the concrete. That doesn’t allow a lot of leeway to make changes. Unlike some of the wood construction (and I agree that a lot of it is disposable) you can not build an addition or add insulation, and unlike wood the building materials are not reusable. Wood is a carbon sink and concrete is a high emitter of carbon, so the impact is quite different.

  10. Wanderer September 18, 2015 at 1:16 pm #

    High rises won’t be built on every block, even if they’re permitted. Steel frame highrise construction is an expensive building form, much more than wood frame up to 5 stories, So highrises will only get built where there’s a market for relatively expensive housing, like in a major downtown or next to a major transit station.

    • Alex Cecchini
      Alex Cecchini September 18, 2015 at 3:39 pm #

      Or if timber construction begins to be accepted above 6 stores (as we’re seeing with the T3 project downtown), or if it’s publicly built or subsidized housing, or even just a 4 story cheap building right next to a single family home. 6+ story buildings exist in fairly low-demand parts of metros the world over.

  11. Sandy Sorlien September 19, 2015 at 8:17 am #

    Good post. Comments on two passages:

    “Put it another way: why should residents of single family homes – people with four exterior windowed walls, setbacks, yard space, etc – have more right to privacy or light than people in a six story apartment or another high rise? Is it because we just assume that people living in denser housing already make some tradeoffs, and they should be willing to accept the (socially agreed upon) downsides of new, dense development?”

    Yes. They’ve chosen that habitat, and the benefits from it are likely to increase, not be degraded, by another tower next to them.

    “I can tell you the tower in the background paled in comparison to the noise, safety issues, and localized pollution wrought by a street designed almost solely for cars.”

    I am sure you are right. However, the Transect is not just about height. If there is a street designed mainly for cars within a neighborhood or downtown made up of T4-T5-T6, then that’s a serious Transect violation. For each T-zone, there are numerous integrated design elements ranging from signage to frontage type to lot width to height, but thoroughfare character is the most important of all. And we should ask ourselves why towers and car-dominated frontages and thoroughfares often go together.

  12. Archiapolis October 1, 2015 at 10:49 am #

    1. GREAT article and the comments are a good point/counterpoint that support what is written in the article concerning “perception vs reality (policy).”

    2. Via “tono-bongay” “…but the trend I’ve seen, which may vary regionally, is for precast panels to be load-bearing for interior walls and for plumbing to be inside the concrete. That doesn’t allow a lot of leeway to make changes. Unlike some of the wood construction…”

    I don’t know what “region” or building code/type you are looking at but your statement is patently false in Minneapolis (and the IBC) as it concerns multi-family housing over 6 stories. Anything being built currently above 6 stories is almost always constructed using concrete post-tensioned concrete slabs and concrete columns with steel stud infill/partition walls housing mechanicals.

    Eight to ten story multi-family housing can be built somewhat economically using steel stud load-bearing framing walls (which carry vertically through the building from top to bottom); WaHu for example. There are some interior concrete walls for “shear” support that keep the entire building from twisting or “racking” but these are almost always shafts (elevator or stairs). There *may* be portions of exterior walls that are solidly constructed to act as shear walls in certain cases but we are talking about 6-12 foot sections of walls and exterior walls are rarely used for mechanicals and, by definition, a “shear” wall needs to solid throughout with lots of rebar so thus would not be used for mechanicals.

    Nic on Fifth, Latitude 45, 4 Marq etc are all constructed using concrete slabs and columns with partition walls that can be wiped out completely if need be; exterior walls are infilled with steel framing or precast panels. Mechanicals *may* be used in the steel stud cavity of an exterior wall but it’s bad practice, difficult to detail, and to be avoided (quite easily by “furring out” the wall to the interior thus keeping it insulated and protected). Any “precast panel” exterior infill wall would be built as a “curtain system” clipped (welded/mechanically fastened) into column/slab structure – mechanicals would never be routed through such a wall system (see “furring” above).

    • tono-bungay October 1, 2015 at 11:07 am #

      Thank you for those details. I’m from Canada. What you describe sounds like a much more sensible way to build.