Dear City of Minneapolis

My open letter to City of Minneapolis officials and staff regarding the disposition of a vacant, city-owned lot.

I’m disappointed to see the recent article in the Southwest Journal, “Project with most parking wins vote in Lyndale neighborhood.”

I am urging you and city staff to choose the 32+ unit apartment proposal that serves the interests of Minneapolis rather than the overparked townhome court which protects the interests of those with a free parking space they wish to protect.

Despite serving on a neighborhood board and being on a housing and redevelopment committee elsewhere in the city, I find it quite troublesome that existing residents can vote to keep out new residents (and, by extension, vote to make Minneapolis housing less affordable) because they want to preserve access to their slice of an unpriced public good — on-street parking.

“That block of Nicollet is pretty jammed for parking,” said one neighbor. That block of Nicollet also lacks any sort of pricing to deal with demand, such as meters. Of course people want something for free… Why pay tens of thousands of dollars to build a garage, or hundreds of dollars a month to rent one, when the city provides storage for dozens of peoples’ largest piece of personal property right out on the street for free?

But this has huge opportunity costs. Capital and real estate devoted to the storage of cars comes at the expense of capital and land devoted to the housing of Minneapolitans. When we choose to allow fewer people to live on a street because we would rather have an easier time finding free parking, it means fewer people can live in a high-demand neighborhood. It means less affordable housing.

I find Brad Bourn’s statement encouraging, where he notes that “Our vote will have some influence, but it will not be the final say.” This is a city-owned parcel, and the city should ensure that it has the highest and best use when selling to a developer.

Between the two proposals, which will have the bigger contribution to our tax base? Eight townhomes with two car garages on the bottom facing a suburban-style driveway court? Or a building with at least 32 dwelling units in the high-demand $900 to $1,100 per month price point? There’s potential that the finished product of the 32 unit design would have at least double the assessed value of the eight unit townhome court. Is it worth giving up that tax base to protect people’s subsidized parking?

But tax base shouldn’t be the city’s only concern when accepting an offer for this city-owned parcel. We should also look through the lens of the city’s stated goals. If we want to increase equity, build great places, and reduce disparities, we ought to pick the developer who will produce 32+ units rather than eight. One neighbor said, “given the bedroom counts (24 in the townhouses, or 30-plus for the apartments), the resulting density is fairly close in each project.” While that literally understates the difference between the two actual proposals, it also understates the difference in units and price points rather than just comparing bedrooms. As most of us who live in single family houses know, not all bedrooms are created the same in terms of housing people. Most of us with extra bedrooms have guest rooms, home offices, TV rooms, or hobby rooms. That’s well and good for those who can afford larger homes, but there are already plenty of large homes available in Minneapolis and in the Lyndale neighborhood. What we are lacking – especially with demographic trends towards smaller households – are small, affordable apartments. While $900 to $1,100 month may not be “affordable” to all, it’s relatively affordable for new construction in the area, and these new units will keep the pressure down on developers turning older affordable units into renovated less-affordable units elsewhere. This is a huge net win for housing affordability in Lyndale and in Minneapolis.

Finally, more residents means more amenities and services for Lyndale neighbors (except free parking, I guess). It means more shops and services due to a larger local market, it means more demand for increased transit service and amenities on Lyndale Ave, and so on.

More units means more tax base for our city. More units means more equity and housing affordability. And more units means more quality of life and amenities for existing neighbors. Please urge city staff to choose the Randy Hobbs apartment proposal for this city-owned lot.


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30 Responses to Dear City of Minneapolis

  1. Sean Hayford Oleary
    Sean Hayford Oleary August 1, 2016 at 1:23 pm #

    Aren’t townhomes the “missing middle” (shown in your featured image)?

    In general, I agree that desire to retain free parking is a poor reason to pick one development over the other. However, as areas densify, isn’t there an argument for relatively “well-contained” development that avoid the local political conflict over affecting existing residents?

    • Matthew Steele August 1, 2016 at 1:31 pm #

      Be it know, Sean just volunteered for the “Pick out a sort of meaningful featured image when another streets writer asks you to publish an email you sent to a listserv” duty.

      • Sean Hayford Oleary
        Sean Hayford Oleary August 1, 2016 at 1:34 pm #

        It’s not a knock on sloppiness in the article. Knowing you, I genuinely have understood your position to be interested in building more “missing middle” housing.

  2. Alex August 2, 2016 at 3:42 am #

    “I find it quite troublesome that existing residents can vote to keep out new residents (and, by extension, vote to make Minneapolis housing less affordable) because they want to preserve access to their slice of an unpriced public good — on-street parking.”

    Why? Why is people voting in their own self-interest “troublesome?” What would you do to fix this “troublesome” behavior? Remove local control? Stop people from voting altogether when it doesn’t align with your interests? Do you really think attacking people’s right to vote is the most effective way to show that your opinion is that’s “best” for the city?

    I mean, just READ this part of the quote again: “I find it quite troublesome that existing residents can vote” [to do whatever I don’t like]. Really? People’s ability to vote is troublesome?

    • Joe August 2, 2016 at 8:37 am #

      He is basically saying:
      “I find it quite troublesome that the majority can vote to take away rights from the minority”

      Almost everyone agrees with that statement, and realizes it will happen, which is one of the reasons we had to amend the Constitution with the Bill of Rights. Unless you are honestly saying that as long as the majority votes for something, it should happen no matter how bad the outcome, in which case I guess I’ll just say I disagree with that.

      • Matthew Steele August 2, 2016 at 9:08 am #

        Yeah yeah yeah, tyranny of the majority, republic not democracy, 14th Amendment, yada yada.

        Then there’s the whole fact that we don’t operate municipal government by referendum either.

        But then there’s the reality is that this isn’t actually a real vote on the issue anyways. Just a neighborhood preference vote. The city owns this property, not the neighborhood association. If the neighborhood association owned it (and that could possibly be a reasonable thing in some situations) they would have more control.

        Even if we were going to have a referendum on this, we’d have it city-wide instead of 31 people who show up at a neighborhood meeting at a particular hour on a particular weeknight. And if you asked the 400,000+ Minneapolitans who collectively own 3329 Nicollet Ave, a significant percentage of which are in households who don’t even own a car, if they would prefer to have higher housing prices and higher property taxes in order to ensure a few dozen people have an easier job finding a subsidized parking space on Nicollet Ave, I’m not sure they’d be easily convinced.

        • Janne Flisrand
          Janne August 2, 2016 at 9:21 am #

          I’d add to Matt’s comment that this is no majority voting to do anything — it’s a tiny, tiny, minority. Super tiny minority.

          So more accurately, “I find it quite troublesome that the minority of more time/financially privileged people can vote to take away rights from the majority”

    • Shawn August 2, 2016 at 12:00 pm #

      I’m going to back Alex here.

      There’s a lot of “Yes, In Your Back Yard” (YIYBY) that goes on with this community (streets.mn) and its authors. Whether it’s replacing a Famous Daves with a multi-story apartment or this developer vs another WRT street parking, it’s incredibly easy to talk about preferences without any regard for the residents who currently actually live there – and the things *they* want.

      You have to remember, government is actually very good at listening to money and paving an interstate over you if you don’t have money. That, of course, needs to change, even if it’s too late for the Rondo neighborhood. We *do* need to be considerate of those already living in the neighborhoods we aspire to change.

      • Monte Castleman
        Monte Castleman August 2, 2016 at 12:18 pm #

        Yes, this is one area I seem to disagree with the echo chamber here. I feel it should count for something if you’ve made the biggest investment of your life in a neighborhood of single family houses, expecting you’ll always have light and privacy, as opposed to someone who would hypothetically would be interested into renting in a 20 story apartment tower that density advocates want to build on all three sides of you. Of course this situation isn’t so extreme, but the homeowners seem to feel threatened, justified or not, of the condition that they made the decision to buy houses in changing.

        Freeways of course need to be built in someone’s backyard, you can’t restrict them to certain areas like you can 20 story apartments (But of course it would have been better to route I-94 along the rail corridor then through Rondo, this happened at the unfortunate coincidence of urban renewal programs and freeway construction).

        • Matthew Steele August 2, 2016 at 1:00 pm #

          “Freeways of course need to be built in someone’s backyard”

          I am confused by that statement.

          • Sean Hayford Oleary
            Sean Hayford Oleary August 2, 2016 at 1:11 pm #

            That one stuck out for me, too. I’m reminded of San Francisco, which simply refused freeways in much of their city. As a result, the Bayshore Freeway simply ends half-way into the city.

            I’m not sure that dumping traffic onto overwhelmed city streets was a better decision, but there is always a choice.

            • Adam Miller
              Adam Miller August 2, 2016 at 1:54 pm #

              I’m pretty sure.

            • Monte Castleman
              Monte Castleman August 2, 2016 at 3:41 pm #

              We can choose to not build apartment buildings either, but since we choose to, there’s better and worse places for them. Unlike apartment buildings you can’t locate freeways right next to each other.

        • Reilly August 2, 2016 at 1:32 pm #

          But in order for the concept of private property to mean anything, doesn’t one’s property line have to stop somewhere? A right of non-impact to surrounding qualities (such as light and privacy) is potentially extensible ad infinitum, to the point of devaluing surrounding parcels by restricting their own potential use. And when everyone is in conflict with everyone else… well, not everyone can win.

          So, who gets their way? Maybe those with the most money. Maybe those with the oldest money — whoever got there first. Maybe advantaged social statuses such as Nuclear Families With Children — at the expense of those not living in such a structure, who often have moved to an urban area precisely because such areas are among the rare places where communities and amenities targeted to them even exist.

          Even if one doesn’t get political about it, there’s still the question of how those parts of our city which ARE dense would ever have gotten that way in a world of too-easy Neighbor Vetos. Some areas have definitely incremented upward over time — streets like Oak Grove, Ridgewood, and Groveland come to mind. Cf. http://geo.lib.umn.edu/minneapolis/y1938/MP-3-209.jpg , from 1938. How do we decide which areas we want to grow into further urbanity, vs. which areas we want to fix in amber as low-density?

          • Nathanael August 8, 2016 at 7:22 am #

            See my comment. A “right” to light and privacy is, under English-derived common law, something you can buy with an easement on your neighbor’s property. It’ll cost you. If you don’t pay for it, you take youre chances.

        • Nathanael August 8, 2016 at 7:20 am #

          If you want to never have apartment buildings next door, buy easements on your neighbors’ property.

          That’s a thing. My parents own view easements over their neighbors’ properties.

          If you haven’t got an easement over their property, you have no basis to complain when your neighbor builds an apartment building. None at all.

          • Nathanael August 8, 2016 at 7:21 am #

            I guess what I’m offended by is this:

            View easements are a valuable thing which costs money.

            The jerks who are abusing “zoning” to prevent apartment buildings are trying to get the value of this valuable property *without ever bothering to buy it or pay for it*. I consider this to be attempted theft.

      • Chris Lynch August 2, 2016 at 5:59 pm #

        You’re not acknowledging something very important here. Rondo was cut in half by I-94 because the people living there had little political power. The people in this neighborhood have far more political power.

        You mention Rondo as a sort of cautionary tale here. It’s an obvious false equivalence. Historically politicians do not listen to people living in poor neighborhoods, but they do listen to homeowners in Lyndale. That means that unpleasant projects get placed disproportionately in poor neighborhoods. Not that this is a particularly unpleasant proposal anyway. Can you imagine an industrial area with producing substantial lead emissions being zoned anywhere near the Lyndale neighborhood?

        These decisions should be made with the good of the city in mind, not the good of the people that live nearest it. The value of citizens’ concerns should not be proportional to the property tax they pay.

        Ultimately, whether this project goes forward or not is not a huge deal. The problem isn’t one project being scuttled. It’s that they get scuttled all the time, systemically, in a biased manner, and for stupid reasons. I guess the plan is to keep building subdivisions in Rogers and widen the freeway.

        • Matthew Steele August 3, 2016 at 9:25 am #

          Rondo is sort of the Godwin’s Law of the MSP urbanism/transportation world.

          • Monte Castleman
            Monte Castleman August 3, 2016 at 9:30 am #

            I thought the St. Croix Crossing was Godwin’s Law.

        • Shawn August 7, 2016 at 10:54 am #

          “These decisions should be made with the good of the city in mind, not the good of the people that live nearest it. The value of citizens’ concerns should not be proportional to the property tax they pay.”

          I completely agree, and that was the point of the Rondo reference — those folks should have had the same level of input. There were certainly more voices if “quieter” even en masse.

          • Shawn August 7, 2016 at 10:55 am #

            I think this forum has lots of phrases that conform to “Godwin’s Law”, include “for the good of the city”.

  3. Catherine Johnson August 2, 2016 at 9:00 am #

    If the street side of a building’s ground floor is devoted to parking, no matter if it’s parallel to the street or U-shaped as in this project, it makes for a poor project. The street becomes less safe without human presence on the ground floor facing the street. Because this is a city-sponsored project, parking should have been prohibited in this location. Car storage should be located behind the building. If this building is considered a “winner,” it will be considered OK to build anywhere around the city, and it will compromise the safety of any street on which it’s built. There is enough room in the rear for a drive and 8 tandem parking spaces, if that is what the parking count is. I would encourage the city to consider the immense impact this project could have before awarding the land to its development.

    The simple solution might be to rotate the building on the lot so the U opens to the side or rear, and the ground floor facing the street is as Alex suggested, studios. Some garages can remain in the back. Just as long as the ground floor on the street side has human beings in it, this might work.

  4. Matthew Steele August 2, 2016 at 9:47 am #

    Sean asked me what my gripe is with this project. The answer is nothing. While I have concerns about the “garage court,” it really would be a net benefit to this block to have the 8 townhomes built.

    But my point is it would be a significantly higher net benefit to have the 32+ apartments built.

    • Captain Obvious August 2, 2016 at 10:31 am #

      It’s almost like opportunity cost is a real thing, right?

  5. robsk August 2, 2016 at 12:14 pm #

    Agreed that any parking access should be in the rear. Front driveway would be a terrible idea.

    My biggest issue with a lack of on-street parking in Mpls? Winter snow emergencies. Towing and related expenses put a huge burden on many who can barely afford it.

    I dislike making this a conversation about parking (but I’m doing it anyway). I’d rather have the affordable housing and what to do with taxpayer owned property discussion.

    • Rosa August 7, 2016 at 8:36 pm #

      For many years, I thought the one side street ban was an every year thing, because it was every year the first several winters I lived here.

      I still think it should be – just set dates, and have a one side parking ban, so people are expecting it and plan around it. It’s the scramble to suddenly find parking when there’s half as much that is so hard.

      • Nathanael August 8, 2016 at 7:23 am #

        Winter alternate-side parking is every year where I live in upstate NY. It seriously isn’t in Minneapolis? That’s whacked.

        • Rosa August 8, 2016 at 9:40 am #

          it’s up to the Mayor to call it. And sometimes we have several nice winters in a row when there’s no parking ban. So then the next winter, after the schoolbuses are getting stuck and everyone’s side mirrors are clipped off, they call a parking ban and it’s a horrible surprise and everyone has to fit into half as much parking and is angry and surprised.

          For snow emergencies the towing is done by private companies, and it doesn’t seem to be coordinated with plowing very well. So you can come home to see that the plows plowed around cars – the street’s not really clear – and now the tow trucks are out towing all the cars including the ones parked where the plows already plowed. Or they towed everyone but haven’t plowed yet. Or – this is the last time I got towed, about ten years ago – you parked on a street where all the snow had already melted, but the emergency was still in place so they came and towed your car anyway.

          There’s also not a lot of snow emergency signage – not surprising since they’d have to sign every single block of every street – but it means that sometimes it snows and visitors/new people are literally out in the street asking passersby where they can park. Especially on the short blocks where there might not be any house numbers to judge odd/even by.

          • Sean Hayford Oleary
            Sean Hayford Oleary August 8, 2016 at 12:42 pm #

            Most suburbs post snow restrictions at entrances to the city. I can’t picture any such signage in Minneapolis. But if it doesn’t exist, it might be helpful to have that at borders, and perhaps some major freeway exits into Minneapolis.

            I’m not sure I’m in favor of a blanket one-side parking ban. In parking-dense areas (e.g., Lowry Hill, Uptown), it creates a huge burden to residents. In less-parking-used areas (say, south of Minnehaha Creek), it’s just not that helpful, since you can easily weave around the intermittent parked cars.