Downzoning Does a Disservice to Minneapolitans of All Ages

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Tank walking on the Hennepin Avenue bridge

I’ve walked thousands and thousands of miles with Tank in the past eight years. Probably more than half of them have been in Lowry Hill East, where I lived for the first three of those years. It’s one of the most senior-friendly areas of Minneapolis, with its commercial corridors, transit, and density of people. As someone who grew up nearby, he’s particularly lucky because the city is familiar to him by virtue of its streets and intersections, regardless of whether he’s feeling eight years old or eighty. It’s basically a best-case-scenario for someone with any of “age’s ills” (and these aren’t necessarily age-related–we’re humans in fallible and quirky bodies) whether limited mobility or vision impairment or cognitive impairment or memory loss.

And yet, putting the microscope on Lowry Hill East, it’s a painfully obvious how little our city/county/state planners and community residents think about or prioritize more vulnerable individuals like my father. Sidewalks are frequently treacherous and impassable in the winter, left entirely to the whim and varied standards of individual property-owners. The main walking routes frequently lack shade in the summer or boulevard protection from speeding drivers (which frequently means a soaking from passing cars splashing gutter-water). Benches to pause at or shelter from rain are the exception, rather than the rule. Sidewalks are inspected with a once-over by an able-bodied human once every 10-13 years (compared to every 3 years with complex machines checking for slopes and angles for roads) while Minneapolis has yet to comply with the most basic ADA standards for our most basic infrastructure network some 25+ years after its passage.

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Tank walking by the Walker sculpture garden.

Hennepin, Lyndale, Franklin, Lake, 24th, 26th, and 28th are all streets where, should he (or a driver) mistime his crossing, he has a greater than 50% chance of dying simply because of the high speed of the drivers and the vulnerabilities of a body that’s seen 96 years. He’s expected to somehow cross a busy Lyndale at 25th without a light (or walk an extra 15 minutes to cross). He’s expected to wait two minutes to cross at many signalized intersections, no matter if it’s sleeting or raining or cold enough for a frostbite warning. Crossing at 25th & Hennepin, he often must wait over a minute for a light that’s only long enough for him to make it to the middle of the road before it changes to red again. To trigger a walk signal at many lights, he often has to step through puddles or over mounds of dirty snow, and this doesn’t decrease the amount of time he has to wait.

He’s frequently nearly hit by drivers turning right on red while he’s crossing with the green light. He’s had drivers nearly back into him when he’s gone behind them when their vehicles block the crosswalk or sidewalk. He’s regularly honked/sworn at by drivers who don’t like how slowly he crosses the street, leaning on his cane when his hip hurts. Or drivers speed around him, uncomfortably close. And he is treated far better by drivers than any other person I know or have witnessed–he has total Santa privilege that often makes my jaw drop. It’s not because drivers are horrible monsters who hate photogenic old people with canes–it’s because this is what we’ve engineered. And what we’ve engineered effectively communicates our values: who belongs and who needs to get the $%^& out of the way. This is how we’ve designed our pedestrian-oriented streets–our biggest public spaces–even in our most walkable neighborhood in Minneapolis.

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Tank collecting signatures during Open Streets for a safer crossing at Franklin under the LRT.

Walkability goes far beyond whether Tank can cross a street without risking his life. It includes how we as a city zone and regulate the built environment. The businesses that once dotted the neighborhood interior have largely been driven out through city planning–directly by making it illegal to have coffee shops, florists, barbers, bookstores, or other businesses in most places, and indirectly by both functionally legally restricting the number of people who are allowed to live in the neighborhood and subsidizing/encouraging driving at the expense of walking, therefore eliminating the financial viability of many of these tiny businesses.

All of what makes Lowry Hill East so comparatively walkable is in spite of the past few decades of (down)zoning, not because of it. It’s the the non-conforming uses that have been grandfathered in, the wheelchair-accessible building that slipped in just before a next round of downzoning, the extra unit or two not officially in that duplex, the ADUs and mini-houses on lots so small we’d better grab the smelling salts, the dense 1930s apartments with tiny set-backs, the informal businesses. 

There are real life impacts to a half-century of downzoning. For those who move at 2 MPH, it means that when we’re in Lowry Hill East, Tank can easily be a five to ten minute walk from the closest shelter during an unexpected downpour (as happened to us recently). It means restrooms or warmth-in-winter-spots are few and far between, even for those able to spend the money to be allowed use at a private establishment. It means each block of cookie-cutter 1920s houses with identical, large, boredom-inducing, walk-unfriendly set-backs is that much less engaging than speeding by in a car, on a bike, or even walking at 4MPH. It means an extra ten minutes in the elements even in the most inclement of weather. Walking is a complex, context-dependent, and fundamentally human activity and it’s not enough to throw down a few uneven sidewalks next to 30MPH roads or empty mansions and call it acceptable for the occasional times when they aren’t compromised by ice and snow or trash/recycling bins or overgrown hedges or puddles or sand and mud and gravel or settled concrete or city sign placement or storage.

This latest proposed downzoning breaks my heart, as a direct reflection of our city’s priorities and values. It doesn’t move us towards zero-waste or encourage creative reuse or recycling. It doesn’t center our disabled community members or work towards increased independence under the Olmsted Act. It doesn’t orient itself to the future and the changing needs of aging Baby Boomers.

It doesn’t increase our environmental sustainability as we see more and more people displaced by climate change. It doesn’t decrease our dependency on fossil fuels while the veterans of our oil wars suffer long-lasting trauma and never-ending deployments. It doesn’t challenge our decades of racial and economic segregation.

Instead, it provides additional barriers to new residents, including seniors (or individuals or families!) who may wish to downsize and stay in the city, or who would like to trade car-dependency for community-oriented living. It artificially (and silently) sets a very low cap on the population/housing units of the neighborhood, thereby driving gentrification, decreasing affordability, and stifling improvements in potential public transit, services, and commercial/cultural amenities.

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Tank at a brewery.

It shouldn’t be a novelty to see a senior at the local brewery or coffee shops or restaurants or volunteering in his community or attending public and political meetings or celebrating his religion’s feast days or buying groceries or going to parks and festivals or cooing at dogs and babies and talking to neighbors and strangers. It’s not that Minneapolis lacks elderly residents like Tank–almost 10% of residents are over 65. It’s that our city, by design if not by intent, functionally excludes them from public spaces and the public sphere, erasing them and their contributions from our city’s social fabric.  

I realize that the proposed downzoning of Lowry Hill East, which continues the destructive trends of earlier decades, is unlikely by itself to have a tangible immediate impact on the walkability of the neighborhood for elderly residents like Tank. But what concerns me is the tone it sets, the voices it is in response to, and the community members it de facto devalues and excludes. We can (and should!) have many discussions about architecture, gentrification, preservation, waste reduction, affordable housing, and all sorts of issues that directly impact equity, walkability, sustainability, and accessibility. That’s not what’s happening, however. We’re seeing our neighborhood boards and city officials push for, without even a nod to these values, the kind of city that makes it harder, rather than easier, for others to have the quality of life and independence that Tank enjoys.

It’s 2016. We need to stop gutting our city’s neighborhoods through exclusionary zoning to placate a very small minority of car-dependent and privileged individuals with misplaced dreams of the failed experiment of suburbia. We shouldn’t have a city where absence or loss of a driver’s license or car isn’t a defacto loss of independence or a push into isolation and where walking to the grocery store/coffee shop/school/religious institution/bar/park/etc. is neither an endurance exercise nor a potentially fatal game of roulette. Instead, let’s start planning and zoning for a Minneapolis that is inclusive, rather than exclusive, that promotes community, and that supports independence no matter your age and physical ability.

[Editor’s note: streets.mn is currently developing a policy for publishing anonymous posts, based on need or extenuating circumstances. Currently this is done only a case-by-base basis, at the discretion of the Editorial Council.]

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12 Responses to Downzoning Does a Disservice to Minneapolitans of All Ages

  1. Rosa September 7, 2016 at 7:13 pm #

    this is beautiful and heartbreaking. We have an elderly neighbor across the very busy street from us, and every time she’s walking on my side of the street I wonder how she managed to get across, at the speed she moves and the way the car drivers behave.

  2. cdelle September 7, 2016 at 7:49 pm #

    Thanks for sharing Tank’s experience. This is such a good read. I hope the city changes course (street designs, upzoning all neighborhoods not just the exteriors, better transit, etc) so we can have more people like Tank aging in place. He’s an asset to the city.

  3. David Markle
    David Markle September 8, 2016 at 5:01 pm #

    By and large, the City of Minneapolis pays lip service to pedestrians. Same for St. Paul. Suburbs, mostly pedestrian hell.

  4. David Markle
    David Markle September 8, 2016 at 6:31 pm #

    And now, having just driven across the newly refurbished Franklin Avenue Bridge, I see that the bicyclists have a nice, wide, highly protected pathway along each side of the bridge. So far as I could see, pedestrians must use that same pathway, with no apparent protection from cyclists brushing past them at 20 mph.

    I’ll take a closer look next time, on foot, but if my previous observation was correct I’ll never walk that bridge again, and I’ll say, “#@$% YOU, CITY OF MIINNEAPOLIS!!!”

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller September 9, 2016 at 9:35 am #

      There are 10 foot wide pedestrian walkways on either side of the bridge, in addition to a 7 foot wide bike path. I don’t think it will be terribly difficult to share the 17 feet, and I’d bet having it all be flat rather than curb-separated makes snow removal a lot easier.

  5. robsk September 8, 2016 at 11:01 pm #

    Thanks for the insightful story. Maybe if I hear enough real-world examples, I’ll understand this whole urbanist/pro-upzoning/pro-IZ/anti-car/anti-parking ideology thing. It definitely clashes with my understanding of economics. I might not agree with a lot of the opinions on this blog, but I appreciate open conversation and members willing to explain their point of view.

    Maybe, like David, I’ve seen too much lip service by bureaucrats. Maybe I’ve confused MSP public policy and practice with policy by the public.

    On another note, it looks like Tank could benefit from using a walking stick or a longer cane.

    • Question September 12, 2016 at 8:47 am #

      If your understanding of economics thinks that parking should be subsidized by people who don’t drive then you’ve got a ways to go in your learning.

      • robsk September 13, 2016 at 10:11 am #

        Using that rationale… people without kids wouldn’t pay for schools, parks would go unfunded, and transit projects would never get past planning. Sorry, but that isn’t how it works.

        • Adam Miller
          Adam Miller September 13, 2016 at 10:29 am #

          Analogizing parking to schools, parks and transit is… interesting.

        • Nathanael September 17, 2016 at 10:38 pm #

          Parking is never a public good; it’s typically a private good or a club good.

          Education is a public good, or at least we believe so because we believe a more educated public is more likely to make wise decisions and less likely to elect dangerous idiots or cause mayhem.

          Parks are a very obvious public good.

          You really don’t know any economics. Start at the bottom with concepts like positive and negative externalities, rivalrousness, excludability, etc.

  6. Keith Morris September 10, 2016 at 4:45 pm #

    While I agree that downzoning here is the wrong way to go, I can’t help but think of all of the neighborhoods that don’t even offer a fraction of the walkability that Lowry Hill East has even before cars took over. In these neighborhoods, walking to a “grocery store/coffee shop/school/religious institution/bar/park/etc. is neither an endurance exercise nor a potentially fatal game of roulette” because most of those don’t exist to be walked to.

    North suffers greatly from this outside of Broadway. Lowry and Glenwood offer a little walkability, but the problem is that there aren’t any streets like them north-south. Victory 44, for example, is pretty much the only thing to walk to in the Victory neighborhood. Here’s the list of car-dependent neighborhoods according to Walkscore which rank 49/100 or less: Willard-Hay, Cleveland, Armatage, Wenonah, Diamond Lake, Kenny, Morris Park, Bryn Mawr, Water Park, Kenwood, Columbia Park, Marshall Terrace, Lind – Bohanon, Victory, and Shingle Creek. That’s 15 neighborhoods too many. Notice how the bulk of these are in North, which has a whole slew of other implications.

    I think what’s a greater priority is upzoning all of these neighborhoods so that all of them have a neighborhood market and restaurant and bar and coffee shop, etc. Elderly residents in these neighborhoods have little use for walking anywhere outside of their homes, which leaves them being elderly and sedentary and possibly low-income to boot.

    • Alina September 15, 2016 at 12:25 pm #

      I feel like we could work towards upzoning all these neighborhoods including Lowry Hill; these issues are not mutually exclusive.