What is the Constituency of a Local Land-Use Decision?

In the Linden Hills neighborhood of Minneapolis, a local entrepreneur put together a proposal to develop a surface parking lot into a 5-story condo building with retail space on the ground floor. The location is a commercial node in an affluent Minneapolis neighborhood that was first developed along a streetcar line in the early 20th century.

The site
The proposed building. Image courtesy of the DM Companies.

But some residents of the neighborhood aren’t taking too kindly to the prospect of change to their beloved neighborhood retail corner. Opponents of the project started an online petition and distributed lawn signs. Many are concerned that the new project will change the “village character” of their neighborhood node. Others have less… legitimate concerns. Regardless of the merits of the opponents’ concerns, one thing is clear: they are LOUD and visible.

The main actors in this drama are the project developer, about 1,500 Linden Hills residents who strongly oppose the project, and a handful of other neighborhood residents who support the project. Act 2 will take place at the Minneapolis Planning Commission, the members of which will decide whether or not to grant the necessary zoning permissions that the project needs in order to be approved for construction. How the play ends will depend in large part upon how the Planning Commission decides to vote. Will the decision be based more on the complaints of the loud voices or on a broad consideration of the pros and cons of the project?

This case provides an opportune example to consider is how local land-use decision making process can be biased in favor of the opponents of projects. Consider that in the case of this project, the Planning Commission and City Council will hear and see lots of loud complaints from the 1,500 strong opponents of the project. But what about the following constituencies of people who have a stake in the outcome of this land use decision in one way or another, but who will mostly be invisible to the decision-makers:

?,000 Linden Hills residents who are indifferent or mildly supportive of the project, but don’t have the time or interest to be any way involved in the political process for it. They may not even be aware of it.

?00 potential residents of this building that want to live in this location, but aren’t currently able to. Maybe the nearby single family homes are too expensive. Maybe they are physically impaired and need to live close to retail amenities and transit service. Maybe they simply prefer living in a condo in a mixed-use setting that isn’t as busy as Downtown or Uptown. Denying this development is also denying more people a chance to live in a nice neighborhood of their choice.

? entrepreneurs and business owners who would like to open a business in Linden Hills if there was new retail space available that met their needs.

??,000 people that visit Linden Hills to shop or eat and would enjoy having additional retail destinations and restaurants to choose from.

382,000 Minneapolis residents who would benefit from broadening the tax base. Pretty much every property owner in the City has had taxes go up in the last few years, even as property values have fallen. There are two ways to help that: cutting the budget, and broadening the tax base. Since the City is now down to laying off firefighters and cops, broadening the tax base is probably the only viable route for any substantial relief from property tax burdens.

7,000,000,000 people across the globe who will in some way be impacted by climate change if we can’t reduce our transportation emissions; to have any chance of doing so, we need to reduce dependence on motor-vehicles by increasing density in walkable communities. It may seem extreme to claim that the outcome of a single local land-use decision will impact billions, but this same process is repeated a thousand times over in cities across the country. If a 5-story building can’t be built in a commercial node of a relatively dense urban neighborhood, where can it?

The potential constituency of people who might benefit from this project in some way is anywhere from a few hundred to 7 billion, depending on how you frame it. I put “?” on some of those numbers because there is no way of even knowing how many people are actually in that group. There may be other invisible constituencies who would be harmed by this project. But in general, while the visible, noisy constituency of people who oppose this particular development can easily influence the political process, there is a large potential constituency of people who would in some way benefit from the project that will have no direct input.

What are the implications of this? I’m not entirely sure, but it speaks to the intractability of local land-use decision-making processes. Because of this, it will be a challenge to achieve real progress towards addressing problems like climate change at the local level. Perhaps it is supporting evidence for the argument that zoning regulations should be loosened to allow more mid-rise buildings to be built as-of-right without requiring special zoning permissions (and thus entering into the local political process, which is biased towards loud and visible opponents).  On the other hand, maybe there really isn’t a problem with a process that makes it easier to hear concerns of opponents; perhaps it acts as a check against “bad” development like the type of projects that occurred in the urban renewal era.

But one thing is certain: it makes development in an urban area even harder and more complex than it was to begin with.

Any other thoughts? Write them in the comments!

Spencer Agnew

About Spencer Agnew

Spencer is an urban planning and real estate professional. He is a graduate of the Master of Urban and Regional Planning program at the University of Minnesota. He lives in Minneapolis, where he enjoys biking to work, playing soccer, and dreaming of the day when Rapid Bus service replaces the Route 21 local on Lake Street.